In order to prevent a nuclear war, US military personnel buried 1000 Minuteman missiles in the plains of America during the 1960’s. Landowners and residents in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, and nearby states have lived amongst these devastating weapons of war the past sixty years. Today we can relive this fading chapter in US history at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
From 1947, shortly after the end of WWII, until 1991, when the USSR dissolved, the United States of America and their Russian contemporaries enmeshed themselves in a geopolitical, economic, and ideological struggle known as The Cold War. The period was characterized by an aggressive arms race and ideological bids for world dominance.
Everyone’s way of life was at stake as two world superpowers stocked warhead upon warhead. Because of the proximity to Russian targets — think over the north pole — nuclear weapons of nation-ending authority were buried in silos across middle America.
These days it is hard to imagine the stress everyone must have felt during these uncertain years. The threat of complete, nuclear destruction perpetually loomed.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was established in 1999. It consists of three facilities: Minuteman Missile Visitor Center; Launch Control Facility Delta-01; and Launch Facility (Missile Silo) Delta-09. The park presents an opportunity to reflect on a peaceful prairie that once held the power to destroy the world. It serves as a public venue for examining the challenges and paradoxes of Cold War. It is located an hour east of Rapid City, South Dakota.
Here is a Map of the Facilities.
The Minuteman Missile Visitor Center is packed with historical information. There is an entertaining film that breaks down the Cold War Era to a child’s level. They have placards and models (some shown on this web page), that explain the finer details of the situation, including: ideological differences between the two countries; the US defense system; protocols for a return assault; life for the service men and women who waited at the ready; the uneasy times for US citizens; and stories of how our leaders narrowly avoided the greatest calamity the world could have ever known.
The purpose of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is to tell the story of the missiles and the lesson learned in nuclear deterrence. Two powerful nations fought an unwinnable war. They pushed it to the brink. It isn’t hard to see how this could happen — it was the ultimate showdown between the two toughest kids at school. All of mankind went to school on this situation. We discovered the approach was flawed beyond usefulness. The world is a better place because of this traumatic event.
For a moment imagine how a nuclear launch would transpire. What would happen if the US military learned one minute ago that Russian “Satan missiles” had been deployed? What would be the protocol for our response? Who would push the button to counterstrike?
The Delta-01 launch control facility (shown above) is where the answers lie. In the western part of South Dakota there were 15 launch control facilities. Each facility commanded ten ballistic Minuteman missiles housed in individual silos.
The launch control facility looks like a heavily guarded house. Inside the house is an elevator that descends deep into the earth. At the bottom of that elevator is a small control room behind heavy doors. In that control room sit two service men or women who wait for a very serious phone call. Their ultimate job is to push the button.
Thousands of Air Force personnel throughout the Great Plains worked and lived around these nuclear weapons. One of the most serious responsibilities was to be part of a missile crew. These servicemen and women held the ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons with complete seriousness. These crews ensured the sights were secure and functioning, and were ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
Most Soviet ICBM’s delivered 10 megatons, almost 10x the yield of a Minuteman II missile. At its height, the Soviet ICBM arsenal targeting the US totaled 1,400 missiles. The Minuteman Missile was smaller and less powerful, yet much more accurate.
The missile field was operational, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for thirty years.
If you would like to look down into a missile silo, Delta-09 is just off the highway for public viewing.
The Cold War era was a remarkably apprehensive time to be alive, and it is fading fast in our historical rear-view mirror. The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is our best reminder of this time in our history, and is easily one of the best things to do in South Dakota. To learn more about other interesting things to do in the area, check out The Black Hills of South Dakota: A Complete Guide.
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