It was the most elaborate fallout shelter of them all: a once-secret bunker hidden under the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia
“We got a big bomb and they got a big bomb,” says Martha Buckley. “Then we got a bigger bomb and they got a bigger bomb. It was a stand-off.”
That’s how Buckley sees the early days of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were poised to annihilate each other with atomic, and then hydrogen, bombs. It was a terrifying time when many Americans dug underground fallout shelters in the probably futile hope of protecting themselves from nuclear war. Now, Buckley leads several daily tours of the most elaborate fallout shelter of them all. It’s the once-secret bunker hidden under the luxurious Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., an enormous subterranean hideaway designed to house the United States Congress—100 senators, 435 congressmen and about 500 staffers—in the aftermath of a thermonuclear apocalypse.
“In the event we were attacked,” Buckley says, “1,100 people would relocate to this facility.”
Buckley escorts two dozen tourists down a long hallway through the elegant hotel and into two elevators heading down. A blond woman with a warm smile, she grew up near the Greenbrier during the 1950s and now serves as a guide for the 35,000 tourists who pay $30 to wander through this bizarre Cold War relic every year.
“You are 30 feet underground,” Buckley tells her tour group. She shows them an enormous gray steel door. It looks like the door of a bank vault, but it’s much, much bigger—10 feet high and 12 feet wide. It is filled with concrete and weighs 25 tons. It protects one of the entrances to the bunker and was designed to withstand a nuclear explosion 15 miles away.
Buckley leads the group past the door and down a grim gray tunnel that is 433 feet long and lined with pipes. She stops at the first place where the senators and congressmen and their aides would have come after arriving from the irradiated, post-apocalyptic world outside—the “decontamination showers.”
“They would take off all their clothes, which would then be burned in an incinerator,” Buckley says. “And then they would go through the showers. After that, they would be given new clothes—two sets of fatigues and a pair of sneakers—and issued a bag of personal items.”
For tourists old enough to remember the Cold War, Buckley’s words conjure up strange, unwanted mental images of the prominent politicians of that age—Hubert Humphrey, Strom Thurmond, Wilbur Mills—stripping off their dark suits and scrubbing radioactive fallout off their naked bodies. It’s not an image you hope will linger. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no longer any water in these showers,” Buckley says, smiling mischievously, “so please, do not remove your clothes.”
It all began when President Dwight D. Eisenhower summoned leaders of Congress to a secret meeting at the White House. Ike urged congressional bigwigs—Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, as well as the minority leaders of the House and Senate—to create a plan to safeguard Congress in the event of a nuclear attack. The country already had secret bunkers for the president and the Supreme Court, Ike pointed out, and the Constitution requires that the legislative branch also function to maintain what military planners dubbed “continuity of government.” Not surprisingly, the congressional leaders agreed and began searching for a place to hide from hydrogen bombs.
Nobody knows exactly why the leaders selected the Greenbrier, but the choice made sense. The hotel was close to Washington but not too close—roughly five hours away by car or train, and surrounded by mountains that might help block clouds of fallout drifting from a nuked capital. The winds also tend to blow from the west and southwest toward Washington from these parts. The Greenbrier was already a resort familiar to many politicians, who had visited to play golf and hobnob with rich contributors. And the federal government had a history of cooperating with the hotel, which served as a military hospital during World War II.
“What really swung it in our favor,” Buckley says on her tour, “is that Ike was interested in our golf courses.”
That’s a joke but there’s some truth to it. Ike did love golfing at the Greenbrier, and in March 1956, during a summit with foreign leaders there, he met with Walter J. Touhy, president of the C&O Railway, which owned the hotel. On March 28, 1956—the day Ike left the Greenbrier—the four congressional leaders sent Touhy a letter:
“This is to introduce Mr. J. George Stewart, Architect of the Capitol, who is calling upon you on matters of vital importance to the Congress of the United States. We, the undersigned, representing the leadership of the United States Congress, will appreciate any cooperation you may give us.”
That deliberately vague, two-sentence letter is the only document linking Congress to the Greenbrier bunker. It did the trick: Soon, the Architect of the Capitol was working with carefully selected Greenbrier staff to design and build an enormous underground home for Congress. The secret operation went by several code names—first, “Project X,” then “Project Casper” and finally “Project Greek Island.” The money to fund construction—about $14 million—was surreptitiously paid not to the hotel itself, but to its owner, the C&O Railway, which did business hauling freight for the U.S. military.
In 1957, the Greenbrier announced the construction of a new wing, which would include guest rooms, a large exhibition hall and an indoor recreation area. In 1959, construction began with the digging of what local residents dubbed “the big hole.” Indeed, it was the biggest hole they’d ever seen, and soon contractors began pouring enormous amounts of concrete into it—50,000 tons, enough to build underground walls three-to-five-feet thick. Shielded behind a high fence, workers constructed 153 rooms, including 18 dormitories, a 12-bed hospital, a power plant, a TV studio and separate chambers for the House and the Senate—112,000 square feet on two subterranean levels. On top of the bunker, workers piled more than 20 feet of dirt. Then they built the West Virginia wing of the hotel, which included 88 guest rooms and a huge underground exhibition hall that served not only as a venue for trade shows but as a convenient explanation for “the big hole.”
Everyone who worked on the project was investigated by the FBI and compelled to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but rumors spread anyway. “Basically, the rumor was that it was a bomb shelter for the president,” says Robert Conte, the Greenbrier’s official historian. “People just assumed that it was for the president.”
In 1959, editors at the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia’s premier newspaper, heard the rumors and wrote to the hotel management: “We hear you are building a bomb shelter for the President.” The newspaper didn’t mention a bomb shelter for Congress, so the hotel’s vice president did not have to lie when he responded: “I know nothing about a bomb shelter for the President. We are constructing an Exhibit Hall, new meeting rooms, and approximately one hundred air-conditioned guest rooms.”
The enormous construction project was completed in 1961, and rooms in the West Virginia wing were opened to the public in April 1962. Six months later, American U-2 spy planes flying over Cuba discovered Soviet nuclear missiles, which led to the most terrifying moment of nuclear brinkmanship in history—the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“They started out with C-rations, then they went to freeze-dried food, then MREs—Meals Ready to Eat,” says Martha Buckley. She’s standing in the bunker’s long, dark tunnel telling tourists about the food that was stored there—enough food to feed 535 hungry pols and their aides for 60 days. “And everything has a shelf life, so it was all rotated in and out, “she says. “And this went on for 30 years.”
She leads the group past the bunker’s three 25,000-gallon water tanks, and through the power plant, with three diesel generators and enough fuel to run them for six weeks. “Every Wednesday night for 30 years they came in and tested them,” she says. Then she points out a big black incinerator that was capable of burning 500 pounds of garbage per hour. “If necessary,” she says, “it could handle pathological waste, which is a delicate way of saying, if they had a corpse, they could cremate it.”
When U-2 planes photographed Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba in October 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President John Kennedy to invade the island. Instead, Kennedy dispatched warships to blockade Cuba and search all incoming Soviet ships. The Soviets announced that their ships would resist, denouncing the blockade as “an act of aggression propelling humankind into the abyss of a world nuclear-missile war.”
American bombers, loaded with nuclear weapons, circled in the air, awaiting orders. For more than a week—until the two sides reached a compromise—the world hung on the brink of thermonuclear war. If ever there was a moment for Congress to flee to its secret bunker at the Greenbrier, that was it. But they stayed in Washington.
“It was deemed unworkable,” says Ted Gup, the former Washington Post reporter who revealed the secret of the Greenbrier bunker in 1992. “You could not evacuate Congress without the Soviets knowing. And if the Soviets knew that Congress had withdrawn from the capital, they could well have reasoned that the U.S. might not wait for an attack but instead launch its own preemptive attack. So the withdrawal of Congress would be seen as a provocation.”
“The very act of moving Congress out of Washington would have been a sign to the Soviets of an upcoming war,” says Conte, Greenbrier’s historian.
In other words, the bunker was designed to save Congress from a nuclear attack but Congress couldn’t go to the bunker because that might cause a nuclear attack. It’s a classic Catch-22, and it suggests why the bunker was never used: Congress couldn’t go there before an attack without creating doubt about America’s intentions, and if Congress waited until after an attack…well, its members might already be blown to smithereens.
“Was the bunker feasible?” Conte asks. “There’s endless discussion on that, but it seems to me it would only work if you knew when the war was going to start—because you were about to start the war.”
Perhaps the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis taught congressional leaders that the bunker was, as Gup says, “unworkable.” But that didn’t cause them to close it. It remained in operation for the next 30 years, maintained in a constant state of readiness by a half-dozen employees of a cover company called Forsythe Associates. The Greenbrier claimed the Forsythe workers were hired to repair the hotel’s televisions—and they did repair televisions—but they spent most of their time servicing the sophisticated equipment in the bunker, including high-tech communications and encryption devices. The cost of maintaining the bunker was kept secret, of course, but Conte estimates that by the late 1980s, it was well over $1 million a year.
In 1991, the Soviet Union—the enemy that the bunker was designed to defend against—ceased to exist, and the Cold War staggered to its anticlimactic end. By then, Gup, a veteran investigative reporter, had learned about the Greenbrier bunker, and seen photos of it. “My sources,” he says, “were people within the national security community who would never have shared that information with me if they believed the facility was still viable.”
Gup interviewed some of the few government officials who knew about the bunker, and found them skeptical. “I never put much credence in it,” said former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. “I just didn’t think it would work.” O’Neill also said that he would never have gone to the bunker if the country was attacked. “I kind of lost interest in it when they told me my wife would not be going with me,” he told Gup. “I said, ‘Jesus, you don’t think I’m going to run away and leave my wife? That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of.’ ”
In 1992, while Gup was reporting his story, Thomas Foley, who was then speaker of the House, summoned Leonard Downie, then the Post’s executive editor, to a meeting at the Capitol, and asked Downie not to publish the story. “Foley said if we published it, he’d have to shut [the bunker] down,” Downie recalls. “But Ted Gup had talked to members of Congress who said they wouldn’t go because they couldn’t bring their families….It seemed to me that publishing it would not harm national security or the public safety.”
On May 31, 1992, the Post published Gup’s story, “The Ultimate Congressional Hideaway,” to enormous international interest, and Congress promptly ended the bunker program.
“Congress was worried that people would think, ‘They’re protecting themselves, not us,’ ” says Conte. “And because it’s at the Greenbrier, people would think, ‘Congress is going to a luxury resort while the rest of us are incinerated.’ ”
“Because the existence of the place was revealed, it forced Congress to come up with a more responsible plan,” says Gup. “It exposed an archaic plan and caused Congress to create a more realistic plan.”
What is that plan? If Gup knows, he’s not telling. And neither is anybody else.
As for the Greenbrier bunker, most of it is now utilized as a climate-controlled storage space for the records of large corporations. The rest is a tourist attraction. “The Greenbrier can assist,” its Web site promises, “with hosting parties in the Bunker using James Bond, M*A*S*H or spy themes.”
“Welcome to the briefing room,” says Martha Buckley. She leads her tour into a television studio where senators and congressmen could tape messages to folks back home—assuming those folks were still alive and their TVs were still working. On one wall is a huge color photo of the Capitol. The pols could stand in front of it to give viewers back home the illusion that Washington was still standing. The trees in the photo bear green leaves indicating that it’s spring or summer, but there were alternatives.
“They could even change the colors of the leaves in the picture,” Buckley says.
She leads the tour past one of the bunker’s small dormitories, which still contains a few of the tan metal bunk beds the politicians would have slept in. Nearby, there’s a recreation room with a TV, some barbells, an exercise bike and a bookcase containing a few volumes. “They did maintain copies of the New York Times best-seller list here for 30 years,” Buckley says.
Most of those books were donated to local libraries long ago, but a handful remains. The title of one of them, written by Paul Erdman, asks a question that would no doubt have popped into the minds of politicians sitting in a subterranean bunker while waiting out a nuclear apocalypse: “What’s Next?”
Peter Carlson is the author of K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude Starring Nikita Khrushchev.