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The following excerpts are drawn from an extraordinary document entitled "Notes on the Expanded Cabinet Meeting held from 2:30 to 3:45 P.M. on Wednesday, July 25, 1956." These notes capture a remarkable meeting in which senior government officials congratulate themselves on the success of the just-held nationwide annual civil defense drill known as "Operation Alert, 1956." Operation Alerts were highly publicized government mandated events that were conducted from 1954 through 1961. These Cold War spectacles were discontinued, in large part, as a result of increasing public protests which included demonstrations by Norman Mailer and Catholic Worker Dorothy Day. Late in the Cabinet meeting, President Eisenhower himself expresses his feelings about what he has just heard regarding the latest Operation Alert. The President is both complimentary and disparaging in his reaction. Eisenhower's comments offer a perfect illustration of the schizophrenia that existed in our leadership during the Cold War over the issue of preparing for the unthinkable. On the one hand, there was a political necessity to install and test the machinery of Continuity of Government; on the other hand there was the unavoidable skepticism over whether the machinery could possibly function in the face of a nuclear attack. This previously classified document is an invaluable record of one president's inner-conflict over Civil Defense. The document resides in Box 7, Cabinet Series (Ann Whitman File) at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, KS.
This excerpt finds the President reminding his best and brightest (Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks in particular) that while civil defense drills are fun, they are by no means to be confused with the real thing. Note Secretary of Defense Charles E. Wilson's witty rejoinder to Ike's tirade. Even the official note-taker found it amusing.
The President referred to Mr. Weeks' statement that he had sent 450 people to a relocation site rather smoothly. He reminded the Cabinet that in a real situation these will not be normal people – they will be scared, will be hysterical, will be "absolutely nuts". We are simply going to have to be prepared to operate with people who are "nuts". (Mr. Wilson at this point commented humorously that he could say he was used to working with people who were nuts.)
This excerpt, which, in the source document immediately follows the previous excerpt, finds the President confessing that nuclear war would probably drive him nuts, too.
This characterization will apply to Department Heads – to the President himself; we will be a bewildered people. The plans for work at relocation centers should be drawn up on the simplest possible lines, in order to enable a man who will be completely beside himself with grief and apprehension about his family and his country to carry on and do something which will be of use.
In this excerpt the President asks some practical questions...
The President stressed the job of trained government people is to preserve some common sense in a situation where is everybody is going crazy. Who is going to bury the dead? Where would one find the tools? The organization to do it? We must not assume that we are going to handle these problems with calmness. Any such assumption would be completely unrealistic.
In this excerpt, the concept of letting the normal bureaucracy slide (at least for a little while) following a nuclear attack is discussed.
The President added that he thought the greatest lessons we have learned is the growing understanding which all of us have found as to how necessary this work is. He then asked if the Budget had any comments and Mr. Brundage remarked that he was impressed by the low priority which had to be given such problems as indemnification, losses, insurance, etc. – these things will have to wait. The Secretary of the Treasury voiced the general feeling that the consideration of such problems was totally out of place in the early stages of an attack. The President commented vigorously that we simply are not going to be issuing ration cards and deciding how much gasoline people will have. We will be running soup kitchens – we are going to be taking care of a completely bewildered population. Dr. Flemming commented also that the problems of restoration of credit had been worked on by Treasury and the Federal Reserve but that these problems have no place in the D plus five or six days.
July 25, 1956 Expanded Cabinet Meeting Attendees: President Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, Jr., George M. Humphrey, Charles E. Wilson, William P. Rogers, Arthur E. Summerfield, Fred A. Seaton, True Morse, Sinclair Weeks, James P. Mitchell, Marion B. Folsom, Percival F. Brundage, Arthur S. Flemming, Philip Young, Harold Stassen, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, Val Peterson, General Nathan Twining, Donald A. Quarles, Charles C. Finucane, Thomas S. Gates, Jr., Allen W. Dulles, Arthur F. Burns, Robert B. Tootell, J. Edgar Hoover, Rosel Hyde, H. E. Cook, Walter W. McAllister, Francis Adams, C. Canby Balderston, Franklin G. Floete, Albert M. Cole, Walter Scott, Owen Clarke, John Victory, Alan T. Waterman, James Lay, Wendell B. Barnes, Abbott Washburn, Harvey V. Higson, Lewis B. Hersey, Loy Henderson, Carter Burgess, Victor Cooley, Merwin H. Silverthorn, Innis Harris, Charles Kendall, Katherine Howard, Louis Berry, Ralph Spear, Emil Reutzel, Brig. General Benjamin P. Caffey. Also attending from the White House Staff: Joseph F. Finnegan, Bradshaw Mintener, Arthur Larsen, Walter Williams, Maurice Stans, Andrew N. Overby, Sherman Adams, Maxwell M. Rabb, Comdr. Edward L. Beach, Murray Snyder, William H. Jackson, Lt. Edward S. Crosby, Wilton B. Persona, Col. A. J. Goodpaster, James C. Hagerty, Gerald D. Morgan, Bradley Patterson, Bryce N. Harlow, I. Jack Martin.