The eye-opening true story of the government’s secret plans to survive and rebuild after a catastrophic attack on US soil—a narrative that spans from the dawn of the nuclear age to today.
Every day in Washington, DC, the blue-and-gold 1st Helicopter Squadron, code-named “MUSSEL,” flies over the Potomac River. As obvious as the presidential motorcade, the squadron is assumed by most people to be a travel perk for VIPs. They’re only half right: while the helicopters do provide transport, the unit exists to evacuate high-ranking officials in the event of a terrorist or nuclear attack on the capital. In the event of an attack, select officials would be whisked by helicopters to a ring of secret bunkers around Washington, even as ordinary citizens are left to fend for themselves.
For sixty years, the US government has been developing secret Doomsday plans to protect itself, and the multibillion-dollar Continuity of Government (COG) program takes numerous forms—from its plans to evacuate the Liberty Bell from Philadelphia and our most precious documents from the National Archives to the plans to launch nuclear missiles from a Boeing 747 jet flying high over Nebraska.
In Raven Rock, Garrett Graff sheds light on the inner workings of the 650-acre compound (called Raven Rock) just miles from Camp David, as well as dozens of other bunkers the government built its top leaders during the Cold War, from the White House lawn to Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado to Palm Beach, Florida, and the secret plans that would have kicked in after a Cold War nuclear attack to round up foreigners and dissidents, and nationalize industries.
Equal parts a presidential, military, and political history, Raven Rock tracks the evolution of the government’s plans and the threats of global war from the dawn of the nuclear era through the present day. Relying upon thousands of pages of once-classified documents, as well as original interviews and visits to former and current COG facilities, Graff brings readers through the back channels of government to understand exactly what is at stake if our nation is attacked, and how we’re prepared to respond if it is.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Garrett M. Graff, a magazine journalist and historian, has spent more than a dozen years covering politics, technology, and national security. He’s written for publications from Wired to The New York Times, and served as the editor of two of Washington’s most prestigious magazines, Washingtonian and POLITICO Magazine. His books include Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, The Threat Matrix: The FBI War in the Age of Global Terror and The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House.
Read an Excerpt
For Richard Nixon, August 9, 1974, may have marked the end of his presidency, but for Dexter McIntyre, it was just another workday—a Friday like any other in a workplace unlike almost any other. He arrived early in the morning at the secret AT&T facility in Stanfield, North Carolina, entered the access code at the outer fence, parked his car in the small aboveground lot, and walked through a small door built into the hillside.
The complex had existed since 1965, when AT&T began to dig a big hole about two miles from McIntyre’s childhood home in Locust, North Carolina, about thirty miles east of Charlotte. He had been nineteen when construction started, and recalls, “There was a lot of curiosity about what was going on there.” No one really knew what the hole was for—or even really who was digging. Some locals swore it was a secret facility for communicating with aliens; others believed it was a secret submarine base—despite the fact that it was about 150 miles from the ocean. The truth, as it turned out, was almost as strange as the fiction.
In 1967, McIntyre found himself reporting to work at the newly completed facility as a technician. The big hole that had so fascinated the community now contained a nuclear-hardened, department-store-sized concrete bunker, protected by twin 20,000-pound blast doors, that helped run an AT&T “long line” cable from Miami to Boston, skirting major metropolitan areas that might be nuclear targets. It was one of dozens of specially built facilities that ran air-to-ground communications for VIP military aircraft like Air Force One and various airborne alert command posts—programs with code names like NIGHTWATCH and LOOKING GLASS—that ensured that in the event of a nuclear strike someone in America would be able to launch from the ashes a devastating retaliatory blow against the Soviet Union.
For a quarter century, one eight-hour shift at a time, McIntyre and his colleagues—all technically AT&T staff—tended this hidden mountaintop redoubt, maintaining the telecommunications gear that kept the government ready, a key link in the massive “Continuity of Government” machine.I In the event of an attack, food and rations inside could keep the staff functioning for at least thirty days. The whole facility was mounted on massive metal springs to cushion the impact of a nuclear blast. Communications gear and lights hung from springs—even the toilets were mounted on springs and linked with rubber plumbing. The staff worked closely with other “AT&T” technicians at another North Carolina bunker in Chatham, similarly about thirty miles west of Raleigh, which served as the southernmost link in the government’s massive “relocation arc,” a network of nearly 100 bunkers built into the mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The Chatham facility had a special nuclear-hardened troposcatter microwave relay for post-Apocalypse communications and its own special Continuity of Government functions that not even the fellow Stanfield employees understood. Even though they all had special security clearances, the Chatham programs were, as the military said, “need to know.” None of the technicians even told their families what they really did. “You just didn’t talk about it,” McIntyre recalls. “What do you do? ‘I work on telephone circuits.’?” It wasn’t an answer that encouraged follow-up questions.
As McIntyre’s shift began on the morning of August 9, the Stanfield Klaxon sounded, signifying that an Air Force One flight was being readied at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington. McIntyre often served as the facility’s air-to-ground communications technician, and so he closeted himself in the radio room to listen as the plane took off. His first step was to open the office safe and look up his station’s daily call sign; each month, a courier delivered to Stanfield a sealed envelope with different call signs for each day of the month to make it impossible for any radio eavesdroppers to determine Air Force One’s flight path. He looked over the plane’s route, saw it was heading west, and knew that that day, he’d play only a minor role. With a westward flight path, he’d quickly hand over communications to the facility in Williamstown, Kentucky. As Air Force Colonel Ralph Albertazzie and his copilot readied for takeoff and as Air Force One passed through 10,000 feet, McIntyre in the Stanfield facility began to pick up a signal. He called in to the Waldorf, Maryland, ground communications station, “I’ve got acquisition of signal. I can take the flight.” He tuned in to listen.
As Air Force One began to bank west, each of its thirty-four passengers watched the advancing time. Richard Nixon, in his private compartment, interrogated Sergeant Lee Simmons: “Is that clock right?” He gestured to the three digital clocks lining the cabin wall, a legacy that remained from Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. LBJ had loved to summon staff to his cabin to tell him the time: What time was it in Washington? At their destination? Where we are right now? Finally, Air Force stewards installed a trio of clocks to provide constant answers. Now all three ticked down the final minutes of his successor’s presidency.
“I think I’d like a martini,” Nixon said.
Chief Steward Chuck Palmer knew exactly how the president liked it—a chilled glass filled with ice, just a hint of dry vermouth, a lemon peel twist lightly rubbed around the edge. Gin. Stirred quickly and served. Palmer had honed the technique during hundreds of hours of flight with the thirty-seventh commander-in-chief, who had visited twenty-eight countries, including the closed empire of China, traveling 137,500 miles internationally in his six years in office, more than any predecessor.
In the cockpit, copilot Les McClelland listened through headphones as a thousand miles away the chief justice and the vice president recited thirty-five words, phrase by phrase, concluding: “. . . preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The clock read three minutes and twenty-five seconds past noon. The Boeing 707, its blue-and-white paint job instantly recognizable around the world, was 39,000 feet above the Missouri plains, heading west at 600 miles an hour, still nearly three hours from its California destination.
Albertazzie keyed the radio: “Kansas City, this was Air Force One. Will you change our call sign to SAM 27000?”
“Roger, SAM 27000. Good luck to the president,” a controller at the Kansas City Air Route Traffic Control Center replied.
On the ground in Stanfield, McIntyre was puzzled by Albertazzie’s request. Why was the plane changing call signs in midair? It wasn’t until that night when he watched the evening news at home that he realized he had heard history being made. He had been present, without realizing it, for the last moments of the Nixon administration.
• • •
Even as he prepared to hand over the office, becoming the first person to resign the presidency, Richard Nixon had promised he’d be commander-in-chief until the very end. Governing in the midst of the Cold War, he believed it critical for the nation to understand who possessed nuclear launch authority. With Soviet missiles never more than fifteen minutes away, the president led the National Command Authorities, the command and control structure that governed the use of nuclear weapons in case of an attack.
“As I am winging my way back to California tomorrow, I will still have the black box aboard,” Nixon had said the day before at the White House. That black box was colloquially known as the Football—the briefcase, carried just a few steps from the president by a military aide, that contained the country’s nuclear attack plans. The Football was the key to this vast and ever-growing arsenal, the Nuclear Triad of bombers, ICBMs, and submarines that kept the Soviet Union at bay, and it was always at the president’s fingertips.
But not today. No one had told the president that, by one of the only measures that truly mattered, his presidency had already ended. The military aide never boarded the plane with the Football; the briefcase wasn’t in its normal place on Air Force One, secured in the communications center just behind the cockpit. Even before Gerald Ford took the oath, the White House military apparatus had already taken from Richard Nixon the very power that defined his office.
In fact, days before the administration’s dramatic denouement, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president issued any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon. And on that August morning, the military and White House aides had left the nuclear codes with the incoming president.
In a country with no bejeweled crowns or royal thrones, the black Football briefcase is perhaps the only physical manifestation of our nation’s sovereign, the outward sign of presidential power. And on that day it had already abandoned Richard Nixon.
On its surface, presidential succession seems such a simple idea, but it’s what political scientist Ernst Kantorowicz called “a peculiar kind of scientific mysticism,” whereby as mortal as any single officeholder may be, the office itself never dies. The president may be replaceable, but the presidency is not—it represents the very idea of the democratic traditions of the United States. “For me personally, no one ever elected to the office of the presidency was worth dying for, yet the office of the presidency was,” recalled one Secret Service agent.
The King is dead, long live the King.
Nixon was gone, Ford was in.
The presidency always continues.
Gerald Ford’s accession to the presidency in August 1974 heralded one of the most dramatic chapters of U.S. history, but it was all the more remarkable for just how unremarkable the actual event was—power transferred via a short letter delivered to the secretary of state. It was the third time in just three decades that a vice president had taken over, each time amid exigent circumstances: the natural death of the commander-in-chief in the midst of global war in 1945, the violent assassination of the leader of the free world as his vice president watched in 1963, and now the passing of the torch one step ahead of a forced removal by Congress. In each instance, though, there was no question but that the vice president would step forward.
Ford took office—and received the world-ending nuclear Football—without ever being elected to the vice presidency or the presidency. He had stepped into the vice presidency, nominated by Nixon and confirmed by Congress, after Spiro Agnew’s resignation amid scandal. Ford’s ascension was a transition that literally couldn’t have occurred a decade before; until just a few years earlier, when the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified, the nation had had no system for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency. It was a solution created out of necessity by the Cold War as the country came to grips with the fragility of its leadership, just one of the ways nuclear weapons had—and would—reshape the presidency for years to come.
• • •
For much of its existence, the American presidency had been a rather slow-moving enterprise. Presidents might take weeks or months to travel outside the capital, barely in contact with the mechanics of government. In September 1935, Franklin Roosevelt’s car had become hopelessly lost in the canyons around the Hoover Dam, en route back to the train station in Las Vegas from the dam’s dedication, and been completely out of touch for nearly two hours. No one knew where the president was, nor when he might reappear. Even as late as 1945, Vice President Harry Truman didn’t receive Secret Service protection. Yet within a few short years, as Soviet missiles reduced monumental decisions to only fifteen-minute windows, such prolonged periods with the president incommunicado or the vice president’s whereabouts unknown would be an artifact of history.
In the months after World War II ended and the arrival of the atomic bomb, Washington columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop mused how the new weapons would complicate world relations and push America’s government in new directions. In an era where an entire city could disappear in an instant, they argued that it wasn’t going to be enough to just have a vice president on standby. “We shall have to organize a complete, specially trained emergency government as a sort of spare, and to keep it in a cavern until needed,” they wrote. Oddly enough, that was almost exactly what the government would end up doing.
The need to command such powerful weapons on a hair-trigger alert pushed the office of the president into a new era of technology and new procedures; the commander-in-chief required instant, reliable communications, powerful new transportation, and detailed instructions to ensure that there was never a leadership vacuum. The White House Communications Agency would know where both would be every minute of every day, arranging in advance sophisticated communication tools to ensure that those in the newly designated National Command Authorities were always reachable. The need to keep the president and executive branch leaders secure, alive, and in communication gave rise to a massive infrastructure: gleaming Marine helicopters, the majestic Air Force One, hulking armored limousines, and screaming motorcades.
The nuclear age also transformed the presidency from a single person working in the White House to a much broader idea. While most Americans thought of a “president” as the person they elected every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the “presidency” by the 1970s represented a long line of men and women, stretching through both houses of Congress and through every cabinet agency—each ready to step into the void left by the deaths or incapacity ahead of them in the line of succession. While the person was replaceable, the position was not. The presidency literally had an A team, a B Team, and even a C team. In the event of an emergency, each team—and its designated “president”—had a different role and a different evacuation destination. The Alpha team, which in most cases included the elected president, would remain in Washington and, by design, be sacrificed almost immediately in an attack. The Bravo team would head to Mount Weather, a sprawling secret bunker in the hills of Virginia built to withstand a nuclear attack; the Charlie team would head to any of the nearly 100 hidden facilities available within an hour of Washington that the government would activate in an emergency. All this was meant to preserve the National Command Authorities, which began with the president and the secretary of defense, and continued with, as the wonderfully ambiguous phrase stated: “or persons acting lawfully in their stead.”
Each of the nearly twenty offices in the presidential line of succession has its own unique hierarchy; dozens of civilian and military officials populate the succession line, for instance, for the defense secretary, which created possible paths to the presidency with potentially chaotic consequences. Under a truly horrific surprise attack that destroys the nation’s leaders, the U.S. attorney for Chicago and northern Illinois might claim to be the president. Under no circumstances, though, would the presidency itself ever be vacant.
Beginning during the Cold War and continuing up to the present day, the Central Locator System, a special office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), tracks these officials and their whereabouts twenty-four hours a day, ready to whisk them away from their regular lives at a moment’s notice. While many people are familiar with the military’s DEFCON alerts—a system that tracks the U.S. military’s state of readiness (Defense Condition) from DEFCON 5, representing peacetime, to DEFCON 1, representing complete global war—the analogous COGCON alert matrix, which tracks the government’s “continuity condition readiness,” is more obscure. COGCON 4 represents normal peacetime operations, while COGCON 1 calls for all the government’s relocation bunkers and facilities to be fully staffed. Beginning at COGCON 3, personnel “warm up” the relocation facilities, and people like the head of the Department of Energy’s Savannah River operations office in South Carolina, who stands eighteenth in line for succession to be energy secretary, must begin notifying the Watch Office every day by 8 a.m. ET his or her entire day’s itinerary.
This nuclear world is filled with seemingly harmless gobbledygook, acronyms piled upon acronyms, that explains how the world would end in thermonuclear war. Under the MAD theory, if, for instance, BMEWS and NORAD confirmed a USSR BOOB attack on CONUS, the NCA—either POTUS, SECDEF, or the AEAO aboard the ABNCP—would see a PINNACLE/OP-REP3/NUCFLASH alert and turn to the NMCC, FEMA’s HPSF, the ANMCC, or NEACP to issue EAMs activating SIOP, move the nation to DEFCON 1, mobilize COG and COOP plans, and notify DOD and SAC to attack and launch ICBMs, ALCMs, and SLBMs, raining MIRVs down upon USSR DGZs preselected by NSTAP and JSTPS.
The result of the president launching the nation’s bombers, submarines, and missiles against Russia would almost surely destroy not only both countries but all human life on the entire planet. There were some 30,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, the rough equivalent, one CIA director calculated, of 55 billion traditional 500-pound TNT bombs from World War II. Enough, as he said, to carpet each state in the union with a billion bombs—and still have five billion bombs left over.
From start to finish, the entire process would take under an hour.
Even as the nation lay in ruins at the end of that hour, the government would have already carefully considered how the United States itself—how the idea of the United States—would continue forward. During the Cold War, the government secretly invested billions of dollars in a complicated set of plans known as “Continuity of Government” (COG), “Continuity of Operations” (COOP), and its most secretive level, “Enduring Constitutional Government” (ECG). Through these programs, planners gave deep thought to what activities and processes would be needed following a nuclear attack—and even what totems of American culture should be saved. The World War II command bunkers in London eventually inspired a breathtakingly audacious and complex network of dozens of bunkers, ships at sea, scores of helicopters and planes overhead, even secret rail trains, and convoys of tractor-trailers in the United States.
Prewritten presidential executive orders sat in office safes across Washington, as did secret draft legislation known as the Defense Resources Act, ready to be filled in Mad Libs–style with dates and emergencies, that laid out an entirely new structure and entirely new roles for how the government would function during a national emergency—effectively suspending the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The presidential Football is well known, but less well known is how the attorney general was accompanied through the darkest days of the Cold War by an “Emergency Briefcase” outlining FBI plans to sweep up thousands of Americans deemed a security threat. Long before Barack Obama made the Washington title “czar” popular, Dwight Eisenhower had imagined an expansive set of secret powers, preselecting nine men—mostly private citizens—who would be real czars, stepping in during an emergency to remake the private sector, seize assets coast to coast, and create new bureaucracies that would control nearly every aspect of American life until peace could be restored.
The Post Office would be in charge of registering the nation’s dead; the National Park Service would run the refugee camps; the Department of Agriculture would distribute rationed food. Congress would retreat to a special bunker at a West Virginia resort; the Supreme Court would relocate to another resort in the North Carolina mountains; the Department of the Interior would move to the grounds of a former college in Harpers Ferry. The Federal Reserve kept an underground bunker stocked with a billion dollars cash inside Mount Pony, seventy miles south of Washington. FEMA would help the nation rebuild from regional bunkers in places like Denton, Texas, and Maynard, Massachusetts.
It was also carefully decided that at the National Archives, the Declaration of Independence would be saved before the Constitution, and at the National Gallery of Art, Leonardo da Vinci’s Florentine masterpiece Ginevra de’ Benci took priority over Rogier van der Weyden’s Renaissance masterpiece Saint George and the Dragon. The Library of Congress knew it would save the Gettysburg Address ahead of George Washington’s military commission, and in Philadelphia, a specially trained team of park rangers stood ready to evacuate the Liberty Bell into the mountains of Appalachia.
At every level, the COG system offered redundancy piled atop redundancy. It was a system that touched every state in the union—and nearly every state hosted a hidden COG facility. The scope of power involved was unlike anything our nation has ever experienced.
• • •
This book is a different type of Cold War history—it’s not a traditional account focused on the “who,” the great hawks and doves who shaped this momentous half century, nor is it really a story of the “why,” the ideological and political struggles that played out from Washington to Moscow to Berlin to London. It’s also not meant to be a comprehensive timeline; there are major events that merit barely a mention—Korea, McCarthyism, the Space Race, Vietnam—and major world figures, like Joseph Stalin, whose existence is only mentioned glancingly. Epochal domestic political issues—like civil rights and the 1960s—are discussed not at all. Instead, this book is meant to be the first definitive tour of the hidden architecture of the Cold War’s shadow government. It is a history of “how.” How nuclear war would have actually worked—the nuts and bolts of war plans, communication networks, weapons, and bunkers—and how imagining and planning for the impact of nuclear war actually changed the “why,” as leaders realized the horrors ahead and altered the course of the Cold War at several key points in response.
In writing this account, I have been granted access to many new sources, sites, and facilities known only since the end of the Cold War, people newly willing to speak for the first time about their roles in this secret state, and hundreds of pages of newly declassified documents never before available to researchers. Yet it remains a hard world to re-create after the fact. For one thing, it’s difficult to convey today just how dark the Cold War looked at key points. Though two generations of American leaders, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, genuinely saw the Soviet Union as an existential threat—one that would destroy Europe, the United States, and free people everywhere at the first chance it had—we know now that the U.S. and the free world triumphed over Communism, quite peacefully, in fact.
Moreover, this story is a challenge to tell because much of the COG machinery remains shrouded in secrecy. Many of my requests to declassify even fifty-year-old reports and memos were denied. The National Archives refused my request to release, for instance, four Kennedy-era memos from 1962 and 1963 dealing with civilian emergency planning—arguing that all four still remain so vital to national security that not a single word of them could be declassified. It’s hard—and troubling—to imagine what plans from an era where black-and-white television represented cutting-edge technology could still be relevant to our lives today.
For nearly fifty years, the inner workings of the nation’s COG protocols were some of the government’s best-kept secrets. These facilities and plans were huge surprises when they were unveiled in the 1990s by reporters like Ted Gup and William Arkin, as well as scholars and researchers like Bruce Blair and Tim Tyler. Even colleagues in the same office didn’t know the scope of COG plans. When Aaron Sorkin was researching what would become The American President and The West Wing, Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos pulled out of his wallet what the Hollywood director first thought was a bus pass—it actually was the little card explaining how Stephanopoulos would be evacuated in the event of a nuclear attack. Sorkin incorporated that card into a later West Wing episode, where character Josh Lyman received such a card from the National Security Council and felt guilt because his co-workers wouldn’t also be saved. While shooting the scene, set consultant Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary to Bill Clinton, pulled Sorkin aside to tell him that the scene was unrealistic because those cards didn’t actually exist. Sorkin was shocked: Even as a top aide, she’d never realized that her co-workers had exactly those cards—and she never did.
• • •
The story of COG is also the story of an unfolding technology revolution—both in terms of military firepower and communications infrastructure—that fundamentally reshaped both the presidency and much of today’s world. The COG world developed the most elaborate communications apparatus ever designed. Nearly every person on the planet has seen their life altered by one of the most basic parts of this planning: It was, after all, the Defense Department’s investment in creating a decentralized network that could ensure communication after a nuclear attack that helped drive development of the modern internet. The world’s first online chat program—the forerunner of AOL Instant Messenger, Skype, Facebook Chat—was developed to help the main command bunker at Mount Weather respond to critical national shortages in an emergency. And the airline reservation system that every internet user accesses each time they use Orbitz, Expedia, or another travel site grew out of the air defense radar system built in the 1950s to prevent a surprise Soviet attack. As technology writer Frank Rose concluded, “The computerization of society, then, has essentially been a side effect of the computerization of war.”
Beyond the information superhighway, America’s concrete highways themselves grew out of the fear of attack—the 41,000 miles of interstates built under an Eisenhower program partly served to help the nation speed war matériel around the nation in case of a nuclear attack. The original name for the limited-access paved road network was the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and children of the era may recall the signs that sprouted up along the major roads that warned “In case of enemy attack, this road will be closed to all but military vehicles.”
More broadly, though, the Cold War reshaped our nation’s thinking about defense—it’s where our national security state was created, where today’s obsessive secrecy culture began, and where our government first set the precedent for the disproportionate response that has guided so much of our response to the modern threat of terrorism. The vast secrecy that surrounded the government’s atomic weapons program—a culture of secret keeping that led to the development of the government’s first formal security clearances and the now familiar classification system of “Confidential,” “Secret,” and “Top Secret”—grew not out of strength, but out of weakness. The original secret of the atomic age was just how few nuclear weapons the United States actually had. That secret begat a culture of rampant government classification, a problem that increasingly affects even basic and mundane information—and today sees more than five million Americans with security clearances, a group larger than the entire population of Norway, and more than 1.5 million with “Top Secret” clearances, a group larger than the entire population of either Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, or any of ten other states.
The stories and experiences told in this book are where men like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who practiced COG scenarios in bunkers in the 1970s and 1980s, first learned the instincts that would govern how they responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—and where many of today’s leading warriors started their careers. The Cold War was also where the president began asserting executive authority to lead the nation unilaterally into war, bypassing the traditional congressional declarations that had always guided such decision making, and laid the groundwork for presidential prerogatives used in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and so many other modern conflicts. Modern warfare necessitated quick action; in fact, as Dwight Eisenhower told a group of congressmen in 1954, nuclear war “will be a very quick thing,” and he wouldn’t have time to ask Congress’s opinion before launching a retaliatory strike. Presidents began to invoke spurious ties to “national emergencies” that allowed them to take extraordinary action. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy turned to Truman’s 1950 emergency declaration involving the invasion of South Korea as legal justification for his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Half a century later, President Obama used a similar declaration from 9/11 to justify attacks in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Syria. In many ways, the Cold War mentality is alive and well today—especially as the world faces an emboldened Russia led by Vladimir Putin.
A generation before Ashton Carter took over the Pentagon as President Obama’s fourth defense secretary, he had helped design the E-4B “Doomsday plane” meant to help the commander-in-chief run a nuclear war from the sky—the same plane is still in use today to ferry defense secretaries around the world. It sits every day on a runway in Omaha, Nebraska, fully staffed, with its engines turning, ready to launch in just minutes and run a nuclear war from the sky.
The history of our government’s Doomsday planning is, as one historian wrote, “not a happy one.” Even as the government’s official outward appearance was optimistic—war would be (a) not that bad and (b) survivable—inside the corridors of power, leaders recognized that the public had virtually no hope of surviving. As Eisenhower said in one meeting, if war happened, the nation didn’t have “enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the street.” What began in the 1950s as an all-encompassing, nationwide push for civil defense, to ready every household and workplace, every village and city, for a Soviet attack, shrank decade by decade, until by 9/11, there was just one aspect of the grand plans left in operation: the evacuation of the nation’s leaders to bunkers hidden under mountains. That September day, when Vice President Cheney and other officials retreated to “undisclosed locations,” many went to Raven Rock, the bunker built near Camp David to house the military during the Cold War, and others flooded to Mount Weather, the government’s other primary mountaintop bunker in Virginia. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax attack on the U.S. Congress restarted a focus on COG and COOP planning that continues to this day. Today, this secret world still exists, just beneath the surface of our country. In many ways, it’s actually more expansive, powerful, and capable today than it ever was during the twentieth century.
Today, a third generation of Doomsday planners are settling into life inside these bunkers, which are still staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. While some new facilities have been built in the last two decades, the majority of the government’s plans to preserve itself and our nation during an attack in the twenty-first century still rely upon bunkers built with slide rules.
Today, those same blue-and-gold Air Force helicopters still practice evacuating officials from Washington each day in the skies over the capital.
Today, each time a major event like a presidential inauguration or State of the Union speech occurs, there’s still a “designated survivor” from the established line of succession, who skips the event and stays in a secure facility under guard until the event ends without incident. At the 2017 presidential inaugural, Senate President Pro Tem Orrin Hatch and outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson waited outside Washington until President Trump safely assumed power.
Today, the Postal Service does not prepare to register the dead from a nuclear strike, nor do its mail trucks stand ready to be converted into “emergency casualty carriers,” but it is the designated distributor of vaccines should a biological attack or health pandemic like smallpox or Ebola occur.
And, today, every day, there are still military aides who walk just steps behind the president and vice president toting a heavy black briefcase filled with all the instructions necessary to end the world as we know it.
Until that happens, of course, we’ll never know if any of the plans outlined on the following pages would have ever worked—but, as readers will see, it seems unlikely.
I. McIntyre would work there until it closed in 1991, a victim of advancing technologies and the end of the Cold War.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Project S-1 1
Chapter 2 Mr. Rance 10
Chapter 3 Campbell 25
Chapter 4 The Beard Lot Project 43
Chapter 5 Apple Jack Alert 60
Chapter 6 The Spirit of Camp David 78
Chapter 7 The New Frontier 99
Chapter 8 Cuban Missile Crisis 133
Chapter 9 Angel is Airborne 163
Chapter 10 The Tyler Precedent 179
Chapter 11 The Madman Theory 202
Chapter 12 Mount Pony 228
Chapter 13 The Unlikely Hawk 239
Chapter 14 War Games 254
Chapter 15 Designated Survivor 275
Chapter 16 Nine Naught Eight 297
Chapter 17 9/11 328
Chapter 18 The Days After 366
Chapter 19 Doomsday Prepping 387
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intriguing look at government doomsday plans.