One of my fascinations is with alternate history. I appreciate a well thought-out, well written alternate history that forces me to think through what actually happened in the past and what could have happened under certain circumstances. About seven months ago, I saw that author Garrett Graff was publishing a new book on the U.S. government’s continuity of operations plan during the Cold War, which is in a sense the ultimate alternative history story. I pre-ordered the book – something I never do – and waited patiently for it to arrive in my Kindle. Finally, the day came and, despite a backlog of things to read, I plowed through the book.
Graff researched many, many government documents and was denied access to many more to write a narrative about how the Executive Branch tried to protect itself from the moment the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima to today. I say the Executive Branch because, as this book makes clear, it was the presidents from Truman to Obama that really drove the government’s continuity of operations planning. This is disturbing because both the Legislative Branch and Judicial Branch conceded (and still do) running of government in the event of an attack that cripples government operations to the president’s designee(s) who may or may seek assistance from the other two branches.
The book is a healthy 500+ pages but in short the government of the United States has never truly been able to create a solid plan to save government operations in the event of a massive attack on this country. Graff does a good job setting the scene for each administration and why they varied in their approach to planning. For example, in the 1950s there was a rush to train the population to react correctly in the event of a nuclear attack to try and save as many civilian lives as possible; by the Kennedy years advancing technology and limited means meant that the hope to save millions of citizens was considered untenable. Instead, the military and executive branch created redundancy after redundancy and spent untold billions of dollars in bunkers, boats, planes, and other means of protecting enough people to keep the government operating. And yet, every time the system was remotely challenged, it would have failed spectacularly if the worst case scenario would have occurred. From the Bay of Pigs to 9/11, the systems our government created to protect itself as best as possible were woefully deficient. In many cases, principles were unable to communicate with each other or the outside world, and who was in charge in some cases was disputed.
Graff is methodical in outlining the alphabet soup of who was in charge of what and how the agencies changed. He does not get bogged down in a straight historical narrative but uses what we all know to paint a larger picture of what the principals were thinking when they concocted these ideas to make sure a president was around to order a nuclear strike or simply show the U.S. still existed. He does not morph into Dan Brown with cheesy cliffhangers but does write a compelling narrative that saves some material that can at times be dry.
There are, however, two major strikes against this book. First, I noticed some small factual errors, such as a mention of a Civil War battle taking place outside of Gettysburg in 1865. These may be the editors’ faults but it is hard to trust completely everything I read if I see things I know to be wrong. The second is that some of the most compelling aspects of the story are incomplete. A perfect example is the fact that the Declaration of Independence, in the event of a cataclysmic attack on DC, would be saved by the National Archives before the original Constitution. Graff mentions this in his introduction and about 60% of the way in returns to the National Archive’s continuity plans. This story of how this vital agency decides what documents would get saved and how goes for about three pages and simply says the agency has three rankings for document safety. Both the Declaration and Constitution are in the top tier, so why is one more vital than the other? This is the kind of story that I feel would be very interesting to all readers but is incomplete. Maybe it is due to the plan being classified, but then he should not have teased it in the introduction.
Overall, Graff takes a tough topic and writes a good history of a scary time that still colors how we approach domestic terrorism and civil liberties today. While far from perfect, it is a good book that shows just how far we still have to go to figure out what will happen to this country if something terrible happens.