With North Korea’s recent launch of a missile capable of striking anywhere in the US, the threat of nuclear war seems eerily real. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports the probability of global catastrophe is “very high.” They’ve set their infamous Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight, or disaster. If such calamity took place, how will the United States government continue to operate? Turns out, there is a set of doomsday plans for senior government officials, but not for you and me.
Garrett Graff, author of Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, says secret government disaster plans were first drawn up at the end of WWII. Graff spoke with Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The evacuation plans for the president and senior officials were meant to ensure the country could continue to operate and rebuild after a catastrophe. The Raven Rock Mountain Complex is one of three bunkers the government created in the 1940s and 1950s. Built near Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, it was meant to be a command center if an attack destroyed the Pentagon. The president and his cabinet would travel to another bunker at Mt. Weather, about 80 minutes west of Washington, DC outside of Berryville, Virginia. NORAD, a massive Colorado-based bunker inside of a hollowed-out mountain, was also created.
Secret directions to a bunker.
Graff decided to investigate these doomsday plans because ”This was a topic that not many people paid attention to,” he says. As a national security reporter in Washington, he says the topic would come up. ”I talked to someone who had been evacuated on 9/11 to one of these facilities,” he says, “And I talked to someone who was part of these plans under the Bush and Obama years.” What really triggered his curiosity, he says, was an ID badge his colleague found in a parking garage. On the back of the badge, which belonged to an intelligence officer, were directions that led to West Virginia. Graff got on Google Maps and followed where the directions led. “I see this road go up a mountain,” he says, “There’s a chain link fence, a guard shack, and then about 100 yards further down the road, a huge set of concrete bunker doors.” The facility didn’t exist on any maps.
How the US created its doomsday plans.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, government officials thought atomic war could actually be survivable. The Soviets didn’t have many bombs, they weren’t as powerful as today, and in the event of a bombing, American citizens would have up to 12 hours of warning time. So the thinking was, “We might lose a dozen cities,” says Graff, “but nuclear war would not be anything close to the global, life-ending Armageddon that it was by the end of the Cold War.” Three technological advances changed everything. The change-up from bombers to missiles narrowed the window of warning time from 12 hours to 15 minutes. And the bombs became more powerful and plentiful. By the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s, “You really see the government’s hopes and ambitions for the civilian population shrink to what it remains today,” says Graff, “which is, we’re all on our own.”
What happens if there’s a catastrophe today?
The first time government leaders were evacuated at a massive scale was 9/11. President George W. Bush was hurriedly put on Air Force One, where he was safe in the sky above the Gulf of Mexico. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon crash site helping the injured, while his staff was being evacuated to Raven Rock. Graff says the doomsday system worked poorly because President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld were incommunicado. ”During that first hour, it was nearly impossible to reach the President and Secretary of Defense.” Since 2001, the government has learned its lesson. Now, the bunkers are staffed 24/7, so it’s inevitable that someone will survive, says Graff, though “we may not be happy with what the government ends up looking like.” In addition, a set of doomsday planes stationed in Nebraska are ready to take flight at a moment’s notice. “While we’re sitting here, right now, talking,” says Graff, “one of these planes is sitting on the runway. It’s engines are on, it is fully staffed, and it would be ready to launch in 12 to 15 minutes to rendezvous with the president.” He adds the planes have the ability to fly three days above the country, where the president could lead nuclear war “before he had to land and survey what was left of the country.”
Discover more about what’s discussed in our podcast episode by clicking the links below.
- Raven Rock: The Story of the US Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die, Garrett Graff
- Cybersecurity and Technology Program, The Aspen Institute
- Aspen Strategy Group, The Aspen Institute
- America’s National Security Architecture: Rebuilding the Foundation, multiple authors including Peter Feaver
- The Inside Story of How Presidents Prepare for Armageddon, Aspen Ideas Festival
“Aspen Ideas to Go” is a weekly show featuring fascinating speakers who have presented at the Aspen Ideas Festival and other public programs offered by the Aspen Institute. For a curated listening experience, subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or find an archive of episodes here.