Wisconsin Civil Defense


Wisconsin civil defense unofficially began on August 29, 1950, by the order of Governor Oscar Rennebohm.[i]  The formal incorporation of the Wisconsin Office of Civil Defense was through the passage of the Act 433, Laws of 1951. By the time Wisconsin formally organized its state organization, the Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA) had already been established six months prior by President Truman. The purpose of the state agency was to “insure that the state and its subdivisions and municipalities will be prepared and able to cope with disasters arising from enemy attacks, sabotage, or other enemy action.”[ii]

Prior to 1955, Wisconsin’s civil defense was limited to cities. Milwaukee had been on edge about an enemy attack, but rural Wisconsin was not as concerned. Atomic weapons didn’t have massive devastating powers, and the hydrogen bomb technology was safely in the hands of the United States. Attitudes changed when the Soviet Union tested their first hydrogen bomb in August 1955. Civil defense suddenly became a serious concern to everyone.[iii]

The passage of Act 377, Laws of 1955, also known as the Wisconsin Civil Defense Act of 1955, amended the state civil defense agency to it give more power to the state government and the Office of Civil Defense on matters of civil defense. The act placed a mandatory obligation upon county and municipal governments to establish civil defense committees, appoint leaders, devise plans and participate in test exercises, which would be enforced by the director. Each municipality was also granted the power to appropriate fund and levy taxes for a civil defense program. [iv]

The new law significantly expanded the powers of the state civil defense director. The governor appointed the director to oversee the agency and statewide civil defense planning. The director was able to establish standards for civil defense based on location and vulnerability. He could also designate roads for civil defense or military use and bar unauthorized use of them. Another significant power granted to the director was the ability to use public property as needed for the good of civil defense and safety of the state, even if it meant destruction of property. The new law essentially gave the director more authority to do whatever he needed to assure the progress of state civil defense.[v]

Ralph J. Olson was the key builder of civil defense in Wisconsin. He served as the director of civil defense agency in Wisconsin for ten years, 1951 to 1961, as well as the major general of the Wisconsin National Guard, and Wisconsin’s adjutant general. It was under his direction that Wisconsin established a “realistic civil defense program,” and that it grew to be a strong agency “ready to serve Wisconsin citizens in a major emergency.” In addition to building the state civil defense agency, Olson developed and implemented the first state survival plans. He also helped strengthen civil defense laws in Wisconsin by supporting the legislation that made it a stronger state agency.[vi]

Another important designation the law established was the State Civil Defense Council. The council was made up of the state civil defense director, serving as chairman, state civil defense co-directors, and members of the state Legislature. It was established to “counsel the director in civil defense matters.”[vii] The council essentially helped the state civil defense director by acting as the mediator between the local and state agencies.

Civil defense was a very structured organization in the United States. The U.S. was split up into regional boundaries by the FCDA. Each region had a civil defense headquarters, and the region’s headquarters received its information and orders from the national headquarters in Washington D.C. Wisconsin was in region four with Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana. This region’s headquarters was set up in Battle Creek, Michigan. The regional headquarters served as a distributor of information, hardware and warning control hub for the region. Wisconsin’s warning center headquarters was first located at the Capital in Madison but was later moved to Stevens Point in 1959.[viii]

Wisconsin itself was subdivided into regional areas by the state director, another duty granted to him through the Wisconsin Civil Defense Act of 1955. Each area was made up of several counties where one city would be designated as a key point that served as control center. In 1959, Stevens Point, one of the key locations, was made the emergency seat of government for Wisconsin pending an enemy attack. Government officials could convene at Central State College, UW-Stevens Point today, and could continue state government after the blast.[ix] The Wisconsin regions mimicked the concept of the national regions, which was to maintain a structured chain of communication and planning before and after an attack.

More restructuring of the state’s civil defense agency came after the passage of Act 628, Laws of 1959. The agency was renamed the Wisconsin Bureau of Civil Defense and was placed under the ultimate authority of the governor. The governor was the newly established chairman of the State Civil Defense Council. He would appoint the council members, which would consist of more members than before. He could determine and direct other state agencies to aid in civil defense. He could also allocate materials and facilities for the use of civil defense. [x] The passage of these state laws in 1955 and 1959 did a lot to boost the role of state government’s involvement with civil defense.

Civil defense organizing in Wisconsin experienced significant expansion and change from 1951 to 1959. It picked up momentum because of the threat the Soviet Union posed, but more significantly, civil defense organizers were solidifying the concept that the program was essential for public safety. Officials were consistently trying to maintain creditability and power to influence public perception about the program. Civil defense had to maintain the strength to legitimized deterrence and assure the public perception that survival was possible when thermonuclear weapons would be used.[xi]

[i] The Wisconsin Blue Book 1952, 285.

[ii] Wisconsin Legislature. “Act 443, Laws of 1951.” Wisconsin Legislative Documents. http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/1951/related/acts/443.pdf.

[iii]Harrison E Salisbury, “Soviet Announces a Test Explosion of Hydrogen Bomb.”(New York Times, August 20, 1953, p. 1. ProQuest (112576823)). http://www.remote.uwosh.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.www.remote.uwosh.edu/docview/112576823?accountid=9355.

[iv] Wisconsin Legislature. “Act 377, Laws of 1955.” Wisconsin Legislative Documents. http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/1955/related/acts/377.pdf.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] State of Wisconsin Civil Defense News Bulletin Vol. II. No. 2, February 1961. WBCD, Series 1715, Box 9, Public Information folder, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives.

[vii] Wisconsin Legislature. “Act 377, Laws of 1955.” Wisconsin Legislative Documents. http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/1955/related/acts/377.pdf.

[viii] “Stevens Point Now Warning Center for CD.” Milwaukee Sentinel, November 23, 1959, sec. 2, p. 1. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=68wwAAAAIBAJ&sjid=hA8EAAAAIBAJ&pg=4318,1720850&dq=stevens-point-now-warning-center-for-cd&hl=en

[ix] “Alert Tests Emergency Wis. Capital.” Milwaukee Sentinel, May 1, 1958, sec. 2, p.1. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=3mhQAAAAIBAJ&sjid=AhAEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5351,443861&dq=alert-tests-emergency-wis-capital&hl=en

[x] Wisconsin Legislature. “Act 628, Laws of 1959.” Wisconsin Legislative Documents. http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/1959/related/acts/628.pdf.

[xi] Guy Oaks, The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 7.

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