I am reading “Warday”, a book about the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between US and USSR, and a thought struck me. Back in the first part of the Cold War, people were thinking about how to minimise casualties from the Big One, and of course the best way to survive a nuke is to not be there when it goes off. So various plans were put forward for dispersing the population into the countryside, moving industries and people away from city centers, and generally making less attractive targets. No such plan was ever implemented, because the US is a democracy, and how are you going to force people to move? Heinlein wrote about it in one of his watch-out-America opinion pieces; a Civil Defense Warden shows up at his neighbour’s place during breakfast and gives them two hours to get moving to their assigned new home in Kansas, and no arguing, Jim, because I’ve got another fifteen households to notify before lunch, and I’m doing you first purely as a favour. (Which is a bit silly, honestly; what sort of Congress did he imagine would pass anything of the sort, short of the nukes being actually on the way?)
So nothing of the kind was ever done, explicitly. Except that, somehow, the fifties and sixties were the start of the dying of the city centers. This is exactly the period when people moved out to the suburbs. And while some teenagers might disagree with me, I very much doubt the Russians found the suburbs particularly attractive targets for their bombs. No industry, no food depots, nothing but just plain residential areas. And kept that way by zoning. And the old heavy industry shut down too, and most of what’s left moved into industrial parks away from city centers. Did someone do a stealth dispersion on us, while nobody was looking? With the added advantage of keeping the blacks and the poor people in the target areas, which certainly could not have been a feature of any official plan? It makes you wonder.
I don’t really think anybody can have done any such thing consciously. There are just too many local zoning boards and whatnot who would have to be in on it. But perhaps, while they were thinking about property values and how to keep the undesirables out, all those people had Heinlein’s warnings at the back of their minds? A subtle, silent mutter of “Better get out of the cities, you never know”? It seems rather odd to me that the voluntary movements of tens of millions of people should produce a reasonably workable civil defense plan – industry dispersed (to offshore countries in some cases!), people dispersed, communications massively redundant.