Area 11: The U.S. During the Cold War (1950s-1980s).
Question: How did the Cold War change the national character of the U.S.?
“If Wyoming were a nation,” writes journalist Dan Whipple, F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne “would make it one of the world’s major nuclear powers. Its history with nuclear weapons in Wyoming is tied closely to the worldwide tensions of the Cold War, and with the development of missile-based nuclear weapons systems.”
F.E. Warren Air Force Base was first Fort D.A. Russell, established in 1867 as a cavalry post. In 1947 the fort was transferred to the U.S. Air Force, and is the oldest continually active base in that branch of the military. Today, Whipple explains, the facility “has no airplanes. It is, however, one of the largest missile-command bases in the nation.”
Since the end of World War II, missile technologies have changed dramatically and the politics of missile deployment have changed as well. Following detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, Japan, the U.S. military considered arming missiles with nuclear weapons. In late 1952, the creation of the hydrogen bomb, according to Whipple, “promised lighter, more powerful warheads.” Following the development of the Atlas and Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the U.S. Air Force in the late 1950s selected Wyoming’s F. E. Warren AFB and the former Lowry AFB in Colorado as operational sites for the Atlas and Titan respectively.
Beginning in 1960, Atlas missiles were located in deep underground silos in ranching areas throughout southeast Wyoming, western Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. The Atlas missiles were replaced in the mid-1960s with Minuteman I missiles, and Warren AFB controlled 200 of them. The Minuteman missiles each contained one thermonuclear warhead, so each missile “packed the power of nearly 100 Hiroshima bombs,” Whipple writes. The more advanced Minuteman III missiles replaced the Minuteman I missiles in the mid-1970s.
The U.S. military conducted tests twice each year. In the 1980s, a missile was taken from its underground silo in the Warren AFB area and test-fired above ground at Vandenburg AFB in California. There never was a successful launch of a Minuteman missile from inside a silo, though the Air Force made four attempts.
In the mid-1980s MX missiles became fully operational. Ten of these—each of which could release up to 10 nuclear warheads each with impressive target accuracy—were placed in silos controlled by F. E. Warren. Whipple calls these missiles“the pinnacle of Cold War land-based nuclear weaponry.”President Ronald Reagan referred to them as “Peacekeepers.” Some ranchers in the area where the missiles were located protested; other people protested at rallies in Cheyenne and elsewhere.A larger deployment of the MX missiles was cancelled because of concerns of accidental launches and questions about survival if such an accident occurred.
In 1988, a missile collapsed in its silo, Q-10, on the Wyoming plains. This triggered a “missile away” warning, but the missile did not launch. Analysis of the accident showed that an epoxy bond failed. Technicians also violated safety regulations. According to Whipple, if an accidental launch inside the closed silo had occurred, there would have been no nuclear explosion but nuclear radiation could have contaminated the silo and the surrounding area.
Whipple writes, “The last MX missiles were decommissioned in September of 2005. Warren AFB currently commands 150 Minuteman III missiles as its main operational mission.” In October 2010, 50 of the missiles were taken temporarily offline because of a hardware failure.
The U.S.-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed in April 2010 by Russia and the United States and went into effect on Feb. 5, 2011. The treaty allows a maximum of 1,550 nuclear warheads on alert in the U.S. Whipple explains that the treaty “has important implications for the future of F.E. Warren Air Force Base, particularly as Warren’s mission is confined solely to the support of land-based ICBMs.”
The article linked below, “Wyoming’s Nuclear Might: Warren AFB in the Cold War” offers substantial background on the topic for teachers and for students 8th grade and up. The article may be demanding for 6th and 7th graders. Caution to teachers: The PBS American Experience documentary, “Command and Control,” linked below under “For further study,” tells the true story of a 1980 accident at a missile silo in Arkansas in which 31 airmen were injured from which one later died. It runs an hour and a half.