The American Government’s Secret Plan for Surviving the End of the World
Newly declassified CIA files offer a glimpse of the playbook the Trump administration will reach for if it stumbles into a nuclear war.
By the time Jimmy Carter became president, the country was spending less than $100 million a year on civil defense, compared with more than $30 billion a year to keep its nuclear weapons from becoming obsolete. Congress had identified the value of a unified civil defense program but hadn’t done much to fund it. Carter became the first president since John F. Kennedy to pay significant attention. In September 1978, he declared that civil defense was part of the country’s strategic deterrence, because a population, or government, vulnerable to nuclear attack was more vulnerable to being coerced by threats of an attack. A short presidential decision directive, which was classified at the time, said as much — and little else.
America’s civil defense budget rose modestly at first. But a series of studies acknowledged how weak the country’s civil defenses had become. Fallout shelters built in the 1950s were obsolete and needed to be refurbished or replaced. Executive orders assigning functions to different agencies were widely ignored. There were no federal provisions for evacuating large populations, the lynchpin of any civil defense program. Military exercises all but ignored the hypothetical scenario. These studies also set the path for a whole new policy.
Over the objections of the Pentagon, Carter eventually endorsed a consolidation of the government’s civil defense and continuity programs into one agency and set an ambitious goal. During an all-out nuclear war, the government would aim to have 80 percent of the country survive — and it should prepare to do so on a budget of less than $250 million per year.
On June 19, 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was written into existence. Carter elevated the importance of the agency’s director, assigning to the National Security Council and the Pentagon the task of overseeing civil preparedness. It was now inextricably linked to national security — and strategic nuclear policy. A secret CIA memo said that “trans-attack planning” — how the presidency could function during a nuclear war — was now a part of a national security strategy.
This was sweet music for Ray Derby. FEMA would take charge of the FPA’s Continuity of Government program Derby had been working on, but he would be tasked by FEMA with taking control of the special facility at Mount Weather, becoming, for all intents and purposes, its mayor. Its secrecy would increase, as would its budget and footprint. It would be responsible for the official survival items list, the stockpile of resources that would be needed to rebuild the government after nuclear war.
Meanwhile, the White House was focusing on the hardest challenge of all — providing a mechanism for presidential successors to execute nuclear war orders during and after a nuclear exchange. Early in Carter’s presidency, the director of the White House Military Office, Hugh Carter, convened a small working group to review the White House Emergency Plan, the top secret document that set out how the Secret Service would evacuate the president — and how the White House Military Office would instantiate successors if the president were killed.
The basic blueprint was contained in a series of proposed PEADS — presidential emergency action documents — which National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s military aide Col. Bill Odom then reviewed and revised. Odom, as he wrote in a memoir, found the proposed procedures conspicuously lacking in both imagination and a connection to reality.
One White House memo noted that day-to-day communications between the Pentagon and presidential emergency facilities at Mount Weather, Camp David, and the White House were “satisfactory” under normal conditions. But during a civil disorder, or “uncoordinated sabotage,” it was obvious that satisfactory wouldn’t suffice. And in a conventional or nuclear war, it was determined that the facilities would provide “little protection” — in other words, whichever survivors were stashed there probably wouldn’t survive for long before being targeted themselves.
This meant, in practice, that fixed command posts would not work. A mobile command post was a theoretical option. But the White House couldn’t depend on getting the president or a successor to an emergency escape aircraft in a surprise nuclear attack. Even if they managed to do so, it was impossible to know what kind of staff they would have around them.
Meanwhile, because only Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale had “presidential emergency satchels” — the famed nuclear footballs that verified their identities as commanders in chief — the country’s nuclear command-and-control system would risk coming to a halt if both men were incapacitated or had died, unless there was some other way of identifying presidential successors to the military.
The original solution offered by the White House Military Office were code names uttered by their designees. So if Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. found himself the only surviving successor, all he would need to acquire complete control of the government and its nuclear arsenal would be to offer the surviving Pentagon command center’s emergency action officer a vocal verification of his identity by using the term FLAG DAY. The president pro tempore of the Senate, next in line, was FOUR FINGER. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would authenticate his identity by calling himself FADE AWAY.
In reality, the Pentagon’s emergency action officer would try to ensure that a survivor was who he said he was. But if Soviet missiles were on the way, the designers of this fragile system had little doubt that the shortcuts would be used, with untold risks for the efficiency of the country’s military response and its basic security.
In light of these challenges, the White House task force tried to conceive of a more flexible, and de-centralized, idea of what it meant for the government to survive. In defining the presidency’s continuity, the task force found itself coming back to three central, if decidedly bureaucratic, concepts: survivability (the president and his basic support team had to ride out a war), connectivity (they had to communicate with one another, the country, and other heads of state), and supportability (people needed other people elsewhere in the country to help them).
This led to a key recommendation: five 50-person “interagency cadres” that would be pre-positioned or pre-deployed during emergencies to support would-be presidential successors. These “presidential successor support teams,” codenamed TREETOP cadres by the Pentagon, would deploy randomly to any one of “several hundred sites, perhaps 2-3 thousand, that would be pre-selected,” allowing for a relocation of institutional knowledge that was “highly flexible and adaptive.”
Odom’s team drew up a list of requirements for these teams. The first thing that a deployed team would do was to identify and authenticate the actual president — the ranking successor. The details of the system they developed remain highly classified, but as it was described to me, it involved what might be the first example of “tracking chips” embedded in presidential successor support cards, which would be amplified by radio frequency repeaters. The signals would be collected by FEMA and the National Military Command Center. Other critical technology that would be deployed to assist the would-be presidents would also be tagged and tracked, which might offer a layer of protection against spoofing. (The plan, however, flew ahead of the technology available to make this work. It wasn’t until the George W. Bush administration that the government could passively and electronically track some presidential successors by satellites and the cellular phone system.)
Second: Each team would have to, on its own, help the successor carry out the three main presidential functions: commander in chief, chief of state, chief executive. The team would have to talk to other deployed teams that had survived and securely identify themselves. It would have to talk to the Pentagon, or its surviving elements, to execute the nuclear war plan. It would have to receive intelligence and damage assessments. It would have to talk to state and local governments, too. 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.
Odom’s review proceeded slowly. Agencies were asked to weigh in on whether they could carry out a series of secret executive orders. These orders remain classified to this day, but certain public documents offer scraps of information. The Carter White House eventually issued at least 29 PEADs. PEAD 2 dealt with the reconstitution of Congress, a touchy issue for the executive branch, much less mentioned in open correspondence. PEAD 5 was titled “Providing for the Mobilization of the Nation’s Resources.” PEAD 6 dealt with calling an emergency civilian reserve force.
How would Congress be reconstituted? What resources would be mobilized? Who would be drafted? We still don’t know.