Obituary: Steuart Pittman / In charge of Kennedy's fallout shelter program

June 6, 1919 -- Feb. 10, 2013

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Steuart Pittman, a Washington lawyer who was appointed by President John Kennedy in 1961 to create enough fallout shelters to protect every American in the event of a nuclear attack, and who resigned in frustration three years later amid heated debates over the feasibility, cost and even the ethics of such a program, died Feb. 10 at his family farm in Davidsonville, Md. He was 93.

The apparent cause was a stroke, said his wife, Barbara.

Mr. Pittman was appointed the nation's first civil defense chief for nuclear war preparedness at the height of the 1961 Berlin crisis, when words like fallout, megaton and radioactivity became alarmingly familiar to every American schoolchild.

Kennedy's predecessor, President Dwight Eisenhower, had made fallout shelters the responsibility of an agency that managed emergency and natural disaster planning.

But Mr. Pittman, appointed assistant secretary of defense for civil defense soon after Soviet and American tanks faced off in Berlin and the wall dividing East and West Berlin started going up, had one mission only. It was to give 180 million Americans access to shelters stocked with enough food, water and medical supplies to get them through the first week or two after a nuclear attack, when exposure to radioactive fallout was most perilous.

From the start, it was a controversial undertaking. Mr. Pittman would later call it one of the most "unappetizing, unappealing and unpopular" jobs ever created.

Many members of Congress immediately balked at the estimated $3 billion cost to the federal government. State and local officials cringed at the matching $3 billion they were expected to provide. There was debate in the White House and the Pentagon over the proper balance between public and private, federal and local, individual and community control of the shelters.

Catholic and Episcopal theologians clashed publicly over the ethics of using violence to stop a neighbor trying to force his way into someone's shelter. Peace activists warned that building too many fallout shelters would hurt the cause of disarmament.

Mr. Pittman, a prominent international investment banking lawyer, had been chief counsel for the Marshall Plan after the war, but had no domestic government or political experience. Still, within a year he had dispatched federal workers to every part of the country to inventory subway systems and public buildings that might be converted for shelter use; established specifications for shelter construction; collected vast amounts of information on public attitudes about shelters; and stocked about 100,000 model shelters in 14 cities.

Yet, hard as it was to combat opposition to the program, Mr. Pittman said, it was harder still to contend with the apathy and resignation he encountered.

Steuart Lansing Pittman was born in Albany on June 6, 1919, the second of Ernest and Estelle Pittman's three children. He grew up in New York City, graduated from Yale in 1941, and worked for two years in Asia for a subsidiary of Pan American World Airways before joining the Marine Corps in 1943. He was sent to China to train and operate with guerrilla groups behind Japanese lines.

Two days after V-J Day, Mr. Pittman was involved in one of the most unusual, and possibly the last, naval battles of the war. Fired on by a Japanese junk in the South China Sea, Mr. Pittman commanded two Chinese junks in a counterattack, killing 43 and taking 39 Japanese sailors prisoner. He was awarded the Silver Star for valor.

He received his law degree from Yale in 1948. In 1954, he became a founding member of the firm Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge (now Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw & Pittman), where he remained -- with a three-year hiatus to serve in the civil defense post -- until he retired in the mid-1980s. He later moved to Dodon Farm, a 550-acre estate in Maryland that has been in his family for more than 300 years.

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