Seattle backs out of planning for nuclear war in July 1982.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 2/12/2002
  • Essay 3687
See Additional Media

In July 1982, Mayor Charles Royer withdraws Seattle from planning for nuclear war. Royer calls Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plans to evacuate the population of Seattle to east of the Cascades in the event of a nuclear attack "virtually useless" and states that Seattle should not "lend credence to the dangerous idea that a nuclear war is a manageable emergency" (The Seattle Times). Royer's action follows a similar policy statement by King County Executive Randy Ravelle.

Under scenarios developed by FEMA and the U.S. Department of Defense, a limited nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would be preceded by at least several days of heightened tensions. Target cities like Seattle and Tacoma would be evacuated, allowing more civilians to survive nuclear attacks. According to FEMA's Crisis Relocation Planning, 100,000 in Puget Sound might die, but the balance of the population would survive. Planners believed that if the Soviets thought the U.S. was prepared to endure nuclear war, they would also think the U.S. unlikely to back down in a confrontation.

FEMA formulated detailed plans for hundreds of thousands of people to drive to eastern Washington over several days. The agency involved local governments, which would have to execute such an operation within 72 hours. The Boeing Co. made plans to evacuate workers and their families from its defense-related facilities in Kent.

Royer instructed Fire Chief Robert Swartout "not use scarce city resources to prepare for nuclear war" (The Seattle Times). Seattle would spend its efforts with FEMA preparing for hazardous materials incidents, natural disasters, and maritime emergencies.

Since the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s, Seattle made preparations for a nuclear attack by building 867 fallout shelters and practicing "duck and cover." The plan was for citizens to hide underground for several weeks until nuclear radiation subsided to safe levels. Shelters were stocked with foods and medicines.

In the 1960s, all the food was shipped to Bangladesh for famine relief and by then all the medicines had been stolen. In 1974, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger ordered planning for limited nuclear war, a conflict that did not involve the total destruction of the world. When the Soviets made plans for mass evacuations, the U.S. followed suit.

The Cold War effectively came to an end in late 1989 when Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. Within a few years, the Soviet Union dissolved itself and the U.S. stopped preparing for a nuclear holocaust.


Scott Sparling, "Civil Defense Will Rise Again," The Weekly, December 5, 1979, pp. 23-27; "Royer Orders End To Planning For Evacuation," The Seattle Times, July 20, 1982, p. A-12; Charles Royer, "Quit Using Second-Hand Reports On My FEMA Stand," Ibid., August 27, 1982, p. A-11.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You