In farm fields all across rural America during the late 50s and 60s, the U.S. Air Force was planting a new crop — Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, tipped with nuclear warheads. To keep up with a perceived “missile gap” with the Soviet Union, the Air Force was working feverishly build underground launch complexes and get missiles in them. It was an effort that involved billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of workers, thousands of acres of land and more than 2,000 companies across America.
The first ICBMs to be deployed were Atlas rockets based on old German V-2 designs. The second were named Titan. Both Atlas and Titan rockets were liquid fuel designs that had to have fuel loaded on the rocket just before it could be launched — a two-hour process. So, a crash research program was funded to develop solid fuel rockets — the Minuteman for the Air Force and the Polaris for the Navy.
The first Atlas missile silos were operational in 1959. The Polaris was deployed on missile submarines in 1960. Both the Titan and the Minuteman missiles were deployed in 1962, with the mobile Peacekeeper in 1986. A map of where underground missile complexes were located is further down this page.
Military planners explicitly decided to build most of the land-based missile complexes in rural areas away from population centers. They also chose sites mostly in the West were there was a lot of public land available. It was easier to build missile silos where the government already owned the land. But that was not always possible. Often, land had to be purchased from farmers and ranchers.
For instance, western South Dakota was chosen as the site for the second deployment of Minuteman missiles. (The first Minuteman site was at Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Montana.) Even before the South Dakota site was authorized by Congress, local ranchers organized into the “Missile Area Landowners’ Association” to make sure that they got a fair price when the government bought their land. Yet, the association took care to assure the public that they would “not necessarily slow the national defense effort.”
As soon as real estate negotiations started, the South Dakota highway department spent $650,000 in federal funds to improve 327 miles of roads leading to the proposed missile sites. By June 1961 — within six months of the proposal to build the missile complex — defense contractor Boeing was building mobile home camps and cafeterias to service more than 3,000 anticipated construction workers.
Omaha’s Kiewit Construction company got the contract to actually build the silos and the underground control and support pods. Their bid was $56 million, nearly $10 million below government projections. Work began in September 1961 with a groundbreaking ceremony complete with the Sturgis High School band. Despite extreme cold, high winds and heavy snowfall over the winter of 1961-62, men worked seven days a week, three shifts a day. Crews dug five silo emplacements at one time. They had to because there were 165 planned silos spread out over miles of prairie each with associated control pods and support facilities.
Thousands of workers transformed this rural ranch country and the communities of Wall, Sturgis, Belle Fourche, Union Center and Rapid City. Work continued throughout 1962 and into 1963. Finally, on October 23, 1963, the nation’s second wing of Minuteman ICBMs was fully operational.
This scenario was repeated at scores of other missile sites across rural America.
Each “wing” of a missile unit was actually a group of around 150 silos organized into up to 15 squadrons that each controlled 10 missiles. So, each wing — each dot on the map below — could be spread out over 100 miles of rural countryside. For instance, one of the earliest Atlas wings was based at the Lincoln, Nebraska, AFB, but it also controlled missiles outside of York, 50 miles to the west.
Spreading the missiles out meant that the Soviets had to target more of their missiles at ours to even hope to destroy the U.S. missiles. It also meant that the rural residents nearby knew they had multiple Soviet missiles that would fall around them if a hot war broke out.
One of the ironies of the Cold War is that the perceived “missile gap” that U.S. politicians were so concerned about didn’t exist. True, the Soviets had launched Sputnik, but the satellite didn’t do anything but “beep” back to earth. True, a Russian official had boasted that their factories were turning out missiles “like sausages.”
But it’s only been in the last few years that declassified Soviet documents revealed that in 1960, for instance, the U.S. had 13 land-based missiles with nuclear warheads; the Soviets had two. In 1961, the U.S. had 60 missiles; the Soviets had 11.
The U.S. dominance in nuclear strategic warheads targeted at the Soviet Union is even more pronounced when you add in submarine-based nuclear missiles and warheads loaded on bombers. In 1960s, the U.S. had 7,000 total warheads; the Soviets had 405. In 1970, the U.S. had 12,223 strategic warheads; the Soviets had 2,443. The number of strategic warheads peaked in 1988 with 14,795 American weapons and 11,630 Soviet ones. Today, there are about 8,000 U.S. warheads in the arsenal and about 5,000 Soviet warheads.
The actual numbers are not as important as the policy that the warheads imposed on both governments. Everyone knew — even the most remote rancher — that there were enough warheads in existence to kill everyone in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. several times over. Everyone knew that the fallout from an all-out war would destroy life all around the planet.
So, the policies of both governments were appropriately named MAD — mutually assured destruction. Literally, it would be madness for either side to begin an attack on the other because both sides would be destroyed.
When the Americans and the Russians began planting ICBMs in farm fields neither side wanted to see that crop harvested.
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.