Imagine that the United States is threatened by a nuclear enemy when, suddenly, both the president and vice president are taken out of the picture. Who would make decisions of war and peace? That may sound like a Tom Clancy novel, but it happened 20 years ago, the day Ronald Reagan was shot.
In that moment, our nation was in the hands of men in the White House crisis center known as the Situation Room. No one could be sure exactly what happened in there until now, thanks to a series of audiotapes that were locked away for two decades. Scott Pelley reports on what Americans didnt know about the afternoon of March 30, 1981.
Ronald Reagan had been president for 70 days when he walked out of a Washington hotel. With six shots, John Hinckley wounded four men: press secretary James Brady, police officer Tom Delahanty, secret service agent Tim McCarthy and the president.
At the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig was trying to reach vice president George Bush in a plane over Texas. The communication was not very good. Finally, he simply told Bush to turn around.
Hurrying to the situation room, national security advisor Richard Allen made sure he had three things; a copy of the constitution, the codes to release our nuclear weapons and a cheap Sony tape recorder. White house lawyer Fred Fielding immediately prepared for a transfer of presidential power.
Mr. Reagan had just collapsed in the emergency room.
The question hanging over the Situation Room was whether all this was a Soviet plot that could lead to war. That very day, a Soviet invasion of Poland seemed a real possibility. And Soviet missile subs were moving in, closer to our coast than usual. Mr. Reagan was headed to surgery and would soon be unconscious.
While we were there in the hallway, recalls presidential counselor Ed Meese, the president was being wheeled from the emergency room to the operating room and he saw the three of us standing there and he said, Whos minding the store?
Over the next few hours, three men would assert control of the Situation Room and U.S. nuclear forces. When it was clear the president was unconscious, Haig famously declared himself in charge.
So the ... helm is right here, he said at the time. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.
Haig, a retired four-star general, was once chief of staff to Richard Nixon and was now Reagans secretary of state.
What I meant was, we had to run a government, Haig says now. We had to have an authority to send all the messages out, to speak should we find it was a conspiracy and to take appropriate action, if necessary, pending return of the vice president.
Meanwhile, talking to reporters in the briefing room, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes seemed vague about who was running the government.
Haig thought that was a disaster. He went to the briefing room. When a reporter asked who was running the government, Haig moved toward the podium.
It was a moment of high tension, says Allen, the national security advisor. And I became alarmed when I had seen him I was standing right next to him, watched his hands and his knuckles were white and his knees were wobbling and his voice cracked.
Haig answered the reporter: Constitutionally gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As for now, Im in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.
Haig was wrong to say constitutionally. The constitution mentions the secretary of state only in an actual transfer of power and then it places him fourth in line.
I wasnt talking about transition, Haig says now. I was talking about the executive branch, who is running the government. That was the question asked. It was not, who is in line should the President die?
Haig says he knew the order of succession better than anyone. In 1974 he was chief-of-staff when Nixon resigned. Haig insists the briefing room appearance was meant to reassure the world and ease the pressure on the nuclear trigger.
There are absolutely no alert measures that are necessary at this time or contemplated, Haig told reporters.
But in the Situation Room, they were making a liar out of Haig. Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger was ordering an alert. American pilots were, at that moment, climbing into their nuclear bombers. Weinberger wanted to save time if this was all part of a Soviet plot.
It's based on the idea that until we know a little bit more about it, its better to be in the plane than which saves three and a half to four minutes than it is to stay in their quarters, Weinberger said in the Situation Room.
I said up there, Cap, I am not a liar. I said there had been no increased alert, Haig responded.
Well, I didnt know you were going up Al, Weinberger said.
Weinberger then told the room he was calling the shots for the military.
Youd better read the constitution, Haig said to him. We can get the vice president any time we want.
But the men in the situation room couldnt make the decision to launch the nuclear weapons without secret codes that are kept in a case called the football - usually at the presidents side.
I had the football brought to me and I held it in my hand, it was under my sheaf of papers and stayed right there all afternoon, Allen says now. It didnt pass into the hands of anyone ese.
It didnt make him feel safe, he says now: Theres no security in holding a document like that in your hand. But in the interest of prudence, you wanted to have everything there that you might need in the worst case.
In time. it became clear the gunman was a deranged loner. Mr. Reagan and the others would all survive. Four hours after the first shots, the vice president arrived and shut down the situation room.
Allens tapes have been in a drawer all these years and surfaced now to the surprise and annoyance of some who were there.
I dont recall the recording, Haig says now. What was its purpose to monitor me or to keep a record?
Asked what he thinks now, Haig says: I dont worry about the midgets.
What about his famous pronouncement that he was in control? Only the Beltway gang gives a hoot about it. The rest of the world, as I told you, was reassured. Ive been through a number of national crises and a number of presidencies from Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis to war in the field and that Cabinet and that White House performed very, very well that day. There was no panic.
Does he have any regrets? No. Maybe if I had had a shotgun, I might have disposed of a few subsequent problems but I didnt have one, he says, refusing to say whom he is referring to.
Sure there was tension in the room from time to time, but isnt that normal? Allen says now. People in crisis without enough information to make all the judgments they needed to make. The real story of that day is that job that was done, not the imperfections and flaws and the little moments of tension that occurred during it.
What did he think when he turned off the tape recorder? Whew. That was a close one.
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