Wikipedia:WikiProject Military history/News/July 2017/Book reviews

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Raven Rock - Garrett M. Graff

The Commander in Chief of Strategic Air Command and the crew of a Looking Glass nuclear weapons command aircraft during a training exercise

4/5 stars

By Nick-D

Despite its lurid title, Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government's Secret Plan to Save Itself−While the Rest of Us Die is a serious history of the US Government's continuity of government and civil defence efforts since 1945. The book's focus is on the government's planning and preparations for nuclear attacks on the United States during the Cold War, and terrorist attacks targeting the national leadership since 2001.

I found this to be a chilling, but fascinating, book. Its strongest elements are the detailed account it provides of the massive program of bunker building undertaken by the US Government during the Cold War, and the intricate planning which took place to try to minimise casualties and preserve some remnants of central authority in the event of nuclear war. As Graf demonstrates, many of these plans were unrealistic, with the notion that a national government could continue to operate following a major nuclear attack lacking credibility. The sophisticated preparations to evacuate key officials were also developed without proper consideration of human elements - when briefed on their roles in a nuclear war, many privately decided that they would prefer to die with their families than abandon them to survive in a bunker. All of the Presidents during the Cold War era apparently made similar decisions, preferring to remain at the White House to exert control and try to end the war until they were killed rather than escape. When elements of the continuity of government arrangements were put to the test in crises, the results were decidedly mixed.

The book's coverage of the US civil defence efforts and modern continuity of government preparations is less assured. While Graff rightly notes that efforts to construct shelters for civilians were never realistic, he places curiously little emphasis on the evacuation plans that were also developed and the likelihood that these would have been attempted if a nuclear war appeared imminent. While the cities may have been doomed, did the evacuation plans and preparations have some promise to save lives? As details on current continuity of government efforts are largely classified, the book's final chapters are somewhat weak, Graff at times describing fairly trivial information due to the lack of sources to support the kind of detail provided on the Cold War era - it probably would have been best to end the book in 2001. The book would have also benefited from stronger comparisons to the efforts in other countries - the British, European and Soviet efforts are noted only in passing. Peter Hennessy's comparable book on British preparations, The Secret State, indicates that the UK's doomsday preparations were even less realistic than those of the United States.

Overall, Raven Rock provides a useful account of a key but little understood element of Cold War history and nuclear strategy. By illustrating the inability of governments to preserve the lives of their citizens or even their most basic functions in the face of nuclear weapons, it also makes a powerful case for efforts to promote peace between nuclear-armed states.

Publishing details: Graff, Garrett M. (2017). Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself−While the Rest of Us Die. New York City: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1476735409.

Recent external reviews

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan during 2010

Conrad, John (2017). Among the Walking Wounded: Soldiers, Survival, and PTSD. Toronto: Dundurn. ISBN 1459735137.
Montgomery, Adam (2017). The Invisible Injured: Psychological Trauma in the Canadian Military from the First World War to Afghanistan. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0773549951.

Graff, Garrett M. (2017). Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself−While the Rest of Us Die. New York City: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1476735409.

Gutiérrez, Edward A. (2014). Doughboys on the Great War : How American Soldiers Viewed Their Military Experience. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700619900.

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