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The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die

In The Event Of Attack, Here’s How The Government Plans ‘To Save Itself’

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On the Raven Rock Bunker just outside of Waynesboro, Penn.

It’s a bunker that dates back to the late 1940s, right at the beginning of the atomic age, as the government began to think about what it was going to mean to build evacuation facilities, in case something happened to Washington.

Raven Rock is this massive, hollowed-out mountain. It’s a free-standing city … with individual buildings, three-story buildings, built inside of this mountain. It has everything that a small city would — there’s a fire department there, there’s a police department, medical facilities, dining halls.

The dining facility serves four meals a day, it’s a 24 hour facility, and it was sort of mothballed to a certain extent during the 1990s as the Cold War ended and then was restarted in a hurry after Sept. 11 and has been pretty dramatically expanded over the last 15 years, and today could hold as many as 5,000 people in the event of an emergency.

On what the IRS would do

Not even nuclear war would stop the taxes. So the IRS had all their plans for how they would levy taxes on nuclear damaged property and how they would raise revenue to keep the government going.

The Federal Reserve built this bunker in Mount Pony, Va., where they kept $2 billion cash, which would’ve been the money that we would’ve needed to keep the economy going for 18 months, which was the length of time that they expected it take us to begin printing currency again after a nuclear attack. …

A large portion of that money was hidden away in $2 bills because in the 1970s when the government first introduced the $2 bill and discovered that Americans didn’t want to use them, they didn’t want to pulp and waste the money. So they just shrink-wrapped all the $2 bills and hid them away in a government bunker, figuring that after nuclear war, people wouldn’t have that much of a choice about what type of currency they wanted to use anymore.

On hard decisions about what to save in the event of a nuclear attack

The National Archives sat down and decided that they would have, in the event of a nuclear attack, they would save the Declaration of Independence before they saved the Constitution. The Library of Congress sat down and they ranked their collection and decided that they would save the Gettysburg Address before they saved George Washington’s Military Commission. … Through the Cold War there was even a specially trained team of park rangers in Philadelphia whose job it was to evacuate the Liberty Bell in the event of a Soviet threat.

On the line of succession

We think of the presidency as just the person who we elect every four years. … The presidency today, the post-Cold War presidency, is actually this entity of several hundred individuals where you have the people who are in the line of succession as outlined by the 25th Amendment: the president, the vice president, the speaker of the house, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and then all of the cabinet officials.

But then each of those cabinet officials also has their own line of succession, which can be 15 or 20 people long. In most cases [it] includes officials who are outside of Washington so that if something happens to the Capitol you have a set of people and a set of leaders who could reassemble government from outside of Washington. But you end up with this very obscure set of people that would really surprise most of us who were left standing after an attack.

On misconceptions about the nuclear football

The nuclear football is the briefcase that follows the president wherever he goes, and it’s carried by a military aide. Contrary to pop culture or public perception, there is no such thing as the red phone or the nuclear button. What the nuclear football entails is basically a bunch of binders with different plans. One military aide compared it to a Denny’s menu. You can go through and point at different pictures and that’s the type of nuclear war you would order. …

The military aide would come up and hand these binders to the president. The president carries with him a little sealed index card that he would break open that’s designed by the NSA, and that card and the codes that are in it would identify him to the military command structure as the president. And then, from there, he would be able to launch nuclear war whenever he was.

On protocol around a presidential launch order

The way that these procedures have evolved over the years is to remove any middlemen that could slow the process down, because the decision-making window would be so short as it is. The president might only have 8 to 10 to 12 minutes to make a decision about launching a nuclear weapon.

There wouldn’t be any time to double check with someone else, so we have very carefully crafted a system that ensures that there’s nothing that slows down a presidential launch order. Those plans were always predicated upon the idea that the person giving the launch order is the most thoughtful, most intelligent, most sober-minded individual that you could possibly imagine atop the nuclear command and control system.

“The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself–While the Rest of Us Die”

These plans start out in the 1940s and 1950s with the grandest of hopes and ambitions — the idea that we’ll be able to evacuate all of our urban centers, that nuclear war could be survivable with a little bit of warning. Then we watch over the course of the Cold War as the weapons get faster, we go from bombers to missiles, and then they get stronger. We go from nuclear bombs, atomic bombs, to thermonuclear bombs, to hydrogen bombs.

And then we also see the arsenals expand. They go from a few dozen or a few score bombs to the tens of thousands of weapons that we had by the end of the Cold War, and that combination of stronger, faster, more numerous weapons means that the government’s ambitions shrunk over the course of the Cold War, until they effectively are what they are today, which is:

The civilian population will be left to itself for weeks or months at a time, and a small number of senior government officials will be spirited out to these bunkers with the hope that within months or a few years they’re able to reconstitute something that resembles the United States again.

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Garrett Graff is also the author of Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Muller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror and formerly the editor of Washingtonian and Politico.Andy Duback/Simon & Schuster


Raven Rock The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself – While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff

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