On the Road with Nuclear Heartland

Your Nukewatch reporter is on the road speaking about our Revised edition of Nuclear Heartland, an atlas and citizens’ guide to the country’s land-based nuclear-armed rockets. Ready to launch from 450 underground silos across the Great Planes, these “intercontinental ballistic missiles” (ICBMs) have been in the news lately - because of a drug distribution scandal (now involving at least 19 Air Force personnel) and a cheating scheme that saw 92 “missileers” and nine high-ranking commanders relieved of duty.   
My first stop was the newly minted Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Rapid City, SD. Like at the North Dakota State Historical Society’s “Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site,” federal and state agencies are teaching visitors that the era of nuclear missile madness is a thing of the past. If only it were so.
At the Minuteman NHS, Superintendent Eric Leonard is friendly and encouraging about the 100,000 visitors the museum has hosted so far this year. The site’s exhibits include historic footage of above-ground bomb tests, but nothing on the 75,000 thyroid cancers among US citizens that were caused by them. The official Hiroshima story - that US atomic bombing ended the war with Japan - is declared in one sentence, but there’s no mention of “the consensus among scholars” - according to chief historian for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission J. Samuel Walker º that “the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan and to end the war.”
If you look hard, the NHS acknowledges some of the protests and controversies regarding nuclear weapons over the decades, but the monument is generally an homage the enormous economic, physical, technical, and military complexity and expense of designing, developing, constructing and operating a doomsday machine. Toward the end of the exhibition one panel explains that there are still 450 ICBMs on alert, ready to destroy civilization. This is partly the message of our Revised Edition, and ironically, the site has a bookstore that is selling more copies of Nuclear Heartland than any other.
I presented my slide-assisted talk and exchanged ideas with a few of the NHS staff before I left for Denver. One of the interpretive officers at the site told me he’d done some math to give perspective to the tourists that he takes to the historically preserved missile site. “The Minuteman II missiles in South Dakota had a warhead with the power of 1.2 million tons of TNT. I tell them that 1.2 million tons of TNT would fill the cars of a coal train 350 miles long.
Later Superintendent Leonard had a twinkle in his eye when he handed me a parting gift. It was a steel water bottle emblazoned with the NHS logo and the date of its recent grand opening. Leonard smiled and said the whole event and its swag was paid for by Boeing Corp. (prime contractor for the rockets). It’s a relief that half the nuclear-armed missiles have been removed since 1988 when we first published Nuclear Heartland. But much of the public thinks they’re all gone, and weapons merchants like Boeing might be using their tax-funded cost-plus contracts to promote this very mistaken impression.
In Denver and Colorado Springs, anti-war activists had me present in a college class, a church sanctuary, a university lecture hall, and even outside the gate of one of the missiles in Colorado. I carry a large banner that holds maps of the three “missile fields” that cover large part of Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. “You have to be kidding,” is the usual response when people first see the large maps. A college student that joined the group driving out to missile “N-8” near Peetz, Colo., looked through the simple chain-link fence that surrounds the “sword of Armageddon.” He said “Are you telling me there’s a nuclear weapons right there?” Yes, Virginia, there is, said life-long anti-nuclear campaigner Bill Sulzman, of Coloradans for Peace in Space.
Sulzman explained that it even though it’s just behind a cyclone fence, it’s one of the most sophisticated weapons of mass destruction on earth. And although Air Force police eventually drive out to confront us, taking an up-close look at a land-based missile site is strangely lawful. Legal or not, being in such proximity to an H-bomb can send a cold shiver of the ghoulish or the forbidden down one’s back.
I told the student that hundreds of nuclear resisters had climbed these fences and gone inside to bring attention to the expensive stupidity of these weapons. Nuclear Heartland’s directions to each of the missile sites aided and abetted dozens of protests. But a dearth of recent actions has let the media and the public forget, ignore or deny that our doomsday arsenal is still well fed and housed and soaking up billions of tax dollars: $36 billion worth of single-payer comfort last year, comfort not available to the sick and elderly the bombs are supposed to defend.
Military culture envelops all things here in “the Springs” – home to the Air Force Academy, the Army’s Ft. Carson, Peterson Air Force Base and Schriever AFB, among others – as well as 48,000 military retirees. This mix of bases conduct military missions like “Full Spectrum Dominance” and, Sulzman says, they “fly the entire GPS system – all 30 satellites.” The “Space Warfare Center scripts war games conducts drone war assistance-and-control, and integrates Army, Navy and Air Force space warfare systems,” he said. “Our efforts are like whistling in the wind, and we’ve had some heavy protests, even inside the base. But protection of the military’s image by local leaders of religious, political and judicial institutions has led the powers-that-be to drop the charges again and again.”
Steve Handen, who put me up at a homeless shelter he coordinates, said the city is finishing a new shelter with 175 beds. “But there are 1,200 homeless and winter is coming on fast.” The Army base is getting 125 new helicopters, Handen said, “and they cost from $9 million to $30 million apiece.” The price of a cheap one could end homelessness and provide childcare for the whole town. “I want to ask the community, “Do you think you’d feel less safe if you had only 124 new helicopters?”
More from Albuquerque, Tucson, Las Vegas and Fresno next week.