Nestled on a quiet hillside among the saguaro cacti and ocotillo plants twenty miles south of Tucson, the Titan Missile Museum preserves one of the many bases that targeted the Soviet Union for over twenty years with bombs that could have destroyed all life on Earth. It is a shrine to peace through strength, or, depending on your point of view, to the madness of technology divorced from ethics.
After browsing the gift shop (nuclear war card games, “Got Nukes?” T-shirts, “Fallout” red wine, iron-on hammer-and-sickle shoulder patches, old Geiger counters, cans of emergency drinking water and “Watch for Aliens” street signs), we enter the museum.
The tour begins with a film narrated by a white-coated scientist who wears a beard and a long ponytail. He looks quite geeky, but to Sunbelt tourists he could also be the stereotyped image of a former peace protester who has seen the light. Technology has saved the world.
He tells the conventional history of the Cold War: how American ingenuity and know-how provided the means for successful deterrence of the Soviet threat. In the doctrine that came to be known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), both sides understood that neither could start a nuclear war without being annihilated by the other; thus, strength and preparedness kept the peace. The “scientist” (almost certainly an actor) is functioning as a gatekeeper. To pass through this checkpoint and go on the tour, we must listen to a sanitized version of history that ignores Hiroshima, the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, CIA-sponsored coups in countless countries, three million dead in Southeast Asia, a half-million dead in Latin America and many trillions of dollars wasted.
We note the relevance of this thinking to the current gun control debate – the NRA’s insane argument of peace in the schools through arming absolutely everyone. We also note the mythic nature of his narrative: American motives were pure and innocent; the Soviets were the aggressors. Like the terrorists of George W. Bush’s era, they hated our freedoms.
But the truth is that at almost any point from 1945 to 1990, the U.S. attempted to achieve technological superiority for first-strike capability (including “Star Wars”), that the USSR was constantly playing catch-up, and that such attempts were used as evidence of the need for further billions in American expenditures.
After the film, a tour guide leads us through the gates (literally, two-foot-thick steel doors) and into the underground complex of bunkers. We view the ten-story missile with its twelve-foot diameter payload. She tells us how the crewmembers entrusted with the launch codes could never be left alone. Curiously replicating the paranoia that had seized the nation above ground, each was ordered to spy on his partners.
She explains the multiple, complex systems designed to prevent accidental launch. I ask her if the Soviets had similar measures, and she brushes off my question. This tour is, after all, about our own national willingness to – what? – die for love of country? Destroy all of humanity for love of country?
We do know, however, that the only thing that did prevent a Soviet nuclear attack during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis was that one individual, a Soviet submarine officer, cared enough for the future of the world to refuse to push the button when he was ordered to (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasili_Arkhipov).
In the end, the Cold War did achieve one of its stated ends: it bankrupted the USSR and led to its downfall. What the narrative fails to address is that it also bankrupted us. In a mere eight years, Ronald Reagan’s military budget and tax cuts turned the United States – the world’s largest creditor nation – into its largest debtor.
But the museum’s narrative is a lie at a deeper level: it assumes American innocence. It assumes that the U.S. developed the MAD policy as the only way to prevent full-scale war. In fact, elements at the very top of our national security apparatus have always lobbied for unnecessary, unilateral, unprovoked attacks on the various Others of the world, from Hiroshima to Iran.
Deterrence had one primary function – to prevent counter-attacks, to limit any response. And the Cold War was a massive lie from beginning to end.
Part Two will elaborate.