WASHINGTON — A few weeks after the Soviets launched the first manmade satellite in 1957, shattering America's sense of security, CBS President Frank Stanton was summoned to the White House to see President Eisenhower.
Stanton knew his friend was agonizing over how to respond to Sputnik and the terrorizing thought that permeated America: Had the Soviets gained a huge first-strike advantage in the nuclear arms race?
But Stanton learned Eisenhower also was wrestling with how best to ensure the U.S. government could function if a Soviet attack wiped out many American leaders.
Stanton, who had no experience or ambitions in government, was taken aback when the president asked if he would be willing to oversee a federal communications agency after such an attack.
"I was surprised and startled by the breadth of the assignment," said the 96-year-old Stanton, who lives in Boston.
Nervous about the awesome task of keeping the nation's telephone, radio and television systems operating after an attack, Stanton said he nevertheless "agreed to do my chore."
Stanton was one of six private citizens secretly recruited and granted authority by Eisenhower to run major components of the government in an emergency. No public announcement of the appointments was made. Their existence was confirmed by recently publicized Eisenhower administration letters.
"The president was planning for the unthinkable," said retired Army Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Eisenhower's staff secretary. "He wanted to bring in the wisdom and competence to reinforce whatever elements of the government survived and provide some assurance that our government could not be decapitated."
Presidents are granted vast powers under the Constitution to lead the nation in times of war or enemy attack.
Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush created a shadow government of 75 to 150 officials who worked in mountainside bunkers outside Washington to ensure the government would function if the capital came under attack.
All those officials already were in government when they were given the assignment.
"Eisenhower went beyond the normal lines of succession, which I think was a reflection of the widespread paralyzing fear that swept the country in the 1950s," said Peter Kuznick, a history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.
Besides Stanton, the appointees included George Baker, a Harvard Business School professor who was tapped to oversee transportation; Harold Boeschenstein, president of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., in charge of manufacturing and production; Aksel Nielsen, president of the Title Guaranty Co., housing; J. Ed Warren, senior vice president of the First National City Bank of New York, energy; and Theodore Koop, vice president of CBS, to oversee an emergency censorship agency. Koop would have had 40 civilian staff members to monitor and control wartime information about the devastation.
Eisenhower also appointed two Cabinet secretaries and Federal Reserve Chairman William McChesney Martin to emergency posts for currency stabilization, food and labor.
"The people Eisenhower chose, while they were his friends, they were also the captains of industry of his day. People like Bill Gates today," said Bill Geerhart, editor of a Web site called Conelrad, or Control of Electromagnetic Radiation. That was the name of nation's first emergency broadcasting system, established by President Truman.
The site posted the Eisenhower documents after obtaining them from the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan.
The selections were based as much on the appointees' geographic location and personal relationships with Eisenhower as their expertise. Nielsen, for example, was Eisenhower's regular fishing buddy.
The presidential form letters dated March 6, 1958, provide for the appointees to immediately take office in the event of a national emergency. Until then, they were asked to keep their status secret. They were promised an undisclosed salary but there were few specifics about their jobs.
The documents show the secret group met in July 1960 with the now-defunct Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization to discuss staffing for their agencies. But work barely got started before the group was relieved of its duties by President Kennedy, who took office in 1961.
Still, subsequent administrations have made contingency plans for government continuity — often involving citizens outside government — in the event of a devastating attack. For example, Kennedy's director of emergency planning, Frank Ellis, said in 1961 that the president had emergency appointees for transportation, agriculture and communications.
During the Reagan administration, then-Rep. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who was chief executive of the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle & Co., were key players in a secret program to set aside the legal lines of succession and install a new president in a catastrophe, The Atlantic Monthly reported this month.