SF-88 Nike Hercules Missile

The Missile Next Door: How a Nuclear Arsenal Was Built in the American Heartland

The Missile Next Door gives light to the oft-forgotten story of the Minuteman Missile Program.


SF-88 Nike Hercules Missile


The Missile Next Door by Gretchen Heefner
Harvard University Press
ISBN 978-0-674-05911-5
Pages: 320

In the absorbing and intriguing The Missile Next Door Gretchen Heefner examines how, through the vagaries of history and geopolitics, isolated communities in the American West became the front lines in the Cold War, with over a thousand nuclear warheads stored in small farming towns across the American Heartland. Heefner guides readers through the history of the development, marketing, and distribution of the Minuteman missile – from the fears of a ‘missile gap’ in 1957 that led to increased federal funding for nuclear physicists to their eventual dismantling in 1993 – and in so doing she cogently argues that the American public has become economically “seduced by war”. The Missile Next Door serves as a case study of the military-industrial complex that overtook rural communities, even as many of those communities felt patriotic pride at the opportunity to help keep America safe. Though the Cold War was considered a war of ideologies, the actions taken in Great Plains region show just how much military brawn was available to back up ideological brains in Washington DC.

The Minuteman Missile was developed in the late 1950s as the streamlined version of the Titan missile. It was cost-effective (estimated cost of $1 million per warhead versus the Titan’s $20 million), and, most importantly used a solid fuel source, which meant it could safely be stored and fired from an underground, concrete-lined bunker. It was, as Heefner says, an “out of sight, out of mind” technology, which fit in perfectly with war of ideologies that the United States was engaged in. It was debuted to the public at the 1960 San Francisco Air Force Association Convention, heralding the start of a very successful marketing campaign in which the missile was sold to the public as a product that was necessary, safe, and most importantly, hidden from enemy intelligence. The ‘missile gap’ crisis outlined in National Intelligence Estimates in the late 1950s led Americans to believe that their safety depended on the production of more nuclear warheads. Eventually, 1,000 of these intercontinental ballistic missiles were buried in communities across the Great Plains.

After the Minuteman’s debut, local communities lobbied to bring Minuteman sites to their towns, knowing that the placement of a warhead would bring increased funding for roads, cheaper electricity and phone service, as well as construction jobs and more revenue for local businesses. On top of economic incentives, there was a patriotic incentive as well. Heefner argues that the West always saw itself as a ‘step-child’ of the federal government; to these communities, the honor of housing the Minuteman finally made them feel as if they were vital to American security. She also draws upon the cultural stereotype of Great Plains citizens as adventurous, stubborn, hard-working isolationists who descended from the tough settlers of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, Colorado, and Missouri. To local citizens with this mindset, the program was seen as cost-effective, and the least intrusive way for them to contribute to national security.

While the wider Great Plains community may have welcomed the arrival of the Minuteman, there was resistance from local farmers who had concerns regarding crop yield and the effect underground warheads would have on their farmland. But the biggest complaint from the farmers was the prices they were being offered for the land, which they considered inadequate. These concerns culminated in a grassroots effort by South Dakota farmers, started in 1961, called the Missile Area Landowners Association (MALA), which forged an alliance between farmers who were not opposed to the missile program per se, but felt that their questions regarding the Minuteman were not being addressed by the government.

Opposition to the Minuteman missile sites was not restricted to MALA. In 1988 peace activists dressed as clowns hopped the fences that surrounded each site, hung banners, planed seeds, and laid pictures of children on the missile lid. Other opponents chose milder forms of protest, such as helping map out where all Minuteman silos were located, protesting along military truck routes, refusal to buy from corporations who support the military, and by holding weekend retreats for fellow pacifists.

Heefner highlights the rich irony of the saga of the Minuteman Program with subtle cynicism. The story gives insight into how Americans viewed the Cold War, and points out that wars fought ‘elsewhere’ may come at a high financial cost for the government, but large portions of the population remained detached from those costs. The book is a helpful reminder that the Cold War did indeed affect the lives of Americans, especially those outside of urban areas – places that the majority of Americans considered to be ‘elsewhere’.

I found it particularly interesting when Heefner examines the co-option of the Revolutionary War rhetoric in the Cold War context. The name Minuteman evokes the Revolutionary War, a symbol of pride and patriotism for many Americans, specifically the third amendment to the American Constitution which states that “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner”. For Heefner, the use of Revolutionary War imagery to sell the missile is evidence that the Air Force essentially forced the program on the Great Plains population.

Though the Cold War ended more than twenty years ago, the remnants of the Minuteman program are still evident in the Great Plains region. While all of the bunkers have been destroyed by the Air Force and Army Corps of Engineers, local economies that were reliant on military spending in local businesses and for infrastructure development have been slow to recover. Heefner ends her work with an examination of the fight to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota active in 2005. While Ellsworth topped the Pentagon’s list of possible closures as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) review, Governor Mike Rounds’ argued that the loss of Ellsworth would devastate not only the local economy, but also that of South Dakota, which had not developed suitable economic alternatives. By focusing on this episode, Heefner is highlighting rural American’s dependency on defense. Instead of working to reduce this dependency, Heefner argues persuasively that residents are “determined to enshrine their own Pentagon ties…not because of the national security imperative, but because of money”.

Heefner’s unique and insightful work would be useful for anyone interested in American history, nuclear warfare and nonproliferation, and the relationship between economic development and federal defense spending.


Photo Credit: bhautik joshi

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