Economists and (classical) liberals have long criticized the failures of government planning, from Hayek and Mises and John Jewkes to even Robert Heilbroner. Ron Bailey wrote about centralized scientific planning, Randal O’Toole about urban planning, Jim Dorn about the 1980s enthusiasm for industrial planning, and I noted the absurdities of green energy planning.
One concern about planning is that it will lead government to engage in favoritism and cronyism. So who would have guessed that when the leaders of the federal government set out to plan for their own survival—if no one else’s—in the event of nuclear attack, they failed?
That’s the story journalist and author Garrett Graff tells in his new book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die. As the Wall Street Journal summarizes:
COG—continuity of government—is the acronymic idée fixe that has underpinned these doomsday preparations. A bunker was installed in the White House after Pearl Harbor, but the nuclear age (particularly after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb in September 1949) introduced a nationwide system of protected hideaways, communications systems, evacuation procedures and much else of a sophistication and ingenuity—and expense—never before conceived….
Strategies for evacuating government VIPs began in earnest in the early 1950s with the construction of Raven Rock, an “alternate Pentagon” in Pennsylvania near what would become known as Camp David, and Mount Weather, a nuclear-war sanctuary in Virginia for civilian officials….
In 1959, construction began on a secret refuge for Congress underneath the Greenbrier, a resort in West Virginia. In the event of an attack, members of Congress would have been delivered by special train and housed in dormitories with nameplated bunk beds.
The most important COG-related activities during the Kennedy administration came during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the closest this country has come to a nuclear war. Not only was the military mobilization chaotic—“one pilot bought fuel for his bomber with his personal credit card”—but VIP evacuation measures were, for the most part, a debacle: “In many cases, the plans for what would happen after [a nuclear attack on the U.S.] were so secret and so closely held that they were almost useless.” …
The Air Force also acquired, for the president’s use, four Boeing 747 “Doomsday planes” with state-of-the-art communications technology, which were nicknamed “Air Force One When It Counts.”…
Probably the most fraught 24 hours in the history of COG worrying occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. COG projects and training had been ceaselessly initiated and honed for a half-century; but, as Mr. Graff writes with impressive understatement, “the U.S. government [wasn’t] prepared very well at all.”…
While Vice President Dick Cheney had been swiftly hustled to the White House bunker, “those officials outside the bunker, even high-ranking ones, had little sense of where to go, whom to call, or how to connect back to the government,” Mr. Graff writes. But there were enough people in the bunker to deplete the oxygen supply and raise the carbon-dioxide level, and so “nonessential staff” were ordered to leave. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert tried to call Mr. Cheney on a secure phone, he couldn’t get through….
When President George W. Bush heard the news about the attacks that morning, he was in Florida. He was whisked into Air Force One, which, Mr. Graff notes, “took off at 9:54 a.m., with no specific destination in mind.” It would eventually land, and the president would address the country. But “Air Force One’s limitations”—it wasn’t one of the Doomsday planes—“came into stark relief.” For one thing the plane’s communications systems were woefully inadequate for what was required on 9/11. “On the worst day in modern U. S. history,” Mr. Graff writes near the end of his exhaustingly detailed account (I sometimes felt buried alive under its mass of data), “the president of the United States was, unbelievably, often less informed than a normal civilian sitting at home watching cable news.”
Fifty years of planning for a single event, the most important task imaginable—the survival of the republic and their own personal survival—and top government officials still didn’t get it right. A good lesson to keep in mind when we contemplate having less-motivated government officials plan our cities, our energy production, our health care system, or our entire economy.