Boston — It came down to a debate over whether Massachusetts should rely on traditional civil-defense methods or adopt a completely different approach to the thorny issue of how to protect state residents from nuclear attack.
Bay State peace activists have long advocated that rather than planning for what might happen in a nuclear war, the state should allocate its resources to preventing a nuclear war in the first place.
The best civil defense for nuclear attack is to prevent the attack from ever occuring, they say. On June 28, in a ceremony that drew sparse publicity, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) signed an executive order on civil defense that made this the official policy of the commonwealth.
The order forbids state civil-defense planners from developing or working on plans to evacuate residents from potential target areas in the Bay State in the event of a nuclear war. It adds in part: ''The Commonwealth shall seek to ensure the safety of its citizens by pursuit of policies reflecting a serious commitment to prevention of nuclear war.''
About 18 months ago the state was participating in a massive federal program to relocate approximately two-thirds of urban America to back-country areas in the event of nuclear war. Most of Boston, for instance, was slated to go to the woods in Kennebunk County, Maine. But the Bay State dumped the project, called Crisis Relocation Planning, after more than 30 local communities rejected it.
Across the nation, evacuation plans have been under attack because they were seen as an effort to use civil defense as a part of America's nuclear defense strategy. If the Soviets ordered their cities evacuated in a time of crisis, the United States would have the option of ordering its cities evacuated. To some, it reduced American citizens to pawns in a Soviet-US nuclear chess match.
Other critics said the very order to begin evacuation might make the Soviets think the US was about to launch a surprise nuclear attack, and thus push them toward launching a pre-emptive strike against the US.
Perhaps even more important though, Crisis Relocation Planning brought the issue of nuclear war to grass-roots America.
''It is something that people don't want to think about - it scares the heck out of them, frankly,'' says Douglas Forbes, the chief civil-defense planner in Massachusetts.
As a result of a considerable backlash, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) restructured its approach to civil defense last year, deliberately playing down evacuation planning. FEMA currently is promoting the development of generic disaster plans - elements of which could be applicable to civil-defense efforts during nuclear attack.
Massachusetts has adopted the generic approach but is reluctant to take any actions that may appear to be specifically aimed at civil-defense efforts for nuclear attack.
According to Mr. Forbes, the position of the state is that ''nuclear war is a national concern rather than a state concern.''
In Massachusetts, the question has not been whether civil-defense efforts might be inadequate - it is taken for granted by public officials that such plans will always be inadequate.
Rather, the question is whether at some point the public could perceive that civil defense might offer Americans a degree of security - the idea that they could survive a nuclear attack.
That perception is dangerous, Massachusetts-based peace groups warn, because it might make a nuclear war more likely.
''These plans might lull people into thinking that we could fight a nuclear war and come out with something left,'' says Nancy Foster, who chaired a statewide ad hoc committee of peace activists that studied the civil-defense evacuation issue.
''Nuclear war is just going to be so totally devastating that it is just unthinkable. This kind of (evacuation) planning just seduces people into thinking that it is thinkable,'' she says.
Currently, there are no large-scale, specific plans in Massachusetts to provide for evacuees or other contingencies in the event of nuclear war.
But what happens if during a period of extreme international tension rumors of imminent nuclear war begin to circulate in Massachusetts cities?
''I can guarantee you that those people are not going to do nothing just because the government says do nothing,'' says James Holton of FEMA.
He adds, ''Do you seriously think that people would just sit in the cities thinking that there would be a nuclear attack in two days, or three days. I don't.
''Survival is a basic instinct. People would hit the highways.''
FEMA officials say it is better to have civil-defense plans and contingencies for a nuclear attack and never use them, than to need such plans and not have them.
Mr. Holton explains: ''I don't think the public feels that we can survive a nuclear war, but they sure as heck want a chance to try.''
Monica Conyngham of Lt. Gov. John Kerry's office says, ''We believe that those (evacuation) plans are absolutely futile and that there are no safe havens from nuclear war.''
She adds, ''To have them on the books we would be buying into the argument that nuclear war may be winnable and survivable.''