Thursday, June 29, 2017

Did you Duck and Cover?

If you’re in your Third Third, you know what “Duck and Cover” means. Maybe you hid under your desk at school during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Maybe you thought your father should build a bomb shelter in the backyard. And you certainly know what “Cold War” means.

Our trip through South Dakota included a thought-provoking counterpoint to all the natural beauty – the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – with the potential to destroy it all. The wonderful visitor center took us through the Cold War and the arms race, mutually assured destruction, and ultimately, arms reduction.

You can see the visitor center; it’s above ground. Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and Delta-09 missile silo are mostly underground. Delta-01 is where the two missileers worked on 24-hour alert duty shifts, ready to launch ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) in the event of nuclear attack.

I thought of that word missileer. It sounded like Disney’s imagineer so at first I just didn’t feel the heaviness of it. It seemed creative, musical even. But the exhibit took us through the psychological pressures, about what it would take to be trained to “press the button.”

There were photos of little kids under their desks at school. Little kids wearing the dresses and hairstyles we wore in the early ’60s. They looked just like us. I still remember my Weekly Reader emphasizing that Florida was just 90 miles away from Cuba. My friend Denise grew up in North Dakota knowing they were a big X on the USSR missile map.

At the height of the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. had more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. The exhibit takes us through the build-up and the reduction. Acronyms like SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) suddenly make sense on a timeline.

And then we get to the last room, the one describing “the man who saved the world,” Stanislav Petrov. Petrov was the duty officer in the USSR on September 26, 1983 when alerts went off that five missiles were headed to the Soviet Union. He made the crucial decision not to alert his superiors, guessing that if the strike were real, the U.S. would have sent more than five missiles.

The tension he endured was immense. He guessed; we all won.
Apparently, a movie was made about this in 2015. I’m trying to get it on interlibrary loan. September 26 is Petrov Day: “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, take a minute to not destroy the world.”

That last panel goes on to describe other false alarms: one where a training tape of a Soviet invasion was mistakenly inserted into the early-warning computer, another where a Norwegian rocket on a scientific mission to study the aurora was mistaken for a missile.

These were equipment mistakes, technological errors; they can happen any time. But the humans staffing the machines have to be able to stay calm and process the evidence rationally. Always it comes down to the one person who might be the one who “saves the world.”

Many times in my life I’ve explored what it takes to make peace as opposed to making war. This exhibit put another layer on it: how do we train people to refrain from pushing buttons, to pause, to consider? Because so far, the only time the world was saved was when a button wasn’t pressed.


  1. Hi Barbara, Love this article. Thank you for sharing the Petrov Day & Less Wrong site link.

  2. Petrov's story is AMAZING! Thank you for sharing this.

  3. So glad you enjoyed! I was stunned to come across it, too.

  4. Because you told us about this site, we stopped there when we were in South Dakota. I lived through the Cold War but I never saw a good chronological summary of it. I liked the exhibit on arms buildup and reduction - the "Nuclear Stockpile Sculpture". I didn't realize it persisted so late into the 20th century. I lived very close to Washington DC. We were going to suffer severe damage, if not total destruction. Even as kids, we realized that ducking under a desk and covering your neck with your hands was not going to protect you. The NPS website uses the word "missileers": Maybe Petrov was a Musileer because he mused about it.

    1. Eagle Eye! You're right. It was a terrible typo (twice!) so it's now been repaired, but this will be the evidence that it once had a life as a "musileer."


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