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Crackers in the Capitol basement

By Staff | Jul 28, 2017

At one time in my checkered careers, I was a contract writer for the North Dakota Civil Defense Survival Project, a federally-funded undertaking in 1958-59 to save the country in case of nuclear attack by the Russians.

This was launched only four years after Congress added “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. However, the thinking in the Pentagon was that this may not be a sufficient defense against those Godless communists so they wanted a backup plan, God notwithstanding.

Our first planning assumption was that the Russians would bomb the Air Force bases at Minot and Grand Forks. Bismarck and Fargo protested because they thought they were as important as Grand Forks and Minot and deserved the honor of being targets, too.

In North Dakota, it is our culture to resolve objections by taking complainers into the all-inclusive boat. So we added Fargo and Bismarck as targets without checking with the Russians.

Because radioactivity would continue for decades after the attack, our first strategy was to evacuate people from the target cities and out of the radioactive fallout that would spread across the state.

As we thought of evacuation, however, the realities hit. First, the high college traffic would soon be paralyzed by breakdowns of those rust heaps students drove, given to them by parents who wouldn’t dare drive them across the street.

Then there would be a slew of old people who shouldn’t be driving in a parking lot, let alone a stampede out of town. They would pause for bearings and cars would pile up for blocks. Then there were the ever-present road warriors who would weave in and out of traffic as they bulled their way to safety.

As we contemplated the hordes pouring out of the target cities, we concluded that evacuation would never work. So it was decided that the only other option was to dig. So North Dakota, along with the rest of America, went underground.

The Civil Defense planning operation was moved to the Capitol basement where two feet of concrete protected us from the blast and radioactivity. Civilians across the state were encouraged to prepare bomb shelters in their basements and stock plenty of crackers and water for a long siege of radioactivity.

In fact, when our family moved from Bismarck to Grand Forks in 1967, we bought a house that had such a bomb shelter. The crackers were gone but the shelter had a jug of chokecherry wine which, if you drank more than half a glass, would eliminate all worry about the Russians.

As for the Civil Defense staff, boxes of crackers, and gallons of water were brought into the basement vaults of the Capitol in preparation for doomsday.

Another concern was continuity of government. What if the high-ranking political leaders were killed and we didn’t have anyone qualified to shout “all clear” when the bombers left? So a constitutional amendment was adopted to authorize quick replacement of the lost leaders.

Just so you know that this narrative is not fake-news, just take your copy of the North Dakota Constitution in hand and you will find the tracks of the Civil Defense Survival Project in Section 7 of Article XI.

No doubt, our comprehensive planning forestalled a Russian attack with such success that Civil Defense evolved into the Homeland Security Agency. As for a Russian attack today, we have entered an era of dtente. Polls show that we have become less religious since 1954 so maybe the USA has become more compatible with Godless communism.

Meanwhile, have a cracker and a shot of chokecherry wine.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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