Cold War in a Cold Land: Fighting Communism on the Northern Plains by David W. Mills (review)
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Reviewed by
David W. Mills, Cold War in a Cold Land: Fighting Communism on the Northern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 300pp. $29.95.

One of the problems with many regional histories is that often the events and developments within a particular region are discussed in isolation, without regard to the context of national or international history. The northern Great Plains region of the US seems remote even to the centers of population and culture-making in the nation, but during the Cold War, the region played a major role in US policies designed to defend the nation against an attack from the Soviet Union. In this book, David W. Mills, who teaches at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington, Minesota, provides a solid in-depth study of the Dakotas and Montana in the Cold War era, placing developments in this region firmly in the context of national and international affairs. While the rural northern stretches of the Great Plains may seem remote from the Cold War hotspots like Berlin or Southeast Asia, the construction of large air bases and the presence of a significant percentage of the nation’s ICBM arsenal meant that this region was greatly impacted by the Cold War. Mills bases his work on a variety of sources—secondary histories of the period, regional newspaper accounts, and the papers of some of the region’s political leaders. The book is divided into three parts. The first section looks at the anticommunist scare of the early Cold War years, and the government’s attempts to promote patriotism and to enlist religious groups in spreading the anti-communist message. Although much of the Northern Plains is generally conservative in politics, Mills argues that McCarthy-like witch hunts for alleged communists did not generate much interest in this region. Some state laws were passed imposing loyalty oaths and other similar requirements, but they were usually [End Page 122] seen as symbolic gestures rather than a real mechanism to be used in rooting out reds in hiding. Attempts to boost patriotic feelings, like the American Freedom Train which crossed the nation in 1948, met with more enthusiasm in the Northern Plains region. Rapid City, South Dakota, for example, set a record for attendance for all locations west of the Mississippi when the Freedom Train stopped there in April 1948, beating out much larger urban areas such as Spokane and Los Angeles. Pierre, South Dakota, a much smaller city, nearly matched Rapid City’s count.

The second part of the book deals with Civil Defense and programs aimed at setting up public fallout shelters and encouraging citizens to build their own bomb shelters at home. Mills argues that neither of these initiatives met with great success. Little money was appropriated by state and local governments for public shelters, and with little federal money forthcoming, few shelters were established. Cities and towns generally had nowhere near the shelter space to house their entire population, yet no one seemed greatly concerned about this shortfall. Mills also notes that nationwide, the “craze” for building home bomb shelters was never as widespread as one might believe; relatively few shelters were actually constructed. Many people wondered why one might wish to survive as major nuclear exchange—what kind of world would greet the survivors of such a war? Also, if one had a shelter, during an attack neighbors might want to seek protection there as well—since these shelters were usually small and could only store so much in terms of water and supplies, would the owner of such a home shelter really be willing to fight to turn people away? While defensive measures like shelters attracted little attention, the Ground Observation Corps, in which citizens were enlisted to help watch for Soviet planes that might be able to evade the rather primitive radar systems of the time, did attract enthusiastic support, and many volunteers throughout the region served regular shifts watching for intruding aircraft.

The third part of the book examines the military expenditures on the Northern Plains during the Cold War era, including the construction of air bases, missile silos, and launch command centers. Also discussed are...