Ludemann on Graff, 'Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die'

Garrett M. Graff
Matthew Ludemann

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, 2018. xxv + 529 pp. Ill. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4767-3540-5; $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4767-3542-9.

Reviewed by Matthew Ludemann (Air University) Published on H-War (November, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War became a driving motivation for the United Stated to develop a plan to survive a nuclear strike. In the 1950s, the United States government began to develop strategies to continue government operations in the event of nuclear war and to preserve the American way of life. Garrett Graff's book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself—While the Rest of Us Die, presents an in-depth examination of the historical plans for the Continuity of Government (COG) in the Cold War. The book’s title comes from the code name given to the alternate Pentagon location in Pennsylvania: Raven Rock.

Graff is an accomplished author, historian, and former editor for two of Washington, DC’s most prominent magazines. Graff became interested in the subject of the COG by a chance encounter. One day at work, he received a lost government intelligence officer’s ID badge from an employee. When he flipped the badge over, he discovered a set of driving directions that mysteriously ended on the side of a mountain in West Virginia. This discovery piqued his interest in finding out about the US government's plans to protect itself in the event of an attack on the United States.[1]  

Raven Rock begins in the days leading up to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Starting with the Truman administration, Raven Rock guides readers through the historical events that shaped the world and political landscape as we know it today. With the realization of a possible doomsday facing the United States, many government officials recognized the need to have a plan to protect executive functions in the event of a nuclear attack. Raven Rock follows the evolution of US government planning throughout the Cold War. It describes detailed plans designed to react to the ever-present threat of a nuclear attack while providing readers an in-depth historical description of the Cold War. 

Throughout the book, Graff highlights the development of the COG plans, beginning with rudimentary bomb shelters under the White House and several other buildings in the Washington area. As the COG plans grew in scope, these initial bunkers led to a vast network of Top Secret shelters across the United States. Graff provides insight into how, in the early stages of the Cold War, planners meticulously considered how to best protect the civilian population in addition to the governmental operations. However, as nuclear weapons became increasingly powerful, President Eisenhower realized that protecting the civilian population was futile. This thinking was derived from the view that a nuclear strike would bring devastation that was not comprehendible. These massive shelters served the sole purpose of protecting selected officials, focusing predominantly on the executive branch, and military members in the event of an attack on the United States. The bunkers were also equipped to facilitate a coordinated counterattack and govern what remained of the country. Graff even provides some speculation as to what COG plans look like in their current form. However, the plans currently remain classified.

Raven Rock goes into extreme detail, mixing historical narratives to explain the ever-evolving situation during each administration and then linking the situation to the evolution of COG plans. This detail, albeit entertaining at times, provides context to help the reader understand the intricacy of the decisions made concerning policy and COG planning. Each chapter begins with a thorough introduction but often becomes bogged down in minutiae that, while interesting, can detract from the overall COG story. An example of this overly detailed narrative is the account of the decision to designate Marine One as the presidential helicopter. Graff uses three pages to explain why President Eisenhower did not like to travel in a particular type of helicopter before returning to the main point of the chapter (pp. 71-73).

Raven Rock highlights how many things we commonly use and take for granted today. The Interstate Highway System, the internet, and commercial airline reservation systems had their roots in Cold War technology developed to defend the US against or aide in recovery from a nuclear strike. 

Ultimately, Raven Rock provides a comprehensive look into COG planning for the US government throughout the Cold War into the modern era. The culmination, with speculation on where COG planning sits in its current form, provides relevance as the threat of a nuclear strike is no longer at the forefront of concern for most Americans. This book offers a glimpse into the thought process of different administrations and provides vital insight into the role the Cold War had in shaping the political landscape of today.


[1]. US National Archives, “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself,” YouTube video, 1:07:35, posted July 18, 2017,

Citation: Matthew Ludemann. Review of Graff, Garrett M., Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself--While the Rest of Us Die. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.