The end of the Cold War brought asbestos workers, Tim Pavek explains, who came to clear the deadly fibers from the missile sites. It brought crews of recyclers who pulled out the nonferrous metals--the cables, the aluminum equipment racks--and hauled away the steel. It brought demolition experts who drilled deep holes in the nine-yard-thick concrete walls of the launch tubes and packed them with ammonium nitrate. The blasts that followed were puny, by the standards of the nuclear age, but they did the job, and that was how 149 of the 150 Minuteman II silos in western South Dakota were destroyed.

Every silo, in other words, except the one that Pavek is showing off right now.

He's standing inside a chain-link fence, enclosing roughly an acre and a half, that's bordered on all sides by open grassland. Save for the occasional truck on Interstate 90, half a mile away, the landscape outside the fence looks much as it must have when herds of bison darkened these plains: wild and stark and wide. You can find a small band of the bisons' descendants in Badlands National Park, a few miles to the south, but here at the Delta Nine Launch Facility of the Air Force's now-deactivated 44th Strategic Missile Wing, you're more likely to see grazing cattle or antelope, or to hear a meadowlark sing.

Pavek walks over to the 31/2-foot-thick, 90-ton silo cover, recently fixed in a half-open position so future Cold War tourists will be able to peer at the missile inside. "The launcher closure door was always pointed south," he says. "It would blow off, roll down the tracks to the south, and the missile would be launched in a northward direction over the pole."

A soft-spoken, thoughtful 51-year-old civilian engineer at Ellsworth Air Force Base, just east of Rapid City, Pavek has been working on Minuteman missiles since 1984. At first, his job was to help keep them up and running; the system was already a couple of decades old, roughly twice its original life expectancy. Seven years later, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the first President Bush ordered all Minuteman IIs withdrawn from alert, Pavek helped pull out the missiles and their warheads, and by the summer of 1994, he was helping blow the silos up.

Well before then, however, the Air Force and the National Park Service had jointly concluded that it might be a good idea to hang on to at least one silo as a potential national historic site. The site would also include a "launch control facility"--one of the manned complexes, miles away from the silo, from which young Air Force officers in hardened underground capsules were to unleash the missiles in case of war. And Pavek, who remembers lying in bed as a boy in Rapid City and wondering if the distant rumble of the B-52s taking off from Ellsworth meant that the world was about to come to a fiery end, unexpectedly found himself a point man in the preservation effort.

He switches on the hydraulic system that lifts--very slowly--the 13,000-pound steel and concrete "personnel access hatch" through which Air Force maintenance workers could enter the Delta Nine silo to make repairs. Inside, at the foot of a 20-foot ladder, is a warning painted in bright red letters on the wall: "No Lone Zone--Two Man Concept Mandatory." Nobody was allowed to wander around down here by himself.

He leans through a window in the launch tube--a metal inner lining, unconnected to the concrete wall--to describe the various sections of the green-and-white 58-foot missile: the three solid-fueled rocket stages, poised to propel it on its way; the guidance and control section, programmed to tell it where to go; and, at the top, the blandly named "reentry vehicle." On an active Minuteman II, which this of course is not, the reentry vehicle held a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead, with roughly 20 times the destructive power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima.

He points out the ballistic activator, which could blow off that 90-ton silo cover in a bit more than a second. He mentions the pair of shotguns, since removed, that the missile maintainers were to employ if attacked. He walks past a series of metal cabinets labeled things like "Programmer Launch Sequence C3725A" and "Alarm Launch Verification." The electronics in the latter would transmit a message through miles of buried cable to the underground capsule, where it would light up the "Missile Away" panel to inform the waiting missileers that they had done their job.

As the tour nears its conclusion, Pavek pauses in front of a small metal plaque attached to the launch tube. It was placed there by the Air Force volunteers who spent a week in June of 2001 reinstalling a missile in this silo. They did so, the plaque says, "as a lasting tribute to the Minuteman II weapons system and to all of the Warriors who maintained and operated it." The historic site, it notes proudly, "is standing proof that the Cold War did not just end, it was won!"

But its next line seems to cast doubt on the notion that the war is even over, let alone that we have emerged victorious. It is addressed directly to the missile, and refers, Pavek says, "to the ongoing ICBM mission that's maintained by the Minuteman IIIs and Peacekeepers" still on alert in silos in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

"Rest easy, old friend, your targets are covered," it reads.

'There Just Aren't Enough Bulldozers'

If there's a paradox here, it should come as no surprise. For even as our five-decade faceoff with the late, unlamented Union of Soviet Socialist Republics recedes into history and memory--a process greatly accelerated by the shock of September 11 and the very different kind of war it sparked--the Cold War can still generate as many questions as answers. And none are more confounding than those about the "weapons of mass destruction" we deployed.

Why did we build them, and why so many? How did we plan to use them, and how close did we come? What are we doing with them now? These are the kinds of questions with which Park Service historians must wrestle as they prepare to open Minuteman Missile National Historic Site to the public, perhaps by 2005. But they're not likely to come up with final answers on that deadline. Crucial Cold War documents, on both sides, continue to come to light, and it's clear that we'll be rethinking this weighty shard of the past for the foreseeable future.

Yet if there's one thing about the era that almost no one disputes, it's that nuclear weapons played the defining role.

The Cold War began, it is frequently argued, with the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. (Two months later, George Orwell would be the first to use the term "Cold War," in an essay titled "You and the Atomic Bomb.") It escalated with the development of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union in 1949 and of the vastly more powerful hydrogen bomb by both sides in the early 1950s, and it was dominated thereafter by the constant threat of inconceivable holocaust. This threat imposed an unprecedented restraint on sane leaders. "You can't have this kind of war," President Dwight D. Eisenhower once told a committee of experts who were urging him to better prepare for one. "There just aren't enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets."

No law requires leaders to be sane, however. And even if they are, accidents and crises can spin out of control.

"It by no means had to end peacefully," says Derek Leebaert, a founding editor of the journal International Security who teaches Cold War history at Georgetown and whose recently published book, The Fifty-Year Wound, seeks to underscore the hidden costs of America's victory. "It could just as easily have ended in fire." Most people, Leebaert says, see the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 as the point of maximum danger. But he believes the world came closer to annihilation in the early 1980s, as Ronald Reagan--a president he admires--deliberately confronted a cornered, paranoid Soviet empire that was armed to the teeth. "The administration didn't know how close to the edge it was walking."

All of which suggests that there may be no better place than the silo of an intercontinental ballistic missile to mull the lessons of this hard-fought, mercifully unignited war.

The Air Force and the Park Service certainly believe this, and they teamed up to make the case for preservation early on. As South Dakota's missiles were being deactivated in 1991, the story goes, the teenage son of the Badlands superintendent suggested to his father that it would be cool if the Park Service could hang on to one of the sites. More importantly, the Air Force was already thinking along those lines. Soon it was funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort to save the Delta Nine silo as well as the launch control facility, Delta One, that was responsible for the 10 missiles of the Delta "flight."

The most important return on this investment was a glossy, lavishly illustrated 103-page document known in Park Service jargon as a "special resource study." Designed to evaluate the "national significance" of Delta Nine and Delta One as well as the "suitability and feasibility" of their inclusion in the park system, it recounts--in considerable detail--the history of the solid-fueled ICBM.

The first American ICBMs, as the special resource study reports, were the liquid-fueled behemoths Atlas and Titan--"extraordinarily complex, hand-crafted machines, containing as many as 300,000 parts, each of which had to be maintained in perfect operating condition." The liquid propellant was volatile and corrosive, which meant that the missile fueling process--which took hours to complete--could never be undertaken in advance. As a Wall Street Journal article put it at the time, Atlas and Titan required "the desperate and constant attention accorded a man receiving artificial respiration."

Small wonder that a no-muss-no-fuss option looked attractive. Still, while military researchers were actively pursuing solid-fuel technology by the mid-1950s, neither of the major solid-fuel missile projects--the Navy's Polaris and the Air Force's Minuteman--would really take off until October 4, 1957. That was the day the Soviet Union blasted Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into its beep-beep-beeping orbit around Earth.

This triumph of Soviet engineering shocked and alarmed the anticommunist West. The satellite itself wasn't the problem; it was the rocket that launched it that was frightening--because it could just as easily have been carrying a hydrogen bomb. After Sputnik, the special resource study notes, "American scientists and politicians feared a significant 'missile gap.' Within months, journalists and intelligence analysts began asserting that the Soviet missile force could outnumber the American arsenal by as much as 16 to 1 by 1960. America's growing sense of insecurity was not lost on Soviet officials, who gleefully announced that their factories were turning out missiles 'like sausages.' "

The result, unsurprisingly, was a huge influx of funding for ICBMs. Much of this went to Atlas and Titan, which were considerably farther along, but by 1958, the Air Force had Minuteman in high gear, too. By 1960, the Boeing Airplane Co., which had won the contract to assemble and test the missile, had nearly 12,000 workers on the job in a new Utah assembly plant. And on February 1, 1961, the first successful Minuteman launch took place at Cape Canaveral, Fla. The special resource study quotes one engineer's reaction to this dazzling spectacle: "Brother, there goes the missile gap," he said.

It's a catchy punch line, but a misleading one. For, as the Air Force/Park Service study neglects to point out, the missile gap never existed. It was a Cold War myth.

Or, to be more precise, there was a gap--one that would continue for years--but it was heavily in favor of the United States.

Nothing about this somewhat startling omission calls into question the historical significance of the Minuteman program, or makes it any less appropriate as the focus of a national historic site.

What it does suggest is that for anyone exploring even the most basic question about nuclear weapons--in this case: Why did we build so many?--a little skepticism about official narratives can be a healthy thing.

'A Single Expletive . . . More in Anger Than Relief'

"That there is a piece of the U-2," Francis Gary Powers Jr. is saying. "A small little chunk."

He's gesturing at a crumpled scrap of metal in a sealed plastic bag inside an exhibition case at the Fort Meade Museum, a piece of family memorabilia loaned as part of a modest Cold War display. Powers, a 37-year-old man with a compact build and an enthusiastic smile, is the president of the Vienna-Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce and the founder of the Cold War Museum, which still doesn't have a physical existence yet--unless you count the 20-by-20-foot storage unit where the artifacts are starting to pile up--but for which he has great plans. He's also a born expert on the need for skepticism about official explanations. The central event in his family history led directly to one of the Cold War's most embarrassing lies.

"A model of the U-2, so people see what a U-2 looks like," he continues, pointing out a small, bullet-nosed plastic plane in the bottom of the case. "Soap and soap dish that my father used in prison . . . and then this is what was on my father's office wall for many, many years. It's the citation for the issuance of the Intelligence Star, which is one of the highest awards that can be given by the CIA to one of their employees."

Gary Powers doesn't know that much about the Minuteman, he says, but he understands as well as anyone what the Park Service will be up against as it tries to evoke the Cold War for a generation that didn't live through it. When he goes into local high schools to tell the U-2 story, the kids often assume he's there to talk about the Irish rock band. They've got no notion of the international sensation generated when the first Francis Gary Powers and his exotic plane--built as part of a joint Air Force/CIA program and designed to fly over hostile nations at 70,000 feet, bringing back high-resolution photographs of military installations--were shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960.

Powers managed to parachute to safety and was taken into custody by the Soviets, who waited for the United States to assure the world that the downed U-2 had merely been gathering meteorological information, then produced its CIA pilot and put him on trial as a spy. He spent a year and a half in prison before he was exchanged. It was a huge propaganda victory for the Soviet Union, and it unsettled the American people, who in 1960 weren't accustomed to being lied to by their government.

But that wasn't the only damage done--and here's where the Minuteman and the spy plane stories link up. The purpose of the U-2's overflights of the Soviet Union, which were discontinued after the 1960 shootdown, was to find out if the missile gap was real. And had Gary's father been able to complete his mission, according to National Air and Space Museum historian Gregg Herken, he would have flown directly over the entire inventory of ICBMs the Soviet Union then possessed. They were sitting right out in the open at Plesetsk, as the secret Corona spy satellite program that succeeded the U-2 flights would soon confirm.

All four of them.

Missile gap hysteria was an understandable phenomenon. It was not unreasonable for Americans in the late 1950s to be afraid of what a hostile, intensely secretive Soviet Union might be up to. For one thing, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev--emboldened by Sputnik and hoping to compensate for what he knew was his nation's nuclear inferiority--had embarked on a risky strategy of boastful bluffing. For another, hard though this may be to imagine today, Soviet-style central planning was then widely believed to be a fearsome engine of economic growth. One set of projections based on CIA estimates, Leebaert writes, "indicated that the size of the Soviet economy would be triple that of the United States by 2000."

And where there is fear--reasonable or not--there are always those eager to exploit it for their own ends.

The Democrats and the Air Force, in particular, picked up the missile gap and ran with it. Stuart Symington, a Missouri senator and Democratic presidential contender, took to the Senate floor in the summer of 1958 with claims that the Soviets would have 500 ICBMs by 1960. Symington's presidential rival, John F. Kennedy, one-upped him with a missile gap speech so inflammatory--as journalist Fred Kaplan writes in The Wizards of Armageddon--that one Republican senator threatened to have the Senate galleries cleared "on the grounds that Kennedy was disclosing information harmful to national security." Kennedy would go on to trumpet the gap relentlessly as part of his successful 1960 campaign.

Meanwhile, as Air Force historian Jacob Neufeld has noted, "Air Force intelligence depicted an even wider gap than did the other intelligence agencies." The gap "focused national attention on the enemy threat and thereby helped the Air Force present its case for missile funding and programming." Some in the Pentagon sought to slow the Minuteman program, but they failed. By 1959, the Air Force chief of staff was talking about a 3,000-Minuteman force--a modest number compared with the 10,000 favored by his aggressive subordinates in the Strategic Air Command.

Eisenhower left the White House in January 1961 after pointedly warning the nation of the dangers of a "military-

industrial complex" and telling Congress, in his final State of the Union address, that the missile gap "shows every sign" of being fiction. Incontrovertible proof that he was right arrived as Kennedy took office. When presented with the evidence from the Corona spy satellite, as Gregg Herken reports in Counsels of War, the young president responded with "a single expletive--delivered . . . more in anger than relief."

His problem was political, of course. Having run so hard on the issue of alleged strategic weakness, could he now afford to just wave it away?

He could not. The only question was how many missiles to build.

In March 1961, work began on the first Minuteman sites in Montana. On September 10, the Rapid City Journal reported, "the Sturgis High School band played as an explosion started the excavation" of the first South Dakota silo. Five days later, Life magazine published an extensive special section on fallout shelters. It included a chilling letter from Kennedy urging Americans to "read and consider seriously" its contents.

Two months after that, on the day after Thanksgiving, the president called Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and other advisers to the Kennedy family's Hyannisport compound to talk final numbers on the missiles. As Herken describes the meeting, one adviser "cautioned Kennedy that the missile buildup would inevitably spur the arms race." Another, however, reminded him "of the very narrow margin by which he had been elected in a campaign that emphasized defense issues."

Kennedy opted for a nice round figure: 1,000 Minutemen. "The administration would be 'politically murdered,' McNamara predicted, if the president approved a smaller number."

'Make Sure You Tell the Story Right'

Beyond the window of Sue Lamie's borrowed office at Badlands National Park is a glorious moonscape of jagged rock formations with names like Vulture Peak and Angel Butte. Pinned to the wall behind her borrowed desk is a photocopy of a "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip. "If anyone hits me with a snowball, I'll hit him with 250 snowballs," Calvin says defiantly, standing in front of his carefully packed arsenal. "What if somebody hits you with 250 snowballs?" asks Hobbes, and Calvin, with a sigh, gets to work on still more snowballs in self-defense.

Lamie--she pronounces the name La- MAY--is a 34-year-old National Park Service historian who was still seven years from being born when John Kennedy opted for that 1,000-Minuteman force. She's been working out of the visitor center at Badlands since she arrived in South Dakota last year because the park, in a cost-saving move, has taken Minuteman Missile National Historic Site under its administrative wing. The new site doesn't even have pencils yet, though Lamie looks forward to the day it will get an office trailer of its very own.

"We're not the biggest fish in the pond, obviously," she says with a laugh.

Her own Cold War memories date mainly from her college years. As a senior, she signed up for a seminar on the nuclear arms race because she thought it was "a burning issue that I needed to know and understand." But this was the spring of 1990, and times were changing fast. One day, just back from spring break, Lamie was startled to hear her history professor inform the class that "this is irrelevant, this is over." She sat up in her chair and thought: "This is something I've lived with my entire life, and now it's gone, and I never really understood why it was there." It was almost as though the arms race had been a force of nature, not something "real people controlled or had any say over."

Fast-forward a decade or so. It's October of 2001, and after volunteering her way into the Park Service and being accepted into a prestigious internal training program, she is reporting for work at Badlands. She accepts custody of a Rubbermaid tub marked "MIMI" (Park Service shorthand for the Minuteman site), filled with 10 years' worth of correspondence.

Lamie's task seems daunting. But hey--at least Congress has defined it for her. All she has to do, according to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Establishment Act of 1999, is "to interpret the historical role of the Minuteman II missile defense system (A) as a key component of America's strategic commitment to preserve world peace; and (B) in the broader context of the Cold War."

She's not complaining. She loves that she's helping to build something new. She takes home fat histories of the Cold War as bedtime reading, watches Cold War videos, thinks about the Cold War while she's walking the dog. She also makes it clear that she's not doing this on her own: Plenty of people worked for years to make MIMI a reality before she arrived, and she expects reinforcements soon.

Still, she has a clear sense of the challenges any interpreter of the Minuteman is up against.

This was brought home to her at a public meeting on MIMI that the Park Service held on "a very snowy day in Rapid City." People came out anyway, mostly old missileers. She found herself sitting down with a retired Air Force colonel, who asked, " 'Now why are you qualified to do this, and what are you doing?' And finally I said: 'Is this a job interview or what?' And he said: 'I just want to make sure you tell the story right.' " Half an hour later, she says, "I got to talking to a guy who was very active in the peace movement." He was a minority at the meeting, but a vocal one, "and he said to me: 'I just want to make sure you tell the story right.' "

The trick is to find an informative middle ground without telling people what to think. "It's a basic notion of interpretation in the Park Service that you're not there to give people all the answers," Lamie says. "If you've done your job well, they leave the site wanting to learn more."

She hopes they'll leave wanting to learn more about Dwight Eisenhower, for example, whom she has found surprisingly prescient on Cold War topics. An excerpt from one of his speeches hangs on the wall near the "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon. "What can the world, or any nation in it, hope for if no turning is found on this dread road?" Eisenhower asked in 1953. "The worst is atomic war. The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples." He went on to make the Cold War's price tag explicit. "The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 people. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals . . ."

All of which, combined with his farewell address and his refusal to buy into missile gap hysteria, can make the five-star general sound like some kind of peace activist. Yet complications arise with a closer look.

Eisenhower was unquestionably worried about the negative economic effects of military spending. But his solution was to rely far more heavily on the cheapest defense option he could find: nuclear weapons. "Massive retaliation" soon became the administration's watchword, and by 1954, Eisenhower's secretary of state would be threatening to nuke China in a dispute over--are you ready, Cold War trivia fans?--the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

Lamie doesn't know yet just what level of detail the Minuteman interpretation can achieve. But whatever she and her colleagues put together will need to be accessible to visitors of widely varying ages and knowledge.

Take the question of the power of a nuclear warhead. "Traditionally we say it's the equivalent of X number of Hiroshimas," she says, but "there are a bunch of people out there who don't know what that means. And so how do you define that?"

Or take the Soviet Union. "I mean, 'Who are they?' Well, they were communist. 'Why were we afraid of them?' " What is the best way to lay out the Cold War story, Lamie wonders, for people who have no relevant context for these words? People who worry more about terrorist hijackers and low-yield "dirty bombs" than about full-scale war between nuclear powers?

She wants visitors to learn about the extremely scary Berlin crisis of 1961--"they had tanks looking at each other, and that was news to me"--as well as the better-known Cuban missile crisis the following year. Closer to home, she wants to evoke for MIMI's visitors the routine yet tension-filled lives of the thousands of young men and (later) women of the Air Force who "pulled alerts" in underground capsules like the one at Delta One, waiting for an order that never came.

When the officers who worked in those Minuteman capsules are asked what they thought of their jobs, Lamie says, they typically say, "It wasn't for me to think. I was there to do what I was told to do."

'Step One, Launch Keys Inserted'

An urgent electronic warbling, followed by a flat, metallic-sounding voice from the squawk box: "Lima--Alpha--Uniform--November--Charlie--Stand by--Message follows."

More code comes through. The commander and the deputy both write it down.

"Okay, copy," the commander says. "Okay, I see a valid message."

"I agree."

"Okay, go on to step one on the checklist, launch keys inserted."

They reach for the two locks on the red box that holds the codes and keys.

"Okay, step one, launch keys inserted."

"Yeah, hang on, doesn't want to go in."

They strap themselves into their chairs, which are attached to rails on the floor. A buzzer drowns their voices momentarily.

"Unlock code. Required inserted. First element: papa."

"Papa."

"Second element: seven."

"Seven."

They check off more elements.

"Okay, read them back."

"Papa seven papa seven papa seven papa seven papa seven papa seven. Do you agree?"

"Okay, I agree. Okay, enable switch set to enable."

Enabling a missile is like cocking the hammer on a single-action revolver. It's what you have to do before you can pull the trigger.

"Key turn at commit time. On my mark . . ."

A bell rings.

"Hands on keys. Three, two, one, mark . . ."

The bell again. More buzzing.

"Okay, I've got launch in process on two sorties. Enable launch in process. Okay, got fault lighting, fault, outer security, inner security, missile away. Eleven's gone. Okay, launch in process on six. Okay, missile away on eight, nine, ten, four, five and three, they're all gone."

The commander's voice drops slightly.

"Okay, they're all gone, deputy," she says.

Cut.

The Minuteman "launch" just described was a training exercise, of course. It was filmed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California--where Minuteman officers are trained--as part of a 1987 Fred Wiseman documentary called "Missile." But the real thing would have looked and sounded much the same. And it would have played out in launch control facilities like Delta One, which sits just north of I-90 at Exit 127, 11 miles east of Delta Nine, waiting for the Park Service to bring on the Cold War tourists.

Here are the same chairs on the same tracks, the same red box for the codes and keys, the same panel of lights on the commander's console. Each underground capsule was responsible for 10 missiles, and if all 10 were ready to go, the top row of lights would show up "clean and green."

The egg-shaped capsule is buried 31 feet below Delta One's modest ranch-style support building. Fifty-four feet long and 29 feet in diameter, it has four-foot walls of heavily reinforced concrete. Within it, a smaller, boxcar-shaped steel structure is suspended from the ceiling by four air shock isolaters, which look a bit like hot water heaters. These were to keep the boxcar from bouncing if a Soviet nuke hit nearby.

Missile crews entered the capsule through an enormous Boeing blast door, lovingly decorated with a hand-painted missile on a mock Domino's pizza box and a giant slogan reading, "World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less or Your Next One Is Free." They were supposed to exit, in the event that the normal route was blocked, through an escape hatch in the ceiling. When it was opened, several tons of sand were supposed to fall into the capsule, allowing the crew to crawl to the surface.

Missileers tended to treat this prospect as a grim joke. If they were lucky, they'd come up underneath the facility's sewage lagoon. If they weren't, a nuclear blast would have turned the sand to glass.

Craig Manson, for one, didn't believe the escape hatch would ever be put to the test. "I don't think that I ever really thought that we were ever going to do it," the former launch control officer says. "That was sort of a defense mechanism against thinking about the terror of it all."

Manson is reflecting on his Air Force youth in his spacious Interior Department office at 18th and C streets NW, where he is now the assistant secretary who oversees the National Park Service, and thus, indirectly, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. He started pulling alerts in South Dakota in December 1976, not long after graduating from the Air Force Academy. A few of them were in Delta One, and he has taken a strong interest in its preservation.

"It's almost as if someone came along and said your house is going to be a national historic site," he explains. "It's very important to me on a personal level and on an official level that we do this right and we do it well."

Launch control facilities look very much alike, and Manson doesn't remember Delta One specifically--the Domino's art wasn't there in his time. But he remembers the alert routine: the pre-departure briefing at Ellsworth, stopping for breakfast at Wall Drug, riding the elevator down to where "the blast door, that big eight-ton deal with these huge pins that go into the wall, would open up and you'd go inside." And he remembers what came next:

You took your clothes off.

"The first thing that happened after you took over, was you got out of your uniforms," he says, laughing. The blast door gave you privacy, so why not be comfortable? "Of course in all the movies, they show these missile guys sitting there in their uniforms. And the reality of it was that, had the Cold War ever erupted into a shooting war, it would have been conducted by guys in their underwear and gym clothes."

Manson tells another funny story, this one with more of an edge to it.

A typical 24-hour alert, he says, would include three or four communications from the Strategic Air Command "designed to test your ability to respond to an emergency war order message." The warble tone would sound and the SAC controller would start speaking in code and you would decode the message and find out, invariably, that it was only a test. There was, however, a non-routine variation that he'd learned about in training. If the United States came under sudden attack, there might not be time for a message to be encoded, in which case the message would be delivered in English. "But they emphasized that would only happen in the worst-case scenario"--i.e., when a retaliatory attack was to commence immediately.

One summer day in 1977, he and his partner heard the warble tone "and then the SAC controller came on the air and he said, not in code but in plain English, he said, 'Stand by for a message from the president of the United States.' "

After this came a pause. It must have been just a few seconds, "but it was just awful. It was just awful."

Then he heard Jimmy Carter's voice. "And he says, 'Hi, you all--I'm here at the SAC command post and I wanted to see how this thing worked.' "

Manson laughs again--a loud, drawn-out laugh this time. "And you know, you could just hear, throughout the missile field, people going: 'Don't do that!' "

It was his worst moment. For the most part, he liked the job. He liked having such a significant responsibility at such a young age, and he was prepared to do his duty.

"I have flippantly described it as being responsible for the destruction of civilization, if it came to that," he says. But, as he said before, he never expected it to happen. "The mission clearly was, and it was successful, to deter a potential attack on the United States of America by a nuclear-capable adversary--by making the price of that unacceptable."

'You Would Disarm the Enemy and Gain an Advantage for Yourself'

Talk to enough old missileers and you'll hear Manson's logic echoed over and over. The word "deterrence" has become a kind of mantra for them, endlessly repeated, to explain why we buried so many megatons of death beneath the northern plains and tended them, with unquestioned devotion, for so many years. We needed to deter, they say, and deterrence worked, and the fact that we survived is proof.

It's an appealing explanation, because it appears to answer what looks like an unanswerable question: Why on earth are we so wedded to weapons that could eliminate the human race? Yet deterrence, in truth, is less a fixed principle than part of an intense debate on nuclear strategy that sprang up within weeks of Hiroshima and continued, sometimes in public view but mostly behind the scenes, throughout the Cold War.

"Basically, from the beginning there were two schools of thought," says Air and Space's Gregg Herken, who uses the word "theological" to characterize this long-running debate. The first was deterrence, defined as "the ability to threaten to injure the other side in such a way that it would never contemplate undertaking war." In practice, this meant obliterating cities. The second was counterforce, "which is where you would disarm the enemy and gain an advantage for yourself, probably by a preemptive strike." Its advocates, who sometimes talked about a "counterforce/no cities" strategy, favored the initial targeting of missile sites and other military installations.

Eisenhower and his advisers had proclaimed deterrence, in the form of "massive retaliation," as America's policy in the 1950s. When Robert McNamara took over the Defense Department after Kennedy's election, he set out to discover what this would mean in practice. During a February 1961 briefing at the Omaha headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, SAC's hard-line commander, Thomas Power--who once defined victory in nuclear war as having two Americans and only one Russian left alive when it was all over--used maps and acetate overlays to show his new boss what would happen if a conflict with the Soviets (over Berlin, for instance) ever did go nuclear.

What McNamara learned, Herken writes, was that implementing the American war plan "would cause the deaths of perhaps 350 million Russians, Chinese and eastern Europeans in a matter of hours." (American deaths were harder to calculate, but 100 million was a figure that was often tossed around.) Bombs delivered by American missiles and planes would hit some 2,500 Soviet targets, eliminating "up to 90 percent of the cities and towns."

That was Plan A. There was no Plan B.

Horrified by Power's briefing, McNamara started listening with keen interest to a cadre of counterforce theorists who were pushing for more flexibility in the way nuclear weapons might be employed. The idea was not to hit the enemy's cities first with an all-out attack, but to hold them hostage, as it were, while a more limited nuclear war played out, possibly over a period of weeks or months, involving carefully calibrated strikes, which, it was hoped, might result in negotiations.

The full story of the deterrence/counterforce debate is far too complex to summarize here. But a few key points are worth noting:

n Deterrence was the easier policy to sell to the public. It appears morally superior to counterforce because it is cast as purely defensive, while a counterforce strategy raises questions about possible offensive intentions. After all, if you're targeting enemy missile sites, it would seem to make sense to hit them first, before the missiles are off the ground.

n A counterforce strategy, as McNamara discovered when he publicly embraced one in 1962, is an open invitation to an arms race. You can deter an enemy, in theory, with a limited but invulnerable force that can obliterate his population centers. But once you target his missiles, you're committed to keeping pace with however many he chooses to build. (The Navy had used the pure deterrence argument in the late 1950s to argue that, given a fleet of invulnerable Polaris submarines, we wouldn't even need land-based missiles like Minuteman. The Air Force responded by hitching its procurement wagon to the counterforce idea.)

n Public declarations of nuclear strategy may be misleading. By 1963, for example, McNamara had backed off his public support for counterforce in favor of what he called "assured destruction," the essence of which was deterrence. Yet it's not clear what changed besides the label. One of the principal counterforce theorists, William Kaufmann, once told a National Security Archive interviewer that McNamara's assured destruction policy was "a white lie," designed to combat endless Air Force demands for more nuclear weapons by putting some kind of theoretical lid on the number required. The nuclear targeting options, Kaufmann said, remained the same. A decade later, when James Schlesinger became secretary of defense, "he threw out the whole notion of assured destruction" and publicly endorsed counterforce again.

Schlesinger did this at a press conference on January 10, 1974, hyping it as "probably the greatest change in U.S. nuclear missile strategy in a decade." The devastation of Soviet cities shouldn't be our only option, he said; we should have a broader range of "limited nuclear options"--from knocking out a single missile silo or destroying a particular Soviet industry, to a full-scale targeting of the Soviet military. His announcement triggered a burst of congressional and public controversy. It also piqued the interest of a 26-year-old Air Force officer named Bruce Blair.

"What are they talking about?" Blair recalls thinking at the time.

Because as far as he could see, from his frontline position in a Minuteman launch control facility, Schlesinger's strategic bombshell had changed nothing of significance at all.

'You Guys, Tell Us--Are We Under Attack or Not?'

Bruce Blair left the Air Force that same year and went on to Yale to study operations research. "I was going to go to Wall Street and do quantitative investment planning," he says somewhat ruefully. "Should have." Instead, he began to apply the analytical techniques he was learning to the nuclear force of which he had so recently been a part.

Three decades later, after stints with the Office of Technology Assessment, the Defense Department and the Brookings Institution, he is the president of the Center for Defense Information, a small think tank with offices at 1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW. He is the author of, among other works, The Logic of Accidental Nuclear War, the research for which involved extensive interviews with the designers and operators of nuclear command and control systems in both the United States and the former Soviet Union. And if you ask him about deterrence and counterforce, he'll tell you that it has never really mattered which side scored more points in that theological debate.

For if there was one thing his Air Force experience had taught him, it was this: What we say about nuclear weapons is far less important than what we're actually prepared to do.

When he was a launch control officer, Blair explains, deterrence was defined in a very specific way. Each side was supposed to have the patience and invulnerability to absorb a surprise attack and then retaliate. "Well, that was a crock," he says. If we were planning to ride out a first strike, then why was the whole Minuteman system designed "to ensure that we got the stuff off the ground very quickly"?

Yet counterforce theories, to Blair, were equally removed from operational reality. The notion that a nuclear war might be rationally fought over an extended period--that it might involve a number of nuclear exchanges, yet result in negotiations before things really got out of hand--was never more than "pie-in-the-sky academic nonsense."

The main reason, Blair says--as military leaders have always understood "in spades"--was that in the early stages of a nuclear war, command and control systems on both sides would be extremely vulnerable to what was called "decapitation." The pilots and battle staff responsible for the airborne SAC command post, known at the time as Looking Glass, were acutely aware of the decapitation problem, Blair says. Once the bombs start falling, they used to tell him, "we're totally screwed." To make matters worse, in the early '70s it was discovered that a single high-altitude nuclear explosion would release "an intense pulse of electromagnetic energy" that would massively disrupt communications and avionics. "Planes would be falling out of the sky."

Some aspects of the command and control system could be--and subsequently were--hardened against attack. But some could not. And the system's overall vulnerability, Blair says, meant that no matter how much concrete was packed around a Minuteman missile, riding out a first strike "was not a viable basis for strategy." So what were the military planners to do?

The answer was to gear the whole war plan to "launch on warning." This was not acknowledged publicly--it was too controversial, Blair says--but insiders knew that the system was designed to force a quick decision and get the missiles out of their silos as soon as possible after learning of an enemy attack. Both sides were prepared to do this, though the Soviets didn't put their launch-on-warning system in place, Blair learned, until that scary period in the early Reagan years.

Call this deterrence if you want: You've certainly got two sides facing off, with each armed so heavily as to give the other pause. Or call it counterforce: All those missiles can be aimed at military targets and fired preemptively at any time. But to Blair, the label is beside the point. What matters is the decision to place thousands upon thousands of potential Hiroshimas on hair-trigger alert, in systems within which even a minor error carries the potential for unimaginable horror.

With a missile taking only 30 minutes to travel from the Soviet Union to the United States--and far less if delivered from an offshore submarine--the launch-on-warning timetable is impossibly tight. In the North American Aerospace Defense Command's bombproof bunker, beneath Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain, "they have three minutes from the time the first sensor report comes in to the time they have to say, 'We're under attack,' " Blair says. "Three minutes!" Then comes an emergency conference, and an officer in Omaha briefs the president. "And do you know how much time he's allowed to give that briefing? Thirty seconds."

The president himself might have 12 minutes to decide whether to launch. Most likely he'd have less.

"Everyone was a minuteman--from the president to the briefer in Omaha to these guys in Cheyenne Mountain--and the whole system is replicated on the Russian side," Blair says. It was "nuclear war by rote. There was no scope for ra-tional, deliberate decision-making . . . Everything was geared ahead of time; it was the enactment of a prepared script. And what it would have taken to trigger the script, God knows, but there were lots of things that could have triggered it, and we came close a number of times."

In 1979, to take just one example, there was a famous screw-up in which some strategic exercise tapes, used for simulating nuclear attack, got loaded into the wrong NORAD computer. "People were screaming bloody murder," Blair says: "You guys, tell us--are we under attack or not?" The NORAD crew blew their deadline, badly; it took eight minutes, not three, for them to declare this a false alarm. A year later, a faulty computer chip triggered the same eight-minute period of chaos. "They could not quite believe that we weren't really under attack."

But the truly unbelievable thing, to Blair--more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union--is that we still have thousands of warheads poised for launch at a moment's notice. He approves of the treaty that President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed in May, which calls for each side to be deploying no more than 2,200 warheads by 2012, but thinks it doesn't go nearly far enough. Far more important than simply reducing the overkill, he says, would be "de-alerting" the existing missiles--i.e., pulling them back from their suicidally dangerous hair-trigger posture. "The Russians and the U.S. each can fire about 2,000 weapons in a few minutes at each other," he says. "It's the same posture we had in the Cold War, just at a smaller scale--but still a scale that's way above the threshold for the obliteration of each country." Yet Russia is now our ally in the war against terrorism. "Does that make sense to you?"

Not long ago, he watched a two-man missile crew in Wyoming go through a drill for a Peacekeeper launch. They decoded the emergency war order, ran through their hurry-up hurry-up checklist and turned their keys. "They could have been me 25 years ago," he says.

"The Cold War isn't really over. The thinking is astonishingly the same."

'Whoa, I Could Have Died Just Then!'

"There's 150 at Minot, North Dakota," Tim Pavek is saying. "There's, ah, 200 at Malmstrom, Montana, and there's a hundred--got to get my numbers straight here--150 at F.E. Warren in Wyoming. There's 500 Minuteman III and 50 Peacekeepers left . . ."

He's heading back to Ellsworth now, and as he drives, he's trying to count up the multiple-warhead ICBMs that are still in service. He's finished up the tours of Delta Nine and Delta One, then looped maybe 35 miles north of I-90 to look at a couple of Minuteman sites that were not preserved, steering his Air Force pickup past mule deer and wild turkeys and the occasional lonely farmhouse on dirt roads that are "pretty close to the definition of out in the middle of nowhere." Revisiting the empty sites can bring bittersweet feelings, he says. "The guys that kept these things up never really wanted to use them, yet there was a sense of accomplishment in doing a job well and recognizing the mission and the purpose it served."

Pavek and Craig Manson both attended the ceremony held at Ellsworth on July 4, 1994, when the 44th Missile Wing was formally deactivated. "It was a surprisingly emotional event," Manson says, "and I think not just for me." He treasures the souvenir launch key participants received. "It had the wing logo, which is a warhead with atoms surrounding it, and the wing motto, which was 'Aggressor Beware.' And then on the other side of it, on the key that they gave us, it says, 'Mission complete.' "

Andy Knight didn't make it to the deactivation ceremony, but like Pavek, Manson and so many other old missileers, he remembers his Minuteman service as a difficult, important job well done. A solidly built, open-faced man of 62, Knight is a retired Air Force colonel who now sells real estate in Rapid City. "I always chose to look at it as mutually assured deterrence," he says one night over the kind of steaks that make a person feel lucky to be alive. "And it worked, because we're both sitting here having dinner, see?"

Knight pulled alerts as a launch control officer at Ellsworth, beginning in 1968, and rose to command a missile squadron in North Dakota. In between, he spent a few years flying with the Looking Glass battle staff, and he happened to be in the air when NORAD screwed up that computer tape in 1979.

He was seated next to the general in charge, he says, when he heard the unmistakable deedle deedle deedle deedle warning sound. At first, he thought it was just another readiness test, but he went through his authentication procedures "and it was a real message." He jabbed the general with his elbow. Knight had a family by this time, "but we were trained to react first, in a certain sequence--it did not include notifying your wife or your children." He doesn't remember exactly how long it was before a flustered NORAD controller called off the false alarm.

Nothing like that ever happened to him in the missile fields, he says. His most exciting moment there involved a short in a radio set that started a small electrical fire. And yet . . .

He would never have said this when he was on active duty. But even back then, as a career Air Force officer, he was thinking it to himself. "I thought there were too many damn missiles. Because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you don't need 1,500, you don't need a thousand, to blow up the world." In hindsight, he thinks the arms race "was a product of intelligence failure. Because we just really, really, really overreacted. And overspent. And over-everything." And he thinks we're still doing it. There's no reason why a couple of Navy submarines--"I mean, I'm not talking 10, 20 nuclear boomers, either; one or two!"--can't provide all the deterrence we need.

"I think the land-based missile forces right now, today, are obsolete," he says. "And they all should be gone."

Meanwhile, behind her desk at the national historic site that may not quite be history yet, Sue Lamie is still researching Cold War questions, large and small. Lamie gets to go down in the Delta Nine silo sometimes, and she gets goose bumps--though she's not the goose bump type--when she sees the plaque those volunteers put in ("Rest easy, old friend, your targets are covered"). Sometimes she thinks of the Cold War as a near accident, where "you were driving down the highway and you go, 'Whoa, I could have died just then. But I didn't!'

"And then after a couple of hours, you forget that you almost died and you go on."

Bob Thompson is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.