Mr. Smith Goes Underground

PrintPrintEmailEmailAt six-thirty on Monday evening, October 22, 1962, 146 members of the Folding Paper Box Association, highballs and filter-tipped cigarettes in hand, swung into the cocktail party preceding the group’s evening banquet at the venerable Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. At that same hour, in another room of the immense, splashily decorated hotel, members of the Conveyor Equipment Manufacturers Association and the American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute were beginning their own receptions, chatting with the sort of loud amiability that had long since raised American convention-going to a raucous national art.

And yet, one can almost hear the nervous edge to that evening’s conversation and see, as the clock nears seven, a temporary shrinkage of each gathering, as a number of the gentlemen detach themselves from the groups and make their way to a hotel parlor where a black-and-white television has begun transmitting some remarks by President Kennedy: “It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.…I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless and provocative threat.…My fellow citizens: Let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred.”

The speech and situation were so grim that some of the conventioneers probably called home, delaying their return to the receptions, but the cocktail parties and banquets went forward, and life being what it is, the day’s golf scores no doubt found their way into the conversation along with assumptions about the nautical-mile range of Soviet missiles. But something in the assistant manager’s report for October 22, 1962, suggests that Cuba remained Topic A that night at the Greenbrier: Only 30 of the hotel’s 842 registered guests decided to view the evening’s movie, Judgment at Nuremberg. It would have been difficult to concentrate on World War II with World War III so much in the air.

There was no need to smoke one’s cigar outside in those days, but some of the conventioneers probably took themselves out onto the Greenbrier’s vast grounds for an after-dinner stroll. The more history-minded among them would already have taken note, from plaques at the resort and brochures they’d carried in their luggage on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, that Americans had been coming to take the waters near White Sulphur Springs for nearly two hundred years; that Generals Robert E. Lee and Dwight D. Eisenhower had each visited their wounded troops on the site, when the Greenbrier served as a hospital in two great wars eighty years apart; and that many American Presidents from James Monroe on had at one time or another come here to stay, to recreate, and to soothe foreign leaders into more cheerful negotiating postures. In 1948 Rep. John F. Kennedy had been to the hotel for its grand postwar reopening; he had been accompanied by his sisters and also by his mother, who had spent her honeymoon at the Greenbrier three decades earlier.

 
 

The pressures on Kennedy that night in 1962 would have been on the mind of any guest regarding the hotel’s great white-columned front, which looked, then as now, almost like the Capitol without its dome. Later, as they got into bed and tried to distract themselves from the atomic brink, these guests would have reached into suitcases for one of the novels they’d brought with them—probably discovering, alas, that it was either of that fall’s enormous bestsellers, Seven Days in May and Fail-Safe. Were rightwing coup d’état and accidental nuclear war really the ticket for drifting off tonight?

None of the 842 guests knew that they were a mere elevator ride away from a cavernous, well-equipped redoubt that the U.S. government had just finished constructing as a means of surviving the horrors imagined by that year’s novelists. The most exclusive rooms at the Greenbrier that night stood empty but ready to serve as the headquarters for one branch of a still-functioning government of, by, and for the people—even if that government had to carry on beneath what was left of them.