Minuteman Missile
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Section I — The Cold War and National Armament

Chapter 1:
The Cold War (1945—62)


The story of the Minuteman missile program is a Cold War tale. Journalist Walter Lippmann's 1947 book, The Cold War, first used and popularized the term "cold war" to refer to the post-World War II confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Two years earlier, British author and journalist George Orwell called a world living in the shadow of a nuclear war "a peace that is no peace" and referred to it as a "cold war." [1] The term, Cold War, would come to define the political, social, and economic history of the second half of the twentieth century. More than merely a military standoff, the Cold War offered a stable international system forged by the world's emerging two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—that lasted more than four decades. This system formed almost immediately following World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union epitomized the differences between a capitalist and a communist world. The conflict that arose between these two fundamentally irreconcilable systems, paradoxically based upon stability through mutual destruction, helped spawn development of new weapons systems, including the Minuteman I and II. [2]

The use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II forever altered the tone of international relations. The devastation caused on 6 August 1945 at Hiroshima and 9 August 1945 at Nagasaki led the world to fear an atomic war, and to fear what atomic weapons could do, even to their inventors. As H. V. Kaltenborn, one of the most respected American broadcasters of the period, told his listeners on the night of 6 August 1945, "We must assume that with the passage of only a little time, an improved form of the new weapon we use today can be turned against us." [3] This fear dominated the Cold War, as policymakers and pundits alike recognized that any potential conflict could escalate to the point of global destruction once both superpowers possessed these weapons. Hiroshima changed everything, the Congressional Aviation Policy Board concluded in 1948, "Militarily speaking, at that same hour the security frontiers of all nations disappeared from the map. National defense, in the traditional sense, is no longer possible. The cycle of history has turned, and once again civilization stands vulnerable to annihilation." [4]

With the benefit of hindsight, we may now clearly state that this overt threat of nuclear annihilation kept both sides from pursuing a more aggressive or expansionistic foreign policy as the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were very aggressive in maneuvering with third world countries in an attempt to tilt the theoretical balance of power in their own favor.

With nuclear weapons and the atomic bomb at the heart of this threat, American policymakers believed their country had to stay technologically ahead of the Soviets if it was to survive. They were determined to maintain their atomic monopoly as long as possible, and thereafter to use their technological superiority for diplomatic leverage. The Soviet Union was bent upon global domination, policymakers reasoned, and if the Soviets believed that the American force could be defeated, it seemed likely that Moscow would strike. Technological superiority, in other words, when coupled with the ability to deliver unprecedented force, was required to maintain the peace.

The Minuteman missile program and the efforts of the military and civilian personnel of the 44th Strategic Missile Wing of Ellsworth Air Force Base are each a product of this Cold War system. In order to deter communist aggression, the United States developed the Minuteman I missile system with the ability to respond to an enemy attack with immediate and massive retaliation. The origins of the Cold War help to identify how the Soviet-American relationship deteriorated and the two sides became entrenched for over four decades—this background is fundamental to understanding why such powerful military weapons were deployed in South Dakota—some thousands of miles from the Soviet border. In the Cold War, as we shall see, the front line was everywhere.

Origins of the Cold War

Zones of Contention

The mutual antagonism of the Soviets and Americans, leading to the Cold War, developed after World War II as the two sides competed over a number of geographic and political zones of contention. In several confrontations and diplomatic situations, American policymakers in particular learned important lessons, including that the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, that Moscow intended to expand the physical realm of communism, and that the Soviets could only be deterred by force and the threat of force.

Two major conferences—Yalta and Potsdam—were held in 1945 with the Soviets, British, and Americans to determine the fate of Europe and defeated Germany. The Yalta Conference, at the Russian Black Sea resort in February, was the last meeting of the Big Three allied leaders—American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. At the conference, debates over Poland's postwar borders and government put Roosevelt and Churchill at odds with Stalin. Within months of Yalta, Soviet control over Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe had evolved into a serious concern for the future of Western Europe. [5]

Leaders of the three countries met again at the Potsdam Conference, outside of the captured Berlin, from 17 July to 2 August 1945. This was the last major conference of World War II, and its participants attempted to build upon the efforts of the Yalta Conference. However, the United States and Britain found themselves again unable to come to an agreement on many diplomatic issues with the Soviet Union. President Harry S. Truman, who had taken office following Roosevelt's death on 12 April 1945, and many Potsdam attendees, saw the Soviet Union shifting from a wartime ally, even a frequently difficult one, to an outright adversary. [6]

The postwar battle over the control of Germany and Berlin demonstrates how tensions evolved dividing Europe into East versus West. Germany was physically and ideologically divided between the two sides. For the United States, a strong rebuilt Germany capable of sustaining its own redevelopment while supporting its neighbors seemed vital to the success of Western Europe, while Soviet leaders longed for a ravaged Germany, incapable of ever again attacking the East. The superpowers' division over Germany's fate was centered symbolically on the country's former capital, Berlin. The United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each had military troops stationed in Berlin—110 miles into the heart of the Soviet occupation zone and the future East Germany—and their presence led to the 1948 Berlin Blockade (discussed below).

American financial assistance toward the reconstruction of Europe following the war also contributed to a deteriorating relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States emerged from the war with a strong economy, and was in the position to provide aid to Europe, a situation ultimately resented by the Soviets. Initially the United States offered aid on a country-by-country basis, with $3.75 billion going to the British in 1945-46 and $1.2 billion to France the following year. [7] The Soviets requested $1 billion in aid in 1945, but due to crumbling East-West relations, the Truman Administration never formally approved an aid package for Moscow. State Department officials claimed to have "lost" the Soviet request, though later historians have proved their story was fabricated so as to provide justification for rejecting Moscow's plea. No matter the reason, Moscow's failure to garner American postwar aid proved a contentious issue in Soviet-American dealings.

The United States also faced conflict with the Soviets outside of Europe. The fate of China, for example, as a result of its civil war, was of crucial interest to the two superpowers if for no other reason than its status as the world's most populous country. Led by Mao Zedong, China's Communists eventually won power, leading to greater American concerns over the future of the capitalist system without its most populous member and to domestic attacks against the Truman Administration for "losing" China. Communism's victory in this crucial early Cold War battle helped American policymakers understand the growing threat of this dangerous new ideology and gave the United States a new and bitter adversary in Asia.

The Iranian Crisis of 1946 also contributed to the polarization of Soviet-American relations. Following World War II the Soviets agreed to end their occupation of northern Iran and remove their troops within six months of the conflict's end. When the Soviets did not comply with their wartime promise and continued to occupy northern Iran and use political and military pressure to gain oil concessions, President Truman threatened war and mobilized troops to the area. These actions forced the Soviets to withdraw without concessions, offering proof to American policymakers that the Soviets responded only to force. By 1947, therefore, tensions ran high between the East and West and American leaders had developed an increasingly hostile view of Russia. [8]

Declarations of Cold War

Tensions between the two countries escalated during the post-World War II period and declarations by leaders on both sides, including Stalin and Churchill, and strategists, such as United States diplomat George Kennan, began to formally announce the existence of a Cold War. At the heart of their message was recognition of the posturing by the two superpowers with opposing ideologies and world views.

Such declarations of Cold War began as early as 1946. In February of that year, Stalin's Soviet Party Congress speech made the growing East-West conflict seem inevitable. Cold War historian Walter LaFeber discussed how Stalin's speech cast a pall over contemporary East-West negotiations,

"In an election speech of February 9, the Soviet dictator announced that Marxist-Leninist dogma remained valid, for 'the unevenness of development of the capitalist countries' could lead to 'violent disturbance' and the consequent splitting of the 'capitalist world into two camps and the war between them.' War was inevitable as long as capitalism existed. The Soviet people must prepare themselves for a replay of the 1930s by developing basic industry instead of consumer goods and, in all, making enormous sacrifices demanded in 'three five‑year plans, I should think if not more.' There would be no peace, internally or externally. These words profoundly affected Washington. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, one of the reigning American liberals, believed that Stalin's speech meant 'The declaration of World War III.' " [9]

Two weeks after Stalin's speech, in late February, United States diplomat George Kennan responded to a State Department request for an analysis of Soviet expansionism and global intentions with what became another such declaration of a Cold War. Kennan's response, later given the descriptive title "The Long Telegram," warned that Soviet policies assumed western hostility and that Soviet expansionism was inevitable. [10] Moscow would only be deterred by forceful opposition, be it political or military, and Kennan thus recommended that the United States employ a policy of "long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment." [11] His analysis was well received by United States policymakers who felt that the telegram confirmed their views and the tougher stance the Truman administration was taking with the Soviets.

One month later, in his March 1946 speech at Fulton, Missouri, ex-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill presented his views on the East-West conflict. Churchill coined the term "iron curtain" in this speech and outlined a global alliance between Europe and the United States, "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow." [12]

During the final passage of the American Treasury loan to Britain in July 1946, American Congressional leaders outlined their own declaration of Cold War, as they described the world as half free and half communist in order to win approval for the politically contested loan. Leaders, such as Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, argued that the United States must support its longtime ally in Britain, especially as the bipolar division of the world seemed impossible to overcome. The United States committed $3.75 billion in loans to Britain for reconstruction of its economy, which was, in the words of historian Derek Leebaert, the "first distinctly postwar commitment of U.S. economic and political power." [13] As Rayburn explained in defense of the loan, "I do not want Western Europe, England, and all the rest of Europe pushed toward an ideology that I despise" and "I fear that if we do not cooperate with our great natural ally [Britain] that is what will happen." [14] As Cold War historian Dr. Jeffery A. Engel has written, to thinkers like Rayburn, "Only a strong Great Britain, an unsinkable American island-base of anti-communism set off the coast of Europe could prevent Soviet domination of the continent, he argued, and only an economically strong Britain, a Britain strengthened by a $3.75 billion loan, could possibly remain solidly in the American camp." [15]

American Cold War Policy

By 1947 it had become apparent to most observers that the world was splitting in two—East and West—leaving the inevitable conflict of the Cold War. Quickly the lines in the sand were drawn even deeper as the Soviets and Americans clashed ideologically and militarily on a number of fronts. In February, for example, Britain's decision to cease aid to Greek forces fighting a Communist insurgency prompted the Truman Administration to assume new responsibilities throughout all of Southern Europe. The ensuing "Truman Doctrine" committed $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey—a huge sum given Congressional fiscal conservatism at the time—and offered a precedent for further American assistance to any "free peoples" engaged in a struggle against "terror and oppression" and "the suppression of personal freedoms." [16] Truman's Manichean worldview pitted the world in two, good against evil, for to American policymakers, Communism seemed everywhere on the march. "Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one," Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained, "the corruption of Greece would infect Iran, and all to the East." [17] Without American aid, Europe and Africa would be next, he continued and "we and we alone could break up the [Soviet] play." Western Europe subsequently received its own brand of American economic stimulus later that year, with the Marshall Plan designed to promote economic recovery and stability as a vaccine against the Communist "infection." The Soviets refused to participate in the plan, which Foreign Minister Molotov denounced as a "new venture in American imperialism." [18] The Soviets offered their own aid package for Eastern Europe and, with dollars flowing to one half of the continent and rubles to the other, the division of East and West grew even deeper. The Truman Administration later followed-up this aid program to Europe with "Point Four," a program similarly designed to spread American technical know-how and dollars throughout the developing world as a means of countering Soviet expansion. [19]

Conflict continued with the Soviet Union determined to push the United States and its allies out of West Berlin. In June 1948, the Soviets imposed a blockade on West Berlin in an attempt to cut off supplies to the city. The United States and its allies began to supply the city with a massive airlift of unprecedented size, and the Soviets ended the blockade in May 1949. The United States' commitment to Western Europe's defense, exemplified by efforts during the Berlin Blockade, led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. NATO provided for a collective defense of its members, as the organization's charter promised that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all. NATO represented the United State's commitment to its European allies and would become an important key to containing the Soviet Union in Europe. [20]

Shortly after the lifting of the Berlin Blockade, in August 1949, the Soviet Union broke the American nuclear monopoly by developing its own atomic bomb. The Soviets had matched the United States' key technology sooner than most expected. This development forced the United States to reevaluate its defense posture and accelerated the creation of even more powerful weapons, such as the hydrogen bomb, to regain its nuclear superiority. An analysis of the United States' defense position was presented to President Truman in the National Security Council Paper Number 68 (NSC 68). NSC 68, authored largely by Paul Nitze of the State Department policy staff, would come to shape American policy for many years. NSC 68 outlined that the United States needed to be prepared globally for Soviet or communist expansionism and that containment should become a global policy. The directives outlined in NSC 68 were written prior to the North Korean invasion across the 38th parallel but were not adopted until September 1950, after this conflict proved to many the necessity of American military buildup.

By the early 1950s American foreign policymakers knew that the Cold War was here to stay. Communism seemed everywhere on the move, exemplified by the crises described above and then most dramatically with the North Korean invasion of June 1950 that began the Korean War. Western policymakers believed countries at risk from Communist aggression might fall if their neighbors succumbed, like the rotten apples of Acheson's metaphor or, more commonly, like so many dominoes: if one country was lost to the Communists, so too would be the next, and the next. Communism had to be stopped, but at what cost? The increasing conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and the arms race would shape the United States strategic defense program and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) development. In the Cold War, the United States would maintain its stance that the only way to halt the expansion of communism was through development of increasingly advanced weapons systems. As we shall later see, one such system would be the Minuteman. Before that missile would be deployed, however, there would be events and developments, international and technological, which would shape this weapon and the communities that housed it.

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003