Minuteman Missle
Historic Resource Study
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Section III — Peace Movement, Nuclear Disarmament, and the Future

Chapter 1:
Opposition to Nuclear Armament (late 1950s—90s)

The National and International Debate

After installation of the missile silos in the farm fields of South Dakota's Western Plains, the missiles went largely unnoticed. Housed underground, the missiles were largely inconspicuous. By the end of 1963 three Strategic Missile Squadrons (SMS) each with five flights of ten Minuteman missiles stood on alert across 13,500 square miles of the Western Plains of South Dakota. [385] Additional Minuteman missiles in Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska formed a vital component of the United States' nuclear deterrent force.

In the early days of Minuteman facility construction and deployment, discussion about the implications of the mass deployment of nuclear missiles in American communities remained minimal. Most residents generally accepted the nearby missile sites, and whether driven by patriotism, lack of information, indifference, fear of the missiles themselves, or preoccupation with daily life, local residents mostly ignored the missile presence. According to one North Dakota resident, Jody McLaughlin, people "chose not to know. The attitude was, 'I don't want to think about it. I don't want to talk about it or acknowledge it.' " [386] Organized opposition to the placement of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) from local residents during this period was virtually nonexistent. [387]

Not everyone accepted the presence of nuclear missiles, however. Acts of resistance against America's nuclear defense program began in the late 1950s and included both solitary protests and organized groups. Individual protests tended to be carried out by local residents, while the early group actions were typically organized by national groups. In 1958 a lone protestor held an anti-nuclear/peace sign at the dedication of F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as an Atlas site.

An early group action occurred in Cheyenne when the Committee for Non-violent Action, a Philadelphia-based group, mounted a consciousness-raising campaign in the summer of 1958, which sought to stop the construction of Atlas missile sites in the Cheyenne area. The campaign, dubbed "Appeal to Cheyenne," sought to encourage local residents to oppose the construction of the new Atlas site at the F.E. Warren Air Force Base and to raise the level of public awareness and concern about nuclear weapons. [388] Additional campaigns mounted against the missile silo sites and the United States nuclear arsenal included actions by the War Resisters League. In 1959 this group's "Omaha Action" drew national attention to the early Atlas ICBM deployment in Nebraska. The War Resisters League distributed pamphlets encouraging Nebraskans and others to protest nuclear weapons.

The intensity of anti-nuclear activism varied depending on the political climate. Public debate over nuclear weapons in America remained virtually nonexistent during much of the 1960s. The signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963 appeared to reduce the public's concern over the nuclear weapons issue, as nuclear testing went underground. Nuclear weapons development and testing continued unabated, however—the United States conducted more tests in the five years after the test ban treaty than the five years before its signing—the perception of the nuclear threat lost its immediacy. [389] From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, many local and national peace groups shifted their focus, concentrating instead on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The anti-nuclear movement was not reinvigorated until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Europe and the United States experienced a resurgence of concern over nuclear weapons. [390]

In Europe the renewed activism centered on anxiety over the arms build-up during the Reagan administration and the proposed deployment by the United States of short and medium range nuclear missiles in continental Europe. These anxieties sparked numerous European protests against the arms race that helped inspire the dormant American anti-nuclear movement. [391]

Activists in the United States shared the European's concerns over the nuclear deployments in Europe. Greater public concern in the United States over nuclear missile silos also coincided with the emergence of the nuclear freeze movement, which attracted strong support in the United States. [392] The height of this movement, from 1982 to 1987, encompassed the years of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the years when the United States and the Soviet Union entered a period of renewed tensions, which included a new emphasis on production and deployment of nuclear weapons. This period saw the renewed activity of the national peace movement, as well as the formation of anti-nuclear groups at the state and local levels. For example, the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, which had been established in 1979, became active in protesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This group organized events at Ellsworth Air Force Base and at specific silos to "protest the nuclear arms race." [393]

The reaction of Allen and Lindy Kirkbride, ranchers near Cheyenne who had three MX missile silos on their sixty-five thousand-acre ranch, illustrates the increased public awareness concerning nuclear missiles during this period. The couple played reluctant hosts to the new MX ICBMs, developed in the 1980s by the United States in response to the increasing accuracy of the Soviet ICBMs. Allen Kirkbride, speaking to USA Today in 1986, said of the new MX ICBMs on his land "I sit here, and I think I'm in Utopia... really chaps me when one of our elected public officials begs to get one of these projects in my backyard." Lindy Kirkbride equated having the missile silos in her backyard with being kicked by a horse. [394] Her husband's sentiments also illustrate divisions between state politicians, who saw the economic activity brought by the increased military presence as beneficial, and the negative views of some of the ranchers who lived beside the missiles. [395]

The number and scope of missile silo actions increased in the 1980s as the anti-nuclear/peace movement gained momentum. Anxiety over new missile systems, such as the mobile MX missile, drew 400 people to an anti-MX rally at silo Q5 outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the late 1980s. The furor over the MX deployments focused attention back on the Minuteman as well. Peace actions occurred at Minuteman II and III missile sites in Colorado, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming during this period. Though no two were alike, protests typically involved vigils, praying at the site or on the silo cover, trespassing, damaging the surface installations by either hammering on the covers or pouring blood on the site to produce a symbolic disarming, or the delivering of statements from the activist to the military. Such statements commonly referred to international laws, such as the Geneva Convention, which bars attacks on civilians, and the Nuremberg Charter, which bans attempts to annihilate whole populations, as the rationale for disarmament. The activists argued that since the effects of nuclear weapons cannot be limited or controlled that they will harm civilians, thus violating these international laws. [396]

Although a number of anti-nuclear/peace activist groups were based on the east or west coasts, individuals from around the country participated in actions at the missile sites. One such action, performed by members of a Ploughshares group known as the Silo Pruning Hooks, involved people from Wisconsin and Minnesota. The activism of Ploughshares organizations is based on religious convictions that oppose war. The Silo Pruning Hooks members were two Catholic priests, a writer, and a mental health worker. Their action, performed in 1984, involved breaking into silo N-05 in Missouri by cutting the fence around the silo site, hammering on the silo cap with sledge hammers and jack hammers, and hanging a banner on the gate that read "Why do you do this evil thing? Your brother's blood cries out to me from the earth." [397]

The activities of the Silo Pruning Hooks group raised the level of awareness about existing Minuteman sites at a time when the majority of public attention focused on the possible deployment of the MX mobile ICBM. For members of the Silo Pruning Hooks, the potential dangers and destructive power of the nuclear missiles justified their actions. [398]

The actions of members of the Silo Pruning Hooks inspired other groups like Nukewatch, based in Luck, Wisconsin, to undertake consciousness-raising projects of their own. Nukewatch's Missile Silo Project, which resulted in the mapping of one thousand missile silo sites across the country, was intended to be a high profile project capable of furthering public discussion on nuclear weapons. Jay Davis, a local peace activist, participated in the mapping of the rural missile sites in South Dakota and described an encounter with Air Force security personnel at a missile silo,

". . . eventually we came to a missile silo right near State Highway 34 and there was a semi truck backed up right onto the pad inside the perimeter of the fence and there were a couple of soldiers, from the Air Force I suppose, with machine guns guarding the missile silo and the semi truck. And we stopped there and, I mean, it was obvious they weren't unloading furniture and this one soldier with the machine gun came over to my car as I was writing down the directions to that silo and also giving it a name and he said, can I help you with anything when I rolled down the window. And I said no thanks we're just tourists. And of course he knew we weren't tourists, but the point was we had a right to be out there driving on the back roads whatever it was we were doing this is supposed to be a free country." [399]

During the mapping of the missile sites in South Dakota, Delta-01 was assigned the name of "Mike and Beth's Launch Control Center" after Mike Sprong and Beth Preheim, peace activists that mapped the Delta Flight. Delta-09 was believed to be assigned the name "Cassandra's Missile" for Cassandra Dixon, a peace activist with Nukewatch. [400]

Nukewatch published the book, Nuclear Heartland, which mapped missile silo sites by state and provided an overview of the history of ICBM deployment and the development of national and local resistance movements. As stated by Sam Day, founder of Nukewatch, in the introduction to Nuclear Heartland, the goal of this project was to raise awareness and spark a critical debate of the dangers of the continued presence of these weapons and the real threat of a nuclear war. The organization also hoped their maps and information might prompt public visits to the sites by concerned citizens, other activists, or even vacationers. [401]

Throughout the protests of the 1970s and 1980s, relations between the protestors and the military personnel guarding the silo sites largely remained professional and civilized. Young guards often displayed some nervousness around the activists, perhaps because they didn't know what to expect. Protests were often planned and announced in advance, which contributed to a more controlled response from both sides of the protest line. [402] In the words of John LaForge, an activist with Nukewatch, "the people [guards] in charge generally understood that we weren't a threat to them." [403] A level of understanding seems to have been reached between the guards and protestors at most actions. For example, LaForge relates a story that happened during a protest at a missile silo site on Martin Luther King's birthday in the early 1980s, "I was in custody our protest was on a Martin Luther King Birthday, this was before it was made a national holiday, and we all had Dr. King buttons on and I was in the Air Force squad in the back with the cuffs behind my back and one of the MPs asked me if he could have the button and I just thought that was a nice breakthrough at the time because everybody wanted to celebrate Dr. King no matter what side of the fence you're on with nuclear weapons." LaForge gave the button to the MP. [404]

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003