COOPERSTOWN, NORTH DAKOTA—
The United States plans to shrink the total number of land-based nuclear missiles by 2018 to comply with an arms treaty signed with Russia in 2011. North Dakota has been a traditional home to many of those land-based missiles. It is a part of the state’s Cold War legacy that officials - and tourists - embrace.
Among amber waves of grain in a remote part of North Dakota, the fate of millions hinged on the deployment of the lethal object housed below this concrete and metal barrier.
Code-named November-33 during the Cold War, this site was home to an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear-tipped warhead that once waited to launch death and destruction to a destination unknown.
“I think there was kind of a standing joke that North Dakota was actually the third largest power in the world in terms of the nuclear capacity that we had here," said Alvin Jaeger, North Dakota scretary of state.
Growing up in North Dakota in the 1950s, Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger remembers the Cold War fears of a nuclear holocaust. With more than 1,000 such missiles deployed around the state, he says there was reason to worry.
“We all realize that we would have been a big target, but we just kept on," he said.
"The threat was high enough that they had their keys in the consoles," said Supervisor of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, Gwen Hinman.
While the threat is now gone, the keys are still by the consoles of the Oscar Zero Launch facility outside Cooperstown, North Dakota.
Decommissioned by the U.S. Air Force in 1998 as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty 2 - or START 2 - Oscar Zero is now called the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site.
Supervisor Gwen Hinman offers tours below the surface, taking visitors into the heart of the front line of the Cold War, where a small crew of missileers waited behind thick steel blast doors and reinforced concrete, for the fateful decision to launch their nuclear missiles.
“We like to say they were training for a job that they hoped to never have to do," he said.
But it is a job someone still has. About 150 active missile sites remain in North Dakota, although Jaeger says few know about them.
“Within 100 miles there is an active operating nuclear field that exists, and, again, people just go about their daily lives and we don’t give it a lot of thought," he said.
And although the active facilities are closed to the public, Hinman says they aren't too different from Oscar Zero.
“Most of this equipment is still the same. This is what they still use. It’s all offline so it prevents hackers from hacking the system and potentially sending a missile," he said.
There are 450 land-based nuclear missiles currently spread across the United States. Earlier this year, the Pentagon approved a plan to remove 50 of those missiles from their silos, bringing the total down to 400, the lowest number since the height of the Cold War in the 1960s.