Mr. Smith Goes Underground


Each month now, somewhere in North Dakota, three or four obsolete Minuteman III missile silos get blown up. In Baltimore, the alert sirens that for nearly 50 years were tested each Monday afternoon are now sounded only once a month, after residents complained about the nuisance. Serving the traveler nostalgic for apocalypse, the Bureau of Atomic Tourism’s Web site has links to the Los Alamos County Historical Museum, the Bikini atoll, and the Greenbrier bunker. It was a different time, and the history of Doomsday is in a peculiar, fragmented condition. “Fritz’s records were on the first truck out of here,” says Ted Kleisner. “The weapons were on the second.” The U.S. Senate’s historian, Dr. Richard Allan Baker, can locate no written documentation that the upper body’s leaders kept on the bunker, and while the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, does hold “a significant quantity of documentation concerning continuity of government and emergency relocation sites,” most of it, even now, remains classified.

Still, that library has one humble, handwritten document—cryptic but available—that sheds light on the physical and philosophical origins of the Greenbrier’s bunker facility. Notes from an early-morning meeting between President Eisenhower and legislative leaders on January 18, 1955, include an abbreviated transcript of discussion about a “relocation point for Cong.” In it, Sen. William Knowland, the Republican minority leader, asks: “What do Defense & ODM [the Office of Defense Mobilization] have in mind for Cong role in Alert—?” To which the President responds, with evident impatience: “I kept after that last year. They said Cong not interested.”

Ike was asking Congress not to surrender its authority, ever.

But now, in 1955, in the middle of the Formosa Strait crisis, with mainland China’s intentions in doubt and, according to Stephen E. Ambrose, America’s coming “closer to using atomic weapons than at any other time in the Eisenhower Administration,” everyone seems interested. In the transcript, the congressman Charles Halleck appears to make a common assumption about how the United States would carry on in the event of nuclear attack. The President has other ideas:

Halleck—martial law? DE—the only attack we really fear is long range atomic. If we can preserve productive power— Must overcome chaos—perhaps martial law law for a week—to get production going. Free countries will outlast dictatorships. Men in latter fear the guns behind them. No matter how many controls to Exec, must preserve freedom as incentive.…

Eisenhower goes on to state that relocation of Congress might entail great confusion, but he insists that can be overcome by “intelligent planning on details.” Project X was under way.

These less-than-detailed notes contain the first glimpse of something absent from all the Armageddon scenarios in novels like Fail-Safe , which always ponder the red-alert activities of the President and the Joint Chiefs but seem to regard Congress as a sort of cumbersome irrelevance. “Continuity” is for those with their fingers on the button. The actual contingency planning turns out to have been less hardheaded and more noble.

During the early days of World War II, the Greenbrier had functioned as a genteel internment site for Japanese and German diplomats, shaping a relocation program that was willing to skirt absurdity in the interest of civilized behavior. Only a dozen or so years later, soon after that January 1955 meeting, the hotel would agree to serve as the spot where the greatest American general of the century had decided, against all odds, to keep representative government alive, no matter what happened in the new atomic world. The President who warned against confiding too much power in a “military-industrial complex” was asking Congress that winter morning not to surrender its own constitutional authority, ever. The notes provide a reminder, to anybody still needing one, that there was much more to President Dwight D. Eisenhower—as there was to the Greenbrier—than met the eye.