Fortress America


by Edward Zuckerman.

Viking, $18.95.

BACK IN THE mid-1970s, when ordinary Americans still thought that arms control and détente were the order of the day, high officials of the nationalsecurity community gathered on many occasions to listen to ninety minutes of highly classified bad news delivered by the chief of Air Force Intelligence, General George Keegan, in what came to be known as “the Red Fortress briefing.”Along with jazz, briefings constitute one of the two important new art forms of the twentieth century. Great briefings will eventually be collected and studied with the same amazed respect we accord the works of the Greek orators—the speeches of, say, Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon, which also warned that the barbarians were at the gates. If there is any justice in this world, Keegan’s account of Soviet civil-defense programs will be high in the classic canon of Great Briefings, Officials who heard it say it was an awesome performance—a slow and relentless accumulation of details about ambitious Soviet protective measures that could have only one possible purpose: to help the USSR survive, and thereby win, an all-out nuclear war. Prominent on the list of scary particulars were deep, blast-hardened shelters for Kremlin leaders. First a gigantic hole was dug in the ground. In it was placed a steel sphere perhaps a hundred meters in diameter. Water, food, and electrical generators with ample fuel made it selfcontained. Air ducts with filtration systems connected it to the surface. A series of heavy blast doors protected the entrance shaft. The whole thing was supported by huge steel-spring shock absorbers buried deep in a cushion of coarse gravel of the sort used for building highway roadbeds, covered by an immense concrete slab, and finally covered by perhaps thirty feet of earth. Thus protected, arguably the shelter could withstand up to 1,000 pounds of atmospheric overpressure per square inch from a nearby nuclear explosion. An ordinary brick house, by way of comparison, could be demolished by five pounds of overpressure. At least seventy-five such shelters had been identified within the Moscow ring road, enough to offer refuge to thousands of Soviet leaders. The Soviet civil-defense effort also included foodand fuel-stockpiling programs, city-evacuation plans, preparations to protect critical machine tools, and public education that reached out into every war-critical corner of Soviet society. It was a vast range of expensive efforts, on a scale never dreamed of in the United States—a Red Fortress, in short, ready for nuclear war.
The general public never heard much about the Red Fortress briefing, but it added to General Keegan’s fame as a formidable briefer in national-security circles and contributed to the great tide of alarming reports about Russian military efforts which rose up by the end of the 1970s to sweep away the SALT II treaty, the remnants of détente, and the complacent official confidence that everybody— Russians, too—understands that there is no way you can win a nuclear war.
Well, right now, this minute, I suspect, some Russian colonel in military intelligence with a good command of English is working up a “Fortress America" briefing with a copy of Edward Zuckerman’s The Day After World War III at his right hand. The United States is getting ready to survive a nuclear war, too. Congress has been parsimonious, but the planners have done what they could with limited funds, and Zuckerman lays it all out in fascinating, relentless detail — the massive shelters and underground command posts; the 122 stockpiles of sixty-one different metals and other strategic materials; the cityevacuation plans; the Federal Emergency Plan D and “Other Than D" documents to help the President control inflation and keep the economy rolling beginning on Day One after the shooting starts; the computerized “before" list of everything of substantive, practical value in the United States, to aid in damage assessment; the warning networks; the boilerplate news stories telling citizens how to dig in, ready for emergency delivery to newspapers around the country in the event that a crisis threatens war; the mechanisms to keep track of the President and his sixteen designated successors to ensure that there will always be a National Command Authority ready to shoot back.
The mills of government grind exceedingly small. It seems that every last federal office, many state governments, and some of the bigger private corporations have all been getting ready, if only on paper, to fight the war. It’s hard to imagine a Russian colonel’s reading this long account of American war planning without an uneasiness that the alarmists in the Kremlin must be right: the United States believes it can fight and survive a nuclear war. The evidence is right there.
The Americans may attempt to explain it away, but what they are doing is getting ready, and if the officials quoted by Zuckerman can be taken at their word, they don’t think they’re wasting their time or the country’s money: these programs are going to work.
But there is one thing in Zuckerman’s exhaustive book that the Russian colonel is probably going to miss—its tone. Zuckerman is an able writer with a capacity for literary discipline. He has chosen to let the facts speak for themselves.
His voice is calm, exact, friendly, fair, and sometimes gently amused. He does not rant, hector, or nit-pick. He does not fall off his chair hooting at some of the solemn proposals bureaucrats have conjured up for dealing with a calamity on the order of a new Ice Age.
THIS IS NOT the place to rehearse all the awful things that might happen in a serious nuclear war. Both sides have got more weapons than assets. It used to be joked in Washington that the ideal nuke could be dropped on the men’s room in the Kremlin. This is a joke no longer. The men in the blast-hardened shelters when war begins will die there. Nothing in a known location on or near the surface of the earth can be considered safe. But the civil-defense planners won’t give up. They insist that their proposals are practical and effective. We might argue at length about each one. Indeed, there is a vast literature that does argue the particulars in bookkeepers’ detail. Lacking funds for hardware, the planners have spent much of what they could get on research. Evidently there are rooms full of the stuff. But common sense tells you the plans just aren’t up to the challenge. It’s as if the government really did anticipate a new Ice Age, and the men entrusted to prepare for it began telling us to buy snow tires, lay in an extra cord of wood, draw inspiration from the Eskimos, mend our sweaters, keep a two-week supply of canned goods in the larder, and above all remember that—bad as it might he—the ice was sure to retreat again after a thousand years.
Zuckerman might have indulged himself in much savage humor at the expense of the planners who can’t help treating nuclear war like an extended bout of foul weather. At times the temptation must have been excruciating. But the planners at the Federal Emergency Management Agency are doing their best; they deserve honor, too. Zuckerman has been content simply to describe their plans and the nutty circular reasoning on which they’re based. Civil defense is deterrence by another name. If we fail to come up with crisis relocation plans to match those of the Russians, FEMA says, then the Russians might think they have an edge—thus making war more likely. “So, if we had crisis relocation plans, we would never need to use them,”Zuckerman writes, paraphrasing an argument he must have listened to many times. “We would only need them if we didn’t have them. And we didn’t have them. So we needed them.” This breathtaking formula is at the heart of American defense policy. Ir explains everything—weapons enough to threaten the planet, and civil-defense measures to escape the threat.
The Day After World War III is interesting, frequently hilarious in a macabre way, and full of solid instruction on the history of our current impasse. Many books have been published on the subject of nuclear weapons in recent years, but very few as good as this one, or as troubling, or as fair. I am sure many readers will find themselves thinking, to their own amazement, that some of FEMA’s ideas aren’t so crazy after all. But ultimately this is a sobering book, and a sad one, too. Civil-defense planning is not crazy; it is a sign of despair. It is what we do because we have given up hope that we can ever work things out with the Russians. Maybe mended sweaters will keep us warmer in the new lce Age, but so what? Maybe evacuation plans and fallout shelters will save the lives of millions for a couple of weeks, but what will they eat thereafter? Where will they lay their heads during the long ordeal of recovery? Who will tend their wounds and minister to their grief? How will they live with the awful knowledge that the Russians are recovering, too, and that one of the things both sides have put at the top of the list is recovery of the ability to wage general nuclear war? Zuckerman need not hammer at his message. We get the point. The civildefense planners, like the warriors and the diplomats, have not found it in themselves to admit that we have created a problem bigger than our solutions.