Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die by Garrett M. Graff, Simon & Schuster, 529 pages
Our government is built to last. It may or may not be comforting for you to know that, should some end-of-days situation occur, the U.S. government has robust procedures for maintaining control and evacuating all those essential bureaucratic machines everyone is so fond of to a safe, warm place.
Raven Rock by Garrett M. Graff is the ultimate guide to these plans, which he describes in vivid and almost eye-crossing detail (to the degree he is able, given that much of the material is necessarily classified). The book is named after the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, a multimillion dollar fortress of defense and command in Pennsylvania from whence, if the world ends, what remains of America will be defended by what remains of the Pentagon. In case anything happens to the president, or the vice-president, there are rules of succession of power that ensure that the U.S., though bathed in nuclear waste, will still enjoy an Enduring Constitutional Government. The modern presidential line of succession runs from the president to, 17 seats down, the Secretary of Homeland Security, with (bewilderingly) the Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy somewhere above that. While there were laws about succession prior to the nuclear age (with assassinations, presidential health, etc., all coming into play), the configuration we live under today was set into law in 1947, with some amendments to include newly created cabinet offices. This scenario is played out most vividly in the television show Battlestar Galactica, where an A.I.-enabled robot attack results in the destruction of Earth and most of its government, leaving just a few hundred remaining human beings on starships under the command of the Secretary of Education.
Graff describes the concept of the chain of leadership succession as we know it now as a product of the nuclear age, the deadly speed of a missile attack or bombing making it essential to have procedures that can be implemented within minutes of a threat or hours of a disaster. “The nuclear age also transformed the presidency from a single person working in the White House to a much broader idea,” Graff writes. While the world burns all around us, we as Americans can rest assured that the responsible individuals we voted into office have contingency plans for escaping to underground bunkers built into the sides of mountains that we, as Americans, have spent decades paying for.
Graff, an author, academic, and journalist whose beat has included writing about technology, and editing both the Washingtonian and Politico Magazine, is encyclopedic in his history of the development of these protocols — too detailed, perhaps, for the casual reader or doomsday enthusiast. While his description of the government’s plans to save itself are good fodder for conspiracy theorists, the book is a work of serious journalism. Graff never stoops to wild conjecture about zombie apocalypse situations, and dramatic subtitle aside, Raven Rock may be too dry for people looking for a titillating real-life Walking Dead vibe. He discusses everything from governmental procedures for life after the rockets (“As part of imagining the post-attack world, the Internal Revenue Service ran studies and exercises on how to calculate and levy taxes after a war”) to the delicate bureaucratic machinations behind the forest of acronyms like FEMA and COG and SCATANA that, one hopes, will save us all from the endtimes. For those with more than a passing interest in the history of the Cold War and its machinations, Raven Rock provides a fascinatingly urgent lens through which to follow the story. The book is ultimately mostly the history of how and why these plans exist.
Where Graff is most interesting is in his descriptions of the theoretically quotidian technicalities of life at Raven Rock and other such facilities like Mount Weather in Virginia; how they have been (or have not been) kept secret, where everybody would sleep, how much everything costs and would cost if it had to be used, and how many secret control-base airplanes are rolling around on tarmacs every day just in case the president needs to escape a nuclear blast from anywhere in the country. These bunkers (of which there are many) are almost self-contained cities, ranging sometimes miles under the earth. “At the center of the mountain [at Raven Rock] was the core of the facility … five parallel caverns that each held large three-story buildings, carefully positioned on coiled springs to ease swaying during a nearby attack.” These will be the chthonic control centers from which World War III would be fought, although command would still be with the sitting president, in theory, riding out a nuclear blast from one of the many versions of Air Force One.
Ultimately, Raven Rock is not light reading. It is, however, engagingly written for those who want to know how the sausage of U.S. government is made, and how it is all likely to unravel in the event that the world does, as some news agencies would suggest, come to an end soon. But Raven Rock also begs the question: What is the essence of America? If there are very few remaining Americans, but we still have the Constitution, the president, and the Pentagon, is the torch still lit? Because remember, as it currently stands, if the Battlestar Galactica scenario does play out, the ragtag remainder of the human race will be under the reasoned leadership of ... Betsy DeVos.