As faithful readers are well aware, CONELRAD has long been fascinated by Cold War government relocation sites. And, as far as we know, there is no site more intriguing than Mount Weather, a facility that has outlived the Soviet Union and remains operational and at the service of the President of the United States to this day. Ironically, over the course of its half century-plus existence the “top secret” installation near Berryville, Virginia has burrowed its way into the public consciousness. But few visitors have ever talked openly about what the place is really like. So when we had the opportunity to speak with someone who had spent time at the site during the Cuban missile crisis, we basically hopped on the next train to New York City for an interview.
Jack Rosenthal, the current Interim Director of Roosevelt House, the Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, was the Assistant Director of Public Information in the Justice Department in 1962. At the height of the missile crisis he was temporarily transferred to the White House to work on their emergency information planning in the event of an attack on the United States. We spoke with Mr. Rosenthal over lunch at the charming Match 65 Brasserie at 29 East 65th Street on January 16, 2015.
We hope that you find the conversation illuminating.
CONELRAD: Do you recall if you read Seven Days in May before the Cuban missile crisis?
JACK ROSENTHAL: I may very well have because I knew [co-author Charles W.] Bailey [1929-2012] fairly well. I'm sure I did because it had such wonderful word of mouth and reviews.
CONELRAD: You mention the book in your 2004 oral history interview for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and the fact that the authors used a different name for Mount Weather.
ROSENTHAL: Right, Mount Thunder, I remember that.
CONELRAD: So I guess the question is, do you remember hearing about Mount Weather before you were formally told about it?
ROSENTHAL: No. I'm sure I assumed there were such places, but I had no reason to know about it.
CONELRAD: Could you briefly describe the circumstances that led you to being detailed from your post as Assistant Director of Public Information at the Justice Department to the White House to work on updating emergency planning?
ROSENTHAL: My boss was Ed Guthman [1919-2008] who was the director of public affairs and was a very close aide to Robert Kennedy [1925-1968]. I was a kid, assistant director of public affairs. It was an exalted title - number two man in a two man office. But, as you know, RFK was deeply engaged in the missile crisis and I had had frequent dealings with the White House. For example, each cabinet department was responsible to provide a weekly report of interesting activities that might come up at the President's weekly press conference. That was my responsibility each week to draft the Justice Department's report to the White House. I'd known Pierre Salinger [1925-2004]. He'd once been the press aide to RFK when Kennedy was the head of the rackets committee investigation [the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management AKA the McClellan Committee]. Anyway, Pierre, with Andy Hatcher [1923-1990], the deputy press secretary, were obviously up to their ears in dealing with all manner of press inquiries about the actual events [of the Cuban missile crisis] and about the noise stirring around Washington. Anyway, they were vastly overworked and I think Bobby [Kennedy] suggested that I be sent to the White House to help.
CONELRAD: Was this after the missiles had been discovered on Cuba?
ROSENTHAL: I don't remember.
CONELRAD: But it was in that general time period.
ROSENTHAL: It had to have been.
CONELRAD: Could you briefly describe what your assignment was?
ROSENTHAL: Sure. I was given an office which later became famous. It was Room 1 in the Executive Office Building. The fact that it had only a single digit meant that it was in the basement. The door was like a safe - there was no door handle, there was a combination. It was pretty workman-like space, but I remember being kind of thrilled to be able to say I had an office at the White House.
CONELRAD: And who later occupied that space?
ROSENTHAL: It became famous during Watergate. I guess one of the leaders of the Watergate break-in...
CONELRAD: E. Howard Hunt [1918-2007]?
ROSENTHAL: Yes. He was the occupant.
CONELRAD: So that space was the headquarters for the Plumbers unit?
ROSENTHAL: Uh-huh. [Editor’s note: Nixon administration speechwriter William Safire remembered the Plumbers office number as 16 in a 1989 New York Times column; several prominent Watergate books, including Stanley Kutler’s The Wars of Watergate, cite the office number as 16].
CONELRAD: So what were you actually tasked with doing on this assignment?
ROSENTHAL: There had been a lot of papers developed, long before, in the abstract of what to do in the case of emergencies. And it was tiered, so if you got to DEFCON 5 [editor’s note: Rosenthal meant to refer to DEFCON 1] which is the most dangerous level with the whole country on alert, these were the things that had to be done. Well, Pierre and Andy Hatcher had never been confronted with this before. Nobody had ever thought to bring it up to date. It had probably been written five years before. So, as I recall, they said 'here, figure it out.'
CONELRAD: And were these contingency plans for the dissemination of news? Or was it more broad than that?
ROSENTHAL: I am sure there were aspects of it that went way beyond news, on things like how do you get members of Congress out of the city. But my piece of it was limited to dissemination of news. I started with which journalists would be saved. As I recall, I was told there was room for fifty. That was TV and print. Of course, there was no online then. It included photographers and tech people, not just actual writers and editors. So the first thing I had to figure out was who. I think that was probably one of the reasons I was chosen. Because at the Justice Department we dealt with maybe two hundred press inquiries a day.
CONELRAD: So you knew all the journalists...
ROSENTHAL: Right. Anybody who covered the Justice Department was somebody I knew. So I remember painfully going over a list of people and wondering how do you balance a columnist I didn't think very much of as opposed to a reporter who I thought really did work. And that was really hard. In retrospect I think that was the hardest part of the job. But that was just the beginning because very hard questions then arose - tangible practical ones, like how do you get...Do you let these people know in advance? Do you get them issued passes to get in? How do you get word to them to go where when an evacuation is to take place? Where will the helicopters land to take you to the site? I remember the questions, but I don't remember the answers.
CONELRAD: But something was arrived at?
ROSENTHAL: Must have been. By the time we got to that level of detail, the crisis was already easing enough so that things were suspended. But the next thing was for me to go see the site. I guess my first briefing was with Ed McDermott [1920-1999] who was head of the Office of Emergency Planning or Preparedness. He issued me my pass.
CONELRAD: Could you describe that pass?
ROSENTHAL: Yes. I was thrilled to get it because it was so James Bond-like. All government I.D. at that point was black and white. My official government I.D. was in a leather case with "Department of Justice" on the outside in gold and on the inside [was] a black and white picture of me with my I.D. Well this was, for God's sake, in color. A color photo of me in a laminated plastic card. And not just color, but woven gold threads across the face of the picture to make it impossible to counterfeit. And it had some numbers on it, but very little writing. As I recall, all it said was "If found, return to G.P.O such and such, Washington, D.C. What was interesting about the card is not just that it was hard to duplicate, but unless there was an identical one in the box at the guard gate at the site, you couldn't get in. McDermott told me the story about how he'd gone to the Supreme Court to give Chief Justice [Earl] Warren [1891-1974] his card. And he briefed the Chief Justice about what the site was and here's his pass. And the chief looked at it and he smiled benignly and he said "I just had a question: where's the pass for Mrs. Warren?" And McDermott mumbled something about how we only have room for the 2,100 most important people in government. And the chief gently pushed the pass back to him and said, "Here, you'll have room for 2,101." He obviously wasn't going to go without his wife.
CONELRAD: When did he tell you that story? Was it years later or at the time of the Cuban missile crisis?
ROSENTHAL: No, at the time.
CONELRAD: Was he dismayed? Did he want to convince the Chief Justice to go to Mount Weather?
ROSENTHAL: No, I think he kind of admired it in a way. [Editor’s note: At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Warren’s Supreme Court had a long standing contract with the Grove Park Inn of Asheville, North Carolina to serve as a relocation site. Mr. McDermott was aware of this fact, but he still wanted the Justices to relocate to Mount Weather].
CONELRAD: So please go on with your account of visiting Mount Weather.
ROSENTHAL: So McDermott turns me over to his assistant, maybe his deputy - a man named Frank Muckenhaupt [1922-1992] who escorted me to the site. [Editor’s note: McDermott’s Deputy at O.E.P. was Colonel Justice M. Chambers. Muckenhaupt was worked in various roles in disaster recovery and public affairs during his 20 year government career].
CONELRAD: And was that via helicopter?
ROSENTHAL: No. We were met on 18th Street, outside the E.O.B., by a government van. I think probably the van was a regular shuttle back and forth to the site. It was a tan van. It was a cloudy, kind of gray day in October. On the way up Frank briefed me on what the site was all about. I'm guessing it took the better part of an hour to get there. We wound around a circular road, two lane road - leading up. We got one full view of all of Mount Weather with the blast doors showing. But as we climbed, we sort of lost track of which side of the mountain we were on. We drove past the weather station on top of the mountain and I remember seeing cyclone fence and weather towers and we came down the other side. It was probably the southwest side where the blast doors were.
CONELRAD: Could you describe your reaction to the blast doors?
ROSENTHAL: I guess I was astonished by the size of it. It was like a great slice of the mountain had been cut away and replaced by huge sheets of steel studded with bolts and painted in a beige color more or less to match the surrounding environment. So we got to the regular door where the guard station was and showed our passes and then I'm sure we walked in, but they must have opened a door to let the van inside. And then I was taken a tour of the facility.
CONELRAD: Did Frank Muckenhaupt give you that tour?
ROSENTHAL: We were met by someone assigned to the site [who gave the tour]. I'm not sure I can reconstruct the tour for you in order, but I will tell you scenes that stick inside my mind. So, several distinct impressions: one was we walked down a long corridor, like a tunnel, and then through some doors into what looked like a hallway at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There were fluorescent lights, a series of doors, just as they would be at a government department building. There were blue placards with white writing on them, just as you would have in a government department. But instead of being sub-offices, they were whole departments. So the department of HEW occupied part of a corridor and then you kept on walking and there was the Department of the Interior all of a sudden. And if you looked in any of the offices, except for the fact that were no windows, they looked just like they would have on Independence Avenue in Washington. Another scene: I guess you would call the control room. A very large room, very high ceiling, of the kind you've often seen in movies since then or in pictures from NASA. I had never seen anything like that at that earlier juncture.
ROSENTHAL: Big screens, maps. I hope I'm not misremembering, but I believe the wall screens were in fact like big color TVs. They weren't computer screens. But there were a lot of desks arranged near the screens.
CONELRAD: So it was Strangelovian?
ROSENTHAL: Yes. And the man who showed it to us was very proud of how elaborate and modern and space age the technology was. The next scene: the press room, a not very large room like all the others with a series of wooden desks and typewriters and that's all I remember of that.
ROSENTHAL: One room that left a real impression felt like it was low ceiling, but it was large. With row after row after row of three-tiered bunks. Not bunks exactly - hammocks. Blue hammocks.
CONELRAD: Like something you would see in the Navy?
ROSENTHAL: Maybe a little firmer than that. The idea was, if I remember correctly, they said there were 900 bunks. But there were some 2000 people there, so people would sleep in shifts.
CONELRAD: And this was in a very large room?
ROSENTHAL: With an almost oppressively low ceiling. And I guess I wondered who you'd have to be to get one of the lower bunks.
CONELRAD: Did you see where Robert Kennedy would have slept?
ROSENTHAL: Probably, but I don't remember.
CONELRAD: Were there special quarters for higher ranking people?
ROSENTHAL: There was an area set aside for the President, but it was said at the time that it was highly unlikely that he would come there. Because the safest place for him was in Air Force One flying somewhere. And there was another special presidential hideaway - I don't know where. I guess if I were to guess, somewhere near Camp David.
CONELRAD: So did your tour take you anywhere else?
ROSENTHAL: No, I think we had lunch in the cafeteria. Again, it was like being in a government cafeteria except no windows.
CONELRAD: I think in your oral history interview you mentioned that they had paper roses or flowers on the tables.
ROSENTHAL: Could be, I don't recall it anymore.
CONELRAD: How long did you stay at Mount Weather that day?
ROSENTHAL: Well, I am thinking it was dark by the time we got back, so probably at least a couple of hours. I remember at some subsequent point about being anxious about giving away the real name. I couldn't remember which was Thunder and which was Weather.
CONELRAD: How many times did you go to Mount Weather?
ROSENTHAL: Certainly once, maybe a second time.
CONELRAD: Were there any sections of Mount Weather that were stated as being off limits to you?
ROSENTHAL: The only thing I can think of was - I don't know if it was off limits - but we did not go into the space set aside for the President.
CONELRAD: Did you generate a lot of paperwork when you were working at the Executive Office Building on these plans?
ROSENTHAL: Well, I don't remember. You sent me a memo that I wrote and that's all that I remember. I was surprised at how much detail went into it. [Editor’s note: There are two Jack Rosenthal memos related to his work for the White House Emergency Information Program in 1962. They can be found here].
CONELRAD: Were there any pre-positioned messages at Mount Weather by Arthur Godfrey or Edward R. Murrow to be played in the event of an attack?
ROSENTHAL: I have no recollection of anything like that. Doesn't mean it wasn't so.
CONELRAD: Is it possible there was a vault at Mount Weather containing audio and film to be played over the Emergency Broadcast System?
ROSENTHAL: Sure, but I have no recollection of it.
CONELRAD: Was there a broadcast operation at Mount Weather?
ROSENTHAL: I'm sure there was. I have a dim recollection of a little TV studio. But that's all I can say - a dim recollection.
CONELRAD: Did Robert Kennedy ever talk with you about whether he would have actually gone to Mount Weather in the event of an attack?
ROSENTHAL: Not that I recall.
CONELRAD: What was Ed McDermott like? Do you remember much about him?
ROSENTHAL: Somewhat tall. Somewhat dark haired. Very businesslike, but would occasionally let a sense of humor show through. But it would be irresponsible to say anything more, because I hardly knew him.
CONELRAD: Was there any place to get an alcoholic beverage at Mount Weather in 1962?
ROSENTHAL: Not that I know of.
CONELRAD: You might be interested to know that since your time there, they have added a saloon called the Balloon Shed.
ROSENTHAL: Oh? [Laughs].
CONELRAD: Was it difficult not discussing Mount Weather with anyone else?
ROSENTHAL: Probably no more so than not talking about other classified things that I came in contact with regularly.
CONELRAD: Was your time working on these contingency plans more or less restricted to the Cuban missile crisis period?
CONELRAD: So you went back to your regular job after the crisis ended?
ROSENTHAL: Yes. Early in November.
CONELRAD: When you were working on these contingency plans, did you become aware of the Congressional bunker at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia?
ROSENTHAL: I knew there was such a thing. In fact, at the time I learned about Mount Weather, the question came up about where would Congress go? I was told there was a huge elaborate thing at the Greenbrier, but they had a bitch of a time getting congressmen to agree to go even to go see what it was like.
CONELRAD: So they told you where it was and what it was for?
ROSENTHAL: Well, let me back up. I don't know if I knew it was the Greenbrier as opposed to White Sulphur Springs, but it had to be one of the two.
CONELRAD: So you were told the site was either the Greenbrier or White Sulphur Springs?
ROSENTHAL: Well, I was told they're located in some resort type of place and I probably understood that there were only two possibilities.
CONELRAD: In that area?
CONELRAD: So you being a Washingtonian I am sure you were aware of the Greenbrier.
ROSENTHAL: And White Sulphur Springs, also.
CONELRAD: And there's really only one thing in White Sulphur Springs of any note.
ROSENTHAL: Right [laughs].
CONELRAD: Have you ever taken a tour of the Greenbrier bunker?
ROSENTHAL: No. Could I go back to Mount Weather?
CONELRAD: I don't know. Would you like to?
ROSENTHAL: Not enough to make a special trip.
CONELRAD: Do you still have your Mount Weather ID card?
ROSENTHAL: No. I left the government [in 1967], it was taken back.
CONELRAD: Thank you for your time!
ROSENTHAL: Thank you for lunch.
The preceding Interview with Jack Rosenthal was conducted by Bill Geerhart on January 16, 2015 in New York City. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.