Stand Down

Exit 127 off Interstate 90 doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There are no towns, no farms, no apparent reason to build an exit in the middle of the driest, flattest section of South Dakota, a desolate expanse of land. If you steal a glance at the right moment, though, you may notice a nondescript vinyl-sided building sitting just off the highway. It’s surrounded by a tall chain-link fence and topped with a yellow weather vane.

“Here we are!” announced my cheerful guide, Ranger Mark Herberger, dressed in a tan park ranger uniform and wearing a stiff, wide-brimmed hat. We were entering one of the country’s newest national parks: the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. It was established in 1999 as a sort of Cold War museum. Limited guided tours began last summer.

“This is Delta One Launch Control Center, where they controlled ten missile silos,” explained Herberger. The park is but a remnant of a missile field that once spanned 13,500 square miles of South Dakota countryside. Under grazing cattle and bison, and barking prairie dogs, lay dark secrets: one hundred and fifty Minuteman II missile silos and fifteen launch control centers. Built in 1962, these were the nation’s first solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. And for thirty years, they stood ready to annihilate every living being in the U.S.S.R.—and possibly the rest of the world. According to the doctrine of the time, if the Soviets initiated a nuclear war, it was believed that at least some of South Dakota’s missiles might survive the attack. They would be used to return fire.

Though the building looks like an average house, curious sightseers during the site’s active days would have been greeted by unhappy armed guards racing toward them in armored vehicles, known as Peacekeepers. “Millions of people drove by every year on the interstate and did not realize they were on the front lines of a war zone,” he said.

Many South Dakota residents were just as oblivious to the existence of the silos, but that was part of the appeal in building the silos here in the first place. There weren’t a lot of people around to ask questions. Recently declassified documents explain that here, there was “an existing network of roads, large amounts of easy-to-acquire public land, and a low population density to minimize civilian casualties in the event of a nuclear accident or attack.” There were other strategic reasons. The government figured that if the Soviets attacked, they would have gone the most direct route, over the North Pole and through our undefended border with Canada. Suddenly, in the era of intercontinental ballistic missiles, sleepy South Dakota was flung into the middle of the Cold War.

The same goes for North Dakota, where many national defense sites are still in operation (though the targets undoubtedly have been updated). For example, the five-thousand-acre Air Force base in Minot, built in 1956, along with the base in Grand Forks, currently provides staging areas for hundreds of bombers equipped with nuclear warheads. When the Minuteman silos were still online, North Dakota had the heaviest concentration of nuclear weapons on earth. People used to joke that if the state seceded from the U.S., it would have been the third largest nuclear power in the world.

The specter of the apocalypse did not dampen the upbeat tone of Herberger’s tour. Stretching an upturned hand toward the parched yard, he said, “Here’s a volleyball court where soldiers could pass their time, and a horseshoe pitch, too.” While officers perfected their bump-set-spike, two officers below ground maintained a hot line to the White House and plotted coordinates in the Soviet Union, calculating nuclear strikes that would cause maximum damage.

This site, along with others like it, was decommissioned after President George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991. Inside the house, Herberger opened a door that led to a garage-like space. “We call this the Retro Room,” he said, “because of all this old exercise equipment and the bumper pool.” In this carpeted area, soldiers relaxed, shot the breeze, and kept in shape. A long-neglected Ultra Gympac weight-lifting system with cables, bars, and iron weights sat slumped in the corner.

Next to the Retro Room, plush modular furniture filled a lounge with a picture window that framed an expansive view of the empty skyline. “Everything in here is exactly as the Air Force left it,” said Herberger, with more than a little pride. “All the books, magazines, and videos.” He picked up a yellowed copy of Popular Science from the early nineties. The magazine’s cover depicted an ominous-looking nuclear weapon under the headline, “Taking Apart the Bomb.” Apparently, the soldiers stayed in touch with their sensitive sides, too: A dog-eared copy of Shirley MacLaine’s Dance While You Can held a place of honor at the center of the coffee table.

The launch control center was a self-contained little world. It had a backup generator that could produce enough power to supply all of Rapid City. It had its own well, three thousand feet deep. There was a helicopter pad and a hardened antenna system, designed to survive attack. “Everything above ground is just to support those two men underground,” said Herberger. Even if a near miss knocked out all the above-ground equipment, he added, the underground capsule still could have operated for two weeks. “Nothing could have withstood a direct hit, though.”

We went down for a look at that underground capsule. A shabby old service elevator lowered us three stories—about forty feet—and stopped with a clunk. Herberger opened the lift gate to reveal a large mural of an American missile dramatically piercing a Soviet flag. “Each site had its own artwork that the men painted,” he said. He showed me a photo of a mural from another silo. It showed a pizza box with the ominous promise, “Worldwide delivery in thirty minutes or less—or your next one is free.”

At the mouth of Delta One, the launch center itself, I noticed a cryptic message stenciled on the wall. Near a wide yellow line painted across the floor, it read, “No-Lone Zone Two Man Concept Mandatory.” Herberger explained. “If you crossed this line alone you’d probably be shot. At all times there had to be two people in the capsule.” We crossed a little gangplank, passing five-foot-thick concrete walls reinforced with quarter-inch steel plates. The capsule looked like a train car suspended by enormous springs—the idea being to lessen the shock of a nuclear blast.

Inside the pod, there were two red chairs set on runners so they could roll from control panel to control panel, all festooned with sixties-era dials, knobs, and switches. Next to the capsule was a cot for catnaps, a toilet, and an ancient microwave oven. It was like a tiny high-tech bachelor pad, circa 1962, buried deep in the earth.

To prevent any horrific mistakes, each officer wore a key around his neck. These had to be inserted simultaneously into two separate locks, ten feet apart, in order to activate the missiles in any of ten remote silo sites. But that was just the start: Two codes and two more keys allowed access to a red do-not-touch box prominently mounted on the wall. “Actually, you needed more than two people to fire the missiles,” says Herberger, “because the command had to be approved by another launch control center.” If the Soviets knocked out all fifteen control centers managing the one hundred and fifty missiles in South Dakota, the Air Force crossed its fingers that confirmation could be obtained from a launch control center in another state.

Although it’s true that the fixed locations of these missile silos made them sitting ducks for a Russian strike, they were less vulnerable to accidents than the mobile bombs the military carried around on submarines and airplanes. (According to some sources, as many as fifty nuclear weapons lie at the bottom of the world’s oceans, jettisoned from distressed planes or lost during naval mishaps.)

The threat of nuclear annihilation had its benefits. The silos brought jobs and federal funds to an often financially strapped state. “The interstate, jobs, and rural electrification—they were all put in because of the missile fields,” explained Herberger. Many Dakotans also thought the missiles made them safer. They didn’t necessarily consider that their wheat fields were now ground zero on a map somewhere in Moscow.

Herberger pulled aside a Velcro patch on the ceiling of the pod and told me, “Here’s the escape hatch, but it just dead-ends in five feet of dirt, tar, sand, and clay.” Herberger said that in order to escape, a soldier would have had to shovel. And what would they have found, had there been a serious attack? “Some guys who manned this launch control center called the escape hatch a joke, because you’d find total destruction and nuclear winter,” he said.

Now that we’d viewed the switches and panels, the brains of the operation, it was time to inspect the brawn. “Do you want to see a nuclear weapon?” asked Herberger. We drove about ten miles farther down the interstate to another exit to nowhere. Standing in an empty field with the wind howling, Herberger explained that we were right next to the Delta Nine silo, which was invisible except for a tall fence and a thick cement slab.

He opened the padlock and we scrambled onto the silo’s concrete lid. Pointing to a group of ten-foot pilings fifty yards away, Herberger said, “See those cement pillars out there? In the early days, they took measurements for navigation from pillars placed in the field and by the stars.” In other words, if the little cement poles were moved or misread, the navigation system sent the missile to the wrong city. And back then, there was no turning back, he added, “no redirecting it, no self-destruct mechanism like there is now.”

We stepped up on a platform and peered down, into the silo, sunk eighty feet into the earth. Cupping my eyes against the sun’s reflection on the protective Plexiglas cover, I could see it. Poking up from the enormous concrete pit, a gigantic Minuteman II missile. It had been waiting here—silent, lethal—for more than forty years, ready to level Moscow within a half hour. Looking down into the hole was like peering into the business end of a gun, except that this thing was designed to kill not just one person, but an entire nation. Suddenly I was overcome by the powerful memory of maps showing the impact-radius of a twenty-megaton bomb; old newsreels of Hiroshima; scenes from The Day After—all the fantastical, nightmarish visions I inherited from my parents and their war. And here was the weapon itself, the real deal, more or less pointed at my forehead.

These are the silos my grandmother refused to believe existed when I pointed them out on our way to the Rocky Mountains. Other relatives of mine, who lived in Montana, remember seeing the missiles on flatbed trucks in the parking lot of a restaurant called Eddie’s Corner. The airmen used to go inside to ogle the voluptuous Fergus County sheriff’s daughter, Carol Couch, who waited tables in a pink low-cut T-shirt. David Arnott of Moccasin, Montana, remembered this beautiful threat to national security. “The Air Force boys used to hang around quite a lot in those days, and she could keep a whole counter of them occupied for hours,” he said. “The missile and warhead trucks would sit idling in the parking lot.”

Through eminent domain, which allows the government to take personal property for certain public purposes, Arnott’s father had a missile silo placed on his ranch. His sister Sigrid remembered, “The Air Force would drive three hours from Great Falls to check on the silo and always forget to close the gate so our cows would get out. We used to joke that the cattle could trigger the alarm and start a nuclear war. One day, my dad wound the gate shut with wire and snipped off the ends so they’d have to use wire cutters to open it. A colonel called and yelled at Dad. ‘This is a threat to national security!’ he said. ‘You’ve endangered our country!’ After that, the Air Force remembered to shut the gate.”

The fenced perimeter of each silo, including the one on the Arnott property, was equipped with dozens of motion sensors, in case industrious teenagers tried to break in on a dare. With little to do on a Saturday night, why not break into a missile silo? Thankfully, even if a group of drunken teens did manage to get through the fence and past the sensors in an attempt to blackmail the world with a thermonuclear device, they’d never penetrate the silo’s blast-proof doors. Plus, as an extra layer of security, the missiles were controlled remotely and couldn’t be detonated on site.

The Delta Nine missile was the last of the Minuteman II missiles in the Midwest. The other underground silos in the Dakotas, Montana, and northwestern Minnesota were imploded beginning in 1991, as part of the START treaties. The resulting craters were left open so Russian satellites could verify their destruction. The missiles casings themselves, minus the warheads, are in storage for possible future deployment or even as space launch vehicles. The government has tried to sell the abandoned land back to local farmers, but it’s tough going since just two feet below the topsoil, there is plenty of asbestos, leaked fuel, and PCBs.

A visit to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site may feel like a trip back in time to the heart of the Cold War, but the credo “peace through superior firepower” is still very much on active duty. Eight countries possess the thirty-thousand or so nuclear weapons known to exist in the world—the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Pakistan, India, and Israel. In all, forty-four countries have the technology and material to build nukes, including North Korea and Iran. (Experts now believe North Korea has twelve to fifteen nuclear weapons.) Today, the U.S. spends $100 million per day to maintain our existing, though significantly diminished, nuclear arsenal. Currently, we possess the explosive force of roughly 140,000 Hiroshima bombs.

In 2002, President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty to further reduce our nuclear arsenals by 2012. Still, peace is tenuous at best. As rustic as the Cold War may seem today, and as scintillating as it is to look down a hole at a neutered Minuteman II missile, the possibility of nuclear war is hardly a relic of the past.

The U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 2001. We have developed—and exercised—a policy of preemptive military strikes. Some of our leaders still dream of a missile defense shield in outer space. Others seriously consider using new, smaller, “tactical” battlefield nuclear weapons. And three years ago, an interesting document was leaked. It was a “Nuclear Posture Review” that recorded official U.S. strategies for nuclear strikes against Russia, China, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Perhaps most discouraging of all: Despite its overwhelming lethality, the U.S. nuclear arsenal apparently has not deterred countries like North Korea and Iran from developing their own weapons in the post-Cold War world. Even if the Minuteman silos are being turned into parks, there are new targets being mapped every day.