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  • The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland by Gretchen Heefner
  • Kevin Jon Fernlund
Gretchen Heefner, The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. 294pp.

Gretchen Heefner asks a good question: why did ordinary citizens in the American West agree to cede portions of their own land to the U.S. government, knowing their property would be used indefinitely as launch sites for Minuteman intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The first of these nuclear-armed ICBMs were deployed on 22 October 1962. By 1967, 1,000 had been positioned and aimed at the Soviet [End Page 197] Union, which aimed its own missiles right back. Designed by the U.S. Air Force’s Colonel Edward H. Hall and built by Boeing, the Minuteman had only one purpose: deterrence. The missile was quick to launch (in two minutes), ready 24 hours a day, and highly reliable, and it carried a 1.2-megaton warhead that could strike targets in the USSR within thirty minutes. The military placed these missiles in underground, hardened silos that were grouped in separate, widely dispersed, densely packed fields. The total area involved was enormous, covering the Great Plains states of Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. A Soviet knockout blow was therefore all but impossible; and a U.S. counterstrike was a near certainty. The first ten missiles became operational at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, providing President John F. Kennedy with what he called his “ace in the hole” (p. 123).

But back to Heefner’s question. According to the principle of Occam’s razor, one should select the explanation with the fewest assumptions because it is the one most likely to be correct. Initially, Heefner seems to do just that. In the immediate post-Sputnik era, fears of a Soviet nuclear attack against the United States were high, on the Great Plains as well as elsewhere in the country, and the federal government responded to this general panic by developing the Minuteman ICBM. Ranchers acceded to the government’s urgent requests to use their land out of a sense of duty, notwithstanding the risks and sacrifices. However, these men made clear that they wanted to be fairly compensated for their losses. They also wanted to know why the federal government turned to them in this crisis, when there was plenty of land available in the public domain, much of it in the American West and far from major population centers. Heefner speculates that the reason was the government’s own dysfunction. “Apparently acquiring land from other government agencies,” she writes, “was often more time-consuming than acquiring it from private individuals” (p. 95). Apparently, the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation was not enough to motivate these bureaucrats to cut through their own red tape.

By not stopping there and making more of this remarkable point, Heefner let a great book slip through her hands. The Greeks may have had their 300 but the Americans had the 1,000: the number, more or less, of ranchers who, despite their inept government, gave up land to defend their country in its hour of greatest need. This time it was cowboys, instead of Spartans, who saved Western civilization. Heefner, however, has a very different story in mind. Her heroes are not square-jawed, sunburned patriots but the protesters who emerged in the 1980s to stand up to the U.S. military-industrial complex—the real villain of the piece, not the Soviet Union, which she keeps largely in the background, except as an abstract threat or as an object of the war games played by the “the ‘thermonuclear Jesuits’ at the Rand Corporation” (p. 11). Heefner recounts the stories of several protesters, including Samuel H. Day, Jr. One morning in 1988, Day dressed up as a clown and used a bolt cutter to slice through the security fence at Missouri’s Minuteman missile site K-8 (p. 138). The clown and another dozen or so protesters (it is not clear whether they, too, were dressed up as clowns) were aided by, she claims, “countless others” (p. 139). Heefner acknowledges...


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