Aspen Ideas Festival: How presidents prepare for Armageddon

Peter Feaver and Garrett Graff at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Peter Feaver, L, and Garrett Graff at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Dan Bayer | The Aspen Institute

Raven Rock is one of three major government bunkers built in the 1940s and '50s, meant to serve as an alternate Pentagon in the event the actual Pentagon is destroyed in an attack.

It's also the focus of journalist and historian Garrett Graff's new book, "Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die."

"This has not been a topic that actually a lot of people have been paying attention to over the years," Graff said during an Aspen Ideas Festival session titled, "The Inside Story of How Presidents Prepare for Armageddon." But the government's plans for disaster was something Graff bumped into a few times while covering national security over the years, he said.

For one of his stories, Graff rode along on a flight with the U.S. Air Force 1st Helicopter Squadron. "If you are in Washington," he said, "you can look up, see these blue and gold helicopters flying around. And what they're doing is practicing for Armageddon, practicing to evacuate the nation's leaders to these mountain bunkers."

These and other safety measures, like Air Force One and armored motorcades, seem commonplace today, but only really came about with advent of nuclear weapons.

Graff says they are essentially "really fancy toys to ensure that the president of the United States can launch nuclear weapons wherever he is at any given moment."

And if anything were to happen to the president and other Washington leaders, a long and secretive line of succession, spread out across the country, would suddenly be revealed, Graff said.

One of the major problems within these plans is the psychological aspect of who gets taken to the bunkers, and who gets left out.

During exercises throughout history many officials have balked at or even refused to participate in plans after it was made clear to them certain family members would not be included in the evacuation.

"The goal was never for this to be the creation of a bunker elite ... the goal of this was, at its core, just to preserve the functioning of the U.S. government," Graff said.

Whether any of these plans would work remains questionable — when leaders are pulled away in times of crisis they are kept safe, but they are also kept out of communication with the rest of the nation.

"Part of what we forget is that this apparatus is around the president all of the time," Graff said. "But the system is all in place today and one of the things that has been receiving attention over the last couple of months is the recognition that we have spent 70 years stripping away every check and balance from the president's ability to launch nuclear war."

Former National Security Council staffer Peter Feaver of Duke University moderated the talk. It was recorded June 30, 2017 in Aspen, Colorado.

To listen to their discussion, click the audio player above.

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