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The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland

Gretchen Heefner

How rural Americans of all political stripes were drafted to fight the Cold War by living with nuclear missiles in their backyards—and what that tells us about enduring political divides and the persistence of defense spending.

Excerpted from Chapter 1 from The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland (footnotes omitted) by Gretchen Heefner, published byHarvard University Press. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Ace in the Hole

At 5:00 am on September 17, 1960, three U.S. Air Force trucks pulled up to the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza. It was still dark, though in a few hours the sun would burn off the fog that habitually clung to San Francisco. That Saturday would be an ideal day: crisp blue skies, highs around 70 degrees. It was a good day to build a missile.

The trucks, loaded with 10-foot-wide Titan missile cylinders, rumbled across Market Street and came to rest on Grove Street, in front of San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium. The night before, just a block away, Tosca had opened the season at the War Memorial Opera House. It was “the leading tribal rite” of fall, declared the San Francisco Chronicle, which also carried a brief story about the Titan’s arrival. If opening night at the opera was the event of the season for San Francisco’s elite, then the fourteenth annual Air Force Association Convention served a similar purpose for the nation’s aerospace enthusiasts. Convention organizers predicted that for five days the Bay Area would become the “aerospace center of the world.” So for the rest of the week there would be plenty of time to see a missile on the way to the opera.

By Thursday, in addition to the Titan missile, millions of dollars’ worth of military hardware had been deposited near city hall. Much of the material was on exhibit inside the civic center auditorium as part of the Aerospace Panorama, though a handful of weapons remained outside, “contributing to the city’s skyline.” The display was “dazzling,” providing the public with a glimpse of the instruments of the newly arrived space age. There was a Bell X-1B rocket plane and North American Aviation’s Hound Dog air-launched standoff missile. The Titan stood nine stories tall. The Thor-Able missile promised a trip to the moon. Alluding to contemporary fears about Soviet military superiority and the much-hyped “missile gap,” reviewers noted that “the Russians may have outstripped us in the missiles but not in displaying them to the public.”

The real coup of the convention, however, was the unveiling of the Air Force’s newest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM): the Minuteman. Descriptions of the weapon had been circulating since 1958, when the Pentagon funded Minutemen for development, but Thursday, September 22, 1960, would be the “first time anywhere” that the missile would be seen by the public, according to the Air Force Association press release. General Thomas D. White, the Air Force chief of staff, flew in for the occasion. San Francisco mayor George Christopher expressed his delight that the city could host such an important moment. Both shared the podium with NBC producer Roy Neal, who introduced the new missile. At precisely 7:00 pm White pushed a button and said “Off we go...,” and the gleaming dummy missile rose to a vertical static display, where it would remain through the weekend. Floodlights bathed the scene. An Air Force band played. “It was truly a heart warming sight,” the convention newsletter, The Booster, gushed. “The big bird appears ready to defend City Hall and Old Glory, which truly in a short time it will be doing.” Once fully erect the missile stood 60 feet tall.

Here was the country’s “ace in the hole,” literally and figuratively. The Minuteman was presented as the ultimate deterrent force; it was the nuclear weapon that would keep the peace. It was also the first rocket that could be stored underground—in a hole. This was because the Minuteman was powered by solid fuels, rather than the liquid fuels that propelled the other big rockets, Titan and Atlas. Solid fuels are far more stable, making underground storage and launch possible. Air Force planners noted two major benefits to this approach. First, the Soviets would have a harder time eliminating underground weapons in the event of war. The missiles were built to be relatively invulnerable. In addition, the Minuteman could be fired remotely and instantaneously, vaulting out of its underground silo and capable of covering more than 6,000 miles in less than 30 minutes. Enough, the savvy listener would have realized, to reach the other side of the world.

Push-button war, long the stuff of science fiction, had arrived. And the Air Force would not miss a chance to herald its importance. Indeed, White understood the power of image. He knew that making the Air Force the nation’s preeminent deterrent force depended on the good graces of the American public. “It is only through public support that [the Air Force] gets resources,” he had reminded the airmen assembled for the annual Air Force Commanders conference earlier that year. White found the topic “sufficiently important” to devote an entire session to telling his commanders how to be public relations agents. When speaking with the press, he warned, “don’t try to be funny,” “don’t gild the lily,” “don’t be evasive or criticize the newspaper profession,” and “don’t play favorites.” The stakes were considerable. In White’s estimation, the Navy “out sells us.” More damning still, “even the Army has seen the light.” As a result those two services were basking in positive attention.

By sharing the podium with the Minuteman missile in San Francisco, White was thus sending a strong signal about the importance of this new weapon. He had long been an advocate for missiles. The chief of staff had little patience for those airmen who refused to see the future. And missiles, he knew, were the future.

But the questions remained: Would the American people accept the strange new requirements of this type of war? Would they allow the deployment of nuclear weapons across the country? Even strategist Herman Kahn, known for obtuse and fantastical thinking about nuclear weapons and strategy, understood this anomaly. “If somebody ten years ago had said that in the mid-’60s we would be living with thousands of nuclear missiles poised on either side,” he wrote in 1961, “we would have said ‘You’re crazy. It’s too dangerous.’” Yet in 1960 this is precisely what the U.S. Air Force had planned. And White knew it. Clearly this was going to be a complicated “sell.”

The Minuteman was not the first weapon featured in advertisements, magazine stories, and publicity tours. But promotion for these missiles was exceptional—and revealing—in a number of ways. The missiles introduced Americans to the nuclear space age and also required unprecedented levels of civilian engagement. For the first time, Americans would be asked to live next door to weapons of war. In promoting its latest missile system, then, the Air Force had many concerns with which to contend: Could the Air Force convince the Pentagon and Congress of the importance of nuclear missiles without eliciting larger public fears? Would Americans accept weapons of mass destruction in the heartland? Was it possible to promote a missile system that, in the end, was to be hidden away? How could you sell the population on a strategy that they were meant to forget?

While the outline of the Minuteman program has been described in numerous Air Force publications, the public presentation of the missile itself has been overlooked by scholars. But the publicity was critical, not only in getting the system built, but also in bringing Americans on board with the idea of nuclear deterrence and the Cold War. The missiles were presented to the American public as a panacea to Cold War security needs. A mere pencil-and-paper sketch in the fall of 1957, the Minutemen were rushed through development precisely as the nation was undergoing a massive reconsideration of weapons and war. In October 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit. The era of push-button war was at hand, but it was not the Americans who controlled the lead. “Missile gap” hysteria was not far behind. Over the next few years Americans were repeatedly, though erroneously, warned that the Soviets would soon wield missile superiority, an advantage that purportedly would lead them to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States. Many members of the Air Force Association and the U.S. Air Force encouraged these fears.

Just as Sputnik was more than a beeping ball in orbit, the Minutemen were much more than strategic weapons. The Minutemen and the ways they were sold to the public helped inure the country to an extraordinary military landscape. The missiles were not built in a vacuum, but took careful account of public concerns as well as economic and political pressures. Only in understanding these relationships does the Minuteman program, and the nuclear arms race it was so integral to, make sense. Nothing in September 1957 pointed to the installation of 1,000 thermonuclear warheads across the United States. But just three years later, during the Air Force Association Convention, Minuteman planners were hoping for a force as much as ten times that amount. No one seemed to blink.

Part of the reason the Minutemen were pushed forward so quickly was that in the late 1950s they seemed to provide answers for yawning strategic and political questions. In fact just about everyone with an interest in missiles had some claim to the newest system. Congress needed it to fill the missile gap; the American public needed it to assuage their fears of Soviet military superiority; Eisenhower needed it to quiet those unfounded national concerns about strategic inferiority; in 1961 the new Kennedy administration needed it so as not to look feckless and weak; and all the while the Air Force needed it to keep its status as primary deterrent force. For a time the Minutemen were allowed to fill all of these needs; there were few real limitations on the imagining of the system and therefore few restraints on its development. Well into the early 1960s, the Minuteman program had no specific deployment numbers. Tellingly, from development in 1958 through the start of deployment in 1962, no one was certain how many missiles would be built—600? 1,000? 10,000? When the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally tried to reconcile Minuteman force levels in the fall of 1959, they noted warily the absence of basic statistics that would make their job possible. Not until 1964 did Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sit down and set the outer limit: 1,000, a number arrived at not through careful consideration but through compromise and because it was a nice round figure. In the Minuteman program this ambiguity is precisely what allowed the perception of the missile’s inexpensiveness to prevail for so long. No firm numbers, no clear performance data, and no real cost estimates were available. It was because of this general failure to articulate clear and consistent strategic and operational needs that the Minuteman’s inexpensiveness would be seriously and irrevocably compromised. The ambiguity also allowed the missiles to fulfill, however erroneously, the desires of nearly everyone. It was the “ultimate weapon,” Reader’s Digest’s “missile that closed the gap,” and President Kennedy’s “ace in the hole.”

To understand how and why this happened with little opposition, we first have to go back to the days when the Minutemen were on the drawing board. When the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division (BMD) began work on the Minuteman, no one yet realized that the missiles would have to fulfill surprising cultural functions.

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