Someone on our tour through a former military site in southern Arizona asked how damaged the facility would have been after a launch, whether it could have been re-used soon after again. As unflappably polite as our guide was, her expression betrayed a shadow of exasperated incredulity before her such-a-good-question game face reimposed itself. She patiently explained that while the facility would have suffered some reparable damage, there likely would have been no more “after” a launch of a missile that carried a warhead that equaled the destructive force of 600 Hiroshima bombs.
The Cold War doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction conveyed the essential idea that the deployment of such fearsome weaponry by the Americans and Soviets would have meant lights out, game over, for the two countries – if not for all of humanity.
The young man’s perfectly reasonable question revealed how far removed he is from the Cold War’s existential madness. Imagine nations mobilizing its best scientific minds and vast resources to develop technologies they prayed would never be used.
South of Tucson, less than an hour drive from the Mexican border, the Titan Missile Museum is a fascinating Cold War monument, one of the 54 siloes from which Titan II missiles (the largest ever constructed) could have been launched from the 1960s to the 1980s. It is also a tribute to human ingenuity and hubris, science, and the power of restraint. Incredibly, this silo was operational when I was in high school (when the “Day After” TV movie tried to depict what a so-called “after” would have looked like), but it felt like it was from another era, if not another planet.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles capable of delivering a 9-megaton thermonuclear warhead up to 6,000 miles away within 30 minutes are among humanity’s most impressive creations, though certainly the most impressive thing about them is that they have never been used. And while that abstraction is at the core of so many heady political science, international relations, psychology, and game theory courses, it was fascinating to have a glimpse of what the tension between maximum vigilance and forbearance looked like on the desert ground – or rather, below desert ground, where for so many years 4-men crews spent 24-hour shifts ensuring they would be ready to launch the rocket within 58 seconds of receiving the right codes from the president.
You can see the filing cabinet with two padlocks (two different officers had different keys) that contained the corresponding codes to validate presidential orders in a control room that looks disturbingly like the set of the Chernobyl HBO series. Our tour guide walked us through all the painstaking steps – and then some, for redundancy’s sake – built into the operation of the facility to keep it alert, operational and safe, from outside attackers or infiltrators, nuclear attack, deranged crewmen, communications failures, power outages, nuclear leaks, and so on.
Humans being as flawed as we are, it is no small miracle we were able to build this nuclear missile silo, have it ready to fire at moment’s notice for two decades, and then dismantled it without having ever used it, and without major incident.
Nuclear weapons are unimaginably horrific, so much so that they made actual war between Cold War superpowers untenable for either. But their merit in that regard is a debate for another day. What struck me after my museum visit was the disconnect between historic episodes when our democratic society proves capable of making long-term plans, mobilizing extraordinary resources, and competently managing complex systems and risk, and our everyday contemporary reality.
Aboveground, a lack of reason, an unmooring from science and reality, prevails nowadays. Political leaders and others who know better choose to propagate nonsensical lies about the most recent election, the nearby border with Mexico, and the Covid-19 vaccine. This last one is particularly distressing because it is often tempting to believe that if our society has lost some of its sense of purpose and unity, it’s because of the absence of such existential threats as the Cold War. But the global pandemic suggests otherwise, as this existential threat triggered plenty of whatever the opposite of purposeful unity is.
Meanwhile, back on the nuclear front, the Titan museum in Arizona celebrates a form of relieved triumphalism; a challenge overcome. But that is of course only true for this missile and this facility. Across the midwestern US, we now have hundreds of siloes for later-generation ballistic nuclear missiles still in operation, still navigating that tension between maximum vigilance and forbearance. And there are more nuclear powers around the world today than there were at the height of the Cold War, charged with safekeeping prohibitively destructive weapons in a world short on reason.
Let’s hope humanity has a few more miracles in us.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz