The cold war was primarily a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union to decide which of their respective economic and ideological systems–free-market capitalism or centrally controlled socialism–would dominate world affairs. Beginning during the closing years of the 1940s, the conflict deepened during the 1950s as the two powers sought to influence events around the globe. As the ideological battles played out, technological advances in weaponry increased the threat of thermonuclear holocaust. This threat nearly became reality in 1962, when the world went to the brink of war during the Cuban missile crisis. The cold war ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and reformed into the Federation of Independent States.
Profoundly altering American culture and life, the protracted conflict affected every region of the United States, including the Great Plains. The influence of the cold war in the Great Plains began shortly after World War II. In 1948 the Strategic Air Command (SAC) established its headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base outside Omaha, Nebraska. SAC served as the air arm of the nation's offensive strategy for waging nuclear war, and it existed as an icon of American military power for the duration of the cold war. Throughout the 1950s this power was projected by the presence of longrange bombers, such the B-36 and B-52, planes that were capable of deployment into Soviet airspace. With the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS), the primary importance of bombers waned, and various generations of missiles, including the Atlas, the Titan, the Minuteman, and the Cruise, gained strategic prominence. Deployed across the Great Plains, the weapons systems were housed at air force bases located at Schilling, Kansas; Altus, Oklahoma; Lincoln, Nebraska; Ellsworth, South Dakota; and other sites. Supporting the missiles and bombers were early-warning radar installations existing in three lines across the Northern Plains and the Prairie Provinces. The various installations served as economic engines, providing well-paid and secure civilian support employment to local inhabitants in host communities.
While the cold war brought economic benefits to many of the inhabitants of the Great Plains, it extracted a price as well. Most significantly, the presence of bombers and missiles across the region meant that inhabitants faced a high probability of being targeted during a nuclear attack. In recognition of this, the federal government initiated a widespread civil defense effort. In 1948 federal officials appointed Russell J. Hopley, president of Northwestern Bell Telephone of Omaha, Nebraska, as the first director of the Office of Civil Defense Planning. By October of that year, Hopley had published Civil Defense for National Security, a manual that detailed protection techniques that Americans could use in the advent of war. The manual advocated a philosophy of crisis relocation–the swift evacuation of urban populations. The manual also stressed the importance of combating panic through a public information campaign. This philosophy eventually gave way to another approach that promoted personal responsibility for civil defense: the home-based fallout shelter.
During the early 1950s, in one installment of the CBS television network show Retrospect, national news host Douglas Edwards interviewed the Brown family of Topeka, Kansas, about their "experiment in survival." The exercise involved both parents and their eight children spending a week in a fallout shelter. It so happened that the father was a commercial builder who had built the featured structure. In retrospect, the show was more a marketing ploy for a business than a depiction of how a middle-class American family might survive a nuclear attack.
In reality, the civil defense effort proved little more than a psychological salve for the American populace. By the mid-1950s the Eisenhower administration recognized that nuclear war meant national suicide. Nevertheless, the administration continued to promote the myth of personal responsibility for civil defense in order to avoid demoralizing the American public. Ironically, the civil defense shelters provided little, if any, protection against the fallout threat people faced from the nearest actual threat, government-conducted atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site.
The cold war never flared into open hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union. The weapons of mass destruction that dotted the Great Plains served to threaten and deter aggression from a society the U.S. government viewed as a danger to the American way of life and American global economic aims. Such protection proved expensive, however. By 1995 the costs associated with the cold war had exceeded $5 trillion. The Great Plains emerged from its cold war experience with deep ties to the federal defense budget, and with fallout shelters now used for storing canned goods and for refuge from tornadoes.
Scott D. Hughes Albuquerque, New Mexico
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War. New York: Basic Books, 1988.
Oakes, Guy. The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Pessen, Edward. Losing Our Souls: The American Experience in the Cold War. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993.