Uncle Sam Underground: The US government’s secret plan for surviving nuclear war

Jody Ray Bennett
Jody Ray Bennett
Uncle Sam Underground: The US government’s secret plan for surviving nuclear war

Newly declassified documents released by the CIA has revealed the American government’s playbook for surviving a nuclear holocaust. A unique summary and analysis followed with a publication by Foreign Policy, which provided the background of the government’s plan. It was a plan that was, by all accounts, well behind the Russians – the only military adversary at the time that had already created thousands of bunkers and extensive civil preparedness programs.

The U.S. needed to catch up, and during the Carter Administration, sought to do just that. And it involved a plan that, still today, used a mountaintop complex called Mount Weather, a sort of mini-D.C. that would allow the government to function in the event of a nuclear attack.

Consider the seating chart at Mount Weather where government officials would ride out a nuclear winter (Foreign Policy):

Uncle Sam Underground: The US government’s secret plan for surviving nuclear war

According to the declassified files, we now know the U.S. had created secret underground bunkers and other remote complexes in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff would order 60 officials to primary relocation sites. According to Foreign Policy:

The government operated a so-called special facility atop Mount Weather in Berryville, Virginia, where a cadre of top executive branch officials would ride out a nuclear war. Other standby relocation sites were near Hagerstown, Maryland, and Martinsburg, West Virginia, at the Marine base near Quantico, Virginia (for the FBI), and Front Royal, Virginia, near a facility where the State Department was supposed to reconstitute. Still others were hidden at colleges inside or near the Beltway.

An array of initial implementations codenamed TREETOP by the Pentagon would see “50-person interagency cadres” and other support personnel deployed and stationed at various secret locations around several hundred sites. These would make up “presidential successor support teams”.

Of course, the government currently has a more evolved emergency plan today. TREETOP eventually paved the way for FEMA and other inter-agency task forces that do nothing but think about emergency management and preparedness daily.

Based on the declassified reports, here’s a quick rundown of what we know:

During the Carter Administration’s emergency plan, 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.

In the 1970s, the Army and Air Force had enough helicopters to transport only about a third as many officials as would be required — assuming that aboveground transportation was possible.

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.

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.

When Carter’s presidential directive codifying these changes went into effect in late 1980, the CIA set up its own secret agency, the National Intelligence Emergency Support Office, which would be headquartered in Virginia, receive input from all CIA directorates, and deploy three-person successor support teams to randomly chosen TREETOP locations at a moment’s notice.

Reagan found the system inadequate. He was briefed on it before his presidency, but his participation in the 1982 Ivy League war games convinced him that a survivable presidency was untenable and a major gap in the defenses of the country.