If North Korea launches a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, one of the only things we know for sure about what will happen next is that the news will race around the world on classified networks using the designation reserved for the Pentagon’s highest-level alert, an “OPREP-3 PINNACLE NUCFLASH,” which signals a possible imminent nuclear war. After that, though, we know surprisingly little about what might unfold — particularly if a surprise attack managed to cripple Washington. (As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) pointed out last month, North Koreans wouldn’t necessarily have to fire an intercontinental missile; they could always smuggle a nuke into the country, even if they probably wouldn’t hide it in a bale of marijuana, as he proposed.)

For three generations, government officials have carefully planned, war-gamed and thought through exactly what nuclear war would entail, and how to protect and rebuild the country in the event of an attack on the capital or elsewhere. They’ve considered which critical documents should be saved before others (the Declaration of Independence first, the Constitution second) and precisely who and how many officials from each agency and department should be evacuated — literally creating “A” teams, “B” teams and “C” teams who would be plucked by helicopters from dozens of designated landing zones around Washington, such as the Pentagon and the athletic fields of American University, and whisked to mountain bunkers near the capital.

Over the years, the government has secretly invested billions of dollars in a complicated set of plans that came to be known as “continuity of government” (COG) and “continuity of operations” (COOP) — an entire apparatus, almost completely unknown to the general public, for when the Doomsday Clock hits midnight. In Philadelphia, a specially trained team of park rangers even stood ready during the Cold War to evacuate the Liberty Bell into the mountains of Appalachia if the Soviets attacked. We know many of these details thanks to records declassified in recent years as the Cold War abated. Continue reading.