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‘Plan C’: Released Documents Show How the FBI Prepared for World War III During Cold War

The existence of “Plan C,” a Cold War plan to be carried out in the event of a nuclear attack, has been publicly known since 1956. There would be a “general mobilization” if an attack occurred but not on the United States itself. But documents obtained by Muck Rock provide a fuller picture of how the top secret strategy may have been implemented if World War III had erupted.

An April 17, 1956, memo from Alan Belmont, who at the time was assistant director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, summarized what the Bureau would do in the event of an emergency.

The FBI would carry out its program for “emergency detention” and apprehend individuals “whose affiliations with subversive organizations” were “so pronounced that their continued liberty in the event of a national emergency would present a serious thereat to the internal security of the country.” The number of individuals who would be rounded up would be 12,949 people. (These were probably people in the FBI’s now infamous “Security Index.”)

“Enemy diplomats” would also be rounded up, particularly “Soviet bloc personnel.” It was estimated that there were about 500 people in Washington, DC, and about 400 in New York, who the FBI would need to help the State Department disarm and capture or take into “protective custody.”

This would all be coordinated by the Office of Defense Mobilization, which is an office that no longer exists in the federal government.

The FBI had already developed a secret “emergency detention” program by the time the federal government was holding meetings on “Plan C” with Justice Department officials and other top officials from various departments in the Executive Branch.

As Morton Halperin, Jerry Berman, Robert Borosage and Christine Marwick wrote in their 1976 book, The Lawless State:

…The only program the FBI was not able to put in motion was its plan for emergency detention in case of national emergency. Nevertheless, the bureau prepared for the eventuality throughout the Cold War decade. The bureau, often without the full knowledge of the Justice Department and under standards far broader than those laid down by Congress in 1950, maintained a number of detention lists. The Security Index had top priority in case of national crisis. This list, which included the Communist leaders, included 11,982 names. Next in line for preventive detention were members of the Party, a list of 17,783 persons contained in the bureau’s Communist Index. These were only the names in FBI headquarters files. FBI field offices listed over 200,000 persons considered by the FBI to constitute a danger to national security in time of crisis…

Ryan Shapiro, a PhD candidate and historian of the political functioning of national security at MIT, suggested, “Especially notable in these documents is that even in the course of secret planning for World War III, what appears to animate the FBI most are perceived slights to the Bureau’s status and concern for maintaining the Bureau’s nearly unchecked authority.”

From memos, which were initialed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a key problem for the Bureau seems to have been what would happen under martial law when the military was in charge:

At the time, there was much worry within government that the Soviet Union might set off an atomic weapon. The FBI was concerned that martial law might cause the Bureau to have to abandon certain “emergency programs.” There might be interruption to the Bureau’s work if something was not done to avoid it.

Hoover’s handwritten notes appear on the records, showing his insistence that FBI representatives be granted greater representation at the meetings. The FBI is part of the Justice Department and yet he would push for additional representatives.

A January 8, 1957, shows the Bureau is upset that materials on “contemplated tests” of exercises will be sent to the Attorney General and not the FBI. Belmont maintains that the FBI has “heavy responsibilities in the Internal Security field and that contemplated tests and exercises affecting the FBI should be called immediately to the attention of the Bureau.” In other words, the Bureau does not want to be treated as a subordinate of the Justice Department.

Another memo dated January 23, 1957, pettily declares that US Attorneys are struggling to understand what their duties would be in the event of an emergency while the “Bureau is far advanced in its field and Seat of Government (SOG) planning, particularly in field preparedness, SOG instructions to the field, field and SOG relocation and communications.”

Belmont advised in a July 3, 1957, memo that the Assistant Attorney General had instructed the document, “Mobilization Plan C” dated November 30, 1956, be destroyed. It appears this may have been a record of the plan itself

Files related to “Plan C” were in the FBI’s “Special File Room” in October 1964. They were then approved for removal from the room on July 3, 1973.

The “Special File Room” has typically been where the FBI has kept its most sensitive material, records that would probably embarrass and further expose criminal conduct if the records were ever released. They are stored separate from the Bureau’s central filing system.

Even though the records were removed from the “Special File Room,” they were not automatically declassified and remained secret. There are still various related files that remain secret.

These records were a part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by Michale Morisy of Muck Rock in November 2013. It sought specific historical records from the FBI on plans that would have involved the suspension of the US Constitution.

Several documents requested are being processed by the FBI and other government agencies and involve other emergency actions the government believed it once had the authority to take to “keep the country safe.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."