The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How U.S. presidents prepare for the end of the world

A new book examines Washington's Cold War-era plans for the day after nuclear Armageddon.

Scene from “The Day After,” a 1983 television movie about a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. (Collection Christophel/ABC/Alamy)

RAVEN ROCK: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die

By Garrett Graff. Simon & Schuster. 529 pp. $28

Garrett Graff says that his new book, “Raven Rock,” a detailed exploration of the United States’ doomsday prepping during the Cold War, provides a history of “how nuclear war would have actually worked — the nuts and bolts of war plans, communication networks, weapons, and bunkers — and how imagining and planning for the impact of nuclear war actually changed . . . as leaders realized the horrors ahead.”

But if there is anything that “Raven Rock” proves with grim certitude, it is that we have little idea how events would have unfolded in a superpower nuclear conflict, and that technological limits, human emotion and enemy tactics can render the most painstaking and complex arrangements irrelevant, obsolete or simply obscene.

These contradictions are evident with each commander in chief Graff considers. During an apparent attack that proved to be a false alarm, Harry Truman refused to follow protocol and instead remained working in the Oval Office. Same with Jimmy Carter, who after a 1977 drill wrote in his diary that “my intention is to stay here at the White House as long as I live to administer the affairs of government, and to get Fritz Mondale into a safe place” to ensure the survival of the presidency. And after Richard Nixon’s first briefing on the use of nuclear weapons — there were only five possible retaliatory or first-strike plans, and none involved launching fewer than 1,000 warheads — national security adviser Henry Kissinger was blunt about the president’s dismay with his alternatives: “If that’s all there is, he won’t do it.”

Graff, a former editor of Washingtonian and Politico magazines, covers every technicality of the construction of underground bunkers and secret command posts, every war game and exercise, every debate over presidential succession planning and continuity of government, every accident that left us verging on nuclear war. It is a thorough account, and excessively so; the detail is such that it becomes hard to distinguish consequential moments from things that simply happened. He describes one presidential briefing on nuclear tactics as “a blur of acronyms and charts, minimizing the horror and reducing the death of hundreds of millions to bureaucratic gobbledygook,” and at times this book commits the same offense.

Its power, however, lies in the author’s eye for paradox. The plans for continuity of government and nuclear war are cumulative, developed in doctrines, directives and studies piling up over decades; yet it is up to short-lived and distracted administrations to deploy or reform them. War planning hinges on technology that constantly evolves, so plans invariably lag behind. More specifically, continuity of government depends on keeping top officials alive, yet “the precise moment when evacuating would be most important also was precisely when it was most important to remain at the reins of government,” Graff writes. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proved the point on Sept. 11, 2001, when he stayed at the Pentagon and dispatched Paul Wolfowitz to Raven Rock, the Pennsylvania mountain hideaway north of Camp David that serves as the namesake for this book. “That’s what deputies are for,” the Pentagon chief explained, in a beautifully Rumsfeldian line.

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There are more personal reasons people would choose not to leave Washington in the case of looming nuclear war. For years, evacuation plans excluded the families of senior officials. Apparently the wives of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Cabinet members were less than pleased to learn that they had not made the list, even while their husbands’ secretaries had. And when an administration representative handed Earl Warren the ID card that would grant him access to a secure facility in an emergency, the chief justice replied, “I don’t see the pass for Mrs. Warren.” Told that he was among the country’s 2,000 most important people, Warren handed the card back. “Well, here,” he said, “you’ll have room for one more important official.”

Perhaps the presence of the Supreme Court would prove inconvenient, anyway, because a post-nuclear America could easily become “an executive branch dictatorship,” Graff explains. Eisenhower worried about this, though it did not stop him from establishing a secret system of private-sector czars who would step in to run massive sectors of the U.S. economy and government, with the power to ration raw materials, control prices and distribute food. When President John Kennedy discovered this system, he quickly dismantled it, even if his younger brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, carried around a set of prewritten, unsigned documents providing the FBI and other agencies sweeping powers to detain thousands of people who could be deemed security threats in wartime. And the Eisenhower-era Emergency Government Censorship Board, rechristened the Wartime Information Security Program under Nixon, was finally defunded after Watergate. However, as Graff notes, “the executive orders all still remained drafted — ready for an emergency when it arrived.”

For all the ominous directives and war scenarios, there is something random and even comical about planning for Armageddon. How many Export-Import Bank staffers rate rescuing? How many from the Department of Agriculture? A Justice Department public affairs official was once even tasked with compiling a lineup of Washington journalists who should be saved. “I remember painfully going over a list of people and wondering how do you balance a columnist I didn’t think very much of as opposed to a reporter who I thought really did work,” he said. And then, what should the chosen few take along? The congressional bunker at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, for instance, included a stash of bourbon and wine; staffers “swore that the stockpile was to be used only to aid a hypothetical alcoholic congressman who might need to be weaned off.”

“Raven Rock” revels in the expensive machinery and elaborate contingency formulas presidents had at their disposal to command the nuclear arsenal. High-tech ships known as the National Emergency Command Post Afloat (nicknamed the “Floating White House”) were ready for use from 1962 into the Nixon years, while a string of EC-135 aircraft flights (code-named “Looking Glass”) began continuous shifts on Feb. 3, 1961, ensuring that one senior military leader with the proper authority would always be available to order a nuclear strike. Not “breaking the chain” of these overlapping flights became an U.S. military obsession, and it remained unbroken until the end of the Cold War.

Some efforts were low-tech, too: In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order decreeing that the Postal Service would be responsible for delivering “medical countermeasures” to homes across America in case of biological attacks, because it had a unique capacity for “rapid residential delivery.” (Neither snow nor rain, nor germ warfare.)

Technology meant to defend can prove risky. In November 1979, NORAD computers detected a massive Soviet assault, targeting nuclear forces, cities and command centers. Turns out someone had mistakenly inserted a training tape into the system. Six months later, a faulty 46-cent computer chip briefly made it seem like 2,200 Soviet missiles were soaring toward U.S. targets. And in September 1983, Soviet satellites identified five U.S. missiles heading toward the U.S.S.R. — except the satellites had mistaken the sun reflecting off cloud cover as the heat of a missile launch. “The Soviet early warning system was a dangerous mess,” Graff writes. Ours wasn’t that great, either.

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Over the decades, shifts in nuclear policy reflected presidents’ views on what was possible, technologically and strategically. Eisenhower planned for “massive retaliation” attacks, Kennedy relied on the notion of mutually assured destruction, and Carter imagined a drawn-out war, in which an initial nuclear exchange could produce weeks of inaction before follow-up strikes. Ronald Reagan issued a presidential directive suggesting for the first time that the United States should “prevail” in a nuclear war, even if the 1983 television movie “The Day After” later left him feeling “greatly depressed,” as he wrote in his diary.

For all the horrors it contemplates, “Raven Rock” proves most depressing for those of us left outside the bunkers. Though early on, Cold War administrations regarded civil defense as a priority, officials quickly realized how hard it would be to protect the American population from nuclear attack, especially as the shift from bombers to missiles reduced response times from hours to minutes. “Rather than remake the entire society,” Graff writes, “the government would protect itself and let the rest of us die.”

But every mushroom cloud has a silver lining: Graff reports that the IRS considered how it would collect taxes in the post-nuclear wasteland and concluded that “it seemed unfair to assess homeowners and business owners on the pre-attack tax assessments of their property.”

Leave it to a nation founded in opposition to unfair levies to study the tax implications of the end of the world.

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