Neither Snow, Nor Sleet, Nor Heat, Nor Fallout...

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Many government agencies developed and regularly updated plans to resume operations after a nuclear war. Two efforts in particular deserve mention.

Beginning in the early 1950s, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) developed an Emergency Planning Manual, outlining procedures to allow mail delivery following a nuclear attack. These plans were regularly updated, including a complete revision undertaken in 1981. In addition, Executive Order 11490, dated October 28, 1969, as amended by Executive Order 11921, dated June 11, 1976, assigned USPS responsibility for emergency mail service and other duties associated with civil defense programs.

In addition to handling mail delivery, USPS was responsible for distributing and collecting special change-of-address and safety notification cards to facilitate mail delivery and help other government agencies and family members locate survivors. Some 60 million change-of-address cards were printed and stored at about 30,000 post offices (where they perhaps remain). Detailed instructions were also stockpiled, telling people how to fill out the forms and account for any missing persons (and, for postal officials, how to test the cards for radioactivity before processing them). Among the actions outlined in the 1981 revisions, local postmasters were authorized "to burn stamps to prevent their 'falling into enemy hands,' restrict post-attack mail to first-class letters, and place an immediate ban on the issuance of money orders for payment in the country that attacked the United States."[1]

At a 1982 congressional hearing, a USPS official acknowledged that a massive attack would at the very least make implementing the agency's plans difficult, but he defended them by saying the agency must be prepared. Members of Congress questioned the viability of the USPS plans, given their dependence on volunteer mail carriers and the likelihood that major road systems would be destroyed and the availability of gasoline sharply curtailed if not eliminated. When it was pointed out that not many people would be "left to read or write letters after the nuclear bombs explode," the official remarked: "But those that are will get their mail."2 The costs of these emergency preparedness efforts, he also noted, were difficult to compile because "plans are not separable from other administrative costs.... The initial planning done in the early 1950s involved considerable time. Since then, however, only a nominal amount of time is spent on updating the plans each year."[3]

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury Department also spent considerable effort developing plans to assess and collect taxes and revive the economy following a nuclear war.[4] During a 1980 post-attack exercise, code-named REX-80 ALPHA, economists working at secret relocation sites devised schemes to allow for tax-free cash grants to survivors (tax deductions for losses were deemed impractical because the post-attack tax rates would become unreasonably high). To prevent the collapse of the banking system, plans called for the government to step in and purchase destroyed assets, paying off mortgages to the banks over time. For property already paid off, the government would pay the owner over time, allowing some rebuilding to occur.

It is not clear how this scheme would work when most of the records identifying property ownership and mortgage and tax assessments would be destroyed (even though the banks themselves, along with the Federal Reserve, stored critical data in protected underground shelters) and the communications infrastructure shattered. Money to finance these transactions would come from billions of dollars stashed away by the Federal Reserve and, later, from presses stored in shelters by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (see box 3-3).

As with the Postal Service's plans, these scenarios assume only a limited attack, in this case leaving 75 percent of the country unaffected (except for fallout). To generate new revenue, the existing tax policy would likely be abandoned (all outstanding debts and credits would be erased) and a new system — possibly a national sales tax with rates approaching 30 percent — would be implemented (an IRS official explained in 1977 that no firm plan had been agreed on, only that proposals and guidelines had been prepared and stored at relocation sites. "Policy choices should be left to be made intelligently by the survivors," said the official). Government officials were particularly concerned that without some sort of tax system currency would lose all value and people would resort to bartering, making post-war reconstruction efforts extremely difficult.[5]



Edward Zuckerman,

The Day After World War III

(New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 6.

[2] Emergency Preparedness Planning of United States Postal Service, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Postal Personnel and Modernization of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, 97 Cong. 2 Sess. (GPO, 1983), p. 18.

[3] Emergency Preparedness Planning of United States Postal Service, Hearings, pp. 14, 68.

[4] A 1989 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, using a computer model developed by FEMA, found that even a small nuclear attack (239 warheads carrying a combined 77.6 megatons) would either lead to total economic collapse or, at best, a return to one-third of pre-war strength with twenty-five years. See M. Anjali Sastry, Joseph J. Romm, and Kosta Tsipis, "Can the U.S. Economy Survive A Few Nuclear Weapons?," Technology Review, vol. 92, no. 3 (1989), pp. 23-29.

[5] Zuckerman, The Day After World War III, pp. 2-5, 286-87.

Copyright © 1998 The Brookings Institution