How I Learned To Worry and Stop Loving the Bomb:
An interview with L. Douglas Keeney, author of The Doomsday Scenario
By Kevin Canfield

With apologies to the late Stanley Kubrick, whose masterly 1964 film Dr. Strangelove was tagged with one of the funniest subtitles in movie history ("How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"), L. Douglas Keeney’s new book could’ve been called "How I Learned To Worry and Stop Loving the Bomb."

A military historian, author and documentarian who lived through the duck-and-cover drills that were supposed to save the lives of a generation of Baby Boomers, Keeney has dropped a bomb on the nation’s false sense of security.

Four years ago, he unearthed the U.S. government’s previously-unpublished Cold War-era plans to deal with nuclear attack. The text was reclassified a year later—but not before Keeney had enough information to publish it as The Doomsday Scenario (MBI Publishing Company, $19.95). The book rose to number 240 on’s list of best-sellers—a startling figure for a book of its type.

Though very much a document of mid-20th century America, the book shows how little has changed in terms of the nation’s readiness to deal with disasters like 9/11.

Keeney discussed his book recently in a phone interview from his home in Louisville, Ky.

How did you learn about this document—when was that and why did you decide to pursue it?

I didn’t learn about the document. I was doing research on another Cold War era story in the National Archives and while I was there one of the archivists came over and said, "You know, we’ve got this new record group that we released a week or two ago." And I said, "What is it?" And it was the files from the Secretary of the Air Force from the period of like 1956 to 1966 — the formerly secret and classified documents from the files. And boy, your eyes get big when something like that is told to you. So I extended my reservation for a couple days and just started going through the files for 1958 because that was actually the year of an incident that I’m doing a book on. So I really came upon it quite by accident. It wasn’t something I was looking for.

You’re always attentive when you’re in Cold War documents, Cold War files, because so little has been declassified. I looked at it and checked the pedigree to see who the distribution list was in this case. It was called the Emergency Plans book. It was written on letterhead of the Department of Defense and circulated to all the right people, the [National Security Agency], the Attorney General, chiefs of each branch [of the military]. As I read through the opening, I realized that this was the only official guidance for what might happen in the event of a strike by the Soviet Union. I requested a declassification sticker, ran off a copy and hoped I wasn’t found and got out of there fast.

When I did come back a little while later, the record group had been removed and put back into the classified section of the archives.

Which means you encountered some resistance to having it see the light of day?

Well, what it means is that that record group, or a good portion of it, was reclassified after it was declassified. Someone thought better of it on the Air Force side of the fence and they reclassified that record group. The archive is neither a classifying nor a declassifying authority, so when they were asked to remove that record group, which probably had two or three million pages of documents in it, they removed it from general circulation and reclassified it—meaning you have to have a secret-level clearance. As far as I know it has not been declassified again.

This was what year?

This was ‘98, when I found it, late ’98, ‘99 when I went back to do some research and fill in some gaps. One of the sections that was missing in the version that was released was called the Military Effects. And "effects" is sort of military jargon for destruction. The effects section would’ve documented most certainly what different types of bombs would’ve done on different types of targets, military bases, cities—New York, Washington. And the Military Effects section, for a lot of good reasons, was not declassified. But I felt [the book] was kind of empty without nodding toward it, so I went out to the Department of Energy in Nevada, and they had some photography that had just been declassified. I went through the files and pulled some pictures that did show the military effects to illustrate that section. After I had done that I sort of felt like it was a book.

What role did the plan play on 9/11 and thereafter?

Clearly, the continuity of government programs that emanated from the Emergency Plans book were very useful in the aftermath of 9/11. Obviously, the plans were activated, key federal officials were moved to their relocation centers and the bunkers that were built from 1958 to 1988 were used. It was probably the second time they’ve ever been used. Probably during the Cuban Missile Crisis they were used.

Another way to look at it is, for all the good in [the plan]—and I don’t want to take an ounce away from it—we were very slow reacting. We really didn’t have time for the type of delay we had in moving the president, in moving Cheney, in moving all the key officials out of Washington. They would’ve been cut down like a knife through butter. We reacted fairly slow.

What really shocked you about this plan, or surprised you about the way it was composed?

There are two things. One, you used the right word: how it was composed, or how it was written. It was written in such plain English. If you’ve dealt with formerly classified documents, Pentagon documents, that’s usually not the case. This really just laid it out matter-of-fact: The bombs will go off here, they’ll go off there. We'll have no warning, there will be a lot of dead. We’ll have trouble recreating society. It was just laid out in plain, matter-of-fact, straight-up English, and that’s not typical of Pentagon documents.

What’s also not typical of Pentagon documents is for it to be such a brutally negative scenario. Usually you find in some way shape or form that no matter what the scenario is, there’s a solution—and thus ends the typical Pentagon document. But in this case, no. It was: These are our [intelligence] sources, these are our best estimates of Soviet capabilities, and we know our own [capabilities.] It’s a very ugly picture. It’s a very devastating picture.

The subtext of sentences was what became important. You could read it very quickly, but if you stopped and unpacked each sentence, much, much more information bubbles to the surface.

How old are you?

I’m 50.

You lived through this era, then. Is this like revisiting an eerie chapter from your youth?

Well, very much. I remember duck-and-cover and my father taking me to civil defense drills. To go back into that and to then see it from the inside out, it did take me back to when I was a child. It sort of shocked me to think that while I was kind of guessing that duck-and-cover was going to take care of my life, in Washington this document was circulating, and saying really not at all.