Mr. Smith Goes Underground

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There’s still no convincing Kleisner or Bugas. “The whole operating scenario will never be divulged,” says the hotel’s president, but he assures a visitor that “every single possible detail was given absolute consideration. A lot of people have reported that it wouldn’t work because dependents wouldn’t be there. Who says?” (There were even, Kleisner confides, provisions made for a few journalists.) Bugas refutes the idea that there wouldn’t have been time to get the representatives to White Sulphur Springs, pointing out that international tensions preceding a war would likely build in a gradual manner, over days and weeks. There were, he says, “very detailed and, to my way of thinking, very realistic plans” to get Congress here while the world’s diplomats were making their last, best efforts.

And that, insists Ted Gup, was always the biggest problem with the bunker. Any obvious departure by senators and representatives would have increased the likelihood of a nuclear exchange. The reason the bunker was finally not used in October 1962, he argues, is that Congress’s evacuation “at that moment of super-high crisis…would have sent a signal to the Soviet Union that we were about to launch a pre-emptive strike,” and they would have tried to beat us to it.

The Washington Post sat on Gup’s story for much of spring 1992, hearing out appeals from congressional leadership and the Washington security establishment. Only when it appeared that publication was imminent did Kleisner suggest that the legislative leaders scoop the paper with their own press conference: They could disclose the facility’s existence, say it was no longer necessary in the postCold War world, and “pin a few medals” on the people who’d run it. But Speaker Tom Foley’s staffer Mike O’Neil rejected Kleisner’s idea, expressing certainty that disclosure would be a small story of only passing interest.

Katharine Graham, who had told those trying to squelch the piece that the Post would “do what is right,” published Gup’s report on May 31, 1992, as the paper’s Sunday-magazine cover story, under the title “Last Resort.” Contrary to what Mike O’Neil thought, the disclosure attracted enormous interest. Print journalists and television news crews descended on the Greenbrier, and within 24 hours of publication, Speaker Foley sent Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney a letter that recommended “ending support” for the compromised bunker. Mindful of public disgust over recent scandals involving the House bank and post office, members of Congress from both parties rushed to disassociate themselves from the bunker, whose connection to the Greenbrier led people hearing the first reports of it to imagine a posh retreat in which a select few citizens could ride out nuclear winter.

 

The bunker’s old TV shop now services the Greenbrier’s televisions, and the old white Forsythe shed houses the hotel’s retail operation, filling mail orders for chocolates and gold charms from the fifty still-unbombed states. Most of the shelter’s bunk beds have gone to Fort Bragg.

Fritz Bugas now hires and trains the tour guides and occasionally conducts high-profile visitors through the facility; George Bush and Margaret Thatcher both have come to have a look. Bugas also has cordially shown off the bunker to his old nemesis Ted Gup, currently a professor of journalism at Case Western Reserve University and the author of The Book of Honor: Covert Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA.

These days Bugas also makes use of his considerable charm as a lobbyist in the Greenbrier’s campaign to bring casino gambling to the resort. A legalization bill has passed the West Virginia legislature, but a much-contested proposed county referendum may ultimately determine whether blackjack and roulette tables find their way into the same Exhibit Hall where, had the bunker been activated, congressional staffers would have done their work. Gup counts Bugas a likable and “very patriotic guy” but is a bit scornful of the Greenbrier’s present ambitions. Kleisner in particular took “such a high and holy stand” with the reporter over what he was doing, and “if it’s a shrine,” says Gup, “one does not reduce it to a casino.…I find it a little bit hypocritical and venal.” The reporter himself regards the bunker as “a wonderful emblem of an era,” a well-intentioned project that may have been unworkable but was never a boondoggle. Today’s security threats—terrorism, ultranationalism—may be different from the Cold War’s, but Gup thinks government would be “remiss” not to address them. The unthinkable still has to be thought, and he sees “every reason to believe that there are other equally exotic and creative contingency plans on the books.”