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Letters reveal secret 1950s plan for Cold War crisis government

WASHINGTON - A few weeks after the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite in 1957, shattering America's sense of security, CBS president Frank Stanton was summoned to the White House by President Dwight Eisenhower.

By Associated Press
Published March 21, 2004

Stanton knew his friend was agonizing over how to respond to Sputnik and the terrorizing thought that permeated America: Had the Soviets gained a huge first-strike advantage in the nuclear arms race?

But Stanton learned Eisenhower also was wrestling with how best to ensure the U.S. government could function if a Soviet attack wiped out many American leaders. Stanton, who had no experience in government, was taken aback when the president asked if he would be willing to oversee a federal communications agency after such an attack.

"I was surprised and startled by the breadth of the assignment," said the 96-year-old Stanton, who lives in Boston. Nervous about the awesome task of keeping the nation's telephone, radio and television systems operating, Stanton said he "agreed to do my chore."

Stanton was one of six private citizens secretly recruited and granted authority by Eisenhower to run major components of the government in an emergency. No public announcement of the appointments was made. Their existence was confirmed by recently publicized letters.

Presidents are granted vast powers under the Constitution to lead the nation in times of war or enemy attack.

Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush created a shadow government of 75 to 150 officials who worked in mountainside bunkers outside Washington to ensure the government would function if the capital came under attack. All those officials already were in government when they were given the assignment. Eisenhower is believed to have been the first president to go outside government to look for leaders in a crisis.

"Eisenhower went beyond the normal lines of succession, which I think was a reflection of the widespread paralyzing fear that swept the country in the 1950s," said Peter Kuznick, a history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.

Besides Stanton, the appointees included George Baker, a Harvard Business School professor who was tapped to oversee transportation; Harold Boeschenstein, president of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., in charge of manufacturing and production; Aksel Nielsen, president of the Title Guaranty Co., housing; J. Ed Warren, senior vice president of the First National City Bank of New York, energy; and Theodore Koop, vice president of CBS, to oversee an emergency censorship agency. Koop would have had 40 civilian staff members to monitor and control wartime information about the devastation.

Eisenhower also appointed two Cabinet secretaries and Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin to emergency posts for currency stabilization, food and labor.

"The people Eisenhower chose, while they were his friends, they were also the captains of industry of his day. People like Bill Gates today," said Bill Geerhart, editor the Web site Conelrad, or Control of Electromagnetic Radiation. That was the name of nation's first emergency broadcasting system, established by President Harry Truman.

The site posted the Eisenhower documents after obtaining them from the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan.

The selections were based as much on the appointees' geographic location and personal relationships with Eisenhower as their expertise. Nielsen was Eisenhower's regular fishing buddy.

The presidential form letters dated March 6, 1958, provide for the appointees to immediately take office in the event of a national emergency. Until then, they were asked to keep their status secret. They were promised an undisclosed salary, but there were few specifics about their jobs.

A 112,544-square-foot, concrete-and-steel facility in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., built in 1958 at a cost of $14-million, was one of several initiatives to help keep the government operating in the event of a nuclear attack.

Eisenhower's secret group met in July 1960 with the now-defunct Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization to discuss staffing for their agencies. But work barely got started before the group was relieved of its duties by President Kennedy, who took office in 1961.

During the Reagan administration, then-Rep. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who was chief executive of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co., were key players in a secret program to set aside the legal lines of succession and install a new president in a catastrophe, the Atlantic Monthly reported this month.

[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]

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