Best Defense

Nuclear tourism: Thoughts after visiting a Minuteman II site in the Dakota Badlands

The elevator is cramped with seven eager tourists as it creeps down the thirty feet descent into Delta-01, a Cold War era nuclear weapons control facility.


By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

The elevator is cramped with seven eager tourists as it creeps down the thirty feet descent into Delta-01, a Cold War era nuclear weapons control facility. The sensation is surreal, a mix of awe and a sterile ordinariness. For thirty years, Delta-01 coordinated ten Minuteman II nuclear ICBMs, measuring 1.6 megatons each, of the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron. This unassuming facility, which looks like any other ranch house, once possessed the power to destroy cities, invoking nightmarish images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The painted blast door of the command center best embodies the surreal juxtaposition of horror and comedy of the site. Referencing a popular Dominos commercial ad, the door’s mural jokes they will deliver an ICBM within thirty minutes or the second one will be free. In reality, the Delta crew could deliver forty ICBMs to designated Soviet cities within 29 minutes. The mere possibility is bone chilling, awe-inspiring, and comically funny — in that dark, tragic way.

Yet, now, a cheery park ranger recites the site’s history and importance with practiced precision for thirty minute tours.

Established in 1999, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was envisioned as a monument to the nuclear arms race of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Tucked away in a corner of the Badlands of South Dakota, the site maintains the last remaining Minuteman II ICBM in the United States at Delta-09, roughly three miles from the command center.

To many, the dangers of nuclear war are a forgone memory, a fanciful possibility regaled to Hollywood movies. Admittedly, over the past decade, terrorism and sub-state violence embodied by organizations like al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram dominate the headlines. Nuclear threats from rogue states like North Korea has become fodder for controversial comedies like The Interview.

Yet, one should not be so quick to brush off the perils nor importance of nuclear weapons. Since 1950, there have been thirty-two ‘broken arrows,’ defined as an unexpected incident involving nuclear weapons like theft, accidental launching, and loss. In April 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons over the civil strife embroiling Ukraine. Similarly, Pakistan and India have repeatedly threatened and mobilized their nuclear arsenals in their on-going power struggle in South Asia. Meanwhile, Secretary John Kerry is negotiating a potential landmark nuclear deal with Iran, hoping to divert a nuclear crisis in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab rivals.

Although the Cold War may have ended, the debate over nuclear weapons and their significance in global security and politics remains. Kenneth Waltz, an acclaimed political scientist, insisted nuclear weapons promote world peace by raising the cost of war to the price of mutual nuclear destruction. He famously argued the problem was not the abundance of nuclear weapons, but the lack of them. Likewise, several strategists argue nuclear weapons provide the necessary bulwark against rising rivals like China and Russia.

In contrast, Albert Einstein famously warned, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” More recently, John Oliver, a popular political comedian, criticized the ridiculous state of America’s nuclear arsenal of 4,804 warheads in his show, Last Week Tonight. He highlighted the deadliest weapons ever created shouldn’t rely on 30 inch floppy disks or be left to military commands plagued with chronic scandals like the Goldsboro incident, the firing of two nuclear commanders, and a myriad of serious security lapses.

So, one must ask: Did nuclear weapons truly make the world a safer place? Or maybe all nuclear weapons need to be decommissioned like the Minuteman II missiles — resigned to the secluded museums where tourists can gawk at how close we got to nuclear extinction.

Sebastian J. Bae served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He is now pursuing his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He holds the Marine co-chair on Best Defense’s Council of Former Enlisted.

Photo credit: Sebastian J. Bae

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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