In 2015, House curators carefully unpacked water purification tablets, surgical soap, gauze pads, and a toothache remedy from Medical Kit C. The large cardboard box and the basic medical supplies it contained are artifacts of Cold War–era Washington, when the threat of nuclear attack hung over the country, and officials stockpiled emergency food, water, and medicine across the Capitol complex.
Fallout shelters outfitted with government-issued medical kits grew prevalent in the United States, eventually even in the Capitol, in the 1960s. Following a strained meeting in 1961 between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev about Berlin, the German city on the dividing line between democracy and communism, the President warned that combat with the Soviet Union might be necessary. Soon after, the Soviet Union erected the Berlin Wall, and both sides tested nuclear weapons.
A year later, Kennedy learned that the Soviet Union was constructing nuclear missile sites in Cuba, dangerously close to the United States. The President surrounded the island with naval ships, preventing supplies from entering Cuba. He demanded that Khrushchev remove the nuclear weapons and destroy the sites. Khrushchev and Kennedy ultimately came to an agreement—but for nearly two weeks during what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a nuclear attack on the United States seemed frighteningly possible.
The Office of Civil Defense launched a program to protect Americans, encouraging them to prepare fallout shelters in the basements of homes, schools, apartment buildings, and churches. At the time, people believed that if a nuclear bomb hit, they could gather in a shelter and wait a week or two until it was safer to go outside. The federal government planned to provide water containers, food rations, and sanitation, radiological, and medical kits for public fallout shelters.
But during an Armed Services subcommittee hearing about the fallout shelter program in 1963, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Members of Congress confronted a lack of preparedness around the Capitol. Michigan Representative Charles Chamberlain questioned Chet Holifield, a Representative from California and former chair of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.
“Do you know where you could find any emergency food under the Capitol dome or in this building [the Cannon House Office Building]?” Chamberlain asked.
Holifield responded that he knew there was food in the cafeteria.
“No; I mean emergency rations—” Chamberlain pressed.
“No,” admitted Holifield.
“If we are going to be down in the tunnel or under the street or wherever we are to go to; do you know where you can get a bandaid except from the attending physician?”
Holifield replied, “There are no adequate facilities in the Capitol of the United States or in Washington to take care of the legislature and the executive branch of our Government in toto.”
A few weeks later, the Architect of the Capitol, working with the Department of Defense, began designating and stocking shelters around the Capitol, Senate and House Office Buildings, and even in the tunnels between buildings.
Fallout shelters around the Capitol, House, and Senate were intended to protect around 36,000 people, including Representatives, staff members, visitors, and neighbors. Just as residents stocked their basements with canned goods and supplies in case of nuclear emergency, officials stored food rations, water, and medical kits in Capitol Hill shelters, but on a much larger scale. “Stacked in the Old Subway Tunnel and basement beneath the Capitol, for example,” wrote historian David F. Krugler, “were 259 cases of carbohydrate supplement (in lemon or cherry flavor) and 1,393 cases of biscuits (actually 75 calorie wafers made from bulgur wheat).”
On the Capitol campus, each medical kit supplied by the Office of Civil Defense could serve 300 to 325 people—and there were many boxes. “Numerous medical problems are expected to develop during shelter occupancy,” explained the Department of Defense. Including rubbing alcohol, sodium bicarbonate, penicillin, a thermometer, and sedative phenobarbital tablets (marked “WARNING—May be habit forming”), the supplies in the kit were intended to help with problems like cuts, stress, and digestive issues.
As years passed without a nuclear war, the Capitol’s fallout shelter supplies remained unused. Around the country, medical kits and food rations were forgotten or put to other purposes. Relief agencies sent the medical supplies to other countries. By the 1980s, the medicine degraded, and the food rations were considered “unfit for humans,” the Los Angeles Times stated. Farmers fed the dry, powdery Nabisco and Sunshine biscuits to pigs and sheep.
In November 2009, Senate historians discovered 40 Office of Civil Defense medical kits in the attic of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. One box was transferred to the House Collection. The kit serves as a reminder of Cold War life around the Capitol and the cloud of anxiety that hovered, for a time, over Washington.
Sources: Hearings before the House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee No. 3, Civil Defense–Fallout Shelter Program, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (1963); Department of Defense, Annual Report of the Office of Civil Defense for Fiscal Year 1962 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1962); ABC Premium News [Sydney], 10 June 2017; Baltimore Sun, 24 October 1962; Chicago Tribune, 25 February 1981; Los Angeles Times, 29 November 1982; New York Times, 20 February 1995; Washington Post, 23 December 2001; David F. Krugler, This Is Only a Test: How Washington D.C. Prepared for Nuclear War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); The Cold War in Berlin, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, accessed 9 April 2020, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/the-cold-war-in-berlin; and Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, accessed 9 April 2020, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/cuban-missile-crisis.Follow @USHouseHistory