Plan C: America's Nuclear Doomsday Plan to Declare Martial Law-The Top Secret Cold War Countermeasure That Would Have Placed the United States Under Martial Law

Newly released documents show that the U.S. government drew up a plan in April of 1956 for how to deal with an impending nuclear war. What was its strategy? Declaration of martial law, evacuation of top American personnel to secret offices, and the immediate detention of over 12,000 people with ties to "subversive organizations." It was called Plan C.

Muckrock has obtained these new Cold War-era documents detailing the doomsday scenario through Freedom of Information Act requests sent to the FBI.

Plan C evolved and changed as different people in the chain of command got involved. At one point, Plan C was envisioned as a measure that would be implemented before any potential war might start. In other iterations, it was to be the course of action only after nuclear war with the Soviets had begun.

On November 22, 1955 the Soviet Union first successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb, finally catching up to the United States with its nuclear tech capabilities. The H-Bomb was roughly 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that had been dropped on Japan a decade earlier, and more than ever, the U.S. was concerned about the prospect of worldwide nuclear annihilation. By April of 1956 it had drafted its new emergency response.

One aspect of Plan C was the implementation of an emergency program to arrest precisely 12,949 individuals whose "affiliations with subversive organizations" made them a threat to the security of the United States. "Enemy diplomats" were to be arrested as well. The newly released documents don't include who precisely was on these lists.

Was there a Plan D? You bet. Plan D involved the relocation of all high ranking government personnel to secret locations. It was part of "Operation Alert, 1956," which was tested in July of 1956. Details of the CIA's plan for Operation Alert 1956 were released in 2009.

As Muckrock notes, Plan C was never distributed widely and details of the plan were ordered destroyed in July of 1957. Only about 30 pages about Plan C have been released so far. There are roughly 150 more pages that are still being processed. Some of the remaining unreleased documents are being looked over by FEMA.

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We're no longer embroiled in the middle of a Cold War. Or at least we're not supposed to be. But you can bet that the U.S. government has all kinds of contingency plans in place in the event of nuclear war or the like. Do those plans include martial law and the rounding up of people considered subversive? I suppose we'll find out in another 60 years. Provided we're lucky enough to avoid nuclear war in the first place.

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The top secret Cold War countermeasure that would have placed the United States under martial law

“Plan C” would have detained 12,949 individuals due to their ties to “subversive organizations.”

Starting on April 19, 1956, the federal government practiced and planned for a near-doomsday scenario known as Plan C. When activated, Plan C would have brought the United States under martial law, rounded up over ten thousand individuals connected to “subversive” organizations, implemented a censorship board, and prepared the country for life after nuclear attack.

There was no Plan A or B.

The first known mention of this strategy was a memo released by the FBI to MuckRock under a Freedom of Information Act request. It is an invitation to the Bureau to attend an afternoon meeting on April 19, 1956, organized by the Office of Defense Mobilization.

Held in the same room as the president’s usual press briefings, just across from the White House in the Executive Office Building, this briefing requested the presence of three top officials from every department, except the Department of Justice which was asked to bring four.

It was here that the broad details of Plan C were laid out:

-Officials would designate certain personnel as essential, and develop secretive remote backup offices to be used in the event of an emergency. Each of these sites was to have multiple communications links with the outside world.

-The plan was to go into effect before actual war broke out, but when conflict with the USSR seemed imminent.

-Martial law would be declared, and 12,949 individuals would immediately be detained as likely threats to national security due to their ties to “subversive organizations.”

-Soviet diplomats and couriers would be taken into protective custody before being handed over to the State Department. Embassies would entered and searched for nuclear devices.

Details of this program were distributed to each FBI field office. Over the following months and years, Plan C would be adjusted as drills and meetings found holes in the defensive strategy: Communications were more closely held, authority was apparently more dispersed, and certain segments of the government, such as the U.S. Attorneys, had trouble actually delineating who was responsible for what.


Bureau employees were encouraged to prepare their families for the worst, but had to keep secret the more in-depth plans for what the government would do if war did break out. Families were given a phone number and city for where the relocated agency locations would be, but not the exact location.

While the released memos (which were stored in the FBI’s secretive Special File Room) trace much of the general outlines of Plan C, the Plan itself was never released. A July 3, 1957, memo ordered the destruction of copies of the Plan, perhaps because they were outdated, superseded, or just too controversial. And while the FBI released about 30 pages of memos and communications regarding Plan C, there are about 150 more pages that the FBI is still processing, consulting with other departments and agencies (notably, FEMA) regarding their appropriateness for release.

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