May 1972 saw a substantial amount of history transpire within 31 days. J. Edgar Hoover died on the 2nd and on the same day Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was born. Alabama Governor George Wallace was shot five times while campaigning for president on May 15th, while on May 28th, for the first, but not last time, a team broke into Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Building Complex to plant listening devices and began a series of events that eventually saw the resignation of president Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War raged on with the North continuing the Easter Offensive against South Vietnam. By May, American airpower was pummeling communist forces in the North under Operation Linebacker, but also laser-guided bombs were being used for the first time in combat. That month Haiphong Harbor was notably mined, the first time naval mines were used against North Vietnam.
Nixon on the 28th was far from Washington (and the Watergate Hotel), but was instead in Moscow meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Both had just signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on the 26th. Backed by a number of diplomats and other officials, both men signed for their nations on a long table stretching out before a large staircase in the Grand Kremlin Palace.
SALT, and the ABM Treaty, were often regarded as both a high point of Détente and a shining foreign relations achievement for both Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a presidency that saw others including Nixon’s visit to China. For the first time in the Cold War, both sides had agreed to limit the number of nuclear missiles in their arsenals. The Soviets had ICBM launchers under construction and would be allowed 1,618 under the treaty while the United States, having ended it’s deployment of ICBM launchers in 1967, was only allocated 1,054. In the case of Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles, the Americans could maintain 656 SLBMs while the Soviets could have 740 – although both sides could trade ICBMs for a limited increased number of SLBMs. Neither side could agree on the definition of a “Heavy” ICBM and that debate was left for another day. Both sides continued to keep hundreds of nuclear weapons on alert status.
While it appears that the treaty generously favors a Soviet superiority, there are a few factors not mentioned in the paperwork. The United States had a superiority in strategic bombers (a few of which at that time were committed to conventional missions over Vietnam). Those bombers could carry multiple bombs and many could carry stand-off missiles. In addition, airborne cruise missile development was ongoing and not many years from deployment. Secondly, nowhere in the agreement is the term “Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle”, or MIRV, mentioned. SALT I worked on limiting missiles themselves and not nuclear warheads. The Soviets were working hard to develop a capable MIRV system in 1972, while the United States was in the midst of deploying theirs found in the Minuteman III then being installed in silos within the Grand Forks Air Force Base field (previously at Minot and then later at F.E. Warren and with the 564th Strategic Missile Squadron at Malmstrom). In addition to that, the new Poseidon SLBM was also equipped with MIRVs. While the United States had 1,054 ICBMs, they also would eventually deploy 2,154 ICBM warheads (2,450 by the end of the Cold War). While the Soviets would catch up quickly, if in quantity if not quality, SALT I laid the groundwork for more restrictions to be agreed upon within the ill-fated SALT II agreement of 1979 but later more successfully in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991. Thirdly, in accordance with NATO commitments (and possible but not necessarily reliable support by a French nuclear triad then not a part of NATO), British SLBMs aboard 4 Resolution-class submarines launching in concert with American nuclear forces could pose a further threat to the Soviet Union, but these were not tied to the SALT agreement as Great Britain was not a signatory.
Essentially, if both sides abided by agreements, the strategic nuclear missile arms race was now capped. Each side could verify if the other was cheating via “national technical means” which generally meant surveillance satellites. Other advances were allowed to continue including MIRVs, cruise missiles, new strategic bombers, and other weapons systems later deployed in Europe including the Soviet SS-20 and the American Pershing II/Ground Launched Cruise Missile.
The other treaty would have greater impact on North Dakota when it limited America’s deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system.
While the Soviets had deployed a rudimentary system for the defense of Moscow, the American program had been long mired in development and politics. In 1972, plans were finally coming to fruition as an 80-foot tall concrete pyramid seemingly grew out of the countryside north of Nekoma, North Dakota. The Safeguard program was envisioned as a true Cold War weapons program of massive proportions. While scaled back from the huge Nike-X program, Safeguard still envisioned the deployment of 12 anti-ballistic missile and defense installations around the United States. The first four were planned to defend America’s Minuteman missile fields in North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, and Wyoming. The go ahead for the first two – the defense of the Grand Forks AFB field and the Malmstrom AFB field in Montana was given in 1970. Due to numerous factors, the Grand Forks ABM site was far advanced in construction (85% complete) over the Montana site (10% complete) in May 1972.
The ABM treaty limited the United States and the Soviet Union to two defensive sites, one around a national capital with another defending an ICBM field. The Soviets had stopped with the Moscow defense, while the U.S. found itself constructing two sites defending missile fields with none immediately planned for a Washington DC defense. Work quickly stopped in Montana, but waited until Senate ratification of the ABM treaty in August to permanently put an end to construction. In October, it was decided to not only abandon the Montana site, but to dismantle it as much as possible back to a natural state.
Grand Forks was spared, but not really.
Suddenly, at least according to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers history (History of Huntsville Division), Grand Forks became more of a unique experiment instead of the vanguard of a new weapons system. With the end of Malmstrom (and any other sites beyond that), the Department of Defense began cancelling most of the $1.7 billion in weapons system contracts because without any other ABM installations, what was the point of procuring equipment that wouldn’t be used? Soon after, within the space of two pages of a USACE history once enthusiastic about it’s role in Safeguard, it declared the program a “lame duck” and proceeded to discuss new missions found in the Space Shuttle program and for new bulk mail centers for the U.S. Post Office.
Work continued however as the U.S. Army was keen on gaining operational experience on an ABM system. Enthusiasm for the site remained even as large numbers of construction contractors began to depart northeastern North Dakota for work elsewhere, while smaller numbers of technical specialists and technicians moved in to install the electronics of the complex systems. By late 1974, a further agreement by the United States and the Soviet Union limited each nation to a single ABM site (so no Washington site could be built, although by then there was no plan to build one anyway). By this time even Army enthusiasm for the project was waning. The U.S. Army was resigned to operate the site for perhaps a year and a half to gain experience before reducing the system to a 40-hour a week status without much long-term hope in sustaining the operation. An initial operational capability was attained with a handful of Sprint and Spartan missiles in April 1975, however the system went to a 40 hour work week in August of that year (In essence, please restrict your nuclear attack between the hours of 9 to 5 weekdays). By February 1976, Safeguard was no more.
Many historians, while acknowledging the massive costs of the Safeguard program at nearly $6 billion ($32 billion in 2022 dollars), state that the Safeguard program provided a useful bargaining chip during the SALT negotiations. It demonstrated that not only did the United States have the capability of going to the moon, it could field a formidable ABM defense – likely many times more effective than the Moscow defense. At the same time, an American public and congress were weary of defense spending in the wake of the Vietnam War, particularly when it came to an expensive defensive system with a single site that could be overwhelmed by increasing the number of ICBMs/SLBMs thrown at it. Still, technologically, we did learn a lot from Safeguard.
It might be said that the Pyramid of North Dakota is a permanent testament not necessarily to government waste, but instead might be seen as a monument for a turning point in the Cold War when both sides entered into détente. Diplomacy killed the pyramid instead of a 20 megaton warhead. The Soviets (and later Russians) kept theirs, but it’s effectiveness was, and is, questionable. However, Gerard Smith, chief U.S. delegate to SALT beginning in 1969, stated that “(The Russians) …took [Safeguard] seriously, especially its potential for a nationwide defense which could eventually neutralized the danger to the United States from Soviet retaliatory missile forces”.
Did the pyramid put a brake on the arms race? That might be an overstatement, but it sounds as though the Soviets at least took notice, and SALT discussions continued.
This also marked the time when the construction of massive concrete structures dedicated to defense on the Great Plains, both above and below ground, was at an end. The Arms Race technically slowed, for a time anyway, and some historians say that détente was the end of the first Cold War (a second forming as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and perhaps we’re today witnessing a third).
SALT is typically buried in Cold War narratives, but it shouldn’t be. While both superpowers met from time to time during the period, the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty signified an initial willingness on both sides to cool down the arms race. When two nations came together, both concerned of the buildup and cost of strategic nuclear weapons, and decided to do something about it. That’s pretty remarkable in the context of human history.
Other treaties have come and gone. At Oscar-Zero, START-I is significant as it would close the Grand Forks missile field. Inspectors from the Soviet Union/Russia have come to the U.S. to observe our disarmament and vice-versa. The fate of the ongoing discussions started by SALT is up in the air as of late, and it is difficult to say if any further reductions will be made in light of the end of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty (INF). The rules of the ABM treaty were suspended in 2002, however that did not see the reactivation of the long-shuttered Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex but instead the more limited (and non-nuclear) scope of the National Missile Defense program. What can be said is that the years of negotiations on both sides contributed significantly to modern history, and while diplomacy may not always be possible, the long-term efforts of negotiators in Vienna, Helsinki, or elsewhere deserve recognition in any Cold War narrative. After all, SALT wasn’t a quick agreement. Talks had been ongoing for three years before common ground was reached. And, save for some pauses, we’ve been talking ever since.
Just one more fascinating part of Cold War history.
I’ve planned ahead. We’re just three miles from a primary target. A millisecond of brilliant light and we’re vaporized. Much more fortunate than millions who wander sightless through the smoldering aftermath.Stephen W. Falken – WarGames
The thought crossed my mind laying there in bed not more than 5,000 feet from a flightline loaded with Offutt Air Force Base reconnaissance planes and two E-4 National Airborne Operations Center aircraft over Easter weekend. A few months earlier, I had been shaving when the unmistakable roar of E-4 engines shook my childhood home about 10:00 at night. Of course, my mind considered a “base escape” scenario of the airborne command post rocketing out of Lincoln Airport before a nuclear weapon detonated on or above the fragile flightline.
Studying Lincoln Air Force Base history much of my life, and also living close to the former base, it called back to a notion that the base may have been a primary target in the mid 1960s while it supported a fleet of B-47 bombers and Atlas missiles. On the other hand, we know now that Soviet nuclear weapon delivery systems at the time were, while growing, somewhat limited. Accurate enough to level a dozen or more SAC bomber bases, but not quite precise enough to blast away 1,000 Minuteman missile silos then coming into service. However here I was in 2022, and suddenly the old SAC base was probably on a target list once again – if it had ever necessarily left. Civil defense planners once called Lincoln one of the top 72 defense areas of the country shortly before North Dakota emerged onto the Cold War front stage (the transition years of nuclear forces worldwide in 1963-1967 is a fascinating study). Here was an industrial target of 50,000 persons, had railyards, a governmental center, and a tempting 12,900 foot runway for a target. The thing is, in 1965 or 2022, I just didn’t know. Few did or would know.
If there is one notion, a probable ongoing myth, of nuclear targeting that tends to unite both “nuclear novices” and strategic planners alike, is the idea that we’re all living near target #1. Like our air base will probably be hit with at least 10 SS-18 Satan missiles and then by a wave of Bear bombers to make that good ol’ rubble bounce. Or our city supports a major industrial concern, maybe they make fertilizer, and of course the Soviets would nuke that.
At least in the civilian world, we don’t have the raw data on Soviet nor Russian, nor Chinese (…French?) targeting on the United States. Civil defense plans from the 1960s through the end of the Cold War made a great deal of assumptions, albeit based on logical nuclear warfighting concerns. An interesting read from the 1960s, Strategy for Survival, gives hypothetical rates of megatonnage in an appendix for American target areas (Very proud as a Lincoln AFB researcher to note that Nebraska’s capital city would receive 65 megatons as compared to Offutt’s 50 megatons, if only because of it’s 12 Atlas silos nearby).
In regards to North Dakota, the book was written during the narrow time between the decision to field Minuteman at Minot Air Force Base, but before Grand Forks AFB. The resultant difference? Grand Forks was programmed for a “modest” 5 megatons (bombers and interceptors on the ground are relatively easy to destroy in a nuclear war). Minot? Somewhere around 505 -1505 megatons to take out all of those hardened Minuteman silos.
Downwind of that, outside of a deep Strangelovian-level mine shaft, you’d have a hard time digging deep enough to survive the amount of fallout thrown out from 1500 megatons – presumably ground bursts which can create particularly “dirty” fallout conditions in terms of radiation. A single nuclear burst is difficult to imagine, 1500 megatons – for lack of a better word – is bonkers.
North Dakota generally doesn’t appear in much post-apocalyptic nuclear fiction, but when it is, it is generally wiped off the map like that. War Day by Streiber and Kunetka mentions a heavy counterforce attack against Minuteman silos in the Dakotas whereas most American cities are spared. While traveling by train across Colorado, the two post-attack researchers pose the question of “What happened to Rapid City? or Minot”. A conductor brushes off the question by merely stating that “They’re just no longer there“. Even a counterforce attack against Minuteman missile fields, not American cities, would cause untold levels of suffering. That goes from those living in the land of missile silos, to those downwind, to those who depend on the foodstuffs grown in the northern Great Plains.
This leads back to Dr. Falken’s statement from WarGames, a mindset expressed by many Americans (and presumably Russians too). Would it be better to break out the lawn chair next to a missile silo once it launched and the sirens began to blare? To get closer to a target instead of fleeing to avoid the slow painful death? Whatever the opinion, the truth would be much more difficult.
One only needs to consult John Hersey’s Hiroshima to observe the strangeness (and staggering consequences) of a nuclear burst. At least two persons not that far the hypocenter survived on August 6, 1945, albeit underground, and then at least one lived on for many years after. Perhaps, for lack of a more modest and gentle term, one may be vaporized and etched into the concrete as a shadow, or one might find a more painful fate, or emerge from the rubble as a long-term survivor.
There are simply too many variables to consider. What if your hometown simply didn’t qualify on Soviet target lists as worthwhile? What if the warhead that came in was a dud? What if it missed by a mile? What if the attack was upwind? Would the Soviets chance trying to hit a Minuteman silo that might already by empty? Then again, what if the Soviets just parachuted on in a la Red Dawn?
The Cold War, particularly by the Kennedy years, presented Americans with a level of devastation never previously considered. Isolated by ocean and away from threatening attacks by foreign powers for so long, the United States went from Pearl Harbor to 30 minute nuclear strikes in less than a generation. We’ve reacted to this notion in many ways culturally and as a society – from “Duck and Cover” to “Kissing one’s behind goodbye”. In 2022, with the term “nuclear conflict” reemerging onto world headlines, new generations grapple with the stark threat of nuclear war. However much has changed since the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis and even the “Second Cold War” period of the early 1980s.
What hasn’t changed is the terror of nuclear destruction that emerged in 1949 when the Soviets attained the bomb, although during some periods the bomb lingered quietly in the background like during the 1990s. In a world that has moved from propeller-driven fighter planes to hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons promise the same cataclysmic danger towards human society – even in limited war. Today, we face them much the same as we did in 1949, some with a steadfast embrace of nuclear deterrence, some with mixture of confusion and dread, and I suppose some with a mixture of both – a reluctant acknowledgement of deterrence but perhaps an unrealistic wish that they could be eliminated. The human experience of the bomb, too, presents a worthwhile research.
In any case, the bomb presents us with an odd mixture of the personal and impersonal. As in The Day After, a smoldering, distant threat all of a sudden became all too real and wholly overwhelming to the individual. While it is not something most of us think of on the day-to-day, one can’t help but ponder the targeting when nuclear tensions rise. Am I on the list?, maybe, maybe not.
The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site will open for tours on April 1, 2022. While “By appointment” tours are available during the winter season, April 1 marks the beginning of shoulder season operations and a steady increase in tour demand. Essentially, when one views our yearly attendance graphs, there is a sharp spike from May into June but especially July as temperate and quite pleasant North Dakota summers attracts long distance travelers (it’s hard to beat tent camping here throughout the summer, low humidity and cool nights make for great outdoor sleeping).
On July 17th, Oscar-Zero will mark 25 years since it’s last nuclear alert. A few years after the Cold War ended, but it most assuredly closed because of arms agreements made during the last stages of the Cold War – talks started under President Ronald Reagan, our namesake. Destruction of most Launch Facilities commenced in October 1999 with the last being demolished on August 24, 2001 (Hotel-22) – not many days before the events of 9/11/01.
1997 also marked the year of the great Red River flood that inundated the city of Grand Forks and caused $3.5 billion in damages. A number of people, including airmen from Grand Forks Air Force Base, will remember filling many sandbags in an attempt to stem the tide of snow melt.
There is a great deal of history that lies in the year 1997. NASA’s Pathfinder probe landed on Mars, Titanic premiered in theaters in December. A small company registered it’s first domain name, google.com, and an author named J.K. Rowling published the first Harry Potter book. Actor James Stewart, star of “Strategic Air Command” among many other films, passed away, as did musician John Denver, comedian Red Skelton, and Princess Diana.
In 1997, I remember watching the Hale-Bopp comet on the northwest horizon for many nights and was preparing to enter junior high. Sim City 2000 was on the family Packard Bell computer and GoldenEye 007 was in my N64. So awesome to have my childhood hero Michael Jordan back on the basketball court for the Bulls.
25 years seems like a long time ago.
On tours, we have school children ponder the black box beneath the ancient tube TVs (a VCR) and wonder what days must have been like when cell phones were unavailable but payphones were relatively prevalent. Keep in mind, we’re not going back to the 1870s like at North Dakota’s Fort Buford, nor the 1930s at Stutsman County Courthouse, or even the 1970s at Oscar-Zero. It really feels weird sometimes for kids not to grasp the concept of long-distance calling (and the costs).
Certainly, we’re not going for a “back in my day” nor a “kids today” outlook, but it is refreshing to be reminded about how far we’ve come in 25 (and beyond) years. How about this AOL CD in the mail promising 25 free online hours over our trusty 14.4 kilobaud modem? (Certainly wasn’t rich enough to get that nice 56k!).
I’m a millennial with an awesome staff of baby-boomers and Gen-Z. I was lucky enough to know and learn from the nearly gone Greatest Generation along with fading Silent Generation. How enjoyable to see members of the so-called Generation Alpha pass through the doors of Oscar-Zero. Kids who wander with curious young eyes, marveling at those ancient artifacts of 1997! How awesome to see those of Generation-X share their experiences on our weapons system. Our staff (and at times volunteers) work under the mission of “Identifying, preserving, interpreting, and promoting the heritage of North Dakota and its people” as specified by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. This mission targets no specific age group, nor specific period in state history, rather it is expansive enough to hopefully inspire a great many people into wanting to learn more about the Peace Garden State. We can hope to inspire interest in our state’s history via artifacts unearthed at Double Ditch Indian Village north of Bismarck, in the play area back at the state heritage center, or even in a missile control center 50 feet below the soil north of Cooperstown.
We anticipate 2022, in our 25th anniversary year since shut down, in our 13th year as operation as a State Historic Site, to be one of interest across age divides and to not only North Dakotans but nationally as well. Our Launch Pad Oscar event in June hopes to inspire interest not only in history but science, technology, engineering, and math for young minds. Our daily tours, an intimate and personal look at the history and lessons of Oscar-Zero, continue. We hope to bring back our meteor shower party in August with a few changes learned from our first event last year. Lastly, work progresses on a special new macro-artifact (if you could call it that) we hope to bring to Oscar-Zero before the end of the summer.
We look forward to our continued cooperation with the Friends of Oscar-Zero and the Griggs County Historical Society, along with our friends in the U.S. Air Force, The Association of Air Force Missileers, and a great many other individuals and organizations.
No joke on April 1, we look forward to a busy tour season and look forward to meeting you and hearing your stories. We appreciate larger groups of 10 or more to call ahead before arriving and our parking areas are sometimes limited for larger vehicles such as RVs and 5th wheels. Consider a number of campgrounds in the area that can suit your needs.
Finally, we wish to thank our visitors past, present, and future. Over 50,000 persons have set foot on tour within Oscar-Zero and the future looks bright for this little historic site on the prairie.
It was a chilly -18 below when I took off, Twitter ablaze with news from Ukraine. I wondered what might become of all of it as I took my seat in Denver on a 777 destined for Honolulu. It was the first time there.
The thing about helping run an historic site is that one needs to be refreshed in the techniques in interpretation and even wonder from time to time. The exotic location of Pearl Harbor seemed a promising destination to learn these and also offered a little warmth besides. Of course, one might ponder the relevance of Pearl Harbor and Hawaii to the land-locked Peace Garden State and I’d actually venture to say there is a actually is great deal of relevance. In previous blogs, we examined the deep impact that the Japanese air strike would have on American military thinking from then on out. While civil defense grew out of fears of a Soviet “Pearl Harbor”-like atomic strike in the 1950s, all services of the U.S. military invested in early warning systems and strengthened defenses against such an attack. As ICBMs were introduced, the U.S. Air Force worked tirelessly to improve launch times leading to the Minuteman missile fleet. Bases in North Dakota helped provide at least a modicum of extra warning time had there been a “Pearl Harbor” like nuclear strike from Soviet submarines lingering off American coastlines. Fleets of interceptors were deployed, including a number stationed in North Dakota, as defenses against a Soviet bomber attack. Finally, the Safeguard system was implemented to defend the Grand Forks missile field (and beyond) utilizing sophisticated electronic and data systems built to cope with the stressful demands of rapidly approaching Soviet or Chinese ICBMs. The Perimeter Acquisition Radar and Characterization System once part of the Safeguard system still keeps a Northern eye into space and potential threats. Yes, North Dakota is still part of America’s early warning radar net.
So what was it like, then, on a clear Saturday morning around 8:00am local time looking out across the water at the white memorial sitting atop the wreckage of the U.S.S. Arizona? A wholly different age in military terms. It was quite staggering in many ways to say the least. Across that calm water, surrounded by other tourists and Hawaiians going about their day, perhaps it wasn’t quite the official location where America entered World War II, but it would be difficult to imagine anything much more symbolic.
We were advised by both the National Park Service and Navy sailors about the respect and decorum of visiting what was a war grave site. 1,177 sailors perished in the attack on the Arizona, approximately half of the overall deaths that occurred that day. It felt unreal to be looking out over one of it’s turrets as small slicks of oil floated along the surface, I’d only long read about this place in books before and quick visual snippets in the movie “The Final Countdown” (At the risk of offending, it is far superior in my opinion to “Top Gun” in showcasing carrier air power – The F-14s playing with the Japanese Zeros is maybe one of my favorite aerial scenes in a movie).
More seriously, looking out around at battleship row, and then skyward, it was hard to imagine the surprise to sailors as Japanese attack aircraft barreled in on their bomb and torpedo runs. Hawaii felt isolated, very isolated. It was difficult to picture too the unknowns after. Would the Japanese invade the islands? What might be news from overseas at Guam, Hong Kong, or the Philippines or what might be rumor? The institution of marshal law. Moreover, the rescue and recovery of those men trapped aboard ships and the administration of care for the wounded and the dead. What a dreadful time it must have been.
Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, the United States had invested in the ultimate deterrent power not of nuclear weapons (not yet invented), but a good surface fleet later possibly with or without aircraft carriers. At the outbreak of war in 1939, there apparently were many in the Navy tied to the notion that surface battles utilizing the big guns of battleships would still dominate the showdowns between major powers, although air power advocates were growing in number by then. Considering the movement today of B-52s overseas, the movement of the Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in 1940 was seen as a military chess move of power projection, and the Japanese took notice. As the aircraft carrier was proving itself at such places as Taranto in Italy, the Japanese readily earmarked those in the American Pacific fleet for destruction along with its battleships. Of course, strategic errors were made that day in December 1941 – notably missing the U.S. carriers, but also failing to destroy oil facilities, dry docks, and maintenance stations. The overlooked submarine force at Pearl Harbor, that fleet of the “Silent Service”, would eventually reek total havoc on Japanese shipping. I visited the Pacific Submarine museum too, but will save that for another blog.
Thus, the United States successfully countered the powerful Japanese carrier force at Midway and set sail across the Pacific, conducting island-hopping campaigns ultimately ending in Tokyo Bay in September 1945. This is a gross simplification of the Pacific War.
Speaking of Tokyo Bay, after visiting the Arizona, I made my way to the U.S.S. Missouri where the official surrender document was signed by Japan and the Allied powers on September 2, 1945. The Missouri was just beyond the Arizona to the west, at one place the war began for the United States and on the other the war ended. Beneath the mighty 16-inch guns, I could look out at the Arizona memorial continually full of visitors viewing the site (I worked to make sure my reservation was made as far ahead as possible, you should too if you want to visit). The Missouri meanwhile was preserved in a Reagan-era battleship reactivation-type state, meaning aboard you’ll see 1980s era desktop computers in some of the quarters, pop machines from the 1990s, and so on. A phalanx Gatling gun system caught my attention, along with the Tomahawk missile stations. A form of the Tomahawk was used by the U.S. Air Force as the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile for a brief period in Western Europe for a time in the 1990s before the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty.
(As an aside, I’ve wondered in the past about the necessity of recommissioning battleships in the 1980s. They seemed throwbacks to an earlier age and quite vulnerable in an age of long-range anti-ship missiles. Submarines could launch Tomahawks just the same, and much more stealthily and much more cheaply, but then again I’m no military analyst. I suppose there was an element of American power projection left in the massive displacement of the Iowa-Class battleships. A last hurrah for the type of strength first created by the Great White Fleet. Still, even through the bias of a lifelong plainsman, it seemed that the ballistic missile submarine and nuclear carrier effectively replaced the battleship. On land, I’d venture to say that the ICBM and long-range bomber supplanted that deterrent power as well. Its hard to overstate the immense changes brought about by the advent of the atomic bomb and nuclear energy.)
And then I stood on the surrender deck. With no offense, but with all honesty, and perhaps it was because of a Cold War specialization, I felt profoundly moved. More so in fact than at the Arizona memorial.
I sought out the spot where William “Bull” Halsey watched out over the proceedings along with find the places of those World War II juggernauts. Wainwright, MacArthur, Nimitz, Spaatz, Kenney (first commander of the Strategic Air Command) and many others too. In the deck there is a large plaque designating the spot where the document was signed. Here was the official moment when the greatest war in at least recent history ended, and when I say “greatest” by no means do I mean good. The Allied powers and the Soviet Union triumphed over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, but during the course of the war so many millions of people perished in many horrific ways. Many more wounded, many displaced, many with emotional scars that would never heal. The great majority were Soviet or Chinese, although this is not to slight anyone else, but this merits mention. World War II was a disaster of massive magnitude, felt in Coventry, England to Bergen-Belsen in Germany, Leningrad, Nanjing, Kobe, Pearl Harbor, and too many other places to count.
And where I stood was where it officially ended.
“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended. A great victory has been won…” General Douglas MacArthur remarked during his radio address on September 2, 1945.
“A new era is upon us. Even the lesson of victory itself brings with it profound concern, both for our future and the security and the survival of civilization. The destructiveness of the war potential, through progressive advances in scientific discovery, has in fact no reached a point which revises the traditional concepts of war“
“...We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door.”
The Atomic Age had begun, and the impact even struck an “old soldier” like Douglas MacArthur in 1945. Four years later, the Soviets would have the bomb, and the Cold War entered into a new dangerous phase.
But back in 1945, that great tragedy had ended on the deck of the Missouri, at least officially. The implications worldwide stretched beyond comprehension – not just with the advent of the atomic bomb but the effective fall of overseas empire and colonial holdings and the economic standing of the world. For one small but later wholly significant example, it might be noted that Ho Chi Minh saw his chance and declared Vietnam’s independence on September 2, 1945 (and not coincidently), something that would affect France and eventually come to affect the United States in the years ahead. To a smaller and much less political example, there in Hawaii I had the choice of ordering spam musabi, an odd sort of “sushi-stand in” made with canned spam that, while not invented during World War II, became a prolific protein staple across the Pacific during the war.
The crowds at Pearl Harbor that morning consisted of a great number of older folks. There were few, if any “Greatest Generation” individuals among them. I’d learned there were only two survivors of the Arizona left alive this date more than 80 years later. The World War II generation is nearly gone.
I never thought I’d get to stand at the Arizona memorial, although I remember back in 2004 standing overlooking the site of the destroyed twin towers in New York City wondering how similarly I might have felt. 9/11 of course was much more relevant in my young life than Pearl Harbor was, yet the sorrow was the same. Two locations where so many perished in a surprise attack. Two instances where American resolve was provoked with long-range consequences.
Back home in North Dakota, both seem very, very far away at this moment. It’s difficult not to feel very insulated here deep within the confines of the North American continent. Yet here is a Minuteman missile facility at least loosely connected with the events of Pearl Harbor and more assuredly the tactics derived from worries of sneak attack. Global Hawks connected with Grand Forks today soar over Poland keeping an eye on Belarus and Ukraine in the midst of war, aircraft born during the War on Terror.
It’s interesting, the long arm of history reaching through time at times guiding our lives today.
At Pearl Harbor though, you can actually feel it. The immense weight of consequences, the feeling of sorrow but resolve even over 80 years later. Old Glory fluttered brightly in the deep blue Hawaiian sky above the Arizona and it was heartening. A little harbor on a small island chain in the middle of the massive Pacific Ocean.
Where a great many things ended, and more than a few things began.
ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) and later ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) were interesting notions of Cold War history, but they never held the fascination that the nuclear deterrent mission carried in my mind. James Bond wasn’t all that fascinating to me, but General Curtis LeMay was. The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum had a great little exhibit when I volunteered there on the Cold War reconnaissance missions still often largely hidden behind various levels of classification, and I should have paid closer attention to it. Here were little models of sometimes bizarrely modified aircraft that conducted long, lonely missions often at night off the coasts of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam and elsewhere that proved that the Cold War was at moments a shooting war. There were PB4Y-2 Privateers painted in black that conducted “ferret” missions during the late 1940s, as would RB-29s, RB-50s, and the RB-47 into the 1950s and beyond. These aircraft conducted clandestine reconnaissance missions that studied Soviet defenses both by using photography but using the new sciences of electronic intelligence – studying and probing air defense radars, examining communications through signals intelligence and later observing weapons testing.
They were the missions that later became legendary through the development of the U-2 and the fantastic SR-71 Blackbird. One almost appearing as a glider packed with state-of-the-art cameras and flying at super high altitudes and the latter a speed demon with a history packed with fascinating anecdotes (look up how they got the titanium to build them).
Yet at the time of Francis Gary Powers and the May 1, 1960 shoot-down of his U-2, there was a great deal more to U.S. aerial intelligence than met the public eye. Two months later, a lesser known Cold War incident involved an RB-47H being shot down by a Soviet MiG-19 over the Barents Sea as the aircraft was conducting signals intelligence gathering. As opposed to the U-2 incident, the RB-47 was shot down over international waters. It was only one of many more incidents previously involving RB-29s and other aircraft. Around the same time, Project Corona was underway and soon paved the way for reconnaissance satellite programs. These augmented, but apparently have yet to replace aircraft ISR capabilities.
To fast forward, I accompanied a small group of Lincoln Air Force Base veterans in early 2021 in a small tour of the now Offutt-occupied flight line where Lincoln AFB once stood (B-47 bombers once here, not RB-47 recon jets). The Cold War-era north hangar had been improved to allow maintenance on Offutt’s fleet of C-135 aircraft. Standing there, I looked out back at the flight line and saw rows of RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, descendants of the RB-50s and RB-47s once operated by the 55th Wing. These were neat aircraft, and I’d remembered watching them approach for landing time and time again at Lincoln Airport. However my eyes drifted away to the two big white 747s on the flight line, the massive E-4 National Airborne Operation Centers that embodied America’s command and control redundancies during the later Cold War and beyond. Those big birds were the nuclear command centers I’d watched with a little more enthusiasm as a kid. Fingers crossed we’d get to tour an E-4.
Instead, we piled into a van and coasted out to an RC-135. Don’t get me wrong, that was very cool, more so that it was one of America’s primer intelligence gathering assets. Inside the hot airplane I gazed around at the racks of electronic equipment as enlisted men and women worked in back. The flight crew were happy to answer questions, but I was nervous to ask too much (beyond what a strange civilian should ask) and make things awkward. Besides, it was awesome just to watch the older veterans walk up to the flight deck and sit in those seats. Some questions were answered by the officers with something of a smirk as they pondered on how to answer, it was nothing arrogant, but it was as if they were itching to tell some amazing stories and knew they probably couldn’t or shouldn’t. It’s hard to imagine the tests of endurance they face on missions, and it must be quite a relief to land after hours and hours in the air. It was a wonder to consider some of their defensive electronic warfare systems, lessons learned from the days of the RB-47 and possibly beyond. They too were flying lonely, night time missions conducted very near hostile territory, and nobody on board had an ejection seat.
The RC-135s beginning in the 1960s had a fascinating if somewhat shrouded history. The C-135 airframe (like a 707 airliner but a little different) was modified for dozens of uses throughout its continuing career. Rivet Joints can be identified by a thimble-nose and cheek farings that readily distinguish it from other C-135s. They’re painted gray on the bottom and white on top, very much like a sibling well known to the nuclear community, the EC-135 “Looking Glass” Airborne Command Post aircraft that was retired in the late 1990s. RC-135s served during the Vietnam War, but were also found a great many other places during the later Cold War. The fact that forward bases from Offutt AFB, Nebraska existed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall in England, Kadena Air Base in Japan and Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska gives a little idea of where they were frequently positioned and sometimes still are.
Speaking of which, while messing around with a flight watchers app on my computer, I figured Ukrainian airspace would probably yield some interesting movements. My first catch was an RQ-4 Global Hawk, likely flying out of Italy but with a forward detachment of the 319th Reconnaissance Wing of Grand Forks Air Force Base, soaring at 55,000 feet southeast of Kyiv (Kiev). It was astounding to realize how long those remotely-piloted aircraft could remain airborne. I went to bed, woke up the next morning, and saw the same mission coasting over Ukraine. A lonely sentinel with awesome endurance over a troubled region.
Not long after, an RC-135 entered the Black Sea after overflying Greek airspace (I wondered why it didn’t just fly over Turkey). The serial number matched one I saw on the Lincoln flightline all those months back. It flew on west of Sochi in Russia and then along the coast under and around the Crimea. After that, it started a track pattern back and forth. How weird to watch a reconnaissance mission live, something highly secretive during the Cold War. Beside myself, there were 10,000 viewers of the aircraft according to the website. Nothing OPSEC (Operations Security) about that flight, the U.S. Air Force wanted people to know they were there, and they were listening.
And here we are all over again. Was this really Cold War 2.0? It was interesting to note how power projection had or had not changed in 70 years. Some of North Dakota’s military assets deployed to Europe, ISR flights along the Russian border were taking place (although I doubt they ever stopped since the end of the Cold War) and some of Minot’s bombers were in England. In 1948, B-29s had deployed to England during the Berlin Blockade as a deterrent and a signal of determination on the part of the United States. The Soviets later used bombers as a method of “saber-rattling” when they flew out into the Atlantic and Pacific as their own method of power projection. As far as ISR, the Soviets employed many other methods of intelligence gathering in Europe and the United States. One of which was, and is, the employment of ocean-going trawlers with intelligence gathering capabilities.
Military exercises had been underway, much as both sides had conducted them throughout Cold War 1.0, from 1954’s Operation Snowball where the Soviets actually fired a nuclear weapon during the middle of the exercise to NATO’s REFORGERs (Return of Forces to Germany) of the 1970s and 80s.
Of course, one cannot help but consider the nuclear arsenals on both sides, and social media has pondered World War III once again. They still have a few SS-18s and we still have a number of Minuteman IIIs. Arsenals have shrunk since 1991, but they’re still potent to put it lightly.
At the risk of sounding a little patriotic, before going to bed last night it was neat to see where those RC-135s showed up on the world map again. Once more a mission was coming up out of the Mediterranean towards the Black Sea, but I spotted another off Qatar in the Persian Gulf. Always curious about what’s going on over in Korea, I found another one not far away from Seoul apparently in a landing pattern (guessing Osan Air Base). Back over to my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska – two RCs were shooting touch-and-goes for probably the millionth time on that 12,900 foot runway. Maybe there was another 10 year old kid outside watching them in the pattern in 2022. Anyway, it was a sign that there were a lot of airmen and officers in the air at that moment training for, or performing work in keeping abreast of threats to the United States or it’s allies (this morning there was a British RC-135 transiting the Ukraine then back over Poland). Much the same for the RQ-4s, but you don’t hear much about them in the news (at least as a civilian).
While there is a fairly narrow focus on the Cold War at Oscar-Zero, the conflict was of much greater scope than spy planes or nuclear bombs. It also included a great deal on economics, sociology, technology, arts, even sports. Tensions around Olympic games are nothing new, consider the 1980 boycott of the Moscow games. In any event, the Cold War has reverberated through time, well into the 21st century and probably for years to come. We can draw parallels in history and connect them to present day events, but it should be done with caution and an understanding of context. While the lessons of Cold War may still have some relevance in world affairs, we still live in a far different world today than the one in 1991.
At any rate, sometimes the world feels far away in a small town in North Dakota during the winter, but sometimes you’ll never realize how close you might be to history. I certainly thank those RC-135 crews for the tour, and wish them smooth and productive flights.
A Saturday afternoon showing of WarGames was always a treat in the mid-90s. Typically I’d be watching TNT or TBS and I remember at least once a double feature with the original Red Dawn. Being a preteen, here was a glimpse into early 1980s culture I’d only learned to appreciate as I got older. A big one I realized just this year was the novelty of arcade video games and the so-called “pocket full of quarters” when today arcades are few and far between, mostly operating on pre-purchased cards instead of tokens and tickets. There’s also cans of Tab, computers operating on text instead of a graphical user interfaces, F-15s screaming skyward in search of Backfire bombers, and Titan II missiles sitting in missile silos (commanded from Minuteman capsules? C’mon Hollywood). It was probably my first introduction to the world of missileers.
Of course, the vivid visual depiction of a world map crisscrossed with ICBM/SLBM trajectories and detonations caught some attention too. Something of a spoiler, WarGames never depicts an actual nuclear war or nuclear detonation, but instead dazzlingly portrays a global thermonuclear war simulation on a digital map of the world. As warheads burst over or on targets, there is just the slightest “thump” you hear on the soundtrack. A white ball expands over the target to signify, yes, Grand Forks Air Force Base is no longer there. Maybe 10,000 people more or less were just incinerated – on a computer.
Nuclear war is a video game, a simulated strategy, that is played time and again to reason out new tactics – enter the War Operations Plan Response or W.O.P.R. computer. Yet in real life, private think tanks like RAND or the later Hudson Institute hired scientists, economists, sociologists, engineers, and many others to “think about the unthinkable”. Long before the fictional WOPR was considering nuclear scenarios in 1983, there were a great deal of men and some women working out the problems and tactics of World War III from 1945 onward, both military and civilian. Individuals like Thomas Schelling, Bernard Brodie, Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, and many others all contributed to conflict research with some like Kahn zeroing in on nuclear warfare.
WarGames, as a subplot, carries a continuing criticism of the nuclear war strategist, initially found in both Fail Safe’s Dr. Groeteschele and Dr. Strangelove’s titular character (along with General Turdgidson). What links these characters together are the sometimes dismissive, sometimes playfully academic, but mostly casual attitudes towards casualties in a nuclear war. Groeteschele (albeit perhaps ironically) muses about a post-war conflict between surviving prisoners and file clerks. Turgidson (almost taking Herman Kahn’s concept verbatim) argues about two tragic, but very distinguishable post war environments where one has 20 million people killed versus another with 150 million people killed as he advocates for taking the initiative and striking first. In WarGames, the unemotional and logical WOPR spells out death statistics on a screen. It’s innovator, Dr. Stephen Falken laments his inability to make Joshua/WOPR understand futility. He adds comparatively and somewhat bitterly, “Back in the war room, they believe you can win a nuclear war. That there can be ‘acceptable losses'”.
For reference, a quick Wikipedia search estimates that about 70-85 million people worldwide died during World War II (defined between 1937 and 1945). 19-28 million of which died probably due to war-related diseases and famine. Roughly 46 million of the total just came from two nations, the Soviet Union and China. Even today, population pyramids are skewed due to the effects of the Second World War. Poland lost an astonishing 19% of it’s 1939 population during the war.
Yet after World War II, and particularly after the introduction of thermonuclear weapons in 1952, estimates of deaths worldwide caused by a third world war escalated into fearful numbers as both superpowers and other nuclear states built their arsenals. Shortly after the introduction of the “super” bomb, a new word entered the vocabulary – “Megadeath” – a unit of measurement signifying one million deaths.
Grasping the extent of devastation during World War II is difficult to define. Deaths are a quick, cold statistic, and economic losses, the destruction of entire cities, ruptures in societal fabric, illnesses both physical and mental, and ongoing suffering after the war ended are only a few considerations. Some of these were tabulated and considered by post-war scientists trying their best to make sense of a post-nuclear war environment and to plan for mitigation, but also for military strategy. In a sense, the worst war humankind had yet seen was condensed into logical white papers with an occasional line graph or photograph. In one narrow instance, consider the United States Strategic Bombing Survey.
As David Lightman viewed the projected kill ratios as displayed by Joshua in WarGames, it was impossible to understand what it really meant. What would it mean to U.S. ground forces to lose 58% of their troops? 89% of hospitals in the United States destroyed?
What would it mean to have 31% of your population quickly extinguished and many others injured? Not in the matter of years, but quite violently in milliseconds to weeks depending on the calculations.
This was a projection in a movie, of course. Yet FEMA’s (then Defense Civil Preparedness Agency) hypothetical CRP-2B “countervalue” nuclear attack (strikes against commercial and industrial targets, you know, cities) estimate in 1976 placed deaths even higher into the 85-125 million without the implementation of a larger civil defense effort, that is more shelter spaces and planning into crisis relocation. Placed into a guide – “Survival of the Relocated Population of the U.S. After a Nuclear Attack” – the narrative gets into the “nuts and bolts” of a postattack environment. Everything from considering the destruction of oil refineries to the resilience of certain crops to radiation and their necessary transport. “On Reorganizing After Nuclear Attack” ponders post-attack food shortages and the massive deflation of the U.S. dollar leading to bartering and later riots. A more localized “Survival During the First Year After A Nuclear Attack” looks at the state of Ohio and the probable deaths of farm animals due to fallout and an increase in cancers along with genetic effects to survivors.
When presented with these stark realities, “Our Missing Shield” – page 18 specifically – the American population grew somewhat concerned about nuclear war in the 1950s and early 1960s but often found a position of apathy or futility (some analysts blamed confusion) throughout the remainder of the Cold War as stockpiles and megatonnage rose. Unsurprisingly, it is not something most people want to contemplate. To face down the staggering requirements of preparedness, if one could prepare, and then endure a profoundly scarred world. Yet a morbid curiosity within many made such films as The Day After or Threads so enduring as apocalyptic fiction. Some wanted to “think about the unthinkable”, and sometimes it changed their politics and/or outlooks on life. Others, it would leave a memorable mark on their childhood. Like trying to understand what General Beringer meant with his “sparkplug” remark in WarGames.
In the end, the concept of a massive nuclear attack can be imagined somewhat, but is difficult to fully appreciate. Hazards ranging from burns, radiation sickness, food shortages, breakdowns in civil order, the emergence of long dormant diseases, latent genetic effects and much more that the statistics can never quite illustrate. Movies and books have reached for it, but there is a personal connection to it in a way – although voices are falling silent. As our World War II generation worldwide fades away, we’ve lost examples of the personal stories of total war from the eyes of soldiers and civilians. We learned our first voices of nuclear war from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but too a better understanding of the scale of cataclysm in Leningrad, Warsaw, Berlin, Caen, Nanjing, and Manila to name a few. As our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents depart, perhaps we become more imperiled as the living memories of human suffering and despair during total war disappear. Histories can be written and taped, but one cannot ask a video or cassette tape any questions, nor can we adequately feel the emotion of an essay. On the other hand, how tremendous to our world that such war on a worldwide scale has not happened since, certainly not to belittle any conflict nor those who experienced them post-1945.
Once more we consider the Cold War debate of the strength of deterrence in preventing major war or the role of arms control and the necessity of diplomacy, or both. How did we not cross the precipice? There are a great many persons who can be credited in that regard, but one must also consider the fortune of sheer luck.
Megadeaths and kill ratios faded in the minds of analysts as the world moved on, while white papers were tucked away in file cabinets. Luckily many were later scanned and posted as .pdfs. WarGames these many years later another much more visual time capsule to the so-called second Cold War period of the 1980s, presenting a memorable quote.
It was about 7:30am as Lieutenant Colonel John Worley carefully navigated around the driveway ice walking towards his pickup. Civil Engineering had been out early clearing the streets of snow, but the ground and horizon seemed to blend together as a dull yet bright white as winter gripped onto his side of North Dakota. He sensed the battery straining as the truck chugged and turned over. The vehicle chilled overnight as he forgot to plug it in arriving home late, but it caught. There was a lot of paperwork regarding the new upgrades to the Spartan-Fs and soon contractors would have to be cleared into the complex to complete the work, today promised more of the same.
The tires crunched through the snow as he passed by the chapel and gym, they too were set for upgrades beginning in the Spring. He slowed down carefully, as always, as he approached the Limited Area Sentry Station. A Military Policeman, or MP, glared out the window at him as another approached the truck. His hand rested on the butt of the intimidating M4 rifle. The body armor made the young Private look well insulated, but John could tell he was chilled.
After the gate the ground rose skyward and met concrete, a pyramid. Although little moved outside aside from an MP patrol along the fence, the inside was a buzz of generators, hums of computer systems, roars of air handlers, and boots shuffling back and forth. The eyes of the Missile Site Radar pyramid north of Nekoma, North Dakota were scanning the skies as a readiness exercise was underway.
Lieutenant Colonel Worley looked down at the dash to check the time, the LED screen of the truck glowed 7:38, Saturday, February 26rd, 2022.
The Cold War is filled with What Ifs? What if the Soviets and the Chinese went to full war after the border clashes in 1969? What if NATO forces rushed into Hungry in 1956 to aid in it’s uprising? If Reagan had been assassinated in 1981 by John Hinkley Jr.? What if the Cold War turned hot?
There’s a great deal of fiction out there that considers that. Bombers mistakenly ordered to bomb Moscow or a rag-tag group of teenagers in Colorado fighting an occupying Soviet/Cuban force in the 1980s (I’ve always wondered about the Russian view of Red Dawn). On the technical side as well, there is tons and tons of speculation regarding the cancellation of different weapons systems. Big ones are the B-70 Valkyrie supersonic bomber, the British TSR-2 strike fighter, the Canadian Avro Arrow and that’s just speaking for military aviation. General Thomas Power’s proposal for a fleet of 10,000 (not 1,000) Minuteman missiles prompts one to ask where they all would be deployed?
For simplification, let’s consider North Dakota’s Cold War military role. There’s so many ways to go with this, so lets consider that there had been no post-Vietnam drawdown, in fact, let’s say there was no Vietnam War to begin with. The Soviet empire climbed through stagnation and had remained the Soviet Union well into the 21st century, albeit much transformed since the days of Brezhnev. Tensions eased between East and West as the Berlin Wall fell in 1997, part of the Warsaw Pact dissolved, but the Commonwealth of Independent States was never allowed to form. As during Détente however, the Cold War lingered on.
True, there had been arms control treaties, but nothing like the drawdowns of the 1990s like we actually saw. Instead of 21 B-2 bombers, 100 had been built. Aside from Whiteman AFB, Missouri they were also at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. B-1 bombers, upgraded to the B-1R “regional bomber concept” standard, remained on the flightline at Grand Forks Air Force Base in 2022. The base also supported 100 Minuteman IV missiles (drawn down in accordance to 2014 Smolensk Treaty).
Back to reality, one can delve deeply into the BRAC, or Base Realignment And Closure, reports of the 1990s during the post Cold War drawdown. Grand Forks lost its bombers and later its missiles, but there had been discussion and proposals to keep Grand Forks as a missile base and instead realign Malmstrom or Minot. One reason suggested was the continuing presence of the Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, then America’s only allowed ABM site per the 1972 and 1974 treaties. While Safeguard was long defunct, it meant that the site could theoretically be reactivated and protect the 150 ICBMs of the Grand Forks field which it could not for Minot. Of course, that never happened. However, had the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex remained open as an exotic, if a bit chilly, U.S. Army installation, then it’s possible Minot would be instead flying the Global Hawk mission, or even perhaps closed and now used as a civilian air park like Loring AFB in Maine or K.I. Sawyer in Michigan.
Beyond North Dakota’s two air force bases, one might consider continuing Soviet production of the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber and a continuing air defense mission asked of the 119th Wing at Fargo’s Hector International Airport – possibly flying an updated variant of the F-16ADF, F-15s or even F-22s.
Perhaps the Over-The-Horizon backscatter radar system had been built in northeastern South Dakota and eastern North Dakota, resulting in another mission for Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Yet the ultimate “What if?” about the Cold War is probably the concept of a global war, in which case Joshua, the WOPR computer on WarGames, said it best as “The only winning move is not to play”, although fiction has gone above and beyond on that apocalyptic scenario. There’s everything from Panic In The Year Zero to The Day After and then on to the long-term survival movies like the Mad Max series or The Terminator. Books like War Day and Red Storm Rising consider different World War III scenarios, even the children’s show Adventure Time took place after the “Mushroom War”, video games like Fallout, the lists go on and on.
History can provide quite the catalyst for imagination, and considering the what ifs allows us to plan or prevent. They can be of service as warnings but also provoke what could have been and what can be better. In a “Keep Grand Forks as the bomber/missile base instead of Minot” scenario, the societal and economic impacts upon the state of North Dakota can be pondered. What if one day they decided to close Minot in real life? Or Grand Forks? That risk in our minds allow us to plan for mitigation, which has been done in reality in the City of Grand Forks where the term “BRAC” is understandably a dirty word.
On the other hand, there are the fun ones like “What if I win a million dollars” or “What if somebody opens an sweet Cajun restaurant in Cooperstown?”…I need to go eat lunch.
In 2021, members of the State of North Dakota met with the National Guard and other branches of the armed forces for early discussions of a state military museum possibly to be built near the North Dakota State Heritage Center in Bismarck. There has been a suggestion that such a museum would be housed in a new 60,000 square foot structure.
One thought is what role will North Dakota’s immense Cold War history play in a new museum. Will large elements of history be represented such as the bomber and missile missions of Grand Forks and Minot Air Force Bases? Will smaller elements like the Naval Radio Transmitter Facility near LaMoure be considered? The far-reaching implications of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex near Nekoma and its unique nuclear anti-ballistic missile mission? Deployments of the North Dakota Army National Guard and the interceptor mission at Fargo? There are many, many considerations.
Growing up far removed from the Peace Garden State, there was a realization that North Dakota was at the sometimes bitterly cold forefront of the Cold War, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was at the center of the “Northern Tier”, the Strategic Air Command’s bastion of bombers and missiles aligned in the northern states of the lower 48. With two powerful Air Force Bases, both SAC and Air Defense Command transformed the communities of Minot and Grand Forks. Earlier, smaller Air Force radar bases near Fortuna, Minot, Dickinson, and Finley created profound changes in those small towns as well. Beyond these bases were the Safeguard sites, the communications sites, and a lesser-known civil defense role.
Given the multitude of missions delegated to North Dakota, I would dare say any center of Cold War history nationwide, any place of absolute relevance, is right here.
This is not to say that any military history of North Dakota should be dominated by its Cold War role. It’s numerous forts and military missions of the late 19th century are most assuredly an overwhelmingly important part of the state’s military history and should not be forgotten. The state’s citizen soldiers of the 20th century too of course merit representation (look up the 164th Infantry Regiment and their role in the Southwest Pacific), particularly because they presently lack much of a physical museum presence, except perhaps in county historical societies. Beyond the Cold War, soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors involved in the War on Terror deserve representation as well. Only 20 years now since 9/11, but now a historic time, nonetheless.
This post was written as a consideration for a large component of the state’s military history, itself a fair-sized portion of America’s nuclear deterrent that was nationally and even internationally significant. While the Cold War was fought near the Chosen Reservoir in Korea, on the streets of Hue in Vietnam or Budapest in Hungary, and a great many places elsewhere, some of it was fought right here by maintenance personnel in missile silos working diligently to ensure a missile was combat ready and contributing to a credible nuclear deterrent. A modern “Big Stick”, as coined by Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps there was no fighting going on, but instead they were contributing to perhaps the protection of Western Europe and elsewhere. In another consideration, they were making the thought of a nuclear attack upon the United States an unwinnable enterprise and thus contributed to a concept of mutually assured destruction. A balance of terror during a Cold War that the United States and its allies worldwide eventually won.
Embracing the state’s Cold War heritage and working in concert with such museums as the Fargo Air Museum, the Dakota Air Territory Museum, the Oscar-Zero missile site, and perhaps a new interpretive site at the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex would offer a “package deal” for visitors to visit the Peace Garden State. Instead of single entities, a consortium of museums and historic sites could draw more national and international guests with a themed tour in the heart of America’s Cold War experience. Tours could readily expand to include other inputs like aviation history and a general military history. Ultimately, their itineraries ending in Bismarck to experience both the State Heritage Center and the State military museum, an immersion into the diverse culture and stories of North Dakota.
This new effort can be a great opportunity to provide for a more complete interpretation of North Dakota’s military history. Not only this, but it could help inspire more tourism to the state that can be mutually beneficial to several sites and organizations. The planning of a new museum is an exciting time, and the next few years should be fun to watch!
If you follow the site, you may notice our tendency to make snide comments about Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota (or the “other” Dakota). While the former Delta-01 Missile Alert Facility and former Delta-09 Launch Facility served the same mission as our former Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility and former November-33 Launch Facility (our site numbering systems were different), they were built differently with a fair consideration that Oscar-Zero and November-33 were more capable than their South Dakota contemporaries. In essence, the North Dakota sites were probably more survivable than the South Dakota sites during a nuclear war because they were built a little tougher and with protected backup systems. In the technical sense, South Dakota represented Wing II of Minuteman construction utilizing an earlier layout while the Grand Forks sites (Wing VI) had a different contractor and possessed larger Launch Control Centers along with the addition of a protected Launch Control Equipment Building (among other changes). Politically, Wing II was built under an Eisenhower defense mindset while Wing VI very much had the marks of the Kennedy Administration.
But in a non-technical sense, they’re just not as cool as us anyway.
Alright, we’ll step that one back a bit. We may suffer a slight inferiority complex when visitation numbers are considered. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site tops out on an average of 100,000 persons a year while we may get a little more than 4,000. The typical joke on tour is that it helps to be on the same interstate exit as the entrance to Badlands National Park and an hour away from Mt. Rushmore and Sturgis. I hope not to offend South Dakotans out east, but West River is also very pretty country.
They also have a great visitor center. I had to stop in for a visit during their soft opening in 2015 and I returned in 2016 to visit old friends.
Oh yes, that’s right. I worked for our competitor site. The Moriarty to our Sherlock Holmes. The Lex Luthor to our Superman. The South Dakota to our North Dakota.
Well, not really.
Personally, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was the place of my internship in 2011 and probably the best summer of my life. Serving as a Volunteer-in-park, I was tasked with developing lesson plans, updating social media and providing tours. It felt quite the coup to land the position as I was able to live in the dorms at Badlands National Park not far away and experience many sides of the National Park Service including biology, law enforcement, and administration.
Aside from the physical differences, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site reasonably enough carries a larger staff made up of full-timers, seasonals, and volunteers. I was 26 at the time while the other volunteers included legendary veteran missileers like Al Maartens, Jim Boensch, and Al Hall among others. So, yeah, their tours were much better than mine. Still, the seasonals working their way through the NPS system were younger like me. We had some fun times going back and forth to Delta-01 for tours in that little Toyota Prius the site operated. I remember sitting in the car with Ronnie Smith, a seasonal from Kentucky who was always just bursting with enthusiasm, debating if we should open the Delta-01 gate in an electrical storm. As lightning suddenly hit nearby with an enormous crash, we elected to wait it out and back the car a way back from the tall metal gate. Ronnie passed away a few years ago. He was a good guy, and I miss talking to him.
In solidarity with other staff members, Ronnie included, I shaved my head in July to fit in with the crowd of middle-aging staff. My boss, Butch, another man of enormous enthusiasm and a wealth of wise advice, helped me throughout the summer with my academic goals but also becoming a good friend. He helped get me this job in North Dakota in fact. He’s since moved on but Minuteman Missile NHS just seems to gain good folks as time moves along. I worked a little with Eric since my time in North Dakota although he’s moved on as well. Technically he was my contemporary, although his responsibilities were far, far greater than mine. A man with an infectious interest in the Cold War and a true leader. I had to follow him once in a short lecture, giving updates about our sites to former missileers. That was daunting after his enthusiastic report.
Heading back to 2011, I worked too with Pam – the Law Enforcement Ranger and then chief as well along with a number of other great folks. It really gave a deep look into the rigorous and disciplined system that was the National Park Service. If you meet a ranger or even a seasonal, they’re not there just because it’s a job – they’re more likely there because it’s a true calling. At least when I was a volunteer, they weren’t paid a whole lot in an area where housing and food wasn’t exactly cheap. If you ever get the time, ask a ranger or a seasonal about their background and I’ll bet you’ll get a great story.
Much like North Dakota, the site received a huge number of folks from all over the United States and overseas (I broke a 3/8 socket wrench trying to help a group of Russian college students change their tire outside the old portable offices – one of them confidently reassured in a thick accent that I could exchange it for a new one as it was a Craftsman). One of the bad parts about being a tour guide was that I found myself wanting to hear about their experiences while trying to balance the tour on timing upstairs and in the capsule.
At that time, we gave out free tickets for tours of Delta-01 starting on the :15 minute intervals throughout the day, releasing them at 8:00AM (which meant if you came at 8:05 and got a ticket for 3:15, good luck finding something to do between then and there). Only 6 people could get in on a tour at one time due to the small elevator (one more thing that makes us the better site, we have a huge elevator!). My one bad memory was taking a phone call for a reservation (that they did away with the previous year) and having a National Lampoon Vacation-level angry rant from a gentleman coming through on vacation demanding one. There wasn’t much reasoning with him, so eventually the call went to Pam. Not sure how that ended up, but I’d learned people are very, very interested in going down into that Launch Control Center.
Speaking of being uncomfortable, I’d pondered how the weeks around the Sturgis Rally were going to go. I finished up my internship in early August and returned to school in Lincoln, Nebraska to give my report. I was supposed to go to graduation, but I determined I’d rather help back at Minuteman Missile NHS than give more money to the university just to walk across a stage. I’d done it two times before anyway and hadn’t been a Husker fan since I was in elementary school. Upon returning to Interior, South Dakota the roar of motorcycles was non-stop. I’d wondered if I’d see any fights in the bars in Wall or maybe even on tour. In reality? Mostly middle-aged folks basically on vacation who were overwhelmingly cordial. Very much not what I’d imagined. It did make getting around a little difficult for a week, but then again, that was tourism country.
There’s a lot to remember about that summer. Working for a rancher to earn a little extra money (my little overweight city-slicker self, towered over by lean, Stetson-wearing Marlboro Men straight out of a Louis L’Amour book.) Exploring the Badlands and Black Hills. Visiting a group of horses now and then on my walks at Badlands, my first experience with the animals, and taking a lot of pictures of sunsets. I didn’t learn a lot of technical details about Minuteman but instead heard first-hand the stories by those who were there including Al Hall’s Emergency War Order evacuation of a Launch Facility he was working at (It’s on Beneath the Plains, the NPS movie about Minuteman Missile NHS).
It was a summer of great experiences, of long drives, of good friends and laser shows at Crazy Horse. A beer and a game of pool at a bar in Wall. Great conversations with visitors. Buffalo hot dogs and a root beer with Ronnie from the nearby gas station. And sand volleyball with the diverse staff at Badlands.
So on a personal level, I can’t help but be nostalgic about Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. On a historic site level, they led the way in proving out tours and creating lesson plans that we in North Dakota often pick up on. They’re like our older siblings, so we can’t help but be a little jealous sometimes and rip on them. But they’re good folks, they’re dedicated folks, and we aspire to their level of historical interpretation and the ability to give memorable tours.
However, they only have a Launch Control Center without a Launch Control Equipment Building. Most of their life-support equipment is in a soft configuration that would be destroyed by a nearby nuke blast. They could hope for maybe 6 hours to launch missiles on batteries whereas Oscar-Zero? We technically could hold out for weeks! Okay, fine, we don’t have the pizza box art on the blast door nor a viewing enclosure for the silo at November-33, but we’re still the superior site.
In reality, I like to think we’re both interesting Cold War missile sites. One year plan to visit South Dakota and the next year head up our way to the superior Dakota. We’re not going anywhere anytime soon. But just remember to include Quebec-01 in Wyoming – they were a former Minuteman site that eventually upgraded to Peacekeeper, but we won’t hold that against them. Another awesome site to experience.
But hey, I don’t think they even have lutefisk in South Dakota.
80 years have now passed since America’s “Day of Infamy” when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A rallying cry during the war to avenge those lost on December 7, 1941, has reverberated through generations, but so had a clear example been set for American military fears of surprise attack. The concerns of another Pearl Harbor during the Cold War are ever present in many histories – from the necessity of early warning radars (with Pearl Harbor providing a notable example in the failure in early warning radar systems) to the idea of “Launch on Warning” for ICBMs – firing your missiles given a brief warning of an impending nuclear attack (perhaps 15-30 minutes) and getting your force off the ground before they could be destroyed. In any case, few events can so readily demonstrate an impact on military planning that Pearl Harbor did with the United States. Yet America is hardly alone in the 20th century. The Soviet Union (Russia today) had their own veritable Pearl Harbor on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany opened an invasion on a massive Eastern Front resulting in casualties not soon forgotten.
It is odd to consider that most of the World War II generation has passed on now, as being a kid in the 1990s they were very present in our lives. My paternal grandfather deployed to Papua New Guinea in the U.S. Army while my maternal grandfather worked on the aircraft production line at Martin Bomber Plant outside of Omaha, Nebraska. He had passed away when I was very young, but my grandmother told stories of blackouts when he’d earlier worked for Lockheed in California and war rationing. In effect, it feels as though Vietnam-era veterans have taken the place of prominence among older veterans. It is a very obvious “of course they have, it’s 30 years later”, but still odd feeling to this millennial at least. The live voices of World War II are rapidly approaching an end.
I’d learned from them that the rallying cry for Pearl Harbor scarcely faded during their lives. Grandpa duly reported for duty when he was drafted, remembering his wartime service essentially in a nonchalant way. One of my favorite stories of his recalled Japanese Army holdouts emerging from the jungle to silently join G.I.s in line for chow without so much as a word from either side as the war continued elsewhere. Grandma on the other hand always held a deep reverence and memory of that time. It might have been because she was a young woman from Nebraska was in the thick of West Coast excitement and anxiety during the early days of World War II, something that would be difficult to imagine.
Here was America in late 1941 and early 1942, confident in their abilities to help defeat the Axis forces but viewing a number of stumbling blocks. Not only Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. The losses of Wake Island and Guam, the fall of Hong Kong and Singapore. Hitler’s forces standing effectively at the city gates of Moscow. Even with the morale improvement of the Doolittle Raid against Japan in April 1942, things were not looking assured for victory. By the time of the Battle of Midway in June, the United States is still trying to rebuild it’s fleet in the Pacific and U-boats prowl the Atlantic. Understandably, it was a time for apprehension as America mobilized. Would there be enough time to help stem the tide?
As with most of these blogs, we return, inevitably, to the Cold War. Those who experienced World War II were of course profoundly influenced by the battles and tactics used during that war. They saw first hand how tactics would play out, and this is important particularly within the idea of strategic bombing, because it shaped the tactics in which to conduct nuclear war in the years after World War II. It might not be correct to state that the United States was “haunted” by Pearl Harbor, but the suddenness and brutality of a nuclear attack certainly exacerbated the idea of an atomic counterpart. Instead of a mighty surface fleet destroyed (and luckily not the carriers, oil stores, submarines, and port facilities for the most part), a surprise nuclear attack would spare no time for rearmament. No precious weeks and months in which to regather strength and mobilize in the face of a nuclear aggressor, only that which you had on hand that survived the initial assault or was launched before and under attack. In the 1950s we saw the emergence of ground and air-alert nuclear bombers, by the 1960s alert ICBMs such as Atlas and Minuteman along with Polaris submarines, and from then on a continuing evolution of command and control systems that could possibly withstand a nuclear Pearl Harbor and retaliate. Effectively, the United States was announcing to the world that “we won’t be caught off guard again”.
Some historians have considered the political-military implications of Pearl Harbor and the rise of a national security state within the United States. No longer could isolationism be an option, but instead a peacetime military readiness was implemented that has been described by some as immensely costly and potentially threatening to democracy, but by others as a military necessity during the nuclear age developed to protect democracy. Well after the Cold War ended, those debates continue.
Reverberations of Pearl Harbor are readily found in the years after, for one example then Attorney General Robert Kennedy considered the implications of a pre-emptive strike against Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. “I don’t think I want my brother to become another Tojo” he reportedly remarked, recalling Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s role in Pearl Harbor.
Finally, the War in the Pacific effectively locked the United States into Asian affairs after the war and today (acknowledging the pre-war presence in the Philippines and China). An enemy vanquished in 1945 soon after became a bulwark against the tide of communism in the early 1950s. 80 years later, Pearl Harbor remains a keystone to military power projection in the Pacific as tensions rise over the South China Sea and Taiwan.
There are many direct or indirect results of the attack, but for the scope of this blog the worries of a nuclear Pearl Harbor are prevalent during the entire Cold War (consider the film “First Strike” for a later Cold War scenario of a nuclear Pearl Harbor). Early warning systems like the Distant Early Warning line to warn of Soviet bomber attack, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (and later the North Dakota-based Perimeter Acquisition Radar and Attack Characterization System) to warn of Soviet ICBM attack. Ready interceptors on 24-hour alert like those at Hector International Airport during the Cold War and an ABM system near Nekoma to blunt an attack. Civil defense warning systems to aid in the survival of the American civil population. The list goes on and on. Of course, early warning systems would have emerged anyway due to the rapid pace and danger of nuclear warfare, but in the American historical mind – thoughts often drifted back to that day in December 1941, and, perhaps, it created a sense of urgent motivation.
80 years later, Pearl Harbor remains a sore spot in American history. A violent but inevitable plunge into World War II that captured the motivation and energy of the world’s industrial juggernaut. The result of which was the emergence of American and Soviet superpowers, an end for a traditional European colonial era, and a sudden thrust into a nuclear age which threatened devastation on a level not yet seen. In North Dakota, and all over America for that matter, a peacetime nuclear force was deployed in hopes of staving off another Pearl Harbor – to hopefully protect a sometimes fragile peace between world powers. Even in the post Cold War-era, Pearl Harbor remains a consistent companion to the notion of surprise attack. In the missile fields, ready alert of nuclear missiles remains a fact of life. How astounded Japanese planners and American defenders might be today at the results of their actions.