On a Friday afternoon in October 1958, more than a thousand people gathered in Mead, Nebraska, for the opening of the Farmer’s Union Co-op Grain Elevator. Flyers distributed throughout the county invited everyone to an open house to marvel at “Saunders County’s Newest Largest Most Modern Landmark of Progress.” The four-story structure towered over the town. Built along the railroad tracks, the new grain silos could hold more than three hundred thousand bushels, and the temperature within the bins was monitored and maintained by state-of-the-art electronics. To celebrate the achievement, cigars were passed out to men; women who attended were given flowers. The local newspaper reported that the commotion of the event caused the town’s first traffic jam. All told, the project boasted a price tag of $200,000.
But the enormity of Mead’s new grain elevator would be dwarfed within months by a project with a budget a hundred-fold greater. Located about an hour’s drive west of Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, the federal land on the outskirts of Mead was selected to host one of three launch complexes of the first Atlas ICBM missile squadron in Nebraska. The construction of these bases would have an enormous impact on Mead and dozens of other communities across the state where Atlas bases were built. Over the course of just a few months, rural agricultural communities became the front lines of the Cold War.
During the Second World War, thousands of young Nebraskans gave their lives on battlefields abroad. At the same time, coastal American cities dealt with the constant threat of Japanese I-boats and German U-boats. Yet it wasn’t until the Cold War that the American heartland was directly threatened by a foreign enemy. And yet, as the Soviet Union reached ever-greater heights with its missile program, American technology began to lag behind.
In September 1949, the United States announced that the Soviet Union had nuclear capability, after verifying the successful test of an atomic device in Kazakhstan. This revelation would directly influence American foreign policy for the next forty years. Of course, the Cold War also had a transformational effect at home. With the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Soviet advances in rocketry, it became clear to the Eisenhower administration that the Soviets were quickly developing the capability to produce nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. In contrast to the hours of flight time required by a Soviet bomber, an ICBM could strike American soil within minutes.
Control of the United States’ nuclear force was vested in Strategic Air Command, which was relocated in 1948 to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. As the fleet of American bombers grew steadily, the role of SAC also broadened to encompass fledgling missile programs and escort fighter squadrons. A history of Omaha by Lawrence Larsen and Barbara Cottrell summed up the command’s significance in the 1950s:
As the Cold War progressed, SAC became one of the West’s chief weapons. In deciding how to counter the Russians, contingency planners developed a system to protect North America against a surprise attack. Offutt Field was at the heart of these plans. If Russian bombers should come, the scheme called for SAC officers at Offutt to coordinate worldwide retaliatory strikes against targets in the Soviet Union.
Central to American defense plans was the creation of an American long-range missile. Conceived in the early 1950s, and originally slated for activation in 1963, the Atlas missile was designed to be the sharpest spear in the nation’s Cold War arsenal.
Soviet progress spurred the Eisenhower administration into drastically shortening the program’s deadlines. Within months of the Sputnik launch, the United States had successfully test-fired an Atlas missile into the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. In doing so, the United States had closed the technology gap with the Soviets, unveiling an American missile with a payload capacity forty times greater than any known Soviet rocket. In December 1958, the president ordered a special Atlas missile launched into orbit. Those who tuned in heard the radio transmitter aboard the Atlas crackle to life. In a modulated voice, Eisenhower broadcast the first presidential message via satellite in American history. From the nose cone of the Atlas, he addressed the nation:
This is the President of the United States speaking. Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space. Through this unique means I convey to you, and to all mankind, America’s wish for peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.
With the Atlas missile capable of carrying a sizeable payload into space, all that remained was a plan to hide and protect them from the Soviet Union’s reach. Initially, military strategists advised that the weapons be constantly mobile-mounted on trucks or railcars and kept in motion to mitigate the possibility of a pre-emptive strike. Overpasses built as part of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System were designed with adequate clearance for a truck carrying an Atlas missile to pass beneath. But by 1958, a scheme was drawn up for stationary launch sites. The plan called for a network of secret missile bases, the largest concentration of which were to be hidden underneath the cornfields of Nebraska.
By the end of that year, the plans were set into motion. Reinforced launch hangars and underground missile silos would house and conceal the weapons. Military engineers and government contractors were given a grueling timetable to complete the bases, and many small Nebraska towns became the sites of massive construction projects. Operating around the clock, the workers excavated deep foundations and built enormous structures with impressive speed. Because of the high priority given to the project by the President, the United States entered the 1960s with a strong nuclear hand.
For more information and the full version of this essay, see the Summer 2012 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.