The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland

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Between 1961 and 1967 the United States Air Force buried 1,000 Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles in pastures across the Great Plains. The Missile Next Door tells the story of how rural Americans of all political stripes were drafted to fight the Cold War by living with nuclear missiles in their backyards—and what that story tells us about enduring political divides and the persistence of defense spending.

By scattering the missiles in out-of-the-way places, the Defense Department kept the chilling calculus of Cold War nuclear strategy out of view. This subterfuge was necessary, Gretchen Heefner argues, in order for Americans to accept a costly nuclear buildup and the resulting threat of Armageddon. As for the ranchers, farmers, and other civilians in the Plains states who were first seduced by the economics of war and then forced to live in the Soviet crosshairs, their sense of citizenship was forever changed. Some were stirred to dissent. Others consented but found their proud Plains individualism giving way to a growing dependence on the military-industrial complex. Even today, some communities express reluctance to let the Minutemen go, though the Air Force no longer wants them buried in the heartland.

Complicating a red state/blue state reading of American politics, Heefner’s account helps to explain the deep distrust of government found in many western regions, and also an addiction to defense spending which, for many local economies, seems inescapable.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
During the cold war, Americans were sold a terrifying and ultimately unnecessary truth: that to deter disaster, weapons of mass destruction had to be kept in the heartland. Heefner’s impressive first book focuses on the ways in which the government and the Air Force controlled the press and sold the public on storing 1,000 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles throughout the flyover states. As development costs of the Minuteman ballooned, local government officials wrote pleas to house the missiles within their towns. Chosen communities were often struggling economically, and the jobs and government funding that came from missile storage seemed a possible panacea. But as the Soviet threats proved increasingly unlikely, the attitudes of those who housed the missiles in their backyards changed. Farmers lost sections of their farmland for decades and did not receive sufficient compensation for their loss. Ranchers’ livelihoods were often dashed by the militarization of their land, and the land that had been turned over to the government was often held up by legal jargon before redistribution, and was unusable for farming by the time it was returned. Heefner’s deftly constructed and accessible narrative of this troubling period illustrates how war became a way of life in the mid-20th century. (Sept.)
Jeffrey A. Engel
No other work tells the story of the Minuteman as effectively or as eloquently as The Missile Next Door. Heefner consciously and impressively speaks to two distinct and rarely intertwined literatures: Cold War military strategy and technology and the environmental history of the American West. She admirably demonstrates that the missile's development and deployment offer a unique lens through which to view the broader themes of the Cold War.
David Rich Lewis
A haunting and intensely personal story about Cold War America's decision to place ICBMs in the Great Plains. Heefner introduces us to the individuals, families, and communities who lived with the cataclysmic potential of nuclear deterrence, and she untangles the complicated relationships they forged with the federal government and the missiles buried in their backyards. Offering compelling prose and analysis, The Missile Next Door is destined to become a classic in Western and Cold War home-front history.
Catherine McNicol Stock
The Missile Next Door is one of the most important books to be written about the history of rural America after World War II. Heefner reveals how the stories of rural residents of the Great Plains can be integral to the history of the nation but remain ignored in its retelling. We can now see that rural people in American West were on the front line of the Cold War.
William Deverell
In this fascinating account, Heefner vigorously argues for the central place of military defense in postwar American life. And she takes us into the very American heartland to tell her story. There, under the Great Plains, a thousand Minuteman missiles stood quietly at attention in their silos. The Missile Next Door reveals how they got there, what they were designed to do, and how they forever changed the nation. This book truly brings the Cold War home.
Choice - W. T. Allison
Heefner makes a significant contribution to the growing genre of new military history, adeptly describing how the Defense Department made the strategic and political decision to scatter Minuteman missile silos across the Plains and the upper West...Her wonderfully written and well-researched work draws from across the historical spectrum; cultural, social, military, and environmental historians, in particular, will find value in her effort.
Western Historical Quarterly - Karen Merrill
Superb...From the first pages of the book, Heefner asks her readers to confront both the utter weirdness and the real threat involved in a project where people cohabited with missiles that each contained a 1.2 megaton warhead and a whole defense complex operated beneath their feet...The stories that unfold in this book--such as what happens when a few ranchers begin to protest the arrival of the missiles--are not only essential to understanding the Cold War West; they are also simply extraordinarily memorable. The beginning of chapter 4 is a textbook case for any government agency on how not to introduce a major new program into a community...Heefner's work is richly researched and wonderfully written. This book will have broad appeal to western and twentieth-century historians alike.
Library Journal
The Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the U.S. Air Force, which existed from 1946 to 1992, had the capability of annihilating the Soviet Union. Part of SAC's "strategic triad" were the Minuteman missile fields placed in middle America—the Dakotas, Wyoming, Missouri—a thousand missile silos spaced so that it would be impossible to destroy them all before the United States could retaliate against a potential enemy strike. Heefner (history, Connecticut Coll.) focuses on how the missiles were received by their neighbors, particularly in South Dakota, as she studies not the big picture of nuclear war but how individual ranchers and towns were affected by the installations. Her extensive archival research documents local responses. While rural areas benefited from money invested in roads, the electrical grid, and telephones, some protested that the silos damaged the environment and adversely affected rural life, not to mention that the Pentagon was effectively putting a bulls-eye on the Great Plains. VERDICT This short book uses a wide range of sources to great effect. American history buffs, especially of the impact of national programs on ordinary lives, and those concerned with the military-industrial complex, will enjoy.—Michael Eshleman, Hobbs, NM
Kirkus Reviews
Heefner's first book tells the history of the placement in the 1960s of 1,000 nuclear-weapons-armed missiles across the American Great Plains, "scattered like buckshot in American farm fields." Sure that a "missile gap" spelled doom for the United States, a massive national effort began to assure nuclear deterrence against a Soviet attack. Emerging from this hysteria came the idea of depositing individual intercontinental ballistic missiles in underground silos across tens of thousands of square miles in the American heartland. Heefner expertly examines the players in this ghastly game: the engineers who developed the technology, the military personnel who implemented it, the politicians who proselytized for it and the rugged individualist landowners who accepted it. The cooperation among industry, the military and government--Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex"--allowed the idea to gain acceptance by the American people. As always, America was the good guy, merely defending itself, though with 1,000 missiles pointed at them, the Soviets might have seen it differently. Throughout the process, the realities of nuclear war--55 million Americans would die in a Soviet retaliation--were carefully downplayed or ignored. And it all worked. The militarization of the Great Plains became part of normal life, albeit not without some protest and resistance. Even as the Cold War faded, however, America became addicted to conflict. Defense industries would not simply dismantle, and towns dependent on military bases could not simply see them close. While not all will agree with her findings, Heefner's dispassionate and engrossing prose manages to raise both reasonable and troubling questions. An important look at a militarized America and the costs of this transformation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674059115
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 9/10/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 801,543
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Gretchen Heefner is Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Four: Cold War on the Range

Leonel Jensen was among the first South Dakotans to learn that his state was about to host the Minutemen. He was not a military man so he did not learn of deployment through those traditional channels. Rather, Jensen was a rancher with some land. And, like Vernon Taylor up in Montana, Jensen owned some land that the Air Force had taken a keen interest in— not for its proximity to the Jensen front yard or its worth as a good winter wheat field, the reasons that Leonel Jensen liked that particular field— but rather because it was relatively flat, within a specified distance from other predetermined

missile locations, and near enough to a road that the Air Force would not have to create an entirely new one to gain access. It was for those reasons that in early November 1960, Jensen received a rather odd visitor in search of soil samples for “a possible missile base.” Like Taylor in Montana, Jensen was asked to sign a right of entry for survey and exploration (which he did) and was told not to share information about the Air Force program with anyone; the Minuteman was an issue of great national importance and the authorities would provide information on a need- to- know basis only. For the time being, Jensen was to sit tight and stay quiet.

Jensen could stay quiet for only so long. The next week a larger, better- equipped survey team returned to his ranch and began taking soil samples. Jensen did not know it, but these were Army Corps of Engineers personnel making final soil borings. This time they

answered his queries with “courteous” though “abrupt” responses and told him that almost definitely the missile would be sited where they were boring, on a spot, according to Jensen, not amenable to his ranching operations. At this point Jensen decided to make some noise. In a November 16 letter, Jensen presented his quandary to

Senator Francis Case— not that the missile should be sited on someone else’s land, but that it should be sited somewhere else on his land. “We have five thousand acres in the ranch and we have plenty of places where a defense installation would not be objectionable . . .we can not quite see the practicallity [sic] or the fairness of the Defense Command just plotting on a map where the base should be and then putting it there.” Case’s response was prompt, if not totally satisfactory. In it he explained that through a conversation with the Air Force he had learned that no money was yet allocated to missile construction, so there might still be time to get the site moved.

For the rest of 1960, Jensen battled alone. He did not yet know that Gene Williams, just 30 miles to the east, and Cecil Hayes up north in Elm Springs, were also questioning government right- of- entry forms, worrying about land values, and seeking answers to what seemed a tangled web of bureaucracies, rationales, and expectations. In all, 198

landowners spread over 13,000 square miles of western South Dakota were approached by Army Corps of Engineers real estate agents that November. And all received the same information— some part of their land was needed for national security, and it was a secret program that should not be discussed. Publicity should be left to the experts.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Strange New Landscape 1

1 Ace in the Hole 15

2 Selling Deterrence 30

3 The Mapmakers 49

4 Cold War on the Range 77

5 Nuclear Heartland 111

6 The Radical Plains 137

7 Dismantling the Cold War 168

Conclusion: Missiles and Memory 200

Abbreviations 209

Notes 211

Acknowledgments 283

Index 287

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2014

    This is a very negative book.  We need to protect our country.  

    This is a very negative book.  We need to protect our country.  She seems to be against this.  Fine!  I sure don't want to fight some country in my front yard.  We worked at the missile organization and believe in defending our country.  Using missiles is/was one way to do this. Very negative book.  We thought the book was going to be about the history of the Minuteman missile.  

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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