MHQ Reviews: The Missile Next Door

The history of the Cold War is usually writ as a clash of big ideas (communism vs. democracy) and outsize personalities (Kennedy vs. Khrushchev, Reagan vs. Gorbachev).

But Gretchen Heefner, a Connecticut College historian, finds an intriguing story in the margins. In the 1960s, the U.S. Air Force buried 1,000 Minuteman missiles in silos scattered, as Heefner writes, “like buckshot” across the Great Plains. These were the first intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, the backbone of America’s nuclear deterrence for decades to come. The weapons were housed in two-mile-square plots carved for the most part out of privately owned land. Ranchers and farmers ceded the land with little resistance, if any.

Why did the good people of America’s Heartland let the government put 1.2-megaton nuclear warheads in their backyards? Why didn’t they balk at living hard by missiles that the Soviet Union would target with its own nukes?

Those are the questions that drive Missile Next Door. Judging by Heefner’s arch tone, she’s no fan of nuclear weapons. But her work offers a fascinating look at the American mindset in the early 1960s, when the country came to embrace the seemingly illogical notion that to keep the world safe, we had to stockpile weapons to destroy it.

Thanks to Sputnik and the hyped missile gap with the Soviets, Americans at the time lived in a state of high anxiety. This softened up patriotic farmers and ranchers for visits from military officials who wanted to transform fields of cattle and alfalfa into militarized zones. The public also thrilled at the whiz-bang quotient of the Minuteman, which could deliver a nuclear bomb over the North Pole and onto Moscow in 30 minutes—“as quickly as you could have a pizza delivered to your door,” Heefner writes. Push-button weapons promised to make war clean and bloodless, at least for the good guys. As a rancher explained to Heefner, a missile next door might mean he wouldn’t have to send his son off to battle.

ICBMs turned America’s Heartland into a militarized zone, a new book argues. (Mark Meyer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
ICBMs turned America’s Heartland into a militarized zone, a new book argues. (Mark Meyer/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Heefner also expends considerable energy—and venom—outlining the government’s PR campaign to sell the public on the virtues of nuclear weapons strewn about the country. Among the intriguing tidbits she uncovers: While most missile systems were named for gods of mythology—Titan, Zeus, Atlas, and the like—the ICBM was shrewdly called Minuteman to wrap it in the sacred aura of the Revolutionary War. ICBMS were pitched to Americans as the modern equivalent of the country’s first heroes, Heefner writes—“defensive soldiers, living within their communities and ready to emerge, armed, when called upon.”

Much of Heefner’s book deals with a small protest by South Dakota ranchers. The brushfire they lit died quickly, but as Heefner demonstrates, their fight illuminates a great deal about how average Americans came to grips with the nuclear age.

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One Response

  1. Dan DeLapp

    I’ve read Heefner’s book and I have to take issue with a few of her assertions. First, is the assertion that Americans had to be \sold\ on the idea and reality of Minutemen Missiles in the heartland. As someone who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, I can say without hesitation that the American public did not have to \sold\ on any particular weapon system during that time. Those that lived in the heartland believed that Communism was evil and the Soviet Union was the embodiment of that evil. Whatever the government did to develpment and put weapon systems in place was OK with us. And most of us only heard about particular systems in the news and basically reacted with a cheer. No selling was necessary. I understand that there is a body of evidence that indicates the socalled \missile gap\ didn’t exist, i.e. the Soviet Union had far fewer nukes than we did. If Heefner wants to point a finger at the government for perpetrating a hoax, she can point in that direction. But asserting that the Minuteman had to be sold is totally erroneous.

    Second, I was in the Air Force and worked in the Minuteman complex in South Dakota. I have a clear feel about the farmers and ranchers in that area and how they felt and how their children and grandchildren feel now – resentful but compliant. My issue here is that Heefner correctly characterizes the landowners as conflicted, i.e. patriotism vs. land use. However, to pose the possibility that the accepted those missiles as \normal\ is far from the truth. They accepted them with some resistance (the MALA organization) but know full well that if they didn’t accept the government’s terms, they’d still lose by the government’s right of eminent domain. The negotiation for land by the government was not their first rodeo. As Heefner points out, those landowner had been down this road before with other agencies – they know full well what it was like to deal with a government that wanted to control the land for it’s own purposes. What would you expect them to do? Take up arms and form a rebellion? Heefner describes what I’m saying accurately and then goes on to say things like \ . . .having a missile in their back yard was normal\ and she intimates that they were somehow compliant little children in the process.

    Have you or she ever stared down the barrel of a Winchester model 70, held by a bitter rancher who didn’t like the Air Force for what it represented on his land? I have and I can tell you, I felt full force the resentment and vitriol of that rancher on that day. I looked down that barrel while he \unloaded\ all of his anger verbally for what seemed like an eternity. I also came to know the kindness of those people who never failed to extend a helping hand when we needed one, e.g. pulling our vehicles out of a ditch, giving us directions when lost, raising a hood and helping to get a stalled vehicle started again and their pleasantness. e.g. bringing baked goodies to us while seething inside about the whole situation. When they talked, they kept their emotion inside but made no bones about how they felt about those missiles and the misuse of their land. They knew how to separate people from the issue and for the most part, treated us all with respect and friendship. They went along with those missiles on their land because they had no choice. That doesn’t mean they acted like sheep.

    I recently visited the current owner of the G-1 LCF near Union Center. He is the grandson of the rancher who owned the land when the Air Force came calling. His expressions of resentment don’t sound any different today than what I heard way back then – land use has always been central to their concerns and we shouldn’t forget that.

    It’s obvious to me that Heefner is horribly biased. She took some of the very facts she found and interpreted some of them wrongly.


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