Take Cover! Pennsylvania’s Civil-Defense Program

Picturing PA highlights moments in Pennsylvania history through photographs in the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

After World War II, US-Soviet relations broke down swiftly as both forces raced to develop powerful nuclear weapons. Civil-defense officials feared that the concentration of resources, vital industry, and transportation systems would make the commonwealth a likely target for Soviet bombers if the two powers ever went to war. “By every possible criterion, Pennsylvania will be a No. 1 target so long as men possess weapons,” the state government warned in a document it issued called “While the Sun Shines,” and if the state’s people and industries were destroyed “there would be little point in any further resistance on the battlefields. The war would be over and the country in the hands of a foreign overlord.”

In 1951 Gov. John S. Fine created the State Council of Civil Defense (SCCD). Over the next 25 years, SCCD developed thousands of fallout shelters throughout the state, enough to protect more than 10 million Pennsylvanians from attack. Government office buildings, prisons, private businesses, school dormitories, and even mines and limestone caves were marked and stocked with everything from food and beds to medical supplies and sedative drugs.

SCCD’s headquarters was located for many years in the State Capitol building in Harrisburg, Dauphin County. According to the council’s research, the Capitol’s thick stone walls would fully protect anyone inside from bomb blasts and deadly radioactivity. A bell-and-lights instantaneous attack warning system in the Capitol was installed to raise the alarm the moment enemy planes or missiles were detected heading toward Pennsylvania. Civil-defense officials were trained to quickly lock down the Capitol and brace for attack as demonstrated in this image. From the safety of the Capitol, SCCD was ready to respond to attacks anywhere in the commonwealth and direct rapid recovery efforts.

SCCD published a variety of guides with advice for Pennsylvanians to protect themselves and their families during and after a nuclear attack. The “duck and cover” strategy created by the federal government was a key part of civil-defense exercises. More than 250,000 civil-defense volunteers were also trained by SCCD across the state.

SCCD spent much of its time preparing for an attack that never came; however, its planning was not entirely in vain. The council regularly assisted local authorities affected by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Agnes in 1972. As the threat of nuclear war faded, SCCD was eventually replaced with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency in 1978.

Today, the most visible mark of Pennsylvania’s civil-defense history are the yellow and black fallout shelter signs that still dot the basements and stairwells of many government and private buildings, reminding us of the impact that the Cold War had on the lives of millions of Pennsylvanians. The Pennsylvania State Archives holds many civil-defense materials including the records of SCCD, which can be found in Record Group 69.1.


Tyler Stump is an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives.