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Audrey Watters

Mutually Assured Destruction Again

3 min read

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I grew up in Wyoming in the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up fearing that nuclear war was bound to happen. I felt the word “assured” in that phrase “mutually assured destruction” meant our destruction was inevitable. Nuclear war was inevitable.

I also knew that Wyoming had been selected to house the US’s nuclear arsenal because of its small and dispersed population. We residents of Wyoming were expendable (in case of war, in case of accident).

The first nuclear missiles came to Wyoming before I was born. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming was chosen to house the Atlas ballistic missile squadrons in 1960. The Titan squadrons were in neighboring Colorado. The Atlas missiles were replaced by the Minutemen missiles in the 1970s.

That name – a nod to the Minutemen of the Revolutionary War – meant that they could be launched almost instantaneously.

Nuclear holocaust could occur any minute. The world would be destroyed in an instant.

And Wyoming would be a target.

I lived about 180 miles away from the Warren Air Force Base. So I wouldn’t die instantly. I imagined my death would be like those in The Day After who witnessed the mushroom cloud, then suffered from radiation sickness and nuclear fallout and died slowly and painfully. I’d die like Jason Robards’ character. I just knew it.

In 1982, the year before The Day After was broadcast, President Reagan announced 100 new Minutemen missiles would be deployed in Wyoming. Each one of these missiles had ten nuclear warheads; each warhead carried about a third of a megaton of explosive power. (For comparison, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had approximately 15 kilotons of explosive power.)

Reagan called the weapon the “Peacekeeper.”

But this wasn’t about peace keeping at all. It was a mad race towards destruction, one that humans have worked hard in the last forty years or so to move away from.

There are still missiles in Wyoming (about 150 Minutemen), contrary to Nate Silver’s droll little map here. There are no winners in nuclear war. There are certainly no winners in my home state. There never were supposed to be.