Saturday, January 06, 2007

Atomic Tourism: Titan Missile Museum a Throw-Back to Cold War Era

Yesterday's New York Times had a fascinating piece on Arizona's Titan Missile Museum, where the public can view missile launch facilities from the Cold War era:

IT’S odd, the feeling of comfort you get staring up at a 103-foot-tall intercontinental ballistic missile from the bottom of a hardened silo buried in the Arizona desert.

It’s not that there is any joy in knowing that an ICBM like this, the centerpiece of the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Ariz., about 20 miles south of Tucson, could have been launched in just 58 seconds, hurling a city-destroying nuclear warhead at the Soviet Union. Armageddon is not a pleasant prospect.

No, the sense of comfort in seeing a Titan II comes from knowing that it was never launched.

During the heart of the cold war, from the 1960s to the mid-80s, the 54 Titan II underground complexes like this one — with its blast doors, firing console and spartan crew quarters, all preserved as the Titan Missile Museum — were part of the American program of nuclear deterrence, on constant alert to keep aggressive impulses in the Soviet Union at bay.

“This is what it took to wage nuclear war,” said Chuck Penson, the museum’s archivist. “And this is what it took to wage nuclear peace.”

Since those days, both the enemy and the sense of what keeps the country secure have changed. In an age of color-coded threat levels, the cold war and concepts like mutual assured destruction can seem far away. But they are kept alive at museums and historical sites like the one in Sahuarita, relics of a recent bit of American history.

I would love to visit the atomic touring destinations sometime. I'm a bit dismayed at the tenor of the article, however, which is troubling in its lack of appreciation for the tremendous successes of America's nuclear history. While no one wants a nuclear armageddon, had the United States not possessed its massive retaliatory capabilites, Americans would have been vulnerable to defeat and enslavement by the Soviet totalitarian state. Yes, the missiles were never launched. But they weren't launched because the Soviet Union dared not attack us, knowing full well they'd suffer a catastrophic second-strike response, which would have been guaranteed by the U.S. strategic command's robust triad system of air, land, and sea-based nuclear forces.

We cannot discount the excesses of the military build-up during the Cold War confrontation, which includes the numbers of missile systems deployed on both sides of the conflict. We are lucky, though, that we were the first to develop nuclear techhology. We were right to first use the bomb against Japan in World War II, and we are fortunate that we prevailed in the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. It's a controversial history, though we can better understand it with a balanced discussion of all sides of the debate, both good and bad.

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