Tucson’s nuclear role during the Cold War was one of America’s best-kept secrets of its time. Now home to the only persevered intercontinental ballistic missile site in the country, it acts as an uneasy reminder of what could have happened, but what thankfully never did.
The Titan II ICBM was engineered out of our nation’s greatest fear of Armageddon. The ability to end the world as we know it created an undeniable sense of discomfort, but it also gave a strange sense of relief knowing if the Soviet Union were to erase the United States off the map, the U.S. had the ability to take the Soviets with them.
“There was a general anxiety here as well as in the rest of the country on the question of an atomic war—the fear that the Americans and the Russians would get into it and the obvious destruction that would follow,” said George Miller, former Tucson mayor and long-time Tucson resident.
The Cold War era was marked as an intellectual competition between the Soviet Union and the United States. With both nations believing the other sought world domination, they began amassing more powerful bombs and faster bombers to deliver them.
In 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which alarmed the U.S. as it meant the Soviet Union had the ability to deliver a nuclear bomb with a missile, cutting the hours of time it would ordinarily take to deliver a bomb to just 30 minutes.
After the U.S. discovered the Soviet Union had secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles south of Florida, a wave of panic hit, bringing the potential of nuclear war to its edge in 1962.
“It wasn’t something people went around talking about in spite of the fact that schools had deals where the kids would have to hide under the desk in the event of an atomic attack, which all was of course ridiculous,” said Miller. “As one person said, if there’s an atomic attack, the best thing to do is to go to the linen closet, take out a white sheet, go into your backyard, lay down and cover yourself because you were dead.“
The Titan II was the country’s second generation of ICBMs and was the largest and most powerful nuclear weapon ever deployed, according to the Titan II Missile Museum. Fifty-four of them were installed in three locations—18 in Little Rock, Arkansas; 18 in Wichita, Kansas; and 18 in Tucson, Arizona.
In the Sonoran Desert, the missile sites sat 150 feet underground in hardened silos. With eight-foot steel and concrete walls and three-ton blast doors, the missiles and four-person-crew were resistant against the effects of nuclear blasts, heat, and radiation—protecting equipment that was ready to begin and end a war within 90 minutes.
“Did we sit around and obsess about that? No, We didn’t,” said Yvonne Morris, a Titan II Missile Combat Crew Commander. “There were a hundred random little things that the Air Force poked at you all the time and got you to think about so you didn’t have time to sit around and worry, ‘WWIII, WWIII, WWIII.’”
The missiles engine could produce 430,000 pounds of thrust, was equipped with a full load of propellants, and a response time of about 58 seconds, according to the Titan II Missile Museum. The total recorded time from launch to destruction would have taken about 30 minutes with an accuracy of dropping the 9-megaton nuclear warhead in to a circle less than a mile in diameter from 6,000 miles away.
“I used the potential for WWIII sort of in the back of my head to motivate me to put up with all the other stuff,” said Morris. “When you’re 23 years old and you’re in charge of all of this, my focus was ‘please don’t let me screw up, please don’t let me screw up’ because there are no inconsequential mistakes that you can make here.”
Once launched, there is no stopping the missile and no defense from it hitting its target. According to the Titan II Missile Museum, the Titan II was not used for attack but instead for defense, demanding peace rather than destruction. It protected the U.S. from 1963 until 1987.
“There was a general fear and uneasiness of living at that time for fear that an atomic war would break out,” said Miller. “I remember being a part of some groups who marched in Tucson opposed to atomic bombs…and tried to convince our government to get rid of the atomic bomb.”
The U.S. began decommissioning the missile sites in 1982, which were either demolished or left to collect dust. Today, they have been recycled, using the land for small businesses, homes, and churches.
“I think it’s great. If you know the biblical phrase, that we should turn our swords into plowshares, In other words stop fighting and, you know, use the land for something better. I think this is probably living proof of that,” said Debbi Maloid, a member and volunteer at the Vista de la Montaña United Methodist Church, which sits on a retired missile site on East Miravista Lane. “A church on an old missile site is pretty spectacular because the church is much more focused on the community and doing good, and a missile site represents the worst side of man as opposed to what is hopefully the best of man.”
Only one of the 54 has been preserved and used to remember what it took to deter nuclear war in the United States.
The public has the opportunity to walk through all eight levels of the underground complex, experience a simulated launch, understand the duties and living experience of the crew, and even spend the night in the silo.
At the end of the Cold War, what eventually prevented mass destruction was an applied philosophy called Mutually Assured Destruction. Both countries needed to believe that if they tried to launch missiles against the other, that they would be able to retaliate before their missiles impacted them.
“It’s one of the ironies of world history that the reason we probably did not go to war with Russia was that the consequences were going to be so horrible … that if it didn’t mean the destruction of the human race, a good part of it would have been destroyed,” said Miller.
Some believe that philosophy may not exist in today’s culture.
“I get nervous when North Korea has only one because there is no mutually assured destruction,” said Winkenwerder, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. “There’s a lunatic over there with one nuclear weapon. That’s far more dangerous to me than Nikita Khrushchev was with 4,000. So are we any better off than we were 50 years ago? I don’t know.”