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

Jun 21, 2017
Originally published on June 28, 2017 10:08 am

Several years ago, when Garrett Graff was working at Washingtonian magazine, a coworker brought him a lost ID badge that he'd found on the floor of a parking garage.

"It was a government ID for someone from the intelligence community, and he gave it to me since I write about that subject, and he's like, "I figure you can get this back to this guy,' " Graff recalls.

There were driving directions on the back of the ID, so Graff looked it up on Google Maps, and it led him to West Virginia. "The road dead ends into the side of a mountain," he says, "And you can see very clearly these big concrete bunker doors — this little guard shack, chain-link fence, and then this set of concrete bunker doors beyond."

Graff had stumbled onto one of the government bunkers designed to protect U.S. leaders in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon attack — most of which were built at the outset of the atomic age and throughout the Cold War.

"It was a facility that I had never heard of, that wasn't on any map ..." Graff says. "It just made me so curious to go back and understand what the history of these plans were, and what they are in modern times as well."

The result of that curiosity is Graff's new book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself – While the Rest of Us Die. Based in part on recently declassified documents, it describes the bunkers designed to protect government leaders, lines of succession to replace officials who are killed, and the roles for various agencies in the event of catastrophe.

"Part of what makes these plans so interesting is thinking through ... this idea of what you're going to save for America," Graff explains. "If you're trying to preserve and restart the government after an attack, [it] becomes this very existential question about what is America? Are you trying to preserve the presidency? Are you preserving the three branches of government? Or are you preserving even the historical totems that have bound us together across generations as Americans?"


Interview Highlights

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 the Cold War-era plan for the U.S. Post Office and other government agencies in the event of a nuclear attack

The post office was the agency that would've been in charge of registering the dead and figuring out who was still alive. In part, because the post office knows where people live, they understand who was left. So you would arrive in the refugee camps, after your cities had been destroyed, and you would've been handed Form 801 from the post office, which were pre-printed in millions and millions of quantities and located in post offices around the country through the Cold War in the event of an emergency. And you would've filled it out with your name and family members that survived with you at the camp, and then the post office would've sorted through these cards and figured out who was still alive and where everyone was to begin the process of reuniting families.

The Parks Service, for instance, would've been the agency that would've actually been running, in many cases, the refugee camps, because the thinking was that park service land would be largely untouched by nuclear war.

[The Dept. of Agriculture] worked for years with Nabisco to come up with this special survival biscuit. ... They pre-made about 160 million tons of this Nabisco survival wafer that were manufactured and boxed up in tins and then hidden away in government fallout shelters around the country. This was a whole strange, shadow post-apocalypse government that existed just out of sight through the Cold War.

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.

On the subtitle of the book: "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.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie and Web producers Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's a mix of the terrifying, the absurd and the bureaucratic in my guest Garrett Graff's new book about the government's secret plans for continuity of government in case we're attacked by nuclear or chemical or biological weapons. Based in part on recently declassified documents, it describes the secret bunkers to protect government leaders, what the nuclear football is designed to do, who's designated to succeed the president and other leaders in case they're killed, which agency lists the dead, et cetera.

Garrett Graff's book is called "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself - While The Rest Of Us Die." Graff is a former editor of Washingtonian magazine and Politico Magazine. He's also a contributing writer to Wired magazine. Garrett Graff, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write a book about the government's doomsday plans to keep the government going?

GARRETT GRAFF: I've covered national security for, you know, better part of a decade in Washington, and you bump up against these programs in - when you're writing about other related subjects. I mean I've talked to people who had been evacuated on 9/11 to some of these facilities. I've talked to people who had been involved in these plans during the Obama years or the Bush years. But my interest was really peaked actually when one of my colleagues at Washingtonian magazine, when I was working there, came in one day with a government ID that he had found on the floor of one of the Metro parking garages, the subway parking garages in D.C. And it was a government ID for someone from the intelligence community. And he gave it to me since I write about that subject. And he's, like, I figure you can get this back to the guy.

And so I look at the ID, and I turn it over, and it has these driving directions on the back of the ID. And I am curious where these lead, and so I get on Google Maps and Google satellite, and I follow this road out through Virginia out into West Virginia and figure out on the satellite that the road dead ends into the side of a mountain.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GRAFF: And you can sort of see very clearly these big concrete bunker doors, this little guard shack, you know, chain-link fence and then this set of concrete bunker doors beyond. And it was a facility that I had never heard of, that wasn't on any map. And I was like, wow, like, this is one of these facilities that I've heard about. But this is one of the new ones. Like, this is something that has been built and added since 9/11 as part of the modern incarnation of these plans. And it just made me so curious to go back and understand what the history of these plans were and sort of what they are in modern times as well.

GROSS: Another thing I'd say about that is it means your ID is a constant reminder that nuclear apocalypse might be imminent, and you have to go to an assigned place if it happens.

GRAFF: Yeah. And that's really in my mind one of the most interesting aspects of these plans - is this strange mix of these very concrete, you know, black-and-white plans written down and very neatly organized into, you know, documents and binders and maps and then the way that they interact with human psychology over the course of them and the way that the people who are supposed to be evacuated to these mountain bunkers or up into these airborne command posts or out to these special ships at sea struggle with the psychological weight of realizing that they are chosen to be the ones who will survive an apocalypse even when their colleagues and their families may not.

There's a story I tell in the book about George Stephanopoulos when he was at the Clinton White House. And Aaron Sorkin, when he was doing the research for what became "The West Wing" and "The American President," was meeting with Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos pulls out this little evacuation card that Aaron Sorkin originally thinks is a bus pass only to realize that it's actually, you know, George Stephanopoulos' get-out-of-nuclear-war-free card.

And then when Aaron Sorkin incorporates this into a "West Wing" episode where the deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman, gets one of these cards from the National Security Council, Dee Dee Myers, who was the press secretary at the time - the White House press secretary at the time - pulls Aaron Sorkin aside on the set and says, you know, Aaron, I think that this is crazy that you're doing this because these cards don't actually exist. And Aaron Sorkin realizes in that moment that Dee Dee Myers, who worked alongside George Stephanopoulos in the White House, never realized that she was not going to be saved in an evacuation but that George Stephanopoulos was.

GROSS: Your book is named after the Raven Rock bunker. Would you describe where that bunker is and what you know about it?

GRAFF: The Raven Rock bunker is in Waynesboro, Pa., or just outside Waynesboro, Pa., not far from Camp David, just over the Pennsylvania side of the Maryland line. And 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.

And Raven Rock is this massive, hollowed-out mountain. I mean it's a free-standing city inside, you know, with individual buildings - three-story buildings built inside of this mountain. And it has everything that a small city would. I mean 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 has been - 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 9/11 and has been pretty dramatically expanded over the last 15 years and, you know, today could hold as many as 5,000 people in the event of an emergency.

GROSS: So you have these underground bunkers the size of cities in case of nuclear attack to protect members of government and keep the government going. You say that these places are staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

GRAFF: Yes. They are staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And it's not just the bunkers. Right as we are sitting here talking today, there is a presidential doomsday plane, these converted 747s that are known as the Nightwatch planes. There are four of them. They've been in existence for the last quarter century. And one of them is sitting on a runway in Omaha, Neb., at Offutt Air Force Base right now. Its engines are on. It's fully staffed with everyone that you would need to lead to nuclear war. And it's ready to launch in a 15-minute alert in the event of an emergency and rendezvous with the president wherever he may end up being and evacuate him. And then the president would be able to lead a nuclear war from the air aboard one of these 747 Nightwatch planes for three days before he would have to land and survey what had become of the United States.

GROSS: One of the plans, called Plan C, is a secret plan to suspend peacetime civil liberties and arrest thousands of potential, quote, "subversives," and force foreigners to register. When is that plan from, and is it still active?

GRAFF: So this plan dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. You know, a lot of people today are familiar with the president's nuclear football, the black briefcase that follows the president wherever he goes. Well, for much of the Cold War, the attorney general was also followed around by basically the attorney general's football. And it contained all of these pre-written executive orders and pre-written plans for martial law and suspending civil liberties, these pre-written lists that J. Edgar Hoover maintained when he was director of the FBI of known and suspected subversives and foreign aliens around the country.

I mean, tens of thousands of people who would be arrested and rounded up in the opening moments of an emergency like nuclear war or some type of major international crisis. These plans existed in forms that we now understand during the 1950s and 1960s. And while those specific drafts of those plans have been retired and are even some of them declassified today, which is how we know about them, there's every reason to believe that there are modern analogs to these plans as well.

I mean, sort of draft legislation and draft executive orders sitting in safes, in bunkers and in emergency binders around Washington that could be unveiled in the moment of national emergency today and filled in almost "Mad Lib" style with, you know, a few dates, a few targets or names of what the crisis is. And then you've got a piece of legislation or an executive order ready to go.

GROSS: But you don't know what that document is or where it might be, but you're speculating that it probably exists.

GRAFF: Yeah. And we know that there are drafts of many of these plans that exist in modern times because we get sort of brief windows here and there into secret law and secret executive orders that presidents sign. And we may not know anything more than the title of the document or we may even just know that because all of the number - all of these executive orders are numbered.

When you realize that the government is skipping a number or two in an executive order, that means that there has been a secret executive order that we don't know what that means yet. You know, almost half of President Obama's national security decision memos, as they were called, were classified at the time.

And we may not know anything really about what they entail. But we imagine that they involve some set of these plans in the modern times.

GROSS: There was a plan in the 1950s during the Eisenhower era for business leaders to take control of government if government leaders were all killed. Is that - do I have that right?

GRAFF: Yeah, so this was a plan that Eisenhower put together in the latter half of his administration where he sort of pre-deputized private sector business leaders - CEOs, even his personal accountant at one point - who would step in and be wartime czars. I mean, they would really seize national assets.

I mean, there would be sort of someone in charge of, let's say, manufacturing, someone else in charge of housing. And they would have these, you know, czar, you know, almost dictatorial powers to seize assets and nationalize industries and set wages and prices. And almost any aspect of the national economy would be run by one of these eight men in the event of a national emergency.

And they had these pre-written letters of authorization that Eisenhower gave them that they would step into these roles and had even sort of pre-deputized some of their own deputies and staff so that they would have a staff ready to seize control with them in the event of an emergency.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Garrett Graff. And his new book is called "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself -- While The Rest Of Us Die." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Garrett Graff. His new book is called "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself -- While The Rest Of Us Die." It's about the plans for continuity of government in case of nuclear attack or a similar catastrophe.

There is a plan, or at least there was a plan, I assume there still is a plan, for what to do if the president is killed or the vice president or members of Congress. It's called the continuity of government plan. What can you tell us about that?

GRAFF: So the continuity of government plan is sort of the umbrella term for all of these plans, both what would happen during a nuclear attack, sort of who would be in charge at any given moment, how that power would devolve through the line of succession. But then also, you know, what would happen after. And that's where you have sort of some of the most interesting sets of these plans, I think, is the way that the U.S. government re-imagined its services and the way that it would help people after a nuclear attack.

But to the question of presidential succession, I mean, this, to me, is one of the most interesting aspects of these plans is the way that while we think of the presidency as just the person who we elect every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the presidency today, the post-Cold War presidency, is actually this entity of several hundred individuals.

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 tem 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 and in most cases includes people and 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 sort of this very obscure set of people that would really surprise, you know, most of us who were left standing after an attack. The U.N. ambassador, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, the top federal prosecutor in Chicago, the head of the Department of Energy's Savannah River Operations Center outside Savannah sort of all pop up and declare themselves the people who are in charge of our country after some sort of catastrophe in Washington.

GROSS: So you mentioned that the continuity of government plan re-imagines what some agencies' services would be after a nuclear attack. And for the post office, in one of the plans, it would have been responsible for registering the nation's dead, for keeping a list of everybody who died, which is - I'm not sure why that would have been assigned to the post office.

But what a grave task to take on. Somebody's got to do it.

GRAFF: Yeah, I mean, each government agency had, during the Cold War, sort of its post-apocalypse analog. The post office was the agency that would have been in charge of registering the dead and figuring out who was still alive in part because the post office knows where people live.

GROSS: Sure, right.

GRAFF: I mean, it would sort of understand, you know, who was left. And so you would arrive in the refugee camps after your cities had been destroyed. And you would have been handed form 810 from the post office, which were preprinted in millions and millions of quantities and, you know, located in post offices around the country through the Cold War in the event of an emergency.

And you would have filled it out with your name and family members that survived with you at the camp. And then the post office would have sort of sorted through these cards and figured out who was still alive and where everyone was to begin the process of reuniting families. Now, the Park Service, for instance, would have been the agency that would have actually been running, in many cases, the refugee camps because the thinking was that Park Service land would be largely untouched by nuclear war.

And you had, you know, even agencies like the IRS, of course. You know, not even nuclear war would stop the taxes. And so the IRS had all of 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 have been the money that we would have needed to keep the economy going for 18 months, which was the length of time that they expected it would take us to begin printing currency again after a nuclear attack.

You know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was the agency that would have been in charge of feeding the nation and, you know, sending out the rations and planning the rations for people in fallout shelters and then in refugee camps. And they, you know, worked for years with Nabisco to come up with this special survival biscuit that they premade about 160 million tons of this Nabisco survival wafer that were, you know, manufactured and boxed up in tins and then hidden away in government fallout shelters around the country.

I mean, this was sort of a whole strange shadow post-apocalypse government that existed just out of sight through the Cold War.

GROSS: I wonder what happened to those Nabisco survival biscuits.

GRAFF: Well, so it's sort of a funny story. They - many of them ended up...

GROSS: You actually know what happened to them (laughter)?

GRAFF: Well, so many of them ended up getting scrapped. But then every so often, people still stumble across, you know, a forgotten fallout shelter or something and come across, you know, stacks and stacks of these biscuits. New York City actually found one of these fallout shelters inside the Brooklyn Bridge a couple of years ago that was stocked full of, you know, several hundred tons - or several hundred pounds of these biscuits.

And so there's this whole weird genre of these videos on YouTube of people opening up these 50, 60-year-old tins of biscuits and, you know, taste testing the biscuits. And the truth of the matter is they were not particularly tasty when they were originally manufactured. And the consensus of all of the videos today is that they're even less tasty today.

GROSS: Not a surprise.

GRAFF: No, not at all.

GROSS: My guest is Garrett Graff, author of the new book "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself -- While The Rest Of Us Die." After a break, we'll talk about what the nuclear football really is and what documents and American totems have been designated to be saved in doomsday scenarios. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BUNCH TRIO'S "WE'LL MEET AGAIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Garrett Graff, who covers national security. His new book is about the government's secret plans, starting with the Cold War, for continuity of government in case of nuclear attack. It's called "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself -- While The Rest Of Us Die." Graff's previous book was about the FBI under Robert Mueller, who is now the special counsel overseeing the Trump-Russia investigation. Graff is now a contributing writer for WIRED Magazine.

One of the most-visible, commonly known aspects of the nuclear plan is the nuclear football. And the nuclear football, you describe what it is.

GRAFF: The nuclear football is the briefcase that is - follows the president wherever he goes. And it's carried by military aide. And contrary to sort of pop culture or public perception, there is no such thing as sort of the red phone or the nuclear button. What the the nuclear football entails is basically a bunch of binders with different plans. You know, one military aide compared it to a Denny's menu. You know, you could sort of go through and point out different pictures, and that's the type of nuclear war that you would order.

And the procedure is you would have the military aide with the nuclear football. And we sort of often forget about it except for, you know, sort of weird moments like we had earlier this winter where there was a guest at Mar-a-Lago who snapped a selfie with the military aide carrying the football during a party that the president was attending and posted it on the Internet.

But 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 wherever he was.

GROSS: When did this nuclear football originate?

GRAFF: So the popular mythology is that it originated sort of soon after the Cuban missile crisis. And that's where it sort of first came into the public imagination - was the idea that you needed someone who was following the president at all times in order to be ready with these plans wherever the president might be. The code name - so the nickname, the football, comes from the war plans that were in place at that point which were code named dropkick - and so dropkick being a football pun. And now the briefcase is called the football.

GROSS: Thank you for explaining that. It never made any sense to me.

GRAFF: (Laughter).

GROSS: OK, so the nuclear football isn't a button that the president can push to launch nuclear war. It's a set of plans that the president can put into effect. But the president can still put one of those effects - one of those plans into effect very quickly, almost as quickly as pressing a button.

GRAFF: Yes, and in fact that's one of the things that is strange to think about in the context of these plans - is that everyone thinks that these plans, you know, have all sorts of, you know, authentication and other people who have to sign off on them. But the truth of the matter is, we've spent the last 70 years effectively stripping away every check and balance from the president's ability to launch nuclear war in order to ensure that whenever or wherever he may give the launch order, it is carried out as efficiently and as effectively as it possibly can be.

And so there is no one else who has to OK a nuclear launch order. It's just the president and then, you know, launch. And this has sort of caused some consternation during certain moments and crises in the past. I tell the story in the book about the final days of Nixon's presidency where James Schlesinger, who was the defense secretary at the time, actually, according to him, gave the order to the Pentagon to disregard a presidential launch order because he was afraid that Richard Nixon would actually launch nuclear war. You know, in those final days, Nixon was deeply depressed. He was drinking heavily, and his aides were worried that he might do something, you know, truly rash and had, in fact, even threatened a group of congressmen that he might just launch nuclear war.

And so Schlesinger left this standing order with the Pentagon to disregard a presidential launch order unless it was verified by the secretary of defense or the secretary of state. But that's not the way the system is supposed to work, and there's no system like that in place today. You know, if the president gives the launch order, the missiles launch.

GROSS: That is very sobering.

GRAFF: It is, and this is a challenge that we sort of struggled with through the Cold War. And presidents, as they learned about these plans - I mean one of the first things that a president does actually even before he becomes president is he gets sat down and briefed on these nuclear war plans. And then presidents through the Cold War would participate in these wartime exercises aboard these presidential doomsday planes, or they would go to some of these bunkers like Raven Rock or Mount Weather and participate in nuclear launch drills and exercises. And it was a very deeply sobering experience for them.

And there's fascinating documentation from Eisenhower and Kennedy and Carter and Johnson and Nixon, even Reagan of sort of the way that going through these exercises made them realize just how terrible nuclear war would actually be. One of the things that really I found just so striking and so poignant in looking back at these exercises is, when you have these nuclear war exercises, the president never actually participates because you don't want the president to ever tip his hand of how he would respond to an exercise.

So there's always some other government official who is playing the role of the president during these exercises. And what the people who ran the exercises realized was that these people who were playing the president would never actually give the launch order. Even though they knew it was an exercise, even though they knew that they didn't have the actual authority, even though they knew that there would be no missiles that actually got launched, they as humans couldn't bring themselves to actually give a nuclear launch order.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Garrett Graff. He's the author of the new book "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself - While The Rest Of Us Die." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Garrett Graff. His new book is called "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government's Secret Plan To Save Itself - While The Rest Of Us Die."

Fortunately, we've never had a chance to check how these nuclear catastrophe scenarios would play out in reality. But we did have a catastrophe - that was 9/11 - in which - how much of these orders were actually launched then? Did people go to their bunkers?

GRAFF: Yeah. 9/11 was the only time in our history that these plans were ever activated in an emergency. And you saw them sort of play out across the country. I mean the president - President Bush was put aboard Air Force One in Sarasota, Fla., and evacuated up into the sky under sort of normal continuity of government procedures.

In Washington, you had officials evacuated to Raven Rock and Mount Weather, the two big bunkers around Washington, as well as a host of other smaller relocation facilities. And what we sort of came to realize on 9/11 is exactly what everyone has thought about these plans all along, which is that they wouldn't have likely worked very well in an emergency and that...

GROSS: Why not?

GRAFF: Well, so one thing is human psychology just makes it - makes these plans challenging in a way that is entirely foreseeable, which is, you have people who - you know, when the Pentagon was struck, Donald Rumsfeld went to that crash site. You know, he on 9/11 helped actually carry stretchers and evacuate the wounded from the crash site, which was absolutely the right thing for him to do as a leader and as the head of the Defense Department but was exactly the wrong thing for him to do as secretary of defense. You know, he should have been put aboard a helicopter and evacuated to Raven Rock where he would have been safe for continuity of government procedures.

And then there's also this challenge where you can sort of have people safe, or you can have them in communication. And so President Bush, when he was put aboard Air Force One and it was sent up into the sky - well, he was safe, but he was out of touch for the country for that - for most of the key hours of that day. And there was sort of this constant tussle aboard the plane that day between him, who wanted to get back to Washington, wanted to get back to the White House, and the Secret Service and the military who told him, you know, Mr. President, our job is to keep you safe and alive today, and we're going to keep you in the sky, out of touch.

GROSS: People wondered where he was that day.

GRAFF: Yeah. And it was a real tension throughout that day. I mean he received a lot of criticism for, you know, not marching right back to the White House, not marching right to Ground Zero. But the - you know, in terms of the presidency, in terms of his role as the commander in chief, he probably made the right decision to listen to the Secret Service, to listen to the military and to ensure his own safety and security that day.

GROSS: So how do you know for sure that there's nothing in between the president's ability to launch unilaterally a nuclear attack? Between - there's nothing between him and doing it.

GRAFF: It's just 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, you know? The president might only have eight 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.

And so we have very carefully crafted a system that ensures that there is nothing that slows down a presidential launch order. But 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.

GROSS: How did you manage to write this book without sinking into a complete state of despair?

GRAFF: Well, so some of it is these - there's a lot of humor in a lot of these plans, you know, sort of unintentional government humor in the way that, you know, sort of strange government decision-making drives some of these plans. You know, sort of one of the silly things in it is, as I mentioned earlier, this $2 billion cash that the Federal Reserve had hidden away in a bunker in Virginia for the nuclear apocalypse.

Well, a large portion of that money was actually 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, well, they didn't want to pulp and waste the money, so they just, you know, 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.

But then it's also - I think part of what makes these plans so interesting is thinking through how quickly this idea of what you're going to save for America, what - you know, if you're trying to preserve and restart the government after an attack, becomes this very existential question about, what is America? And you know, are you trying to preserve the presidency? Are you preserving the three branches of government? Or are you preserving even the historical totems that have bound us together across generations as Americans?

And so at the National Archives, 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. You know, even - and this was sort of one of my favorite details that I uncovered in the course of the book - that 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.

GROSS: I don't know if you can generalize about this or not. But what would you say is the general opinion among people in the know who you've spoken to for your book about whether the continuity of government plans would actually work if there were a nuclear or biochemical attack?

GRAFF: So some level of them would likely work, insofar as there would be someone who was in charge somewhere in order to restart the government. But one of the problems that still challenges modern planning has existed since the literal first continuity of government exercise in the summer of 1954, which is that families and spouses are not included.

And so, you know, right in that first drill in 1954, there was a story about how the wives of Eisenhower's Cabinet officials spent a very chilly afternoon playing poker while they realized that their husbands and their husbands' secretaries were all evacuating off to these mountain bunkers outside of Washington as part of the drill.

That's still true today that there are no plans for spouses or families. And so, you know, one of the people that I talked to for the course of this book research, who was part of these plans, you know, within the last couple of years, you know, there was a designated helicopter that would swoop down and pick him up wherever he was in Washington and evacuate him out to one of these bunkers.

Well, you know, he's got two young daughters. And he said to me, you know, if that helicopter landed on my daughter's soccer field on a Saturday morning, I mean, people are crazy if they think I would just wave goodbye to my daughters and hop on that helicopter and disappear.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Garrett Graff. He's the author of the new book "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself -- While The Rest Of Us Die." And I have to ask you about the title, Garrett.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's, like, it's a very funny title. Does it reflect what you think, you know, that - you know, it's nice to have all these plans, but we're going to die if we have that kind of attack?

GRAFF: Yeah. And in fact, this is to a certain extent, the arc of the book, which is that 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. And then we watch over the course of the Cold War as the weapons get faster.

You know, 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. I mean, 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 sort 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, you know, 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 and with the hope that within months or a few years, they're able to reconstitute something that resembles the United States again.

GROSS: Garrett Graff, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRAFF: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Garrett Graff is the author of the new book "Raven Rock: The Story Of The U.S. Government’s Secret Plan To Save Itself -- While The Rest Of Us Die." After we take a short break, Justin Chang will review the new film "The Big Sick," starring Kumail Nanjiani, who co-stars in the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." This is FRESH AIR.

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