Ed. Note: FreedomFest regular Marc Beauchamp recommends this side trip to those driving to Vegas in July.
My favorite t-shirt in the closet is a black crew neck with a picture of a garish orange nuclear mushroom cloud on the front. The tag line below the cloud reads, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
A friend picked it up about a year ago in the gift shop at the Titan Missile Museum, 25 miles south of Tucson, Arizona. As it happens, my wife and I visited Tucson the week after Christmas and the Titan museum was high on my itinerary.
It was a real walk down Cold War memory lane. This Baby Boomer was just 10 at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, so the visit to the launch complex brought back memories of “duck and cover” exercises at school, the bomb shelters our neighbors built, and Barry McGuire singing “The Eve of Destruction,” which rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in mid-1965.
Visitors can take a one-hour tour of the decommissioned Titan underground missile complex, look down into the silo at a seven-story Titan missile, visit the “hardened” underground control center and watch a simulated launch of the ICBM.
The missile looked familiar. Turns out, a modified version of the Titan II was used for the Gemini manned space program, which came between Mercury and Apollo. During Gemini, from 1964 to 1966, astronauts walked in space, mastered the crucial art of rendezvous and docking, and NASA learned that man could live and work in space for weeks at a time.
Back then, I don’t think I knew that nearly identical Titan II missiles, with 9 megaton nuclear warheads, were deployed in 54 silos divided equally among Air Force installations near Tucson; Wichita, Kansas; and Little Rock, Arkansas.
Staffed with four-person crews, these missile complexes were on alert 24/7 from roughly 1963 to 1986. Crews like those headed by Yvonne Morris, now director of the museum and National Historic Landmark, waited for secret coded launch orders from the president of the United States. They waited and waited. Once they verified the orders, the crews would’ve launched their liquid-fueled Titan missile in less than a minute on a 5,500-nautical mile trajectory to destroy a Soviet city or military installation. Time to target, about 25 minutes. Thank God, those orders never came.
Maybe we were lucky. Or maybe, as the guides at the Titan Missile Museum say, “peace through deterrence” — that euphemism for “mutual assured destruction”with its cosmically apt acronym “MAD”— worked. At any rate, it got us through the Cold War.
The Soviets didn’t attack us because they knew we’d be able to fire back and many tens of millions on both sides would die. As crazy as the rhetoric and the arms race got, there were rational actors on both sides. Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fail-Safe (1964) and The Day After (1983) remained fevered Hollywood fantasies.
Sometime after the advent of YouTube I became strangely fascinated with this topic. I watched every documentary I could find on Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and many hours of Department of Defense films of nuclear tests conducted in the Nevada desert and in the South Pacific. I confess that I find a strange other-worldly beauty in some of these slow-motion nuclear explosions. I’m sure I would feel much differently if people were being vaporized under these mushroom clouds rather than desert sand, mothballed ships or coral atolls, or if I had been aware of the deaths by cancer that would occur from Idaho to Arizona, as chronicled in the documentary Downwinders: Did the Government Kill John Wayne? which was screened at the Anthem Film Festival in 2016.
In the gift shop at the Titan Missile Museum I bought postcards of missile crews at their stations back in the day, a coffee cup with the yellow and black “Fallout Shelter” symbol, and a DVD—Big. Fast. Deadly. Titan II: America’s Biggest ICBM. Written, produced and narrated by Titan missile historian Chuck Penson, the 55-minute program takes you beyond the $10 tour.
Penson, for example, helped me get my head around the explosive power of the Titan II warhead. Nine megatons is the equivalent of 9 million tons of TNT. Penson crunched the numbers. If all that TNT were loaded into railroad cars, he said, it would fill a freight train more than a thousand miles long.
Okay, the Cold War is over, and so are the mass “ban the bomb” marches and rallies that were fixtures of the 60s, 70s and 80s. To be sure, the U.S. and the Russians have reduced their nuclear stockpiles. But there are still an estimated 14,000-plus nukes in the world. The vast majority—13,350 — are controlled by the US and the Russians. Another 1,150 are held by seven other nations—France (300), China (270), the United Kingdom (215), Pakistan (130-140), India (120-130), Israel (80), and North Korea (10-20).
Don’t know about you, but thinking about nukes in Pakistan keeps me awake a night. A nuclear Iran could pose a threat to Israel and the broader Middle East. Islamic jihadists like those in ISIS or the Taliban would die to get their hands on a nuke or “dirty bomb” and not hesitate to use it—the allure of martyrdom and 72 virgins waiting in heaven being what it is.
The threat of all-out nuclear war has probably receded since the Cold War ended. But our nuclear arsenals and those of the Soviets– oops! I mean Russians– are not only aging, but also vulnerable to equipment failures, security lapses or possible cyberattacks. Nuclear proliferation could put nukes in less rational hands.
Inexplicably, there are those on both sides of the political aisle who would seem to welcome a return to a new Cold War. I don’t agree with President Trump on the wall or on trade, but, as a libertarian friend wrote in an email recently, “his impulse with respect to Russia—better to be friends than enemies—is correct. Too bad the illiberal left and war-mongering right have thwarted him.”
It’s miraculous that nuclear weapons haven’t been used since the end of World War II. Whether our luck will continue to hold is uncertain. Can’t say I’m optimistic.
A visit to the Titan Missile Museum will make you think again about the awesome power of these weapons. Too bad world leaders couldn’t come together in Tucson, tour the Titan missile complex, and then sit down and get serious about ridding the world of this scourge.
My whole life I’ve lived under a nuclear cloud. What a gift it would be to lift that cloud from my daughter’s life, the lives of her children and the rest of humanity.
Freelance writer Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in Los Angeles, the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C. and an electricity company in Hawaii.
FreedomFestForum is a publication of FreedomFest, the “world’s largest gathering of free minds,” held at Paris Resort Las Vegas July 17-20, 2019. For ticket information, go to www.freedomfest.com.