You'll Die in a Nuclear War, but These Elites Will Be Saved
A national security expert's new book reveals the handful of VIPs and artifacts America would protect in the event of a major catastrophe.
A postal service drill in the event of nuclear fallout. Photo courtesy of the US government
There are details in Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die that read like they've been ripped from the pages of a pulp spy novel. The book, written by national security expert Garrett M. Graff, takes us inside the bunkers cut into granite mountainsides and dug under an elite country club. He brings us deep beneath the White House on 9/11 and into the cockpit of an airplane that doesn't officially exist. As you make your way through Raven Rock, it's easy to forget that all this elaborate high-tech doomsday infrastructure is actually real.
But Graff's half-century chronicle of the government's nuclear planning is far from an escapist spy thriller—he spends as much time on the mundane bureaucratic details of building and maintaining an elaborate worst-case scenario. To the executive branch leadership, the question of "winning" a nuclear encounter becomes, like any other government project, a logistical nightmare. There are thousands of cogs that must work in unison to protect DC leadership, symbols of democracy like the Declaration of Independence and the Liberty Bell, and a few specific private industry heads before the capital is flattened by a nuke. In almost every test, and during the few attacks that have hit within American borders, hardly any of the well-laid plans actually worked.
Graff does a great job communicating the true, specific horror of a nuclear war for the average American, which is, effectively, that we'll all die and only a handful of very senior officials will be protected. Since the Kennedy administration, government officials have repeatedly explained the futility of protecting the civilian population. This has led to doomsday procedures—referred to as Continuation of Government (COG) planning—becoming narrower and narrower. Plans that prepared for nationwide civil defense under Eisenhower today simply focus on saving a coterie of top government officials—for example, Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos would have been saved, but press secretary Dee Dee Myers, along with almost all of us, would not have been. In a scene in Raven Rock, General Thomas Power explains to a horrified John F. Kennedy, "Look—at the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"
But as awful as nuclear war would be, Graff does well to highlight the impact of doomsday planning on peacetime government, and what it says about our democracy in general. Spearheaded by the executive branch, COG planning leaves most of Congress and all of the public out of the confidential decision-making. The classified programs, technology, and infrastructure are impossible to account for—Graff estimates they cost the country at least $2 billion annually. They also include crisis plans that run counter to the Constitution. JFK's attorney general's emergency briefcase, for instance, would have allowed him suspend habeas corpus. Other presidents' apocalypse contingencies have included forced nationalization of industries as well as plans to install unelected private sector executives to run broad swathes of the emergency government. Graff makes it clear that surviving a nuclear war would not be much better than dying in one: If doomsday plans save neither American people nor America's democratic principles, what exactly are they protecting?
Raven Rock, which should have been a Cold War history, now feels especially timely, hitting bookstores right as a President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un's on-again, off-again relationship pushes us ever closer to nuclear holocaust. I called Graff to talk about secret bunkers, shadow governments, and the unfortunate fact that we'll all die during a nuclear war.
VICE: I was somewhat aware of the idea of doomsday prepping, but the scale of the investment and the infrastructure was pretty shocking to me. What got you interested in the United States government's doomsday plans?
Garrett M. Graff: I've covered national security and intelligence in Washington for a dozen years at this point, and it's something that you sort of bump up against—you hear people talking about these facilities, you hear people talking about some of these programs. But a couple of years ago, when I was at the Washingtonian, a colleague of mine found a federal employee's ID on the floor of a parking garage, and was like, "I'm gonna give it back to him." But when we turned the ID over, it had evacuation instructions on the back. I decided to follow the directions to this facility on Google Maps, and looking on Google Satellite, you could see that if you follow the instructions, it ends in a road that just disappears into a mountain in West Virginia. At that point, I'd never heard of the facility and had never seen anyone talk about before. And I was like, "Oh wow, this is a whole new series of bunkers that have been built up since 9/11."
Throughout the book, sources remind us again and again that, in all likelihood, almost every average American will die in a nuclear encounter. There's a stunning quote from the New York deputy head of Civilian Defense in the late 70s about warning sirens the city had installed: "The people who hear them will run into buildings and be turned into sand in a few seconds anyway." How would public sentiment change if it fully registered that despite the billions spent on nuclear war prepping, the average citizen would not survive a nuclear encounter?
That, in my mind, is the central tension of the whole book: The government started off with all of these grand hopes to be able to protect the citizenry and then gradually the scale of the weapons and the size of the weapons overtook any reasonable efforts to protect the civilian population. The government plans just kept getting simpler and simpler until it was just about getting this core group of government leaders into the side of a mountain or up into a plane somewhere.
And you talk about how the doomsday prepping is really about protecting the idea of the US government rather than American citizens.
I think that that gets to what is the absolute essence of the question that these doomsday planners have struggled with for generations and continue to struggle with today, which is: If you are trying to preserve America, well, what is America? Is it the presidency? Is it the three branches of government? Is it the Constitution and the Liberty Bell? Is it a capitalist society? You really see how different generations of government planners struggled with that question. And now it seems like the answer is, effectively: America is the presidency, and then eventually, after some length of time, it's three branches of government, and after some additional length of time, it's a functioning post office, tax system, so on and so forth.
In the book, William Arkin, a nuclear weapons scholar, tells CNN: "As long as we have nuclear weapons, we're going to have to fudge the Constitution."
Yeah, and I think that part of what is weird and troubling about this entire world is we know precious little about what these powers mean today. For all we know, there could be czars walking out amongst us right now, who after a catastrophic attack, will help nationalize industries. And I'm sure that there are similar pre-written executive orders and draft legislation waiting on shelves in Washington offices or bunker safes ready to be unveiled in the moment of a catastrophe. In some ways, it's not so troubling to me that these systems exist—it's how little we actually know about them, even the ones that are in play today.
"If you are trying to preserve America, well, what is America? Generations of government planners struggled with that question. The answer is, effectively: America is the presidency, and then eventually, after some length of time, it's three branches of government, and after some additional length of time, it's a functioning post office, tax system, so on and so forth."
The book is definitely dark, but I took comfort in a scene that kept occurring throughout: A president would come to office, have the reality of nuclear war explained to him, and then realize that it was too terrible to even consider. Do you think that the American President's understanding the gravity of the nuclear option is the best deterrent to nuclear war?
Yes, absolutely. And you see that on both sides. There's also the Khrushchev quote in the book about how when he was first given the nuclear powers, he was terrified by them. But then he thought about it and was like, "Oh, well. I guess no one's ever going to use them, so it will be OK."
What's frightening to me is the question of whether or not Trump understands that gravity.
And the entire point of everything that was done during the Cold War was about trying to simplify and remove any checks or balances or impediments to a president quickly and unilaterally launching a nuclear war. So, that's a real challenge in the system—the entire point of the system is geared toward ensuring that the moment a president decides to launch nuclear weapons that they are launched as broadly and as efficiently as possible. But that all presupposes that the person who would make that order is the most sober and thoughtful and well-educated person in the nuclear system.
"You've really seen the US government over the last couple of decades pretty much decide that people are going to be left on their own."
Unfortunately, the book is coming out an important moment, with Trump and Kim Jong-un posturing about nuclear war. You've spent years studying the government's doomsday preparedness—if North Korea dropped a bomb on America, do you think the public would be safer today than we would have been in the 1960s?
Well, you do have to look at the level of scale: North Korea doesn't, at least yet, have anywhere close to the arsenal that the Soviet Union did at its peak, or even that Russia has today. But that is of little comfort to anyone who does get hit by a nuclear weapon anywhere in the world today. I think the actual technical answer to your question is: Yes, we are safer in that Kim Jong-un would only be able to kill perhaps several tens of millions of people as opposed to several hundreds of millions.
But I don't think that's actually the question that you're asking. I think you're asking: Are we any better prepared today? And I think the answer to that is no. In some ways, we haven't taken civilian preparedness seriously since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And the experience of a generation of doomsday planners is that protecting the civilian population is actually more trouble than it's worth. So you've really seen the US government over the last couple of decades pretty much decide that people are going to be left on their own.
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Raven's Rock: The Story of the US Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff is available in bookstores and online from Simon and Schuster.