Minuteman Missile
Historic Resource Study
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Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota, including Launch Control Facility (LCF) Delta-01 and Launch Facility (LF) Delta-09, will be preserved for future generations to learn about our past and reflect on our country's future. The site encompasses not only the history of the men and women of Ellsworth Air Force Base that maintained the missiles at a ready alert, but in a larger context the history of the Cold War which was a defining period in American history. The Cold War, as many historians have noted, affected every aspect of American life. Its history is vital to understand, especially as we enter a new century, and a new period of international relations. As historian Derek Leebaert has written, "Many of the attitudes and institutions that America is taking into the new century have their roots in an adventure that cost more and shaped more lives than any other in history. Today's world has been molded by the Cold War, as has the world of skill levels, technology, business, and finance. Debates about missile defense, energy, taxes, and terrorism all reflect the experiences of these decades just past." [463]

Isolated on the South Dakota Plains, the Minuteman I and later Minuteman II missiles stood at ready alert to deter Communist or Soviet aggression. They were on the front lines of the Cold War, a conflict with battle lines drawn shortly after World War II, continuing until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the signing of the Treaty Between the United States of American and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START Treaty) in 1991, and thereafter the crumbling of the Soviet Union. The Cold War ended with these events. It never escalated to a "hot war" involving direct combat between Soviet and American troops, the type of combat that, unlike the proxy wars fought by both sides throughout the Cold War, could easily have escalated into a devastating full-out nuclear conflict.

What must be understood in evaluating this period and the contribution of a program such as the Minuteman is that victory in the Cold War did not just happen. It was instead the product of dedication by military personnel and civilians alike, from analysts in Washington, to missile designers in California, and the cook at the LCF. Former employees at the missile sites are proud of how they served our country and have commented that they are anxious to "bring their grandchildren" to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site so they can show them where they once lived and worked in dedication to our country's freedom. Their work left a legacy for future generations, and the place they worked remains a legacy for us all. With the placement of the training missile in the silo, the 90th Logistics Group at F.E. Warren Air Force Base placed a plaque in the silo dedicated to the memory of the men and women who worked and maintained the missile system over nearly three decades. The plaque reads, "rest easy old friend your targets are covered."

Today, the Minuteman II missiles have left little impact on the physical landscape. The landscape has largely been returned to its pre-Cold War state. Following the signing of the START Treaty, the 150 former LF sites in South Dakota, with the exception of Delta-09, were dismantled and a simple chain-link fence surrounding the grassy landscape marks their former boundaries. Components of many of the fifteen LCFs remain.

Even without a thousand-odd missiles beneath the American plains, the images and the effect of the Cold War remain a part of our everyday life, culture, and history. The Berlin Wall stood for generations as a physical symbol of the Cold War, a symbol of a continent divided, and of a people restrained. Project Looking Glass, the Strategic Air Command's airborne command center, flew continuously in the skies from 1961 to 1990 on ready alert to take over command of the nuclear arsenal, if needed. Its very existence illuminated the constant terror of nuclear attack. Generations grew up in fear of Communism and the Soviet Union, and school children learned "duck and cover" techniques to hide under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack. For their homes, the federal government published "how to" brochures on the construction of bomb shelters and some families built shelters and stored supplies in the hopes of surviving a nuclear attack.

East-West tensions were also a rallying cry, and sometimes a warning. In the later years of the Cold War, a nation cheered as the United States Olympic Hockey Team beat the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics at Lake Placid, New York during the 1980 Olympics. Their "miracle on ice" went beyond a sporting event, with sentiment against the Soviet Union rooted in the decades of the Cold War. Movies addressed the Cold War both through sarcasm, such as Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and through the portrayal of what life may be like after a nuclear attack, as in the 1983 television movie The Day After. All of these events and cultural icons have shaped our nation and our collective memory. They are who we are.

The Cold War is in the past, but it has a lasting effect on the present and future. It was a time in the life of our nation and the experience of many individuals that may be unmatched. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers the opportunity to reflect upon this significant period in our nation's history and to remember all of the aspects of the times. The opening of these sites to the public will facilitate a public dialogue on the Cold War, nuclear weapons proliferation and disarmament, the role and dedication of Air Force personnel, and the nation's political and military future.

The power and potential destruction of the missiles was and remains incomprehensible for most of us. It is important to remember this past, while simultaneously recognizing that the end of the Cold War did not bring about the wholesale destruction of nuclear arsenals. Minuteman III and subsequent generations of missiles remain throughout the nation's landscape. As a result, peace activists remain committed to the cause of nuclear disarmament, to them a symbol of social injustice as much as of potential destruction. As activist Jay Davis from Rapid City explained, "People ought to ask themselves what's a more important contribution from the Midwest to the world, to feed hungry children and raise their standard of living and start to deal with the problem of world population and all the economic and social issues that revolve around that, which one of our own famous political leaders is pushing? Or is it more important for us to spend our resources on nuclear weapons and on what we think is our national security? And I think that's a pretty stark choice." [464]

The stark choices presented by military programs such as the Minuteman I and II left their mark on the men and women who operated them as well. General George Lee Butler, Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command and subsequently Commander-in-Chief of the United States Strategic Command, reflected on his role as the head of the United States Air Force and United States Navy Strategic Nuclear forces from 1991 to 1994. For him, the life and death decisions required for the operation of the country's nuclear arsenal were real as perhaps for no other. Butler stated, "I lived for three years, every day of my life, with the requirement to answer a phone within three rings and be prepared to advise the president on how to retaliate with respect to the real or perceived threat of nuclear attack. I found it extremely sobering." [465] General Butler clearly knows first hand what nuclear weapons can do. Since his retirement from the Air Force he has become an advocate for the banning of these weapons.

No matter what personal opinions one has on the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the actions of the United States and the Soviet Union, all must recognize that the Cold War's lasting social, economic, political, and cultural legacy is a significant part of the nation's history that needs to be understood. The optimism and security that the country felt with the end of the Cold War has been shattered somewhat by the events of 11 September 2001. The United States is now facing new challenges and conflicts within the world. This new adversity provides further proof of the necessity of understanding the work and the lessons of generations' past, as inspiration and guidance for the future. The Cold War is over. South Dakota's role on the frontlines of this international conflict has ended as well, however efforts at Ellsworth Air Force Base continue currently battling our nation's current war on terrorism. With Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, the Plains might again assume their role in the service of the nation, this time as vessel for its memories.

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003