From 1963 to 1993, soldiers went underground every day in remote locations around the U.S. not knowing whether this would be the day they would start a nuclear war.
It was a peacekeeping mission, according to the military. Thousands of miles away, in the Soviet Union, missiles with the same capability of destruction were aimed at cities throughout the U.S.
In many ways, it was the 20th century’s most dangerous game of chess: a constant build-up of weaponry, with each side determined to keep up with the other. A miscalculation on either side could have started the next world war.
These tensions began in the years following World War II, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. My mother, who was just an elementary student at the time, recalls participating in drills at school in which students crouched under desks to increase their chances of survival during a nuclear attack.
Years later, in the 1980s, I went through similar drills at school, but it was to protect students against falling debris in the event of a tornado or earthquake.
To me, outside of a muscle-bound boxer that gave Rocky Balboa all he could handle, the Soviet Union didn’t seem like much of a threat. It was a just a place that got very, very cold in the winter.
In 1991, after negotiations between the two governments, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce and limit their nuclear weapons.
Missile launch control facilities throughout the Great Plains closed, including one in Philip, S.D., about 70 miles east of Rapid City where I live. It was turned into a museum and is now owned by the National Parks Service. For $6, a park ranger will give you a tour of Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound.
Our tour guide, a young man named Ted, met my wife and me at the entrance of the compound, which is still protected by a chain-link fence. Everything was just like the military left it in 1993 when the site closed, down to the typewriters and faded issues of Time Magazine.
We walked past the officer’s sleeping quarters and into a factory-like cage elevator. Ted bolted the door twice — multiple layers of security are commonplace throughout the facility — and we were lowered into a bunker, fortified by concrete thick enough to withstand a nuclear attack. In the middle of the room, there’s a red box on the wall that reads: ENTRY RESTRICTED TO MCC DUTY. It’s secured by two Master Locks. In the event of an attack, Ted said, two Air Force officers would have opened it simultaneously to launch missiles at targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China.
As the tour came to a close, Ted told us about the handful of times that a miscalculation almost led to war or, using his preferred term, “mutual destruction.” Both sides experienced radar failures during the Cold War that made it appear as if they were under attack, but chose not to fire because they couldn’t be certain.
It was only through extreme restraint, Ted says, that “mutual destruction” was avoided.