The Rise of the Minuteman

The year of 1962 found me sitting in a house in Great Falls, Montana; a teenager mulling

 Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range, Great Falls, MT

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front Range, Great Falls, MT

over the transfer into yet another school and wondering if I could get credit for that Washington state history course I’d taken. Probably not. I would have to take a course on Montana’s history. That January in 1962, while the Cuban Missile crisis storm was rising, I was busy hating Great Falls’ sub-zero temperatures pushed farther down the Fahrenheit scale by a wild wind that blew in directly from the Artic. Great Falls was wheat lands country and there was nothing between the Artic and Great Falls; it was all flat. My family traveled a great deal. We had lived in Chile for a number of years and through most of the northern tier of states from Washington to Minnesota. We weren’t rich. Upon his return from WWII’s Pacific theater, my Dad gave up his dreams of college and settled into the business of making a living for his family by working construction as an electrical superintendent. We were in Great Falls because he had a job supporting the construction of the Minuteman missile sites.

My sister’s poodle is responsible for my first exposure to the Cold War (1947-1991) infrastructure. When the poodle had puppies, my dachshund was not supportive of the

Minuteman ICBM

Minuteman ICBM

poodle or the puppies and that got us both unceremoniously ejected from the house and into my father’s workplace. We would rise at 4:00 am, grab a bite to eat, make lunches, and head to the local general aviation airport where we boarded a plane and took off into the Montana farmland around Great Falls. The sites we visited were each in a slightly different stage of construction and all were being readied to accept the Minuteman ICBMs that were being manufactured elsewhere. I discovered that each silo was three stories deep and, in the event of a launch, a huge concrete slab that covered it would be blown clear. One of the sites we visited was a control site. The big cables I saw at the smaller sites ran to a series of manned control centers deep underground.  It was all very impressive other than it was out in the middle of nowhere. Later I learned so much more.

The rise of the 1960s Minuteman ICBMs was the logical outcome of three major technological developments in the 1950s. The advances combined with the realization that, while many countries wanted to be protected from the former Soviet Union, few were lining up to have a nuclear arsenal on their soil. Inertial guidance system developments provided for increased ICBM accuracy.  The former Soviet Union and the rest of the allies split the science baby at the end of the WWII hostilities. The WWII Nazi V-2 rocket guidance technology was a spoil of war. Werner Von Braun, a leader in the Nazi rocket program, and about 500 of his top rocket scientists, along with plans and test vehicles joined the U.S. science community. The other major inertial guidance system players were Caltech and NASA JPL. The inertial guidance system enabled a missile to hit its target and the first piece of the three piece puzzle was in place.

The second piece of the puzzle was the development of Edward Teller’s concept of thermonuclear weapons which gave much more bang for the nuclear buck. Ivy Mike,

Ivy Mike

Ivy Mike

detonated on Eniwetok Atoll in late 1952, was the first test of the concept. The view of the Operation Ivy’s beautiful turquoise blue, crystal clear water in the craters contrasting with the dark blue Pacific waters were the first thing I saw when I flew into Eniwetok  in the early 1990s. Thermonuclear weapons are staged weapons. A little fission device is detonated to add heat, compress and trigger the second stage hydrogen fusion device. This tactic provides for much more explosive power, or yield.

The final piece of the Minuteman puzzle was the development of powerful booster engines for multistage rockets, greatly increasing their size and range. Three missile workhorses were developed. The Titan and Atlas missiles had to be fueled just before launch, which

Atlas-5 rocket equipped with an RD-180 engine

Atlas-5 rocket equipped with an RD-180 engine

made them inconvenient for ICBM use and they went on to become stars in the NASA space programs. The Minuteman I and II, which went into the field in 1962, used solid fuels stored within the missile that could lift up to three warheads, each with the destructive power of a megaton or greater. At this point the U.S. could deliver big bombs with good accuracy anywhere in the northern hemisphere, or the world for that matter, in less time than it takes for a nice hot bath.

As the technology was advancing at breakneck speed, the political arena caught fire. In Smart Rocks, Brilliant Pebbles, and all that Political Jazz, we discussed Eisenhower’s fight to defend the country from bombers dropping bombs on the countryside and his aha moment when it was realized that the threat would come from the direction of missiles. Lack of much solid intelligence from the former Soviet Union left the door wide open to build disaster scenarios on what THEY might be doing. The lobby for missile manufacturers and other defense contractors went into overdrive and the Air force hammered the fear home.

As the 1960 election approached, Eisenhower’s adherence to tight fiscal policies came under attack.  Eisenhower was a proponent of little debt as was illustrated in his funding strategy for the Interstate Highway system, discussed in Ribbons: The Interstate Highway System. During the elections the ‘missile gap’ allegations between the Soviets and the U.S. reached fever pitch and the cause for the ‘gap’ was laid directly at the feet of the Eisenhower administration’s fiscal policies. In November 1958, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), the future presidential candidate, initiated the ‘missile gap’ charge when he claimed that the Eisenhower administration placed fiscal policy ahead of national security. As a result, he said, the nation faced “a peril more deadly than any wartime danger we have ever known.”[1]

Eisenhower wasn’t worried about a ‘missile gap’. The veil of secrecy prevented President Eisenhower from disclosing the U-2 photographic evidence that confirmed the lack of a ‘gap’. The secrecy code sword cuts both ways and the well-earned lack of trust in the government allows fear games and manipulation. Shortly after the 1960 presidential election ‘missile gap’ discussions were muted. They flared again in February 1961 when Secretary of Defense McNamara stated that there was no missile gap during a press briefing. The next big surge of fear mongering arrived when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in April 1962. As a teenager, I will attest to the fact I was terrified along with millions of others.

Patriotic farmers from across America’s breadbasket gave up two or more acres of their land to the federal government for the deployment of 1,000 ICBMs to protect us from the Soviet menace. Thousands worked on the construction, thousands were employed to manufacture the missiles and their parts, and thousands more worked to support the installations. Many have tried but failed to tally the total cost of our ICBM defense but it runs to the trillions of dollars.

Did it work? Many say yes. We didn’t have a nuclear war, did we? Others say no and we placed millions of innocent civilians in harm’s way.  I am a proponent of military strength as a deterrent.  I also respectfully disagree that there is such a thing as ‘innocent civilians’ during a war. Historical cycles tend to support those positions. Weak countries are overrun and citizens, by virtue of their status, are responsible for their governments’ actions. How we got strong is another matter. Rather than a discussion with the American people coupled with disclosure of evidence, the federal government opts for lies, secrecy and manipulation.

Personally, I resented the fear I felt as a kid. I was manipulated and that makes me feel stupid. As soon as I gained a broader world view from within and without the U.S., I began to question, read, and apply the principles of skepticism to everything that emanates from the federal government and its minions. Whenever the government wants something-oil, resources, and so on-they drop a big rock in the population bathtub and, just before everyone drowns, they provide ‘the answer’. Predictably, the tactic is becoming more and more acute, the dropped rock is getting bigger and the bathtub more crowded. Now, the bathtub population is being assaulted with a mind-numbing economic strategy. Individuals within the bathtub population can hardly breathe, let alone think. The next rock dropped in the tub will drown many, I think.

The teenager I was in 1961 was definitely going to be a medical doctor. Instead, I became an engineer and the decades rocketed by at close to the speed of light. The twine of my life was bound around the core of the Cold War (1947-1991) and, although I am sliding into home all used up, I had a great ride. Ideas are the most powerful force in the universe so just keep thinking.

5 thoughts on “The Rise of the Minuteman

  1. Just curious… Would it have been better if ICBM arms race hadn’t taken off, pun unintended, like it did? That the US had stuck with the manned bomber and gone to B-70 and later aircraft? Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t sitting ducks to SAM’s if you were higher and a lot faster. It might have kept things at less of a hair trigger.

    • Yes, it is my belief that you are correct. Eisenhower was on the right course. History has shown that his assessment of Soviet missile strength was far more accurate. Now, of course, we are losing our ability, and our political will, to manage our overall stockpile and our options for flying platforms are severely curtailed. The U.S. hit ‘panic’ too early. In retrospect, we didn’t really need to ramp up to the level we did or the manner in which we did. Cooler heads should have prevailed but did not. We are actually at far greater risk now and we are acting like everything is wonderful. If I had one wish, it would be for a leap in ethical maturation across the globe. Failing that, we need to hang onto a reasoned approach. Thank you for commenting.

  2. Concerns about Saudi Arabian missile sites buried deep in the desert bring back Cold War summer memories of buried missiles site in the sand much closer to home. Along with the construction of snazzy beach clubs up and down the narrow strip of land of Long Island where I grew up in the 1960s, the government had built, for our protection, a Nike installation. Kept in cold storage were 60 Nike Ajax guided surface to air missiles deep in concrete bunkers buried in the sand. To read more how the cold war kept a chill in the summer air

    • Thank you for your comment and taking the time to read the post. I enjoyed your site, , I love your style.

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