The American Government’s Secret Plan for Surviving the End of the World
April 19, 2017 10:43 PM   Subscribe

Carter and his White House were interested in more specific questions. If the presidency could survive after a nuclear war, what exactly would it do afterward? How could the surviving commander in chief be identified? Who would identify him? How would he fulfill the three main functions of the presidency: to be the chief executive of the government, the head of state, and the commander in chief of its armed forces?
posted by Chrysostom (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, what a bombastic and meaningless subtitle:
Newly declassified CIA files offer a glimpse of the playbook the Trump administration will reach for if it stumbles Carter administration might have reached for it had stumbled into a nuclear war.
posted by anarch at 11:26 PM on April 19, 2017

More Trump in the headline means more clicks.

(Also, didn't Seveneves already deal with whatever edge cases weren't already covered in Battlestar Galactica? Come on, FP.)
posted by rokusan at 12:12 AM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

President Donald Trump can still be baited with tweets, has resorted to military force against a sovereign nation backed by Russia after seeing television images of children dying from exposure to sarin gas, has spoken of building a bigger (and not just better) nuclear arsenal, and has not (yet) demonstrated the temperament to respond to a crisis with tact.

Bold mine, and I wish people would stop giving him a chance, even if it's a chance that's laden with irony - like he's going to turn around once a yuge crisis hits and say, "yeah I was just trolling you guys by pretending to be an incompetent guy with the attention span of a gnat for...well, my entire life. Here I am now, though -
capable of real statesmanship and ready to lead!"
posted by terretu at 1:37 AM on April 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I wonder what was the purpose of this "reveal" of a "secret" plan
posted by infini at 2:26 AM on April 20, 2017

I've seen the films -- you wait quietly for the Civil Defense Officer to show up and check on you, and don't answer the door for any Soviet saboteurs.

But I guess we're doing a live rehearsal of the "partially-functioning government" scenario right now.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:16 AM on April 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

Interesting, but the thing that struck me that I should have known but didn't was that President Carter was responsible for creating FEMA. One more reason that I think his presidency is vastly underrated.
posted by TedW at 6:31 AM on April 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

I've seen the films -- you wait quietly for the Civil Defense Officer to show up and check on you, and don't answer the door for any Soviet saboteurs.

In real life, they're just friendly Mormons.
posted by rokusan at 7:50 AM on April 20, 2017

In real life, they're just friendly Mormons.

The night of 9/11 I adventured through the plume and down around to the South side of the WTC site. I've never seen any pictures from that side. There were only two other people there, wearing red jackets with "CLERGY" printed on the back. I asked, and they told me they were Mormon missionaries.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:02 AM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Does anyone else remember when the Reagan Administration very proudly announced that they had implemented a plan that guaranteed your home mail delivery would continue without interruption in the event of nuclear war?
posted by briank at 10:07 AM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

(P.S. check out the byline on the NYT article linked above)
posted by briank at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

“The original solution offered by the White House Military Office were code names uttered by their designees”

Walter Mondale: “I told you not to use our names, Thomas Phillip!”

Tip O’Neill: “*beat* You mean our code names, Walter?”

Mondale: “Yeah.”

O’Neil: “Y’all hear that everybody? We’re usin’ code names.”

Feisty Hayseed: “Okay then.”

“If the presidency could survive after a nuclear war, what exactly would it do afterward?”

Mattis : *reads 40 year olddocument * Ok, fire up the state- of-the-art LCD and the wireframe animated readout. I’ll call the president’s DynaTAC. Who’s got Mount Weather’s fax number? The official survival items list says we need more Betamax tapes and floppy discs.
Ok, let's breakout into working groups

- Pence, you learn karate from Billy Jack - protect Tillerson and Kowalski as they make the fast run in their Challenger out to contact the west coast!

-Mnuchin, get the Rubber Duck and Evel Knievel on the CB to break those Soviet street blockades with truck convoys and bike stunts!

-Priebus, get the Gramercy Riffs, the Van Cortlandt Rangers, the Baseball Furies and the Warriors and liberate New York!

-Perry, contact Col. Steve Austin and stop that Sasquatch rampage!


Ben Carson: *checks gigantic afro*: “Mama didn’t raise no dummies. I dig the thang. I’ll pick Shaft on the rebound, you jive Mad Dog mutha.”

Mattis: “I can dig it.”

DeVos: “What do I go general?”
Mattis: “Stay groovy, baby. Stay groovy.”

“More prosaically, the 50 people on each team would have to be prepared to function as a stand-alone executive branch without outside help for at least six months.”

Allowing stuff like letting Cyrus Vance cut from the program over Eagle Claw (and he was 100% right, not just that but everything Zbigniew Brzezinski was wrong about "In Iraq we must succeed. Failure is not an option." yeah, thanks buddy. Iron Fist. Right on. Fight the Soviets in Afghanistan using religious fanatics. m'kay. How'd that work out for us 40 years later? yeah.) shows about where the strategic brains of those people would have.
Seems to have gotten worse over time. (Guy who can f'up a one car funeral says Trump has no idea what he's doing? Reassuring)

In 1971 "veterans made up 72 percent of members in the House and 78 percent in the Senate."

Now there's like what, two guys in office that have any military experience anymore?
Not "military" experience per se. Like, hands-on doing something experience. Peace Corp. Eagle Scouts. Even putting in a toilet by themselves.
I mean, you see preppers, all kinds of people in zombie movies, etc. etc. stockpile/forage for food, etc. How many do you see running a basic sanitation system? Nobody poops.

Consider the difference in mindset between someone who thinks "ok, *IF* we have a nuclear war - how do we save as many of our citizens as possible" vs. the ideologues "how do we ensure continuity of indoctrination."

One worldview looks at the nuts and bolts of having some semblance of organization after TEOTWAWKI (because everybody does, in fact, poop) the other looks at maintaining the ...what, software? Delusion? Doublethink?

Just recently there was a hexavalent chromium spill into Lake Michigan.

In the meantime Nestle is dewatering Lake Michigan for profit.

Both of those stories are true. That information must flow between respective groups. People know these things occured.

Think about that in this context. In what world could you make enough money to either A. destroy your own drinking water by polluting it (so you can sell stuff), or B. sell off your own drinking water. Knowing someone else is doing the other thing for money too.

Pair that with the fact that the Nazis (yeah, yeah, I know overused go-to badguys) put two buckets - one filled with water, the other for urine and feces - into the cattle cars they used to transport Jews to death camps.


You can kill someone in about 3 days more or less by terminal dehydration (purposely, I mean, we kill almost a million indifferently)

So why pack 80-120 people (more if you make them put their arms in the air) like sardines in a train car, freezing cold or boiling hot outside, for up to 18 days (if you were off to the death camp in Corfu, Greece) where they would defecate and urinate on themselves anyway (in the case of the 2nd bucket) or just be a week dead once they arrive at a camp, specifically designed to kill them "efficiently" by gas?

Well, cynically, it's plausible deniability. Except for the actual guy that gasses them each operative along the way can say they didn't personally, deliberately kill them. Oh sure, maybe you shoot a guy or bayonet someone's mom, but they were "resisting" yeah?
You're just getting them on the train.
In the same way, you're just working at the steel plant or you're just selling bottled water. You're most certainly killing people by the direct result of your actions - but it's removed by steps psychologically.

So there's the "we can start a nuclear war, because we can survive it after" delusionally insane mindset on the order of dumping lethal chemicals into your own drinking water (b-but, the pipe broke....b-but the market will bear bottled water....b-but, we put a bucket on the train...)

But, what this, and these plans are based on, is the concept that basic humanity is hard to stamp out completely. No matter how brainwashed.
It looks stupid to put some buckets in a traincar of people you're part of a system to kill, but you gotta.
Looks dumb to pay taxes to support the EPA while working for a steel plant that pollutes or food plant that ships water away.
But somewhere down there past the B.S. people have something hardcoded to do it.

And really, basic humanity is all that survives really tough situations. We default to a sort of benevolent (or at least self-organizing) cooperative practicality.
You just don't have the calories to worry about anything else.

Buddy of mine now lives waaay up north. He used to be a pretty interesting guy before he moved. We'd talk movies, books, comics, crazy ideas, he'd talk all night, that kind of guy.
After a few years he became...colorless.

Still a good guy. Not laconic. room for abstraction in his world view.

As a f'rinstance, he survived a severe blizzard in the Brooks range for an ungodly length of time. No extra supplies. No rescue. Etc.
So as a Dick Proenneke fan I'm wanting to hear the story.
I get him out to civilization, have a beer. First I ask him about it I say "So, how did you tough that out?"
He says: "Tough what out?"

Yeah. Crap on Twitter, not really in his worldview.

"But the threats that might prompt their use are still nearer than we all would hope."

The best thing programs like these - and it's a bit of psychology to keep them secret so it's got the revelatory "shit, this could really happen and it's really, really bad" punch to it - is wake people up, people in high office, to the real, practical consequences of their decisions.

Hopefully they'll remember that you can't drink money or run a for profit post-apocalyptic sanitation system no matter how robust your paradigm seems.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:47 AM on April 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I remember a "plan" to bring POTUS and some members of congress to a hardened sub-basement facility at Fort Meade. I didn't actually see the (so-called) subway system designed to get them was said to come from somewhere in DC.

I did see a "situation room" in the fourth or fifth level basement (of the NSA building) that held a couple hundred people. Also, I visited an observation room on that same level that held a couple dozen people, who would have been seated in a gallery behind a glass partition. This room had a world map, festooned with electronics, displayed on an entire wall opposite the seating area. A door (in this smaller room) led into an adjoining room where a few dozen teletype machines brought real time info from NSA field stations to whomever was designated to be the survivors of this phase of our foreign policy. These rooms together were called the "War Room." I don't really believe, however, that several exchanges of ICBMs could properly be called a war any more that suicide by firing a pistol in one's head could be called a hunting accident.

Anyhow, the "subway" may have been fictional, I didn't see it. But the notion of a couple hundred government employees and POTUS riding out the nuclear attack from a basement in Maryland was real. Whatever the plan, at the most, from "signal up" to "ah shit," our nation would have had less than half an hour before everything would change forever.

In sum, I'd like our current POTUS to understand that, under no circumstances would he be sequestered during a nuclear exchange. He would have a few microphones set up on the White House lawn, where he, his wife and kids, can stand while he kisses his ass good-bye in front of the America he has helped destroy.
posted by mule98J at 12:02 PM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

when the Reagan Administration very proudly announced that they had implemented a plan that guaranteed your home mail delivery would continue without interruption in the event of nuclear war?

I certainly don't remember anything about the Administration announcing it, certainly not "proudly". It got roasted in Congress, as the linked article describes.

Which is sort of unfortunate, because the obsession with the global, civilization-ending, living-will-envy-the-dead, Threads-grade nuclear war is... not particularly useful. That's one scenario of nuclear war, sure, but there are others. Particularly today, I don't think it's even the most likely scenario for the use of nuclear weapons. There are a wide range of scenarios where a limited exchange of nuclear weapons might occur, and not trigger an apocalyptic retaliatory response.*

We are moving into an era where the use of nuclear weapons is becoming more likely, even as the odds—at least until the current degradation of relations with Russia—of a catastrophic "deliver the stockpile" exchange. Although the overall number of weapons has gone down (somewhat) from its peak, the number of state actors with them has increased, and it's probably only a matter of time before a nonstate actor ends up with one, too, which will be messy. But even of the states with weapons, not all of them are necessarily onboard with the "they're too terrible to use" conclusion.**

Planning for a limited nuclear exchange is not outlandish, although it would make more sense to incorporate it into general emergency planning than to call it out specifically, since it's probably still a low-probability (although I think we tend to understate the risk) relative to other more pedestrian emergencies. But I suspect there was little in the USPS's war plan that wouldn't have been useful in other emergency scenarios; the planning exercise was not necessarily futile at all, and I think the reception they got in Congress was needlessly hostile. If the USPS did anything particularly wrong, it was not reading the political winds well enough to know they'd get less flack if they broke the plan up into a bunch of sections with more prosaic titles and made it into some sort of general "Turn to page XX if..." contingency plan.

In fairness, I think this is better understood today than it was in the 1980s; we've now seen a few disasters happen both with and without planning, and it seems, at least to me, like the public is more sold on the idea of contingency and disaster planning than it was a few decades ago, and there is an understanding that planning even for a ridiculously improbable or cataclysmic event (e.g. Zombie Apocalypse) is a worthwhile exercise.

* In fact, it's not entirely clear what would trigger an apocalyptic retaliatory response—by definition, if your strategic deterrent fails to deter the enemy and you get nuked, really glassed on a continent-wide scale, then it already failed. You could launch purely for revenge, I suppose, but there's little point. The deterrent has to be able to work to be credible, and you have to seem crazy enough to use it out of revenge, but there aren't any scenarios where actually using it that way is rationally advantageous. I've always been curious what the Brits put in their submarine captains' sealed orders, since they are there for that eventuality.

** In fairness, I don't think the US or Russia are, either. We like to say stuff like that—I think it's the international equivalent of polite cocktail-party conversation—but we don't really have any existential threats other than nuclear weapons, so of course they're too terrible to use. If the US were threatened by land invasion, I bet we'd have a whole mess of doctrine outlining when we'd nuke a conventional force. The Russians, naturally, are already on it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:04 PM on April 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

Well, this is reminding me of what happened to the president on the short-lived show "You, Me, and the Apocalypse." (TV Tropes link, highlight spoiler area for the president character if you want to know what I mean.) They certainly had a secret plan as to what to do with him there...y'know, him and a bunch of fertile young women.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:38 PM on April 20, 2017

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