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National Press Club

What if we’re attacked by nuclear weapons? Journalist Garrett Graff reveals the government’s plans

May 23, 2017 | By Jesse Rifkin |

Journalist Garrett Graff (left) discusses his new book with NPC President Jeff Ballou on May 22, 2017

Journalist Garrett Graff (left) discusses his new book with NPC President Jeff Ballou on May 22, 2017

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The U.S. government maintains better contingency plans in place for saving the Liberty Bell than for saving most civilians’ lives in the event of a homeland attack, journalist Garrett Graff contended at the National Press Club in a talk Monday, May 22.

The former editor-in-chief of Politico Magazine and the Washingtonian, Graff was promoting his new book “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself -- While the Rest of Us Die.”

Graff noted that even agencies seemingly far removed from homeland security or defense maintain elaborate contingency plans. “The Postal Service would take the lead in distributing medicines and vaccines in the event of a pandemic or biological attack,” Graff explained. “The National Parks Service would run refugee camps [for those fleeing from major cities], the idea being that the parks wouldn’t be targeted.”

While we know much about the government’s doomsday plans from decades past, modern incarnations are almost entirely secret, such as the current main one codenamed Enduring Constitutional Government. As Graff argued in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the public should be better informed about the specifics of these possibilities, due to hints from officials that they may involve declaring martial law and significant curtailment of civil liberties.

It’s also secret exactly who would take control and what their responsibilities would be. “Eisenhower had nine private citizens designated as czars, with pre-written authorization to nationalize key industries after an attack,” such as housing, transportation and manufacturing, Graff said. “One was Eisenhower’s accountant.” (The plans were never utilized.)

Among the other fascinating facts Graff unveiled during his five-year reporting on the government’s doomsday or nuclear preparations:

  • The government has stockpiled approximately $2 billion worth of $2 bills at the Mount Pony bunker for the public to use as currency, if the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is unable to operate. Why $2 bills? The denomination was first produced in its modern form in 1976 but rarely used, so the government hoarded about more than a billion of them.
  • The National Archives have decided they would save the Declaration of Independence before the Constitution, despite the former’s symbolic value versus the latter’s legal weight.
  • Despite a popular conception, it’s “not at all clear” that the Speaker of the House could in fact legally step into the presidency in case of the president’s and vice president’s incapacitation. James Madison argued that nobody from the legislative branch could serve in the role.

The book details how modern government and society as we know them were heavily shaped by the government’s “doomsday plans,” originally created in the 1940s but significantly modified, updated, and expanded through the present day.

“The Internet grew out of the Pentagon’s need for decentralized communication that could withstand nuclear war,” Graff explained. “Doomsday plans were the beginning of the modern national security state, the first real usage of the modern classification system like Top Secret.”

“You also saw a shift in the balance of power between branches,” Graff continued. “Nuclear marked the first time a city could be destroyed instantly, such a profound and immediate shift in war that it became a presidential prerogative.” (Congress has not officially declared war, as they are ostensibly supposed to, for any U.S. military conflict since 1941.)

“My main takeaway from researching these plans is that few of them would have actually worked,” Graff said. Referring to an elaborate blueprint for evacuating New York City over 3.3 days, Graff mimicked a government worker: “‘You’ll be evacuated on day three. Go about our lives, and show up at the train station on Thursday. Your neighbors will be evacuated on Thursday.’”