Sometimes while traveling you find the side trips are just as amazing as the destination you had in mind. We decided to visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Park on our way out to the South Dakota Badlands. I grew up during the height of the nuclear arms race, though in a time when most of the world had grown accustomed to the nuclear threat. This gave me a more personal connection to the subject of the site than many others we visit. None the less, both Trail and I were deeply impressed and moved by the visitors center there.
The New Visitors Center
The visitors center has only just opened this year. From the outside is attractive but unassuming despite the monumental significance of what it represents. The plains of the midwest were once home to some 1000 Minuteman II missiles, 150 of which resided at the site where the Historic Park is located. While not the most powerful weapons ever developed, each dwarfed those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in power by tenfold. As part of the world’s overall nuclear arsenal, this unassuming grassland in the heart of the US could destroy much of human civilization. No longer an active site, the land now stands as a monument to these weapons, the cold war period, and the ongoing use of nuclear weapons in the modern world.
While not very big, the visitors center is incredibly well thought out and has an impact way bigger than you might expect. It is clear that very careful thought went into its design. Outside the three columns supporting the entry way represent the land, air and sea components of the US nuclear arsenal. A stone engraving features a chillingly prescient quote attributed to Sun Tzu. Inside is an information desk and gift shop where you can buy Atomic Fireball candies along with other atomic-themed items both sober and whimsical. More than any other gift shop this one really focused on the subject of the park itself.
Down the Rabbit Hole
From the gift shop you can enter the museum section of the center, and it is here you really fall down the rabbit hole. Every artifact and every display is rich with information and heavy with impact. Up front, you are faced with a re-creation of a nuclear control console and chair you can sit in. A video describing the life of those tasked with manning the missiles plays in front of you while the question is posed, could you turn the key? The whole thing not only teaches you the history of the nuclear arms race but challenges you to make a personal decision about it: what it meant then, now and in the future.
Next, you encounter a corner dedicated to the propaganda of the early cold war. A black and white TV plays newsreels and clips of Bert the Turtle telling kids to Duck and Cover in the event of a nuclear attack. You can look through evacuation plans and other official government documents of the time. Here the displays prompt you to consider if survival was truly possible or just a means to comfort people. Further on propaganda from the Soviet Union adorns the walls, the images strikingly beautiful, the messages often bone-chilling.
As you move into the largest room you are faced with a historic timeline of the nuclear age. A colorful display spanning the room shows the respective yields of the US, Soviet, and overall world nuclear stockpile alongside the significant events that of the time. Large displays detail the growing destructive power of nuclear weapons as well as information about the systems themselves. In dark kiosks along the wall, you can stand and watch videos detailing different periods of the cold war, one focusing on the build up of tension and distrust, another on the gradual disarmament of the modern era.
One area features the doomsday clock and a subtly disturbing account of those moments when the world came closest to open nuclear war. In one famous instance, a Norad technician ran accidently ran an unscheduled simulation of a full-scale Russian attack. Forces were scrambled, missiles prepped, and the president alerted. Fortunately, a check of the satellite data revealed something was amiss and disaster was averted.
In addition to the text, video, artifacts, and great visual presentation there is some excellent audio content. Many stations feature “red phones” like those used to call in nuclear orders. You can pick these up and listen to a range of historical recordings. Some are from those whose work was to maintain the arsenal, others are from historical figures of the time, and others are common people giving their perspective on the cold war era.
More to See
In addition to the visitors center, you can go on a tour of the silos and get a look at one of the Minuteman II missiles that once stood at the ready to defend the country. You can also take a tour of one of the command centers and control rooms and get a first-hand look at the work and lives of those who were stationed here. Unfortunately, when we arrived all the tours were booked for the day so we didn’t get the opportunity. If I ever find myself in the area again I will absolutely make the time to come early and get reservations. If they are half as interesting as the visitors center they will be well worth the time.
I spent a good hour in a place no more than the size of a modest apartment engrossed in the displays and in the reflection of its meaning. While the cold war is now history, nuclear weapons are not. Humanity still has the power to nearly annihilate ourselves and while we have stepped back from the brink, we remain close to the cliff and if the winds blow the wrong way we could find ourselves looking over the edge once more. As American’s we collectively hold half the key to that potential doomsday and an enormous responsibility. Something we should all keep in mind come election day when we can choose who has these weapons at their command.
My own reflection is that this risk and danger may well be a kind of salvation and that Sun Tzu’s vision of a warrior to end all war is close to the truth. The threat of these weapons is such that no rational actor can risk the use of them or any action that would justify their use. Only sheer ignorance of what they can do and what they mean could lead someone to think there was something to be gained by escalation to the nuclear threshold. Of course, so long as they exist there remains a possibility of utter disaster. Do we keep these doomsday weapons to dissuade war between the superpowers of the world, or do we seek to remove the possibility of utter destruction but open the door to the possibility of world conquest by those with the ambition for it?