The elite command and military intelligence officers of the United States gathered every day at a high-security location. The timing of their meetings left no doubt that it was not a coincidence. Something was bringing them together at agreed-upon times.
From the perspective of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, this routine gathering could not possibly be ignored. Could this be the focal point for a plan for a preemptive nuclear strike against the USSR? Perhaps it is a secret bunker to guarantee the continuity of government in the event of a nuclear war?
Whatever it was, it certainly warranted the attention of Soviet nuclear strategists as they contemplated the best use of their formidable arsenal of nuclear missiles.
What was this nefarious place that possibly posed the ultimate threat to the survival of the USSR?
In the center of the Department of Defense’s Pentagon headquarters is a 5-acre park. Accessible only to those who have clearance to enter one of the most carefully-guarded places on earth, it offers a peaceful respite to the people who spend the day preparing for and preventing war.
During the tensest days of the Cold War, there was a hot dog stand in the middle of the park. The convenient location made it a prime spot for Pentagon employees who wanted to grab a quick bite to eat without having to leave the high-security facilities.
According to legend — fully supported by Pentagon publicists — the daily activity by so many military specialists drew the attention and suspicion of the Soviet Union. In response, Soviet nuclear strategists decided the hot dog stand needed to be wiped out if the Cold War ever turned hot. Consequently, not one, but two Soviet ICBMs were targeted upon the unsuspecting hot dog stand and its customers.
“Rumor has it that during the Cold War the Russians never had any less than two missiles aimed at this hot dog stand,” Department of Defense Communications Officer Brett Eaton told Stars and Stripes in 2010. “They thought this was the Pentagon’s most top-secret meeting room, and the entire Pentagon was a large fortress built around this hot dog stand. They thought the officers were going to get their top-secret briefings in a protected area, but really they were just going to get lunch.”
It is a wonderful story and offers a rare opportunity to chuckle about something as ghastly as nuclear Armageddon. It is, however, one of those stories that is just too good to be true or to even stand up to the most minimal scrutiny. The Pentagon itself was a top target. With it being the central headquarters for each of the branches of the military, as well as the whole Department of Defense structure, it is highly unlikely that the Soviets thought the open-air surroundings of the hot dog stand were any more of a threat than the reinforced building itself.
The original hot dog stand was torn down in 2006. In its place is a modern food facility with all-weather access for employees. Currently, there is an Au Bon Pain fast-casual restaurant where the hot dog stand once stood. The wooden owl decoy that sat atop the old hot dog stand has been preserved on the newer structure and serves as a historic reminder of the fabled Cafe Ground Zero.
Although the hot dog stand is gone, the story continues to circulate online. Pentagon guests are also treated to the urban legend. Meanwhile, less than ten miles away, the highest-security-level Starbucks in the world operates at CIA Headquarters. Perhaps in time, it, too, will gain near-mythical status with its Pentagon snack shack counterpart. In the meantime, let us all pray that the only cooking that takes place at the location of Cafe Ground Zero is done by conventional ovens.