One of the United States’ greatest military successes came after it barely fired a shot at its enemy, and now the city of Blytheville has decided somebody ought to mark the occasion.
That success came in the Cold War, the defining conflict of my generation.
For more than 40 years, the United States and the Soviet Union stared across the oceans at each other, missiles at the ready. As a boy, I had nightmares about nuclear war.
We’ll never know how close it came. One example: In 1983, a Soviet computer system mistakenly detected a launch of five U.S. missiles. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov’s skepticism (Why would the Americans fire only five missiles?) may have saved the world from accidental nuclear war.
Arkansas had its own near-nuclear accidents. As reported by historian Tom Dillard in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the state was home to 18 Titan II missile complexes. One complex near Pangburn burned in 1965 in an accident that killed 53 of the 55 contract maintenance workers inside. The missile remained unaffected.
Then 15 years later, that same missile almost became part of a nuclear accident at the Damascus launch site when an airman dropped a wrench socket 80 feet and punctured a fuel tank. The missile later exploded, sending its warhead 100 feet from the entry gate, but the safety features worked and no radioactive material escaped.
Apart from those incidents, the United States and its NATO allies, and the Soviet Union along with the Warsaw Pact, circled each other like wary gang members who didn’t really want to fight. Both sides ascribed to the theory of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, the idea that since each was prepared to destroy the other, neither would dare fire the first shot. The bloodshed instead occurred in proxy state wars: Korea and Vietnam for us; Afghanistan for them.
How did it end? Instead of destroying each other, one side simply offered a better way of life for its citizens and created more dynamic economies that could support the arms race longer. NATO’s free market democracies weren’t perfect, but they were freer and more prosperous than the Warsaw Pact’s authoritarian, centrally planned regimes, where the only acceptable religion was the state itself. While the West was prosperous, the U.S.S.R. was stagnant, and it was there that Joseph Stalin killed tens of millions of his own people. Tellingly, the Berlin Wall was built not to repel invaders but to imprison escapers.
The Cold War’s end began not with a decisive battle but with the opening of that wall in 1989. But there were no parades here in the United States. We were in awe of what was happening, but we were not entirely sure what it meant. Then in 1991 after the United States routed Iraq militarily, the parades returned. Maybe we prefer to win our wars that way, or maybe it’s just that we know when we’ve won.
Now the city of Blytheville wants to transform the closed Strategic Air Command facility at what was Eaker Air Force Base into the first national Cold War museum.
It will not be easy. The city must raise millions of dollars and convince donors that people will travel there. If you have Alice Walton’s riches and are located near Walmart’s corporate headquarters, you can build the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, and people will come. In contrast, Fort Smith is still trying to open the U.S. Marshals Museum after it was selected as the site in 2007.
I hope Blytheville succeeds. Based on reporting by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the city appears to be taking the right approach. Instead of trying to be the definitive Cold War museum, it seeks to be the first. It would tell its story by focusing on those who served with the Strategic Air Command – the pilots and others trained to kill millions as part of a strategy meant to avoid war itself.
In the end, it’s worth remembering both that the MADness achieved its objective, and that it might not have. The Cold War ended favorably without us having to kill each other. It’s too late to celebrate that fact with a parade, but we can still have museums – the first, hopefully, in Blytheville.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.