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Our government going under (ground, that is)

“Doomsday is near. Die all, die merrily.” — Henry IV, William Shakespeare, cited in Garrett M. Graff, Raven Rock

Now that Kim Jong Un has demonstrated that North Korea has intercontinental ballistic missiles (with miniaturized nuclear warheads) capable of reaching mainland America, perhaps it’s time to dust off COG1.

COG is an acronym for “continuity of government,” a set of plans — developed early in the Cold War years and enhanced during the Reagan administration — for the survival of our culture after nuclear war.

The core of the elaborate multi-billion-dollar system is two primary evacuation centers, Mount Weather in Virginia and Raven Rock in Pennsylvania. Each is a mountain that has been hollowed out and filled with multi-story buildings for workspace and residences. In essence, each is a mini-city, designed to protect certain people in our government from the immediate effects of nuclear war and to house post-war operations.

The two facilities are supplemented by more than 100 other bunkers, sprinkled around the country, as well as numerous mobile units, that have included two ships, the USS Wright and the USS Northhampton. For a time, these ships served as the National Emergency Command Post Afloat (NECPA). Although both ships were decommissioned after the 1960s, it’s likely that others have taken their place for NECPA purposes.

The land-based “control centers” were accessed by armored trains and lead-lined tractor trailers that were hidden in secret locations throughout the nation. Three teams of about 50 members would control the various systems of government and economy under the direction of a cabinet member or other designee. During the Reagan years, the entire operation was put in the hands of Oliver North, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel who sat on the National Security Council. Later in his career, North was convicted in the Iran-Contra debacle, but his experience with money manipulation was actually much greater within COG.

Beginning in 1982, North coordinated with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to accumulate funds for the National Program Office (NPO) and the Defense Mobilization Systems Planning Activity, which formed a vast bureaucracy that could be described as a “shadow government.” For every dollar that FEMA allocated for natural disasters (its expressed reason for existence), $12 was spent on preparation for nuclear war.


During the George H.W. Bush administration, the NPO amassed billions of dollars for the “Doomsday Scenario.” Based on the assumption that many or all elected national leaders would be killed, a plan called TREETOP contained lists of former public officials and military aides, as well as policies and procedures, that would become the “Presidential Successor Support System,” also known as PS3.

The reasoning behind TREETOP was that the successor to the sitting president would likely be a minor bureaucrat or inexperienced Cabinet member who would need the expertise of seasoned staff to reconstruct the government and rebuild the nation. Although this sounds exactly like television’s fictional series “Designated Survivor,” both COG and TREETOP are very real, at least according to Garrett M. Graff, author of a new book on the subject.

As long ago as the Eisenhower administration, nine “czars” of private industry were selected to step in during a national emergency to keep governmental and economic systems running by seizing assets across the country and creating new bureaucracies to control American life until a state of normalcy could be restored.

During the holocaust, the Post Office would keep track of the dead, the Department of Agriculture would take charge of production and distribution of goods and services, and the National Park Service would erect and administer refugee camps. To facilitate all this activity and more, the Federal Reserve kept billions of dollars in cash, secured in vaults under Mount Pony, just south of D.C., while FEMA would funnel funds through regional bunkers in Maynard, Massachusetts, and Denton, Texas. Naturally, all NORAD and SAC command centers would operate to respond to any future or ongoing attacks against the nation.

The new normal

As the Cold War began to wind down, federal money for COG gradually dried up. At one time, we had more than 60 F-15 fighter planes ready to take-off at any given time. But, by 9/11 in 2001, the number had dwindled to 14. When word of the attack on the World Trade Centers reached the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in Boston, only four fighters were ready to go: two F-15s from Massachusetts and two F-16s from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

If the 9/11 attack had signaled the beginning of World War III, a set of priorities concerning symbols of our society would have immediately kicked in, independent of government direction. At the top of the list was the Declaration of Independence and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. The rest of the list was organized in such a way as to preserve or restore America’s culture.

Documents like the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are kept in helium-filled cases where they can be viewed by day, but are lowered into a custom-built 50-ton vault in the basement of the National Archives at night.

Certain masterpieces that hang in various galleries would be placed in pre-designed rolling metal containers. Depending on the nature of the emergency, other priorities would kick in. For example, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Ginevra de’ Benci” would be saved before attention turned to Rogier van der Weyden’s “Saint George and the Dragon.” The Gettysburg Address would take precedence over George Washington’s farewell address. All would be stashed until order could be restored. Exactly how these priorities were assigned is not clear, but they exist.

The greater question, of course, is what happens if the regular line of succession to the presidency is wiped out during a nuclear attack. Those of us who are old enough to remember the attempted assassination of President Reagan know that chaos reigned in Washington when Al Haig claimed to be in charge because Vice President Bush was on a plane over Texas. Theoretically, at least, COG holds the answer.


1. All COG-related information is from Garrett M. Graff, “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 529 pages (409 text, 115 notes), includes 32 pages of photos, none of which shows interiors of either Raven Rock or Mount Weather.

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