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Mr. Smith Goes Underground

June 2024
16min read

The strangest of all Cold War relics also offers a clue to why we won it

At 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.

The U.S. Congress’s “relocation facility” below the resort’s West Virginia wing had cost $14 million to build. The Chesapeake & Ohio, owner of the Greenbrier, had insisted publicly that the construction activity of the past few years involved the huge new Exhibit Hall that conventioneers had seen that day with their own eyes. Truman Wright, the Greenbrier’s Quaker president, had been able to say, truthfully, that rumors of a bomb shelter’s being dug for the President of the United States were unfounded, since he knew that those 50,000 tons of concrete had been poured for another branch of the government entirely. Still, getting the facility built had required a good deal of fibbing, sometimes to his own employees, and however eager Wright was to do his bit for the Cold War effort, he had never felt quite comfortable with Project X. As he went to sleep on October 22, 1962, he would have been thinking not only about the additional 535 distinguished “guests” who might soon be arriving at his hotel but also about the possibility that a particular Soviet missile, in Europe or in Cuba, was at that hour pointed toward the Greenbrier.

“It was a different time,” the tour guide Mary Murray will say in her reassuring manner, whenever she needs to point out something especially chilling. The “different time” is the worst days of the Cold War, and had gentlemen of the Folding Paper Box Association somehow awakened 37 years after their gathering, to a rainy day and a new world order, they could join Murray here at the starting point of her tour of what’s now simply called the “bunker,” another Greenbrier attraction like horseback riding and tennis.

Marvin Weikle, who helped maintain the facility for decades, opens the 25-ton, 18-inch-thick west-entrance blast door, whose DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE sign for years suggested that nothing more unusual than the hotel’s electrical plant stood behind it. But once Weikle has let the tourists enter, they find themselves standing at the end of a 144-yard-long concrete corridor leading into the 112,544-square-foot former standby capitol of the United States.


Murray asks Weikle to close the blast door quietly and suggests that a young couple cover their little girl’s ears, lest the infant, riding on her father’s shoulders, be startled. Some boxes of freeze-dried food—chicken àla king with no visible expiration date—line a short stretch of the corridor’s walls, samples of the mass quantities once ready to sustain the U.S. Congress for up to 60 days. At the end of the long tunnel, the tour group reaches a gantlet of shower stalls, whose punishing Silkwood-style spigots would have decontaminated only the representatives who arrived after the blast detector on a nearby mountain had signaled that nuclear shooting was already under way. Once through “decon,” the members and their authorized staffers would have received fatigues or coveralls and bunk-bed assignments. The latter were made by seniority: Gladys Childers, another tour guide, used to retype the lists after each election had changed the makeup of the House and Senate.

The communications room still contains the bunker’s original switchboard, which Murray admits looks very Lily Tomlin, before remembering to ask if everyone on the tour remembers Ernestine the phone operator. Over in the cafeteria, the black-and-white linoleum floor inevitably reminds a Greenbrier guest of the large marble one in the hotel’s main lobby. Aboveground the big squares form a stunning, grand geometry over which to glide between huge potted plants, brightly covered settees, and roaring fires. Down here the smaller shapes, crowded beneath the dining room’s blank walls and steely utilitarian furniture, seem unsettling to the eye and mind—just what the consulting psychologist intended. When fully operational, the bunker might house up to 1,100 people, who would have to be fed meals in three shifts; no one wanted them lingering over coffee.

There was food enough to sustain Congress for up to 60 days.

On a bank of wall clocks in the briefing room, the one for eastern standard time hangs directly above another displaying the hour in Moscow. To the right of both stands a giant photo of the Capitol dome amidst a blue sky and autumn leaves, meant to remind legislators —and those aboveground viewers still able to receive a TV signal—of the legislative branch’s continuing legitimacy, not to mention a pre-poisoned seasonal world. Nearby, in the facility’s records room, one notices rope-handled wooden boxes designed to collect whatever documentation might have been generated by these very special sessions of Congress.

As enough underground days passed to fill those boxes with transcripts, stress levels would have mounted to unimaginable heights. The Greenbrier’s on-site historian, Dr. Robert S. Conte, who has been at the resort for more than 20 years, wonders about the “thousand type-A personalities” once expected to function here, perhaps week after week, exposed constantly to one another but not to the light of day. It isn’t easy to picture Sen. Everett Dirksen and Speaker John McCormack sleeping like buck privates on those bunk beds; indeed, one figure in the congressional leadership—the only members ever briefed on the project —is supposed to have expressed regret that the pages were not scheduled for evacuation to West Virginia along with the senators. The dispensary contained an adequate supply of prescription medications, but the possibility remained that if anyone got out of the bunker alive, not everyone would. Its incinerator was ready to function as a crematorium for any distinguished gentleman who dropped dead at his emergency desk.

At the time Project X began, the Greenbrier constructed, along with the plainly evident Exhibit Hall, two auditoriums. The hotel used the Governor’s Hall and the Mountaineer Room for some of its own ordinary activities, and the Exhibit Hall actually did house trade shows. But as Mary Murray completes the tour, it becomes clear how these three big rooms constituted the netherworld between the hotel and the bunker: They would serve as portions of the former right up until “activation” of the latter, at which point another blast door would seal them off from the rest of the Greenbrier. The hinges of that door are even now concealed only by some festive wallpaper and a decorator’s screen. If a guest somehow noticed them and felt prompted to ask a question, he might be told that they were an “expansion joint.” But the Exhibit Hall itself, filled with products and nametagged browsers, was unlikely to excite suspicion that it had also been designed as the place for congressional staffers to do their work. Even someone who counted the seats in the Governor’s Hall (440) and the Mountaineer Room (133) probably wouldn’t have surmised that he was looking at substitute chambers for the United States House of Representatives and Senate.


The office of Paul E. (“Fritz”) Bugas, now a communityrelations consultant for the Greenbrier, is a comfortable place whose bright green carpet is very much in the over-the-top style of Dorothy Draper, the decorator who gave the hotel its own vibrant new look in the late 1940s. But doors leading directly to Dormitory C-1 and Dormitory C-2, as well as the absence of a window, remind a visitor that Bugas still works in the bunker, managing as a tourist attraction the same facility he spent more than 20 years keeping viable and secret. Between 1971 and 1992, Bugas served under four presidents of the Greenbrier and five of the United States, as regional manager of “Forsythe Associates,” a cover organization that did its best to look like nothing more than the telecommunications consultants for a large resort.

The facility remained a closely kept secret for more than 30 years.

A compact, energetic man who moves far more youthfully than most people in their seventies, Bugas remains proud of all the various ways in which the bunker’s existence was once kept camouflaged. Aboveground and outside, he indicates a small green building, a kind of cement hut with another DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE sign. This is the bunker’s air-intake facility, but in operational days Bugas would tell anyone who asked that there was only a transformer behind the door. A big shedlike white warehouse that held Forsythe’s office stands close to some livery stables. “We never did put a sign out,” says Bugas. Guests interested in horses might ask about the nearby building when they came to see the stables; Forsythe personnel would say it was storage space or an audiovisual office. Supplies to the bunker were usually delivered in the middle of the night, which is also when the generators ran. The machines didn’t produce enough heat to be detected by Soviet satellites, but smoke was less likely to be noticed here on the ground at 3:00 A.M. Bugas points to what looks like a white milk box beside a decorative brick pillar—the delivery point for the bunker’s diesel fuel, he explains, as eager to share the information as he once was to conceal it.

During the winters, when the hotel might be housing as few as a hundred guests, Bugas would supervise dry runs that brought up to 50 hotel employees and perhaps another hundred outside specialists into the bunker, which would be sealed off for 12 to 16 hours. They’d test out as much equipment as they could in that brief period; going at it any longer would have disrupted the hotel’s routine and created suspicions.

“Stability was a big thing,” Bugas explains. In addition to the mountains’ protective shelter, the Greenbrier Valley offered a patriotic rural citizenry who took their security clearances seriously. People were “so happy and prideful that they could do something for their government,” says Bugas, who compares the project to “going to the moon.” He makes a visitor recall the Cold War West Virginians in Homer Hickam’s memoir Rocket Boys, seeking to glimpse Sputnik flying overhead. “President Eisenhower would never allow such a thing,” said the author’s true-believing father.

For 30 years the facility’s managers “didn’t have that many probes or inquiries, strange as that may seem,” says Bugas. People came to the Greenbrier for the scenery and the golf, not “looking for a cooling tower.” But in February 1992, one guest who checked in was looking for anything he could find to confirm the bunker’s secret existence. Ted Gup, an investigative reporter who had long been interested in the government’s emergency relocation plans, had already done stories on the subject for magazines ranging from Mother Jones to Time .

Gup recalls entering the office of the Greenbrier president Ted Kleisner without an appointment and being “incredibly dead straight ahead.” He identified himself as a writer there to do a story for the Washington Post “about a top-secret government installation beneath his hotel.” He told Kleisner that “if he was uncomfortable with my staying there under those circumstances, I would be happy to stay in a hotel down the road. There was nothing subtle or sub rosa about my approach.” Gup recalls the resort president’s seeming shocked but telling him he was welcome to stay at the Greenbrier. However, Kleisner added: “If you write that story, you will never write another story as a reporter. No one will ever believe a word you write again. I give you my word: There is no such facility under this resort.”

Kleisner today recalls the red flag put on Gup’s reservation when the guest asked for a comparatively small and noisy room on the fourth floor of the West Virginia wing, whose view didn’t ordinarily interest a Greenbrier guest. The hotel, Kleisner admits, began keeping track of Gup’s outgoing calls, and the reporter himself remembers a constant, almost comic, surveillance during his stay. “It was a bit like the old Mad magazine ‘Spy vs. Spy.’ I was watching them, and they were watching me, and they were unaware that I was watching them watch me.”

Even now, Gup finds the cover for Project Greek Island, as it was known by 1992, to have been almost “pathetically absurd.” He walked into a room that claimed to be a TVrepair operation, “and inside is a high-speed shredder,” as odd a sight as “all these books about nuclear war” on Fritz Bugas’s office bookshelves. Bugas would dispute Gup’s estimation of the secrecy efforts—and 30 years of nondisclosure might be called on to back him up—but even he has to admit, eight years later, that “Ted’s one bright guy…he didn’t fall off the banana boat.” Once Bugas knew Gup had the goods, he asked his security bosses in Washington if it wasn’t time to “bring him in,” to admit the bunker’s existence and convince the reporter of its importance and efficacy. If they did that, Gup might spike his own story.

“The whole operating scenario will never be divulged.”

Bugas and Kleisner both still believe they could have gotten him to do that. But a representative from the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigative Division vetoed the idea. Kleisner remembers joking, when asked by the debriefer if he had any other ideas for dealing with Gup: “We’ll just snuff him.” The “stone-faced” man from the CID replied: “That is not funny. We don’t do that kind of thing. That is so inappropriate.”

Gup regards himself as “a reporter of some restraint” and “first and foremost a citizen of the country.” He has spiked “more than one or two stories” when he became convinced of their potential for damaging national security. But he maintains that nothing Bugas or Kleisner might have revealed would have gotten him to kill his bunker scoop. His chief sources were not “rogues or renegades or radicals” but people right from within “the Doomsday establishment,” who argued to him that the Greenbrier’s hideaway was a self-perpetuating anachronism; those who ran the facility, they said, feared media disclosure more than they did detection by the USSR. Gup’s sources further insisted that evacuation of Congress could never be accomplished quickly enough once war became truly imminent—not even using the airport built in nearby Lewisburg, West Virginia, in the sixties. On top of everything, members of Congress would simply have declined to go in any case—not when their spouses and children would be left behind at ground zero. (Tip O’Neill, the former House Speaker, told Gup he always found the idea farfetched.)


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.”

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.

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