Coming out of Cold Storage.
MOST BABY BOOMERS who grew up with the Cold War would just as soon forget the air raid drills, fallout shelters, and doomsday scenarios brought on by events like the Cuban missile crisis. But those 40 or so years of nose-to-nose brinksmanship with the former Soviet Union represent a significant era in U.S. history--one that many historians believe deserves recognition in the National Park System.
Now that is about to happen, thanks to an unusual combination of events and a cast of characters ranging from international diplomats to a 16-year-old boy in rural South Dakota. On November 29, 1999, President Clinton signed legislation creating the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site adjacent to Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota. According to that law, the purpose of the site is "to preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations the structures associated with the Minuteman II missile defense system" and to interpret the historical role of that system "as a key component of America's strategic commitment to preserve world peace, and in the broader context of the Cold War." When the facility opens to the public in five years, it will be the first national historic site devoted entirely to the story of the Cold War.
During the 1960s, when tensions peaked between the United States and the Soviet Union, 1,000 Minuteman missiles were deployed throughout the sparsely populated states of the upper Midwest, poised to strike Russian targets within 30 minutes or less. In 100 launch control facilities, each linked to ten missile silos, two officers stood watch in reinforced bunkers 30 feet below ground to await the unthinkable: orders from the president to launch a nuclear attack.
That era ended in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union when President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which ordered that all Minuteman II missiles be destroyed by the end of 2001.
Irv Mortenson, then superintendent of Badlands National Park, recalls how the Air Force's efforts to deactivate the missiles filled the local news. "We were watching the TV, and my 16-year-old son, Brian, who at that time was enamored of missiles and rockets, said, `You know, Dad, the Park Service ought to be working to set aside one of those things.'" As luck would have it, the framers of START had had similar foresight, including in the treaty a provision allowing for preservation of "one static display" of a Minuteman missile.
Recognizing that his son's suggestion had merit, Mortenson contacted the state historic preservation office, the South Dakota congressional delegation, and historian Greg Kendrick in the National Park Service's Denver office. "At that point, no one, even in the Air Force, considered these missile sites historic," says Kendrick. "But we convinced the Air Force that we needed at least a graphic record for posterity, so we brought in a team of architects, historians, and photographers to produce detailed drawings and photographs." The graphics sparked further interest in actually saving part of the complex as a tourist attraction.
NPCA's Heartland Regional Director, Lori Nelson, also believed the proposal had merit, and testified before Congress in favor of a park. "The park fills a unique niche commemorating a nationally significant period in our country's history ... no other site would do that," Nelson says.
With funding from a Defense Department program designed to preserve the history of the armed forces, the Park Service launched a study, directed by Kendrick, to determine the feasibility of creating a national historic site around the launch control facility of the Delta missile wing (known as Delta 1) and one of the ten missiles attached to it (Delta 9). The study concluded that these were indeed most worthy of preservation for three reasons:
* Delta 1 and 9 have the most historical integrity of all Minuteman sites because they were the least changed from their original 1961 configuration.
* They are within a mile of Interstate 90, the main tourist route from the Midwest to Yellowstone. Most of the other missile sites are remote, reachable only by gravel road or by crossing private land.
* They are only about seven miles from Badlands National Park, so administrative functions can be shared initially, saving the taxpayers money.
With the selection of Delta 1 and 9 confirmed, all other missiles in the Delta wing were disarmed and imploded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-1990s. The piles of rubble were left untouched for up to a year so that Russian satellites could verify that the missiles had indeed been destroyed, as required by START.
Now that Congress has authorized establishment of a national historic site, the National Park Service (NPS) over the next three years will develop a general management plan to determine the best way to manage the flow of visitors and to interpret the missile complex's role in the Cold War. So far, there is no actual budget for the site, but Marianne Mills, chief of resource education at Badlands and currently site manager for the Minuteman, has requested a base budget of $750,000 for initial staffing.
Before the site opens to the public, the Park Service will construct a visitor center and parking areas, but for now the area is mostly empty prairie. "The launch control facility was designed to blend into the landscape, so it looks like a plain, tan ranch house with a lot of strange yard art," Mills explains. "There's a chain link fence topped with barbed wire, and in the open area in front of the building there are several microwave receivers, all sorts of radio equipment, a burn bin where they burned the orders each day, some physical fitness equipment, and storage for trucks and a lawn mower. All that will stay." Inside, everything looks as if the military personnel just walked out--right down to the magazines, videos, and other minutiae of daffy life. Only items susceptible to theft, such as TVs and VCRs have been removed. An Air Force engineer checks the property at least once a month, and Mills has installed equipment to monitor temperature and humidity.
The heart of the operation is out of sight below ground. At Delta 1, an elevator connects the support building with the 12 by 28-foot capsule that was manned around the clock by the two launch control officers. (Just like in the movies, they had two red keys that they would have had to insert simultaneously in their consoles to initiate a launch, and each was armed as a check against one deciding to act alone.) It is unlikely that such a confined space can be made accessible to large numbers of visitors, Mills says, so much of the below-ground story may be told at the visitor center. There is also a launch control simulator at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base that is open to the public.
At the Delta 9 missile silo, the only visible evidence is a concrete slab surrounded by chain link and barbed wire. The silo is capped with an 80-ton, reinforced concrete door that in the event of a missile launch would have been blown off with explosives. "Under the treaty, the Air Force has to uncork the silo and open it up so the Russians can peek inside on a satellite pass and confirm that there really isn't a missile down in the hole," says Mortenson. So, to accommodate both the Russians and the public, the massive door will be welded into a partially open position and the hole capped with a transparent cover to allow visibility while protecting the silo from the weather. Once the silo modification is complete and the site has been officially cleared under START, the Air Force will turn over the property to the National Park Service, likely to be sometime in 2001.
"From the Park Service's standpoint, this is probably the first time we've ever had a near complete historic assemblage of what was there when a site was in operation," notes Mortenson. "Most military history sites were stripped and dismembered, and it's very difficult to envision what they looked like unless somebody has the time, the money, and the expertise to reconstruct what was there."
To complete the story, the Minuteman visitor center will house a museum containing objects and reminiscences related specifically to the Delta missile site and to the era it represents. "I'll be contacting Sears and Roebuck, because they sold through their catalog ready-made bomb shelters and bomb shelter kits, and that's something we want to include in our collection," Mills says. The aim at the center will be to cover the entire scope of the Cold War, including McCarthyism, the Cuban missile crisis, and to some extent the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. "It all has to be put in context," Mills adds, "because the Minuteman missile system certainly didn't exist in a vacuum."
Although Minuteman will be the only site within the park system devoted exclusively to the Cold War, it is by no means the only one with connections to that era. Nike missile sites are among the attractions at two NPS units: Marin Headlands at San Francisco's Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where visitors can watch the missile ascend from its silo and hear interpretive talks by knowledgeable volunteers; and Gateway National Recreation Area at the entrance to New York City harbor, where wayside markers at Forts Tilden and Hancock describe the role of the Nike in coastal defenses. Another early missile, the Titan, is featured at a privately owned site in Arizona.
A number of military sites associated with the Cold War also have been designated national historic landmarks or listed on the National Register of Historic Places (both administered by the Park Service), which means that they are historically significant but not necessarily owned by the federal government or open to the public.
These include the Thor missile launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; the Army's launch complex 33 at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where Wernher von Braun and his team perfected the V-2 rocket after World War II; the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, now docked at Groton, Connecticut; and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the world's first atomic bomb was perfected, and the Trinity site, where it was successfully detonated on June 16, 1945, both in New Mexico. Congress may well designate some of these as national historic sites once they are no longer part of active defense installations.
Civilian sites on the landmark or register list include a civil defense emergency operations center in Jefferson County, Colorado; Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, site of the world's oldest nuclear reactor; and the Atomic Energy Commission's National Engineering Lab in Idaho, which houses the first nuclear reactor to produce a usable amount of electricity for peacetime use.
Political aspects of the Cold War also come into play at a range of sites and landmarks, including the Eisenhower National Historic Site at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Ike conferred with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Westminster College Gymnasium, a national historic landmark, where Winston Churchill made his famous iron curtain speech. One of the most unusual landmarks is the pumpkin patch in Westminster, Maryland, made famous during the Alger Hiss case of 1948-49. It was from a hollowed-out pumpkin on his farm that former Communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers retrieved documents that he claimed State Department official Hiss had given him to pass on to a Soviet agent. On the basis of the pumpkin patch evidence and Chambers' testimony, Hiss was convicted and sent to prison. The case propelled California Congressman Richard Nixon into national prominence and laid the groundwork for Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch-hunt, which started shortly thereafter. The Chambers farm is still privately owned and is not open to the public.
So far, Congress has not authorized the National Park Service to conduct a "theme" study to identify sites related to the Cold War, as it has for other aspects of American history, such as civil rights, the women's movement, and the space program. But with the establishment of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, the Cold War is taking its rightful place in the nation's heritage. "This could well serve for some years as the only site for a full interpretation of that era, until we see how the public reacts, what political controversies arise, and how difficult it is to write objective material," notes Robin Winks, professor of history at Yale and a member of the board of trustees of the National Parks Conservation Association. "But over time the nation will likely decide that dealing with the fear of nuclear attack at just this one site is not sufficient for something that has been so powerfully important in American life."
In the meantime, says Marianne Mills, the Park Service is determined to present the Minuteman site in the context of hope for the future. "We want to focus not just on `might makes right' and what we can do with power and technology but rather on the wisdom of humanity that these weapons were never used," she says. "This really is more of a world peace site than one devoted to military might."
PHYLLIS MCINTOSH, who lives in the Washington, D.C. area, last wrote for National Parks about the challenges of conserving historic artifacts.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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