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The barely-populated area of the Great Plains where the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is located is beautiful and peaceful—thus adding, in some strange, ironic, and disturbing way, to the surrealism of weapons designed there to end the world as we know it.

We got up early, and we drove nearly two hours to see it. It was Sunday morning, May 22, 2022, and a truly glorious morning it was. The sky was almost perfectly blue, the sun smiled upon us, and even the moon (about 55% full) made a stalwart appearance. Though the temperatures were only in the low 50s, the lack of humidity seemed to embrace us. Todd, my older brother, Dedra, my wife, and me, cruising West at 82mph. (We’d gone to Mass the night before, so all was kosher with the Catholic Church.)

We arrived at the center about 8:40am, just in time for the 9:08 showing of the eighteen-minute film explaining the history of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Philip, South Dakota. To say our Sunday morning was a sober one would be the understatement of the year. Yet, we breathed it all in, as depressing as it was.

The United States, of course, remains the only nation ever to have employed nuclear weapons in war, and our dropping of the atomic bombs on the civilian Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains one of the most controversial moments in our history. Regardless of our moral intent, the development, testing, and employment of the two nuclear weapons began an arms race that, to this day, haunts the world.

Within several years of our dropping of the atomic bombs, the Soviets developed their own. Soon, the United States and the U.S.S.R., locked in an escalating Cold War, began to produce weapon after weapon after weapon. And, naturally, each iteration of the weapon only increased its destructive power (currently, the nastiest of the weapons is not the nuclear bomb, but the cobalt bomb, created not only for its immense explosive power but for its ability to spread radiation as far and wide as possible).

When the Soviets launched the first earth satellite, Sputnik, in the late 1950s, it began an arms race with even deadlier possibilities, as now, missiles—soon to be dubbed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)—could reach enemy soil within thirty minutes of launch, the missiles crossing the North Pole and Canada. The Minuteman and the Minuteman II were developed in the early 1960s and revised in the late 1970s as one of our most critical delivery systems. The United States, in its wisdom (ok, I’m being more than a bit facetious here) decided that the emptier spaces of the Dakotas, Colorado, and Montana should be the site of such missiles and such might. The barely-populated areas of the Great Plains where the missile sites are located are some of the most beautiful and peaceful of the United States—thus adding, in some strange, ironic, and disturbing way to the surrealism of weapons designed there to end the world as we know it.

In an effort to keep up with the Russians, then, the United States developed its own missiles as quickly as possible, and the combination of multiple nuclear warheads and multiple missiles which could deliver them held the world on the brink of hot war from, roughly, 1957 to 1991. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union possessed more than 65,000 warheads, enough to destroy the world several times over. In Hollywood, no film better explained this than did Dr. Strangelove, a film of grotesque eroticism and phallic destruction.

Overall, the United States and the Soviet Union—through a bizarre sort of synthesis and mutual sympathy—came to the common understanding of nuclear war as a part of MAD, “Mutually Assured Destruction.” The theory, as perverse as possible in the mind of the human person and within God’s great creation, claimed that the rational desires of man would prevent the two world powers from destroying each other, as the possibility of winning a nuclear war was simply untenable. Thus, according to MAD, neither side would ever launch against the other, knowing that any launch at all would result in the loss of each power completely. Thus, each would be utterly and completely destroyed.

Though many wrongly still remember Ronald Reagan as a sort of nuclear warmonger, fewer things could be truer than that President Reagan despised nuclear weaponry and wanted to find a permanent solution to the problem of the arms race. From Reagan’s perspective—one, I find myself in complete sympathy with—nuclear war was not only unwinnable but inconceivable should humanity desire to continue. Yet, he also believed that the Soviet Union would only respond against a position of strength. Thus, to win the Cold War and end the arms race, the United States needed to develop great nuclear weaponry, spectacular missile technology, but also anti-ballastic technology (that is, the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known, pejoratively as “Star Wars.”). Only then, would the Soviets respond. “The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used,” Reagan said. If one is interested in this topic regarding Reagan and nuclear weapons, she or he should see the excellent (well, really extraordinary) book, Martin and Annelise Anderson, Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009).

Before concluding this brief essay, let me state again that the morning was sobering, to write the least. The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site did an excellent job of explaining all sides of the nuclear question in the Cold War. I saw the war from the perspective of two nations, two militaries, and two populations. The displays were fetching, and I couldn’t help but feel the claustrophobia of the Cold War.

Yet, yet, yet. . . we must remember that because of Reagan, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the START treaty of 1991. Through mutual agreement, we demolished thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons. To be sure, we still have ballistic missile fields aimed at our enemies, but we also have decommissioned fields, such as those that once ringed the glorious fields of South Dakota. Indeed, without such “progress,” we wouldn’t have the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Sobering, to be sure, but, in the end, a bit uplifting as well. Maybe mankind can really work itself into something good and something true and something beautiful.

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The featured image, uploaded by Spencer, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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