Heefner, The Missile Next Door

Review by Jacob Darwin Hamblin, originally published in Agricultural History 87:4 (2013).

The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland. By Gretchen Heefner. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. 320 pp., $35.00 hardback, ISBN 978-0-674-05911-5.

Just a decade after the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, there were a thousand missiles in place underground in America’s Heartland.  The name “Minuteman” hearkened back to the Revolutionary era, when dedicated patriots were prepared at a minute’s notice to raise arms in defense of their countrymen.  The modern Minuteman was tipped with a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead.  Rushed into production in the panicked post-Sputnik years, these missiles became long-term fixtures in agricultural land in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri.  In a short time, some of the nation’s most obscure backcountry areas became fundamental chess pieces in global nuclear strategy.

In her intriguing book, Gretchen Heefner shows how the Minuteman program served some “surprising cultural functions” in the most intense years of the Cold War, while making a huge region of the United States dependent on the military-industrial complex (20).  She notes that the missile program helped introduce the strategy of deterrence to Americans.  The Air Force put promotional pieces in popular magazines such as Reader’s Digest, explaining how the silos would keep the Soviets at bay.  As the missiles moved in, the people did more than accept weapons in their backyards.  They also affirmed that deterrence was viable and necessary.  For Heefner, installing these missiles reinforced the legitimacy of deterrence and “sold” the Cold War to the Heartland.  Once that was established, such programs justified themselves.

The meatiest sections of Heefner’s book deal with landowners’ attitudes and occasional resistance to site selections.  Following their complaints, Heefner shows that the decisions were almost never made with local needs in mind, though there are a few cases of accommodations to local pleas.  After environmental legislation required more transparency (i.e. public meetings), landowners in the 1970s and 1980s were more successful at banding together, and they blocked the Reagan-era plan for extensive infrastructure in the support of the MX missile.  Aside from that, most decisions were made far away, whether it was the Pentagon selecting sites for efficient missile distribution, or diplomats later insisting that silos be destroyed, rather than re-purposed, as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The Missile Next Door does not suggest that the Minuteman program pushed the Heartland into anti-government agitation.  Quite the opposite.  Antinuclear and environmental groups tried in vain to stir up local resentment about missile bases in Wyoming and South Dakota.  What they misunderstood was that cities like Cheyenne and Rapid City thrived because of their adjacent bases.  Heefner hits the mark perfectly when she says that the missile programs linked citizens’ lives to the military-industrial complex, and created a relationship of dependency.  Air Force bases were sources of employment and government spending, and the infrastructural upgrades and maintenance were nice perks. Heefner suggests that the people in these states tried to separate the military from the easily-scorned bloated politics of Washington.  Rather than acknowledge their dependence on federal spending, they saw themselves as patriotic, ready to come to America’s aid when called.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin

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