Ten years ago, while meandering across the country from California to Connecticut, Heefner stumbled upon the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota. The preservation exhibited one of 1,000 launch-and-control centers located across the middle of the country. Heefner, who lives in Brookline and is a visiting assistant professor of history at Connecticut College, was captivated by people’s willingness to accept living alongside nuclear warheads. She set off on a six-year exploration that culminated in her first book, “The Missile Next Door: The Minuteman in the American Heartland” (Harvard University).
Q.What initially attracted you to this topic?
A. It was the weirdness of the entire thing. There is something incredibly eerie about standing in the middle of what seems to be nowhere and realizing that, for a host of geopolitical reasons, this place has become somewhere very important indeed. Like hundreds of unknown towns around the country, Kadoka, S.D., population of just a few hundred, was at the front line of the global cold war. I was astonished by the fact that I had never heard of [these missiles,] nor, it appeared, had anyone else. They’re still out there, humming away, ready to be launched. We’re so entrenched that we don’t even pay attention to them. How [do] people live near these things? Is it really so easy to turn the middle of the country into a giant sacrificial lamb in the event of global nuclear war?
Q. Did you meet any particularly interesting characters along the way?
A. [When] we asked a local gas station attendant about the missiles, a rancher overheard us and offered to take us to see the former missile site on his property. He was angry about the way his family had been treated in the 1960s when the missiles went in, about how little his parents had been paid. They were absolutely willing to house nuclear missiles, what concerned them was the efficacy of their ranch and how their land was affected. Still today, the children of those original ranchers are angry about it and talk about it with great vehemence that they were wronged by the military. And yet, [the son] was relentlessly patriotic, declaring on multiple occasions that he was proud his family had played a role in a program vital to the nation’s defenses. [There’s an] uneasy tension between property and patriotism in the American West, where property often defines citizenship.
Q. Is this relevant in places beyond the heartland?
A. It wasn’t just people there who had to live with them; everyone had to live with them. The missiles in the American heartland were a way into a much larger story of how Americans lived the Cold War. In fact when I tell people about this story, they often recall hazy memories of Cold War installations near their homes — in New York, Chicago, outside of Boston where Nike missile sites dotted the Harbor Islands and fanned out in an arc around the city ostensibly to protect it from a Soviet attack.
Q. What’s the most surprising thing you learned?
A. Just the absolute bizarreness of finding nuclear rockets planted across thousands of acres of private properties. It’s utterly shocking how mundane and normal this was to people. I was startled by how no one seemed to mind, no one who lived near them or anywhere else. This was a giant militarized landscape — not a military base, but a place where people were to play and live and work amid the instruments of nuclear Armageddon. They thought it was a normal thing.
Q. Does any of this tie in to the political climate today?
A. I believe that how Americans were enlisted to fight the Cold War goes a long way to helping explain how Americans remain so distant from the wars we fight today. Americans have become addicted to defense dollars, and Cold War spending turned into a long-term dependency we still cannot wean ourselves from. The deployment of Minuteman missiles [fostered the] normalization of the national security apparatus in everyday life — a new set of defense practices, strategies, expenditures, and expectations came to be seen as “normal” for the first generation of Americans to live on a permanent war footing. Those practices continue to shape life in the United States today.
Interview was condensed and edited. Jessica Teich can be reached at jessica.teich