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 Keeneys new book couldve
been called "How I Learned To Worry and Stop Loving the
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 nations
false sense of security.
Four years ago, he unearthed
the U.S. governments previously-unpublished Cold
War-era plans to deal with nuclear attack. The text was
reclassified a year laterbut 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 Amazon.coms list of best-sellersa 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 nations readiness
to deal with disasters like 9/11.
Keeney discussed his book
recently in a phone interview from his home in Louisville,
How did you learn about
this documentwhen was that and why did you decide
to pursue it?
I didnt 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, weve
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 Im doing a book on. So I really came upon it
quite by accident. It wasnt something I was looking
Youre always attentive
when youre 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 wasnt found and got out of there
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 itmeaning
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 wouldve
documented most certainly what different types of bombs
wouldve done on different types of targets, military
bases, citiesNew 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 theyve 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 dont
want to take an ounce away from itwe were very slow
reacting. We really didnt 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
wouldve 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
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 youve dealt with formerly classified documents,
Pentagon documents, thats usually not the case.
This really just laid it out matter-of-fact: The bombs
will go off here, theyll go off there. We'll have
no warning, there will be a lot of dead. Well have
trouble recreating society. It was just laid out in plain,
matter-of-fact, straight-up English, and thats not
typical of Pentagon documents.
Whats 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, theres
a solutionand 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.] Its a very ugly
picture. Its 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?
You lived through this
era, then. Is this like revisiting an eerie chapter from
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.