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.

The Pathway of Good Intentions

Ghana: A Case Study

Cold War (1947-1991) Lessons for Today’s World

An eighteen month contract in Ghana with Kaiser Engineers International, Inc. in 1966, marked the beginnings of my life-long quest for understanding. My 19 year old brain knew

Port at Tema, Ghana

Port at Tema, Ghana

only that Kaiser was building an aluminum plant at Tema, Ghana and I was going to live a tantalizing adventure.  While Sgt. Barry Sadler sang The Ballad of the Green Berets, The Righteous Brothers crooned You’re My Soul and Inspiration, The Monkees caught the Last Train to Clarksville, The Mama’s and The Papa’s harmonized to bring us Monday, Monday, Johnny Rivers lamented The Poor Side of Town, and Nancy Sinatra shared that her Boots Are Made for Walkin’, little did I know that I was running headlong and as fast I could to become a dust mote on the Cold War’s economic stage.

Kaiser had a cost plus contract, which I knew provided for my very important job, running PequodCutawaythe swimming pool, snooker room, bar and other recreational facilities for the ex-patriots who did the real work. In addition to U.S. citizens, Greeks, Germans, Indians, Lebanese, Scots from the Outer Hebrides, Canadians, and others filled the ranks of Kaiser, Chicago Bridge and Iron, and their subcontractors.  Moby Dick was fresh in my mind and I always referred to the ex-patriot compound as the Pequod; a microcosm of the ‘free’ world. Kaiser and the subcontractors were burning their foreign currency reserves from other jobs.  The Pequod provided an accelerated learning environment for a 19 year old discovering the adult geopolitical world, and the job provided the prototypical water cooler around which gossip spread. Perfect.

Eight Ghanaians headed by an old man named Hammond comprised my staff. Hammond was an amazing human being. He was a wise and honorable Juju man, a religious elder, from Ghana’s northern regions. Hammond was a devout Christian whose Christianity was integrated with the old ways of his people. He had worked in the goldfields and had watched his country transition from colony to nation. He folded me into his life and taught me. Eventually I would work in his village for an old Dutch bush doctor. Hammond could take the edge off my youthful arrogance with a word or a look. He forced introspective journeys through my soul; he took the circle of geopolitics and, magically, a sphere appeared in its place. Over the course of the next 47 years, the sphere within me would self-populate with ideas and changes, awakenings, understandings  and awareness.

Kwame Nkrumah was Ghana’s president in 1966 as I took the reins of the recreational facilitydefault in Tema in the hot steamy tropics that is June there.  Nkrumah was an engaging leader. He was a brilliant, charismatic orator who was educated in Great Britain and the United States. Had Nkrumah not chosen to worship in his own temple, he could have become Africa’s greatest leader.  By 1964, however, Nkrumah had gotten rid of the Supreme Court and created a one-party state. The chatter in the Kaiser Snooker room was that Kwame Nkrumah was playing the United States off against the Soviet Union. Rumors of Chinese military training camps in the north abounded. Being a mother, apple pie and flag American, I found this to be an enigma. Kwame Nkrumah had been educated in the U.S., right? How could he even think about engaging the Soviet Union? How could he allow a Chinese base? It agitated my core being, but Hammond said to keep the information in my heart and when the time was right, the answers would appear. And they did.

Kwame Nkrumah married a beautiful Egyptian lady, Fathia Rizk, at the height of his political power. He remains a part of the Ghanaian political landscape through his daughter, Samia

Henry J. Kaiser was featured as "Shipbuilder No. 1" in a 1943 Real Heroes comic book.

Henry J. Kaiser was featured as “Shipbuilder No. 1” in a 1943 Real Heroes comic book.

Yaba Christina Nkrumah, who is very active in the parliament. Nkrumah was well versed in Cold War economics and played the game to get a break-even hydroelectric dam built on the Volta River. He knew that Khushchev had provided funding for a similar project in Egypt, the Aswan Dam, as a gambit for Soviet penetration into the Arab world. President Nkrumah asked President Eisenhower for a favor[1] and another piece of the Volta dam deal was placed in the puzzle. President Eisenhower spoke with his friend, Henry Kaiser, who put together a consortium to deepen the Tema Harbor and build an aluminum plant as a primary customer for the Volta dam that would now be built. Neat and clean! President Kennedy inked the deal. There was nothing like a little Cold War economic competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to start the money spigot flowing.

Somewhere between the idealism of Cold War Economics and the ridiculous lies the truth.  In February 2008, Harvard’s Richard Cooper published the Economic Aspects of the Cold War, 1962-1975, which states that:

US objectives during the Cold War were to prevent Soviet attacks on the United States and its allies and to prevent the spread of communism as a political and economic system to other countries, whether by force or by threat, subversion, persuasion, or bribery.”

The United States used a carrot and stick approach with economics. The U.S. government sent a goodly amount of money and support to governments that behaved appropriately for its purposes and quickly engaged economic sanctions when they did not do as the government wanted. This approach impressed the leadership of other countries with its get rich quick opportunities, which suited one objective of the aid: to promote the short-term political and strategic interests of the U.S. It was a standing joke while I was in Ghana that the African leaders’ bank accounts matched well with the World Bank funding for their respective countries. Unfortunately the policies did little to help the Ghanaian people. The aid failed miserably in promoting long-term growth and reducing poverty in Ghana, or anywhere else. The idea was engaging. It seemed a no brainer that if poor countries grew economically strong, U.S. economic and political security would benefit.  It is always ridiculous when governments think they can conduct effective, hard-nosed business. It simply never works and it is clear that the federal government remains conflicted about its economic acumen and role.

In the beginning, it all seemed so logical. Kwame Nkrumah would be a hit at home once his aluminum plant was processing bauxite from his mineral rich provinces using cheap

Akosombo Dam

Akosombo Dam

electricity from his Volta River hydo project. The Ghanaian people would be productive, busy, and living well and his role as Ghana’s savior would be solidified. The U.S. government was happy that one more country was firmly, so they thought, on their side of the Cold War ledger sheet. Henry Kaiser was happy, too. He had negotiated a sweet deal that included up to fifty years of cheap electricity, great tax benefits, and lots of money. Kaiser put up $32 million for his aluminum plant and the Export-Import Bank and the Agency for International Development (USAID) put up $140 million. USAID is We, The People, the taxpayers.

What about the Ghanaian people? Well, they did not fare so well. The Ghanaian government now owns the aluminum plant through a company called Valco. Valco was originally a joint venture with Alcoa but Ghana bought out most of Alcoa’s stake in Valco in 2004 and bought the last 10% for $2 million in 2008. The Jun 23, 2008 published statement by the presidency revealed the Ghanaian government’s vision. “The Government has proposed a concept of an integrated aluminium industry in which the country’s bauxite will be mined, refined and processed to near-end or end products here in Ghana.[2]

The up to fifty years of cheap power was re-negotiated not so favorably in 1985, about twenty years after the plant was commissioned.  Valco closed the plant completely in 2003, partly because of low water conditions at the Volta River dam. The plant did re-open in 2006 then was closed from 2007 through 2010. Since its re-opening in 2011, it produces a paltry 20% of its 200,000 metric ton capacity. The hydroelectric dam on the Volta River resulted in a stagnant lake, which increased the pain and suffering of the people through disease. The dam was built at the right place. Proper siting of dams is very important and must be done by scientists and engineers experienced in such things, not by politicians.

So, what is the tally? Kwame Nkrumah was ousted by his people and died in Bucharest, Romania in 1972. The people are not substantively better off. One could make the case that for all the U.S. money injected, the suffering of the Ghanaian people increased.

Once, in frustration I asked Hammond, “Why, why won’t you change?” He just looked at me, foreign-aid-definition-wiley1smiled and calmly said “Because, young one, you will leave and I will still be here.” The idea of foreign aid in all of its many cloaks grew out of the reconstruction of Europe after WWII. In the U.S., it expanded as a political weapon used during the Cold War. Most of the recipients of foreign aid are worse off rather than better off; Africa is much worse off. But we insanely continue the program. Asia grew its infrastructure mostly without the benefit of such aid and has continued to develop to become our equals and better in the world marketplace. Perhaps the time is right to openly debate whether or not free and open markets make more sense than a dole that ends up in the hands of dictators and cronies. The stated objectives of foreign aid are filled with good intentions. As Hammond would say, “Good intentions, my young friend, take you straight to hell.”


[1] The Volta River Project in Ghana, West Africa: SAN JOSÉ STATE UNIVERSITY ECONOMICS DEPARTMENT: Thayer Watkins http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/volta.htm

[2] New bauxite mine and alumina refinery for Ghana as it buys Alcoa stake in VALCO http://www.mineprocessing.com/News/detail-a11-b0-c-d-e-f.html