The Doomsday Blueprints

How times change. Though the Soviet Union is gone, Washington was once convinced that World War III could break out without warning. Children practiced hiding under desks, parents built bomb shelters, and in case of nuclear attack the U.S. government hoped to save the President and keep the country running by relying on . . . THE DOOMSDAY BLUEPRINTS

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In a White House vault were Eisenhower's standby crisis orders, already initialed by the President, including some that would have imposed martial law. Below Beach's office in the White House's East Wing was the presidential bunker, complete with food, sophisticated communications equipment and torches for cutting out of the twisted rubble. In charge of the bunker was a young officer named William Crowe, later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As a soldier, Ike had few illusions about the doomsday plans. A "secret" White House memo dated 1956 records his rebuke when a Cabinet Secretary noted that 450 people were evacuated "rather smoothly" during an exercise. Eisenhower "reminded the Cabinet that in a real situation, these will not be normal people -- they will be scared, will be hysterical, will be 'absolutely nuts.' We are going to have to be prepared to operate with people who are 'nuts.' "

He warned his Cabinet not to get entangled in bureaucratic details. "Who is going to bury the dead?" asked Eisenhower. "Where would one find the tools? The organization to do it? We must not assume that we are going to handle these problems with calmness." Later he observed, "We will be running soup kitchens -- we are going to be taking care of a completely bewildered population." He feared anarchy. "Government which goes on with some kind of continuity will be like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind," the White House memo concluded.


Today each federal agency has a plan that would go into effect in the event of a nuclear attack, part of a comprehensive national survival program that has evolved over decades under the direction of the President, the National Security Council and a succession of crisis agencies, most recently the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their wartime duties are spelled out in the Code of Emergency Federal Regulations, a loose-leaf notebook containing hundreds of pages of regulations, most of them drafted in the 1960s and '70s. Specific "action plans" are in agency vaults and relocation sites, to be implemented by officials in nuclear exile. Today's plans rely on redundancy. If one location is wiped out, others will take its place. Officials are divided into three squads -- Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. One team stays at headquarters; the other two redeploy at separate relocation sites.

Against the backdrop of a nuclear holocaust, the plans often straddle the line between prudence and absurdity. The Civil Service Commission's crisis provisions include this regulation: "Employees reported as dead should be carried on administrative leave until the reported date of death." A Postal Service regulation, activated upon nuclear attack, would suspend the need for postage stamps on letters and postcards sent to devastated areas. Special delivery would be eliminated systemwide except for shipments of medicines and surgical dressings.

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