On October 4, 1957, amateur radio operators in the eastern U.S. were surprised to hear a mechanical “beep…beep…beep” on a lower frequency of the radio band. Some of the ham operators recorded the signal. Within hours the news broke that the signal was coming from a Soviet satellite in orbit around the earth. The Russians confirmed the report and said the satellite was named Sputnik.
One Russian scientist told reporters, “Americans design better automobile tailfins, but we design the best intercontinental ballistic missiles and earth satellites.” Those were frightening words for Americans because rockets that could launch satellites could also deliver atomic bombs. Russia had joined the nuclear club when it exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949 and the more-powerful hydrogen bomb in 1953. But jet bombers carried those weapons, and they traveled at 600 miles an hour. Americans knew we had our own atomic and hydrogen bombs on bombers and that radar would give us hours of warning if the Russians decided to attack.
Now, all of a sudden, a missile traveling at 15,000 miles per hour – over twice as fast as a bomber – could attack America with only 15 to 30 minutes warning.
Headlines in American newspapers screamed, “U.S. Must Catch Up with Reds or We’re Dead.”
Americans in all walks of life began learning the macabre vocabulary of the Cold War – DEW lines of radar, kilotons and megatons of destructive power, radioactive fallout, and the most ominous of all, Ground Zero.
Ground Zero began as a military term for the targeting point of a nuclear bomb, the point of maximum destruction. Americans learned that the Russians were logically targeting every military base in the U.S. Since those bases were spread all across the country, all of us were at Ground Zero moments away from destruction.
The feeling of living at Ground Zero was a powerful motivator for all kinds of changes.
- Almost overnight, the federal government moved to close the missile gap. The budget for space and rocket research went from half-a-billion dollars to over $10.5 billion in 1958. The Minuteman missile development program went from $50- to $140 million. By 1960, America’s first ICBMs, the Atlas rockets, were being “planted” in underground silos across the U.S., mostly in rural areas away from population centers.
- The Strategic Air Command headquarters outside of Omaha was given the power to command new missile deployments as well as the atomic bombers. Training of the bomber crews was stepped up.
- Atomic bomb tests, like Operation Cue, continued in the Western desert, putting numbers on the destruction.
- Fallout shelters were built in government buildings and even private homes. There was even a test fallout shelter for cows in Nebraska.
- Schools were forced to reemphasize math and science disciplines to close a perceived “engineering gap.”
Before Sputnik, civil defense plans had been worked out to evacuate people from Ground Zero areas. But for many people, the speed at which a missile could deliver destruction made these measures seem ludicrous.
Then, in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world dangerously close to actual nuclear war. On Monday night, October 22, President John Kennedy went on television to tell the American people and world that we had discovered nuclear offensive missiles being built by the Russians in Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. soil. He did not say that the U.S. had recently installed similar missiles in Turkey of that we were continuing to harass and threaten the Castro regime.
Instead, JFK laid down a gauntlet – “We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth – but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.” If the missiles in Cuba were fired at America, U.S. missiles would be fired at the Soviet Union. Also, the U.S. would “quarantine” or blockade Cuba and stop any Russian ships with missiles on board.
JFK had chosen a moderate but firm approach to the problem. His military commanders had wanted to invade Cuba which would have, in Kennedy’s view, forced the Soviets to take West Berlin. After several tense days, the Russians backed down and turned their ships around. In a secret deal, the U.S. promised to dismantle its missiles in Turkey and to provide reassurances to Cuba that the U.S. would not invade. But for six days, the world was literally on the brink of nuclear war. And people in urban and rural areas were concerned.
Paul Underwood remembers as a kid watching massive B-52 bombers flying a few hundred feet above his tractor in south central Nebraska. They were on training missions out of SAC in Omaha. “All of a sudden, you’d see this huge shadow coming over,” Paul says. “You could see people in the cockpits, they were that low. And they were huge.” Paul says those plane and the missiles in underground silos made him realize how close to home nuclear war might be. “As a kid, I was very concerned.”
Don Freeman (left) built a fallout shelter in his basement because there was a missile silo nearby. “At a certain point, you finally think, ‘Maybe something could happen,'” he remembers. “The kids thought it was a great playroom.”
Don and his wife kept the shelter for four years, but then they dismantled it. “I guess I got to the point where I felt that that shelter is not going to save me. With the increase in the different kind of bombs they were coming up with, I thought, ‘That’s fine.'”
Paul Underwood remembers huge Cold War B-52 bombers roaring in low over the fields he was plowing day after day. “Back then, we didn’t have cabs on tractors,” he says, “and all of a sudden you’d see this huge shadow coming over… Boy they were low! And you could see people in the cockpits, they were that low.” Paul also remembers a silly Mickey Rooney movie where the actor actually survived an atomic bomb test. “You started to think how destructive” the real bombs were.