Correction to This Article
A photo caption incorrectly identified author James Mann as Thomas Mann.

Author James Mann on His Book About Ronald Reagan and the Cold War

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 26, 2009

James Mann got interested in writing about Ronald Reagan when he discovered that, while Reagan was president, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld used to sneak off to undisclosed locations to prepare for Armageddon.

A longtime Los Angeles Times reporter, Mann left the paper in 2001 to write books full time. First up was "Rise of the Vulcans," a historical portrait of President George W. Bush's foreign policy team. Mann spent a couple of years asking Washington notables what they knew about Cheney, Rumsfeld and his other subjects.

"One guy said, 'Oh, well, I took part in these exercises with this guy,' " Mann recalls. "It took a while to find out what the exercises were."

It turned out, as Mann revealed in "Vulcans," that Cheney and Rumsfeld were part of a highly classified program "nowhere authorized in the U.S. Constitution or federal law." It was designed "to keep the federal government running during and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union."

Rumsfeld was in the private sector at the time. Cheney was in Congress. But both had done stints as White House chief of staff, and now, as part of a small group of "team leaders" designated by Reagan, they had been tapped to help run a replacement government should the president die in a nuclear strike. They would vanish for days to rehearse, hooking up with "a convoy of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated communication equipment." Even their wives didn't know what was going on.

The discovery gave Mann a reporter's thrill.

He remembers thinking: "Jesus, if I ran into this in the course of other research, what else is there?"

But his work on "Vulcans," which was published in 2004, had him asking larger questions, too.

Reagan's first term had featured harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric, a massive arms buildup and a terrifying episode involving a 1983 NATO exercise that nervous Soviet leaders feared might presage a real attack. In this context, Mann's discovery made him wonder:

"How close did it come? And was Reagan really thinking about nuclear war?"

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