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Civil Defense Telephone

Civil Defense telephone

A red telephone is a powerful icon of the Cold War. Topeka's city and county leaders understood the need to communicate during disasters when they installed this telephone in a massive bomb shelter two floors below the county courthouse.

"The most awesome, powerful responsibility in the world lies in the hand that picks up this phone."
---Walter Mondale presidential campaign ad, 1984

The Shawnee County Courthouse was built in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States peaked that year with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Since World War II, competition for global influence between these two countries had fueled a nuclear arms race. Full-scale war never broke out, but the threat of it altered how Americans lived. In an effort to mitigate the nuclear risk, federal and local governments began developing plans and facilities to handle a doomsday scenario.

In 1951, the City of Topeka and Shawnee County established a joint Civil Defense (CD) program, responsible for coordinating mass evacuation during a nuclear disaster. Across the country, communities experimented with constructing large underground fallout shelters. In Chicago and Kansas City, abandoned quarries and caves were examined for their potential. When proposals for a new courthouse in Shawnee County arose, CD staff saw an opportunity for a tailor-made structure.

Shawnee County Courthouse

The courthouse shelter was never intended as a refuge for the masses. Topeka is the capital of Kansas; as such, its services are critical to maintaining state operations during a disaster. CD planners designed the facility to house just 130 essential officials, including county commissioners, law enforcement, and military liaisons. The federal government constructed a similar structure on a larger scale in 1957 at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. There, a secret underground bomb shelter was the emergency relocation point for members of Congress in the event of a nuclear attack.

Topeka's new CD Emergency Operations Center was equipped with thick blast doors and an escape hatch to ground level. It contained a cafeteria, surgical center, and dormitories with triple-deck bunks. Along with two weeks' supply of food and water, local judges and county commissioners would reside in an air-conditioned facility powered by a 100-kilowatt generator. More significantly, the Operations Center served as a regional response hub directing relief efforts via a vast communications network linked to the Emergency Broadcast System.

The phone's red receiver is reminiscent of the infamous red phone located in the White House. Installed shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Moscow-Washington hotline was a direct line between the United States President and the Premier of the Soviet Union. It was intended to facilitate communication between the two world leaders, with the goal of preventing nuclear disaster.

Though the phone pictured here resided in the Topeka CD Emergency Operations Center for 20 years, its only use occurred when a large tornado struck the city in 1966. The Shawnee County Emergency Management Department donated this telephone and other Cold War items, including a rescue mannequin, to the Kansas Historical Society in 2008. It is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Civil Defense Telephone

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2008

Date Modified: January 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.