There is something in South Dakota that can decide the fate of the world. Scratch that. There was something there. It’s just a national historic site now. A museum staffed by national park rangers preserving a launch control center and a silo hiding 18 meters long, slender, white missile. Which used to be topped with a 1.2 megaton warhead. Nothing to sneeze at if you consider that the entire WWII used between 2 and 6 megaton of explosives and that includes 20 kiloton nuclear bombs detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We are in the middle of nowhere - the visitor center is on the highway exit. The only other structure is an old gas station. And this is not even where the launch center or the silo is. To get to the really interesting stuff we drive 6 miles on the highway in an unlikely convoy led by a government issue Prius. We descent to the launch control facility, which is an underground capsule suspended on huge shock absorbers. If the launch center was hit the crew had to survive the ensuing earthquake long enough to initiate the retaliation procedure.
Touring the launch center I cannot shake the impression that I am looking at the stage of a low budget science fiction movie. Rotary phones, some kind of computer-like equipment. Terminals resembling old typewrites. I am not sure what I expected but as an interior of a doomsday machine this place is a letdown. It lacks the grandeur of a setup commissioned to decide the fate of the planet.
We get a glimpse of life led by people serving here. It brings to mind a jail sentence. A mindlessly boring job. Spending time underground reading magazines and sleeping, waiting for the call that one hoped would not come. At least I hope this is how they felt. Going through the drills of copying strings of random numbers from code books. Taking keys out of the box when a threat level went up, putting them away when it went down. Training for a possibility to extinguish life on Earth in a synchronous turn of the keys. All that fully aware that they were on the receiving end of a much bigger Soviet missile. The point of the Minuteman system was demonstrating that US had more weapons than Russians could preemptively destroy. So silos locations were not exactly secret. Russian knew where they were, and though their missiles were not that precise, they carried a bigger punch.
What sets this apart from other areas administered by the NPS is seriousness of the rangers. The guy who takes us to the launch center is carrying both a real gun and a taser. I am not sure not sure whether it’s to put us in the mood or to guard historical Time magazines from the 80s on display. Just in case I don’t open my mouth lest he discovers I am from Eastern Europe. Growing up on a receiving end of the missiles buried under South Dakota prairie.
We are being offered a version of history in which the Minuteman missiles not only stopped Russians from attacking but also ended the cold war by means of the Berlin wall fall. We don’t protest - never a good idea to argue with an armed man. In reality the collapse of communism started in Poland and the fall of the wall concluded the dismantling of the Eastern bloc.
Poland unwillingly found itself on the opposite side. Now it is an American ally. The world changed in 1989. I believe it was ultimately people within that brought the freedom and democracy to Central Europe. Even if they had smaller goals in mind: my compatriots in Gdańsk went on strike to demand decent wages for their toil and Gorbachev was trying only to reform communism not to end it. But if this silo had anything to do with winning the Cold War I am certainly grateful. Now can we please just get rid of the rest of the nukes?