The Armageddon Plan

During the Reagan era Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were key players in a clandestine program designed to set aside the legal lines of succession and immediately install a new "President" in the event that a nuclear attack killed the country's leaders. The program helps explain the behavior of the Bush Administration on and after 9/11

At least once a year during the 1980s Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld vanished. Cheney was working diligently on Capitol Hill, as a congressman rising through the ranks of the Republican leadership. Rumsfeld, who had served as Gerald Ford's Secretary of Defense, was a hard-driving business executive in the Chicago area—where, as the head of G. D. Searle & Co., he dedicated time and energy to the success of such commercial products as Nutra-Sweet, Equal, and Metamucil. Yet for periods of three or four days at a time no one in Congress knew where Cheney was, nor could anyone at Searle locate Rumsfeld. Even their wives were in the dark; they were handed only a mysterious Washington phone number to use in case of emergency.

After leaving their day jobs Cheney and Rumsfeld usually made their way to Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington. From there, in the middle of the night, each man—joined by a team of forty to sixty federal officials and one member of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet—slipped away to some remote location in the United States, such as a disused military base or an underground bunker. A convoy of lead-lined trucks carrying sophisticated communications equipment and other gear would head to each of the locations.

Rumsfeld and Cheney were principal actors in one of the most highly classified programs of the Reagan Administration. Under it U.S. officials furtively carried out detailed planning exercises for keeping the federal government running during and after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The program called for setting aside the legal rules for presidential succession in some circumstances, in favor of a secret procedure for putting in place a new "President" and his staff. The idea was to concentrate on speed, to preserve "continuity of government," and to avoid cumbersome procedures; the speaker of the House, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the rest of Congress would play a greatly diminished role.

The inspiration for this program came from within the Administration itself, not from Cheney or Rumsfeld; except for a brief stint Rumsfeld served as Middle East envoy, neither of them ever held office in the Reagan Administration. Nevertheless, they were leading figures in the program.

A few details about the effort have come to light over the years, but nothing about the way it worked or the central roles played by Cheney and Rumsfeld. The program is of particular interest today because it helps to explain the thinking and behavior of the second Bush Administration in the hours, days, and months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Vice President Cheney urged President Bush to stay out of Washington for the rest of that day; Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld ordered his deputy Paul Wolfowitz to get out of town; Cheney himself began to move from Washington to a series of "undisclosed locations"; and other federal officials were later sent to work outside the capital, to ensure the continuity of government in case of further attacks. All these actions had their roots in the Reagan Administration's clandestine planning exercises.

The U.S. government considered the possibility of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union more seriously during the early Reagan years than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Reagan had spoken in his 1980 campaign about the need for civil-defense programs to help the United States survive a nuclear exchange, and once in office he not only moved to boost civil defense but also approved a new defense-policy document that included plans for waging a protracted nuclear war against the Soviet Union. The exercises in which Cheney and Rumsfeld participated were a hidden component of these more public efforts to prepare for nuclear war.

The premise of the secret exercises was that in case of a nuclear attack on Washington, the United States needed to act swiftly to avoid "decapitation"—that is, a break in civilian leadership. A core element of the Reagan Administration's strategy for fighting a nuclear war would be to decapitate the Soviet leadership by striking at top political and military officials and their communications lines; the Administration wanted to make sure that the Soviets couldn't do to America what U.S. nuclear strategists were planning to do to the Soviet Union.

Under the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations the U.S. government had built large underground installations at Mount Weather, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and near Camp David, along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, each of which could serve as a military command post for the President in time of war. Yet a crucial problem remained: what might happen if the President couldn't make it to one of those bunkers in time.

The Constitution makes the Vice President the successor if the President dies or is incapacitated, but it establishes no order of succession beyond that. Federal law, most recently the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, establishes further details. If the Vice President dies or cannot serve, then the speaker of the House of Representatives becomes President. After him in the line of succession come the president pro tempore of the Senate (typically the longest-serving member of the majority party) and then the members of the Cabinet, in the order in which their posts were created—starting with the Secretary of State and moving to the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, and so on. The Reagan Administration, however, worried that this procedure might not meet the split-second needs of an all-out war with the Soviet Union. What if a nuclear attack killed both the President and the Vice President, and maybe the speaker of the House, too? Who would run the country if it was too hard to track down the next living person in line under the Succession Act? What civilian leader could immediately give U.S. military commanders the orders to respond to an attack, and how would that leader communicate with the military? In a continuing nuclear exchange, who would have the authority to reach an agreement with the Soviet leadership to bring the war to an end?

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