This Week: Doomsday Revisited
With Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 29, 2002; 1 p.m. EDT
Why did the United States build so many nuclear weapons during the Cold War? How close did it come to using them? And what it is doing with them now? Those are among the questions the National Park Service must wrestle with as it creates Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Bob Thompson, whose article "Rethinking the Unthinkable" appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Monday, July 29 at 1 p.m. EDT, to field questions and comments about the article.
Thompson is a Magazine staff writer.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Bob Thompson: Good afternoon, and thanks for joining us. From the questions we've received already, I can see that I need to make one apology from the beginning: I'm a general interest magazine reporter, not a nuclear weapons expert. I learned a lot in the process of doing this story, but may have to plead ignorance on some non-minuteman questions. That said, let's go to your questions.
Lakewood, Colo.: Thank you for your fascinating article. My father worked on Minutemen missiles at Minot AFB in North Dakota for a number of years in the early 1970s. We certainly had no understanding of the policy debates that you described at the time, and I don't think any of us ever expected to see those missiles fly -- although all of us knew that if there was a war we would be among the first to be obliterated. The idea of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia now doesn't seem to be on the minds of young people. How do you rate the risk of an accidental nuclear war today?
Bob Thompson: Thanks, Lakewood. I agree that young people (and many older people) don't worry that much about nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia today -- which would seem to make sense, given our friendly posture. As to my own rating of the risk of accidental war, I'm not really qualified to say. But one's judgment on that would seem to depend a lot on (a) how much one knows about the fragility of these systems, and (b) how much faith one has in the Russian government, in particular, to maintain and supervise them appropriately.
MD: I am glad you are making a museum out of a missile site. Today's college freshmen have no living memory of the Cold War. I think that period of time is too important to ignore. I grew up in the 70's and 80's and remember the tail end of the war well. Since there are no battlefields in the U.S. to visit, like the Civil War, what better location for a museum than a missile site? Just make sure you explain the "eight miles high and falling fast" verse in Don McLean's song "American Pie"!
Bob Thompson: Well, I'm not doing it, the Park Service is -- but I'm glad too; I agree that there's no more appropriate site at which to contemplate Cold War history. You'll have to fill us in on the American Pie reference, though; I have enough trouble figuring some of the other images in that song ...
Richland, Wash.: The Minuteman Silo certainly is an important part of our nuclear history and just as certainly should be maintained as a museum.
There is an even more impressive associated nuclear facility, the B Reactor on the Hanford Site, which produced the plutonium for the Trinity test bomb and the fuel for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. It also produced the Tritium for the first Hydrogen bomb.
It is the only one of the nine plutonium production reactors at Hanford not slated to be entombed. It has been used by DOE for 'special invitation' tours for many years. It is awe inspiring.
A recent Environmental Protection Agency study evaluated the hazards to potential visitors and found radiation levels on the tour route to be no higher than background and noted a few electrical and mechanical hazards that are now being fixed.
It seems to me that it is a very important part of our history which is not addressed anywhere else. Why should it not become a federally operated interpretive center?
Bob Thompson: I agree that it would be good to do something there, Richland. There's another posting on the historical importance of the Hanford site, and I'll put that up too.
Richland, Wash.: More unseen history, and it's not underground.
I enjoyed your article on the Minuteman Missile Historic Site, and would like to point out that there's another "underground" nuclear site that predates the Cold War and, in fact, virtually defines the beginning of the Atomic Age. I'm speaking of the world's first production-scale nuclear reactor, "B Reactor", located on the Hanford site in southeastern Washington state.
Hanford was the plutonium production plant for the Manhattan Project, where, for the first in human history, the transmutation of matter was put to daily use. Of Hanford's three nuclear "piles", B Reactor was the first to be put into service -- September 26, 1944. The plutonium produced at B Reactor was later shipped to Los Alamos, where it fueled the world's first atomic bomb, the Trinity test. A few weeks later, Hanford plutonium was used in the bomb that devastated the Japanese city of Nagasaki, helping to end a most horrific war and, to date, standing out as the last atomic bomb to be used in war.
B Reactor spent its operational life behind the wall of nuclear secrecy that protected our sites but also shielded them from public view and understanding. This historic reactor as decommissioned in 1968 but is still mostly hidden from public view, literally behind Hanford's security fences (now the country's largest nuclear cleanup site) and also hidden due to lack of funding (and motivation) for public tours on the part of the Department of Energy.
Since its founding more than a decade ago, the mission of the B Reactor Museum Association has been to ensure that B Reactor is preserved and someday opened to the public. We have succeeded in many small ways, but the final "ribbon cutting" ultimately remains in the hands of Congress and the American people. The world changed the day B Reactor was started, and the world deserves to see one of the key sites where the Atomic Age began.
Bob Thompson: Again, I agree; it's also true that the remaining sites from the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos are in need of preservation.
College Park, Md.: I enjoyed reading your excellent article this morning and would like to hear more about the concept of “deterrence.” I conducted a magazine interview a few years back with a retired Air Force officer whose first assignment (in 1965) was as a deputy missile launch officer at Ellsworth AFB. This gentleman went on to a 33-year military career that led him to the highest levels within our nation’s nuclear forces. His most memorable statement to me was that “ … we had nuclear weapons … the Russians had nuclear weapons … and you couldn’t just wave your hand and make them go away …” His thoughts -– even as a 22-year-old launch officer –- were that you had to maintain an equilibrium against the Soviet threat, whether it was real or perceived. Did you find this same mindset to be true for most of the individuals who you spoke with for your story?
P.S. –- This same gentleman was the top military negotiator for the START I Treaty signed in 1991.
Bob Thompson: Thanks, College Park. Yes, I found many people to have this understanding of deterrence, and it's beyond question that "you couldn't just wave your hand and make them go away.' The difference between this very general understanding of what we were up to, however, and the more specific deterrence theory talked about by nuclear strategists may be illuminated by another comment I'm about to post.
Gaithersburg, Md.: I was a Missile Combat Crew Member from 1975 to 1979 and moved on to SAC Headquarters in the War Plans Programming/Missile Planning Section. I disagree with a few of the conclusions stated in the article. The main difference is with Bruce Blair's assertion that the plan was 'launch on warning'. If that were the plan, 100 missiles would have been enough. I believed then (as I still do) the plan was always to ride out the first attack, and hope that enough missiles remained to inflict massive casualties on the attacker. The attacker must have almost 100% certainty of taking out all of the missiles; otherwise he faces the loss of a city for each warhead left. For 1000 missiles silos (assuming 1 warhead per missile), a 95% success leaves 50 missiles. Can the attacker afford to lose his 50 largest cities? With only 100 missiles, this is only 5 missiles. Maybe he can afford to lose 5 cities. This is the mathematics of the Cold War and deterrence. As frightening as it was (and still is to a lesser degree), it was the best strategy that could be developed between two powerful, worried, distrustful yet still rational opponents.
Bob Thompson: Thank you, Gaithersburg. You've explained the theory of deterrence better than I did in the story. What Bruce Blair and others argue, however, is that while this was the official THEORY of deterrence under which we operated, in PRACTICE military leaders understood that riding out an attack would not only eliminate much of their arsenal, but might cause them to lose the ability to control what remained. Hence launch on warning, and the high-pressure timetable for the president to make a launch decision before the enemy missiles could interfere with our ability to reply.
Belmond, Iowa: Bob:
Great Article! I had Professor Leebaert at Georgetown and took his class on Cold War history. However, I need you to clarify something in your article. When Gary Powers was shot down, you state that the USSR only had FOUR ICBM's in their entire inventory. Is that correct? Are you positive from your research that that was all the Soviets had? In their ENTIRE ARSENAL? Not trying to nitpick you, I just find that very hard to believe.
Bob Thompson: Thanks Belmond. I had that same question, and doublechecked with my source, who confirmed the number. I've seen other figures cited, but all are very small, and there is no question that the Soviets were vastly inferior to us in ICBMs at the time, though this would change, of course. The figure of 4, I believe, also refers only to operational ICBMs; there were undoubtedly more under construction. I'm a bit out of my depth here, but I believe one reason to be that there were a lot of problems with the first missiles, and the Soviets wanted to move on to a second generation before producing too many more.
Piscataway, N.J.: Is there a fee to enter this park? Also is there a souvenir shop?
Bob Thompson: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site isn't open yet. The Park Service hopes to have a visitor center in place by 2005, though it's possible some form of tours will be put in place before then. There are modest fees to enter most national parks and historic sites, and I doubt this will be an exception; there may be an additional fee to tour the underground capsule, which will have to be done in small groups. And yes, there WILL be a souvenir shop.
Manassas Va.: Bob,
There are a few of the 44 SMW missile crew members who live in the D.C. area. I myself was a Missile Crew Commander at Delta for over 2 years. I too was on alert (at Delta LCC) when President Carter made his speech to the crew force as Craig mentioned.
Your article was great, but now I feel old since my first office for the Air Force is now going to be a historical site
Bob Thompson: Glad to have that story confirmed, Manassas, though I had no doubt of it. All this makes me feel old, too.
Oakton, Va.: Your article nicely summarized the problems (and opportunities) inherent in historically presenting the "Cold War" to the American public. There are many competing ideas about how to capture such a broad subject. Even within the military/nuclear aspect of the Cold War there are many museum ideas. In addition to the strategic weapons you mention, about one-third of the U.S. nuclear arsenal during the Cold War was to be used for antiaircraft protection of the U.S. from Soviet bombers. For example, the Army operated "Nike" missiles for this purpose; there were hundreds of launching sites in communities nationwide. For many, they were the Cold War. I bet right now 15 groups are attempting to revonate 15 different such sites for this reason. Similarly, you quote Gary Powers with the Cold War Museum who has other ideas.
Bob Thompson: Thanks Oakton. I started my research, in fact, thinking I was going to write about the question of Cold War preservation generally, and the difficulty inherent in presenting such a recent, significant and controversial historical period. I quickly found that this topic was way too complex for one story, and decided to focus in on the Minuteman piece of it. As for Nike: the Park Service has already preserved one site, at the Golden Gate National Recreational Area (if I have the title right) north of San Francisco
Piscataway, N.J.: How big was the underground capsule? What was it like?
Bob Thompson: I've forgotten the precise dimensions, but they're in the story; I'd say it's about the size of the master bathroom in a tract mansion. It was eerie, there's no other way to describe it. Rows of cabinets full of electronics, a panel of lights to indicate the missile statue, two red chairs attached to tracks in the floor to keep them from bouncing around, and what Tim Pavek, my guide, referred to as the world's most secure coffeepot (bolted down, so it wouldn't fly through the air and conk one of the missileers during an attack).
Fairfax, Va.: Having spent more than five years as a missileer at a Minuteman III base (Minot, N.D., 1992-1997) I was very impressed with the level of detail in your article. You captured the flavor of working with the Minuteman system very well, particularly for someone from "outside" this culture.
How much effort did your research require?
Bob Thompson: Thanks, Fairfax, and I'm glad I got the culture right. I spent a couple of months on the story, but an enormous amount of the credit should go to my tour guide, Tim Pavek, who knows virtually everything about the Minuteman system and spent a full day with me sharing his knowledge.
Washington D.C.: Hi Bob -- I enjoyed reading your article yesterday.
What kind of impact did TV movies like ABC’s “The Day After” and BBC’s “Threads” have on the political climate of the early to mid-80s? They certainly brought a lot of discussion about the threat of nuclear war into people’s homes –- how did those films (and others like them) affect politicians and decision-makers?
Bob Thompson: I'm not sure about this, Washington, because it wasn't the focus of my research. I know that those TV movies had a big impact on the anti-nuclear movement in the early '80s. What I don't know is whether they had any real impact on the decision makers.
Richland, Wash.: Your article made clear how little we comprehend the scale of a nuclear war and the effects of nuclear weapons. But I think even you succeeded in minimizing the power of a 1.1 megaton bomb!
The bomb we dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 was approximately 12.5 kilotons, so a 1.1 megaton bomb is about 90 times more powerful, not 20. The "ground zero" of this size bomb would be an unimaginable six "miles" across, with lesser carnage spreading out miles beyond that.
Multiply that by thousands of bombs, and you realize that those who plan for nuclear war must need a lot of aspirin.
Bob Thompson: I'm glad you raised this, Richland, because I probably should have explained the comparison better. You're right about the kiloton/megaton math, though I've seen various figures cited from 70 up to 90 (fyi, the basic comparison here is with tons of TNT). But because the Minuteman warhead was only one bomb, not 70 or 90 (which would, presumably, not have hit in the exact same spot at the exact same time), it would have had, in practice, only about 20 times the "destructive power' of the Hiroshima bomb.
Which is plenty, in any case.
New York, N.Y.: How did you get to the underground capsule?
Bob Thompson: I drove there with my Air Force guide, who had the keys; he then took me down in the elevator.
Alexandria, Va.: Several years ago, I saw a documentary on PBS which detailed the process in which the Air Force selected, screened, trained, and equipped the "missileers" -- the young Air Force officers who had the ultimate responsibility of launching the weapons if a warning had come from the national command authorities. Needless to say, I found it fascinating and scary at the same time. In your research and interviews for the article, did you come across men and women who admitted later on that they had serious doubts in their minds as to the morality of unleashing a nuclear "armageddon" if the order had come? I'm sure, as trained officers who swore an oath to "protect and defend" they would have done their duty, but I'm curious to know if any mentioned to you that they had serious doubts years later. Thank you.
Bob Thompson: You're talking about Fred Wiseman's "Missile," I believe, which was the source of the launch scene I give in the story. Yes, it's fascinating and scary. And no, I didn't meet people who talked about having serious doubts about the morality, at least at the time. The most common feeling was: We don't think it will happen, we don't want it to happen, but we'll do what we've been instructed to do if necessary. Bruce Blair, of course, whom I quote near the end of the piece, has had second thoughts since he was pulling alerts, and has spent his subsequent career studying nuclear policy and risks.
Kensington, Md.: Regarding your question "how close did we come?" I was wondering if you discussed the Able Archer '83 tests with anyone during your research. It seems like this was a likely point of "maximum danger" given the ugly state of U.S./Soviet relations at the time. There are also some good artcles on the START site related to other false alarms (e.g. "Colonel Petrov's Good Judgement" http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/publications/petrov.htm)
Thanks for a great article.
Bob Thompson: I did talk about Able Archer with several people, Kensington, but felt I couldn't add the level of detail I'd have needed to explain it. I do believe that '83 was a very precarious time. I haven't seen the article on Colonel Petrov -- is he the Russian officer who refused to believe the apparent evidence of a U.S. attack in 1995?
New York, N.Y.: To get to the elevator was it on a Military base? Or was it just a small two- story building?
Bob Thompson: It's not on a base. The Launch Control Facilities (which was the name for the underground capsules plus the topside support buildings, which are only one story) were scattered about on small chunks of land purchased by the government. You can see Delta One from Interstate 90, but unless you knew what it was, you probably wouldn't notice it.
Washington, D.C.: Did you know that some people have turned those old missile silos into homes, and they live in them?
I lived for a number of years in both North and South Dakota, and seeing those silos regularly ... well, you never forgot the precariousness of world peace.
Bob Thompson: I was told about this, yes, and I know that at least one of the Ellsworth sites -- not a silo, but a Launch Control Facility -- was sold to someone who planned to live in it. Others are used as garages for farm equipment. I agree about the silos bringing the precariousness of peace front and center -- that's one of the reasons it was such a good idea to turn one into a historic site, I think.
Clifton, Va.: I was a missile maintenance officer at Minot in the mid-80s. The unreality of nuclear war was reflected in the exercise scenarios we had to participate in. The best one was the idea of the reconstitution force. Supposedly, about 100 folks from maintenance, security, and even finance were supposed to head off the base before a nuclear war and ride out the attack and attempt to fix the missile sites that hadn't been blown away to oblivion in order to restore a retaliatory capability. The kicker was that we didn't have any radiation or even rudimentary chemical or biological protection, so we all knew this was an exercise in futility and we were going to die if the balloon ever went up. I'm sure there are many other stories out there like this.
Bob Thompson: You're right, Clifton, there are. And the general attitude about life after an attack among the people I talked to was exactly as you describe it.
Fairfax, Va.: I was a missileer at Minot AFB, N.D. from 1992 - 1997.
To answer the earlier question, inside the capsule was the "acoustical enclosure" -- a 15 ton "box" that contained the communications racks (3), weapons systems racks (3), and an emergency air conditioning unit (for the computers and communications systems) as well as the deputy missile combat crew commander's console and the missile combat crew commander's console. This also included a bed, a sink, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a toilet.
The accoustical enclosure was suspended on four shock isolators. Each shock isolator weighed 2,000 lbs each and were pressurized at 1800-2300 psi to keep the enclosure level and minimize the damage to personnel or equipment in the event of a nuclear detonation (NUDET).
I was on alert when one of our other squadron launch control centers suffered a severe crash. The enclosure was on jacks -- maintenance was performing work on equipment -- and the jack failed. The accoustical enclosure fell to a 45 degree angle (this was 15 tons, remember!). Needless to say, the crew was quite shaken up -- you could hear it in their voices on the phone right after it happened. It took several weeks and depot level maintenance to fix.
I spend 221 alerts under the plains of North Dakota -- your article brought back many memories! Thanks!
Bob Thompson: Thank YOU, Fairfax -- that's a good description and a vivid anecdote.
Washington: Regarding the missileers, I'm sure you're familiar with Kubrick's film "Dr. Strangelove," which was slapped with a government disclaimer when it was released assuring the public that the Air Force would, of course, never allow such a situation to develop. (Quick summary: renegade general fraudulently announces attack; despite best efforts of all involved, world destruction ensues.) I was surprised by the tight time schedule upon notification of attack. Given the lack of opportunity for deliberation, how vulnerable was the system to human error/insanity/missteps? Could a "Dr. Strangelove" situation really have happened?
Bob Thompson: First, an aside: When Sue Lamie was talking about the decisions the Park Service would have to make, she joked that one of them would be: Do we sell Dr. Strangelove in the gift shop?
I haven't seen the film in 20 years or so, though I was tempted to go back. But those like Bruce Blair who argue that launch on warning is a terrifically dangerous posture to be in, because there IS no time for deliberation, definitely believe that human error could cause a disaster.
New York, N.Y. : How is security at the abandoned Launch Control Facilities?
Bob Thompson: The capsules in most of the facilities have been filled in, and security really isn't an issue. (At the active facilities, I'm told, it is very tight, and has been tightened since Sept. 11.)
Richland, Wash.: (Not a question)
Thanks for clarifying the Hiroshima versus 1.1 megaton bomb, Bob. I hadn't thought about the actual effect of a single huge bomb compared to a smaller one. Better to have four smaller bombs than one large one, and spread them over 20 square miles! Which is what we mostly have today, I believe, with multiple warheads in one missle.
Bob Thompson: You're welcome. It hadn't occurred to me either until I started coming up with wildly different figures for how many "Hiroshimas" a single megaton represented, and started asking experts.
Fairfax, Va.: I don't have a question, just a comment. I read your article with great interest yesterday. My father was stationed at FE Warren AFB several times during the 70's and 80's. My friends and I lived knowing that the possibility of war was only a heartbeat away. It was our way of life. If you didn't live knowing the dangers I don't think people could understand. Your article will help educate people. Thank you very much.
Bob Thompson: You're welcome, and thank you. I agree, it's very difficult to understand as an outsider.
Arlington, Va.: Thanks for the article. To confirm, you are correct on your assessment of why the Soviets had so few ICBM's in the late 1950's. Their missiles were notoriously unstable (they used liquid fuel rather than solid fuel), not to mention inaccurate. Also, their nuclear program was not as advanced as the Americans' and so it took them years to build up the infrastructure to create sufficient bombs. FYI, you could have pointed out that the missile gap lies of the late 1950s and early 1960s that Kennedy used to such effect did not die. Reagan picked them up in the 1970s and spent last half of the decade decrying the gap and denouncing Carter for allowing it.
My question: in your talks with the historian at Minuteman, did she discuss how the Park Service plans to interpret the site?
Bob Thompson: Thanks for the confirmation, Arlington. Yes, Sue Lamie and I talked about how the Park Service might interpret the site, but since the planning is in its early stages, she wasn't in a position to say anything more definite than I put in the story.
Gaithersburg, Md.: For any one who wants to see what a Minuteman Launch Control Center (LCC or capsule) at Ellworth AFB looked like, the opening sequence of the movie 'Wargames' is very accurate.
Bob Thompson: Thanks Gaithersburg. It's been a while since I saw that. I also recommend Fred Wiseman's "Missile," which is available at many public libraries.
Woodbridge, Va.: I keep on hearing about nuclear weapons capable of leveling a city. The biggest ICBM ever tested was a Russian SS-28 packed with a 50 megaton warhead during the Cold War -- was this truly a major city destroyer? How much of a radius would be completely destroyed?
Bob Thompson: Answering this precisely is beyond my expertise, Woodbridge, but you can be sure a 50 megaton warhead would destroy virtually any city.
Fairfax, Va.: What about the missile crews surprised you the most?
Bob Thompson: I think the thing that most surprised me, which I put in the story near the end, was when a career Air Force officer and former missileer named Andy Knight made it clear that -- while he would not have said so while on active duty -- he never understood why we had so many missiles. As I understood him, Andy believed in the form of deterrence theory (mentioned earlier in this discussion) under which we needed only to be able to destroy the enemy's cities after an attack, and he thought Polaris submarines were the way to go.
Kensington, Md.: Followup to your question about Petrov. No, the 1995 incident was the launch of the Black Brant that Russian radars mistook for a Trident launch (that article is here http://www.armscontrol.ru/start/publications/spectrum-ews.htm). Colonel Petrov was in charge of an early warning bunker that mitakenly detected up to five missiles during September of '83, just before Able Archer, a couple weeks after the Korea Air shootdown Reagan called a "massacre." In both cases the warning rose to level of the Russian president.
I think both incidents, and your article, point out that the "launch on warning" stance is not just a planning abstraction, and that we still live with these systems, even if the political climate has improved.
Bob Thompson: Thanks, Kensington.
Fairfax, Va.: Oh, my goodness. I have to comment about the "Wargames" comment!
That was the most INACCURATE movie about missiles I have ever seen! The shots of a "launch control center" in the beginning of the movie are absolute fantasy. Bob, go back and review the movie and then think about your visit to Ellsworth.
Try the scenes in "The Day After" - they include real shots of missileer training (albeit rather dated), but the real thing, not some fantasy.
Bob Thompson: Okay, I'll post this one and let people make their own judgment. In the meantime, I'm sticking with my recommendation of "Missile"
Clifton, Va.: About the "Wargames" depiction of the Launch Control Facility. I have to differ and say that the depiction of the entry to the LCF was typical Hollywood make-believe. The LCFs were never covertly deployed, everybody knew what those fenced sites were. Also, the combat crew didn't have a TV that could look at the missile, as the movie suggested. That was pure fantasy. The only indication the crew had that their missiles had flown was when the "Missile Away" light came on.
Bob Thompson: Another anti-War Games vote. Thanks.
Germantown, Md.: Excellent article. Working at the Dept. of Energy's Savannah River Site in S.C. in the late 80s, it was a truly eery experience to drive past the decommisioned and sealed R Reactor (which like Hanford's B reactor produced warhead material), knowing the intense work that went on there for so many years. Although, I always thought it a little funny that the government actually took the step to declare those that worked at Dept of Energy sites up until 1991 "Cold War Veterans."
Bob Thompson: Thanks, Germantown. The "Cold War Veteran" designation actually points to a real problem: How does one recognize service in something as significant yet amorphous as the Cold War?
Washington D.C.: Mr. Thompson,
Good day. First, I thank you for the article on Minuteman NHS. I heartily approve of the NPS retaining and interpreting such sites; with so much of the Cold War fought both by proxy and covertly in Asia, Africa and South America, Americans will need these places to help them understand the conflict. I must admit some amusement at those in your article who claimed that the U.S. war and its success was the great defining experience for America since WWII, even as you point at that not fifteen years after its conclusion, many Americans under 35 recall very little of it and attribute little importance to the enterprise. You are quite right to question the difficulty in interpreting such sites. As a former NPS ranger, I am confident that the Park Service is capable of doing an acceptable job -- at some Civil War sites in the South I'm thinking of Andersonville in particular), new and superior interpretations have led to direct conflicts with locals and interest groups who insist on the superiority of "their" histories. The Park Service should be adept at these controversies by now. The NPS can do a terrific job or just a decent one depending on the quality of the line rangers, the imagination of the historian and the willingness of the park administration to take risks. I hope the Badlands staff sees the opportunity before them and brings in the right people. I'd hate to see the site wasted as nothing but rudimentary interpretation on a single missile silo with no context.
Bob Thompson: Thanks for your thoughtful comment, D.C.
Piscataway, N.J.: Welcome
Why was it mandatory to have a "two man mandatory concept"?
Bob Thompson: The idea of the "two man concept" was to prevent a single individual from somehow sabotaging (or, in the worst case, launching) a missile.
Mclean, Va.: Do you think foreign spies will visit this missile park? Also will this comprise any kind of national security?
Bob Thompson: I doubt there will be a spy problem. The reason the Minuteman II's were selected for deactivation is that they were obsolete by comparison with our newer ICBMs.
Richland, Wash.: Why have nuclear weapons been so acceptable and at-the-ready in our national defense, while poison gas and germ warfare have not?
Bob Thompson: That's a good question for which I have no answer. Though we have certainly done plenty of work on chemical and biological weapons, and not just recently. The stated reason has been that we may need to defend ourselves against them.
Montgomery, Ala.: Did you find out what the government is going to do with the other fourteen "ranch houses" that sit above the other destroyed launch control centers around Ellsworth AFB? They appear to have just been abandoned to the elements.
What surprised you most, good or bad, about having a thousand Minuteman missiles aimed at the Soviets during the Cold War?
Bob Thompson: The ranch houses (i.e., the launch control facilities) have been put up for sale.
As for your second question, I wasn't surprised, because I knew about the missiles going in. What surprised me were the details of the decision to make so many.
Fairfax, Virginia: Great article! As a former missileer (Minot AFB, ND, 1992-1997) I really enjoyed your comments on our little known but important role during the Cold War. You were especially on the money about getting out of the uniforms and into sweats five minutes after the blast door was closed!
Two questions: Are you aware of any plans to turn launch control centers and launch facilities into museums at Whiteman AFB, Mo. or Grand Forks AFB, N.D., two other bases which have had their missile wings inactivated? Also, did you hear any references to the infamous "Schwinnpit?"
Bob Thompson: Thanks Fairfax. There is a capsule -- Oscar 1, I believe -- preserved at Whiteman; the difficulty, I believe, is that you have to go onto the base to see it. I don't know of anything preserved at Grand Forks, and I know nothing about the Schwinnpit, alas.
Belleville, Ill.: I am a retired Air Force Officer. I enjoyed reading the article about the dismantling of the minuteman silos in South Dakota. As for myself I spent over 400 alert in a missle launch facilities in Arkansas. I was a member of the 308th SMW 374th SMS. The missiles that were on alert were the Titan II a 104 ft tall missile filled with Oxider and fuel. I was proud to see the end of the cold war and was glad I played a part in deterring the Soviet Union at that time from using weapons of mass destruction. Yes I have a few scary war stories to tell. I served in the Missile unit from 1978-1982. Again I enjoyed the article.. Not too many people are familiar with these types of weapons that were built during the Cold War.
Bob Thompson: Thanks, Belleville. I didn't get much into the Titan story, but they were and amazing (and amazingly complicated) piece of technology. I'm sorry I didn't get to your question earlier, or I'd have asked you to tell some of those war stories.
I'm going to have to wrap this up soon; will take a couple more questions.
Montgomery, Ala.: Not a question: Those who can't wait until 2005 can tour a retired Minuteman Launch Control Center today. LCC Oscar-One is presently availiable for underground tours by appointment at Whiteman AFB, Mo., about seventy miles west of Kansas City. It is the only Minuteman LCC that was physically located on an operating Air Force base. It was taken off alert in 1995, but has been maintained in pristine condition.
Bob Thompson: Aha -- there we are. More details on Oscar 1. Thanks, Montgomery.
Clifton, Va.: Just to add to the question concerning "two man concept," despite the popular culture's fascination with accidental nuclear war such as Dr. Strangelove suggested, the Air Force instituted a strict policy regarding personnel reliability. Anyone who had access to nuclear weapons were subject to constant physical and psychological monitoring for any behavior which might even remotely suggest that the person may be unstable or unsuitable for such a job. The Personnel Reliability Program was a cornerstone of the nuclear surety program, and had an excellent record in that I can recall no incident ever of someone mentally unbalanced having access to a weapon.
Bob Thompson: Yes, my understanding is the Air Force worked hard on this.
Annandale, Va.: Excellent article Mr. Thompson. I'm sure the majority of Americans are not aware that Russian missiles are still ready to be launched at a moments notice against American targets and vice versa. In your research, what was the rationale given by experts and government officials for continuing this Cold War policy?
Bob Thompson: I didn't report on our current policies, Annandale, except to make reference to the fact that launch on warning is still in place, so I can't really answer that one.
Richland, Wash.: For those who are interested in the effects of nuclear weapons, you can detonate a virtual bomb almost anywhere in the world and see the effects by going to the site:
If you want to get a feeling for a true "ground zero" (a term that was born with the Atomic Age), place the bomb at the center of your hometown.
Bob Thompson: I'm posting this in case anyone's interested; thanks.
Arlington, Va.: Understanding of history can provide valuable insights into mistakes we made in the past. The path our leaders followed taking humanity up to the brink of annihilation should provide some interesting material for the historian. Do you think this missile exhibit will develop any analytical insights as to how our leaders thought this could be a good idea, and how we let them do it to us?
Bob Thompson: I hope it will at least raise those questions.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Thompson:
As you were writing this article based on your research and interviews, what were your own thoughts regarding the doomsday scenario created by the Cold War?
Bob Thompson: I'm going to end with this question, in part because I've been ducking it for an hour. It's difficult to work on a topic like this without wondering: How on earth could we have put ourselves in this situation? As I came to understand more about how it actually happened, I confess I found the answer fairly depressing, because the reasons seemed so -- well -- HUMAN. But I agree with an opinion expressed earlier, which was that it can only help to try to look at the history, not repress it.
Thank you all for joining the chat -- I've enjoyed it, and I appreciate your interest. And thanks in particular to the ex-missileers who shared their experiences.
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