During a recent vacation trip to the South Dakota Badlands, my family and I made a short detour to a defunct nuclear missile silo.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is managed by the National Park Service. The rocket on display here was an ICBM targeting the Soviet Union. It was deactivated as part of the 1991 START agreement between President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and was opened to the public in 1999, “the first site dedicated exclusively to Cold War events,” the brochure says.
The place is fascinating at several levels.
The conventional narrative of the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union was an ogre and the United States the prince of peace, is very prominently on display at the visitors center.
“The Minuteman Missile was an iconic weapon in the American nuclear arsenal,” states the site’s webpage. “It held the power to destroy civilization, but acted as a nuclear deterrent which maintained peace and prevented war.”
What is unquestioned was the reliance on a strategy that could blow up the world many times over or the U.S. role in heightening antagonism between the two superpowers.
To be fair, a critique of nuclear weapons has been allowed at the margins. (Eric Schlosser’s superb book about a nuclear near-catastrophe, Command and Control, is mentioned in the displays.) But the overall tone is that of Cold War triumphalism, perhaps not a big surprise. After all, the webpage quotes Congress as saying that the site’s purpose is “to interpret the historical role of the Minuteman II missile defense system as a key component of America's strategic commitment to preserve world peace and in the broader context of the Cold War.”
The exhibit highlights President Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and bring an end to the Cold War. Blithely ignored is how Reagan’s belligerency, especially during his first term, deepened Cold War tensions and alarmed people all over the world.
One other note in the display struck me as odd, since I’ve extensively analyzed and written about nuclear weapons in South Asia. Pakistan is singled out for mention a number of times for its acquisition of nuclear arms. India, which was the first in the region to develop such weaponry, is conspicuously omitted. Favoritism, anyone?
The site is extremely popular with tourists. There is a guided tour of the launch control facility, but it is so much in demand that tickets for all the tours sold out early on the day we visited. So we had to take a shorter unguided tour of the missile silo, itself of great educational value.
“If the Dakotas had seceded from the Union at the height of the Cold War, they have would have formed the third-most powerful nuclear nation on Earth,” the ranger at the silo, who looked like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, told us.
Why were so many nuclear missiles stationed in the Dakotas and other Plains states?
As the website explains, and the ranger summarized, there were a number of reasons. The states had sparse populations, which meant fewer people would have been killed if the Soviet Union decided to target these missiles. Additionally, their location inland gave the United States added warning time. And, the location of the Dakotas was such that major Soviet cities such as Moscow were the shortest distance away from the mainland United States for the missiles via the North Pole.
All of this mustn’t have been very comforting to the Dakotans, who nevertheless seem to have made their peace with the missiles. In fact, as the ranger told us, members of Congress from these states actually lobbied for nuclear facilities, which brought in jobs and increased their prestige.
Another interesting aspect of the tourist attraction is its attempt to be kids-friendly. Given the subject matter, however, the effort comes across as creepy.
“Stand Beside The 90 Ton Blast Door at Delta 09,” exhorts an activity sheet directed to kids under seven. “Draw Your Own Launch Control Facility!”
The day we visited, there was a girl slightly older than my younger daughter dressed up as a junior ranger and helping out on the site. When she saw my daughter, Devika, she offered to induct her on the spot into the Minuteman Missile Junior Ranger Program. Devika politely declined. As much as I try to encourage my children to participate in various activities, I didn’t urge her to reconsider.