Cold War, Texas — Nervous Times in the Homeland
By Russell Graves
Special Correspondent, sportsandoutdoors.guru
In 1983, I was in junior high school and along with dealing with the various travails that adolescence brings, one thing loomed in my mind: nuclear war. I know it sounds crazy but in 1983, the United States and the Soviet Union were at the height of the Cold War and tensions were high and, as a young teenager, I was aware of the tension maybe more than I should have been.
The movie The Day After absolutely frightened me to the point of loosing sleep, and the threat that loomed over the U.S. was palpable. In late 1983, the U.S. heightened security response to the terrorist attack on the Marines in Beirut, the deployment of Pershing missiles in the countries the bordered the Soviet Eastern Bloc. An elaborate war game called Able Archer were all misinterpreted by the Soviets. Instead of seeing each scenario as separate events, the Russians thought they were interrelated and saw them as the U.S. posturing for an eminent attack on their country.
The two countries came very close to nuclear war.
During the Able Archer exercises, the United States employed top NATO commanders as well as President Reagan in the simulation. During the war game, the U.S. and NATO command played out a scenario where allied troops were attacked with chemical weapons in Eastern Europe. The response for the faux attack called for the NATO forces to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against 25 Soviet controlled cities. Even though the military maneuvers were simulated, Russian spies picked up the chatter through surveillance channels and passed it on to their superiors.
Without vetting or contextual analysis, the Russians, under Yuri Andropov, thought attacks were eminent and mobilized their bombers and entered the launch codes into their missiles. Although it is an obscure historical footnote, hardly anyone realizes that we were a push of a button away from nuclear annihilation.
In 1983, the Cold War almost turned white hot.
At the beginning of the Cold War, Texas played an important part in the stalemate. Near Abilene and one location in Northwest Texas, Atlas missiles sat in concrete silos waiting to be fueled and launched against aggressors within a 9,000-mile range. Topped with a nuclear warheads 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan to close World War II, 13 of the warheads were placed vertically beneath the Texas soil from 1962 to late 1964.
The 12 sites around Abilene were deployed out of Dyess Air Force Base and were mainly southwest to southeast of Abilene. I once heard an account from someone who was once charged with manning an Atlas missile that orders dictated to them that if a launch command was ever given, they were to man their post until further notice from the base command. However, the men in charge of the missiles were acutely aware of what a missile launch meant and had a secret pact that if they were to ever send a nuclear missile skyward, they would drive their military station wagons back to Abilene to be with their families in the apocalyptic moment.
The single northern Texas missile site lies just south of the Red River and was part of a t12 silo complex deployed from Altus [Oklahoma] Air Force Base. Today, the silo lays nondescript with an adjacent red quonset barn. Lying in the Northwest Texas prairie the silo is now filled with concrete and sets as a silent relic of a time when parts of Texas were players in a high stakes game of nuclear war.
I now live about 60 miles of the northwest Texas silo, 45 miles from a sister silo in Oklahoma. I’ve often wondered if, back then, if local people realized that America’s frontline nuclear weapons were right in their back yard. The ones I’ve met say that they knew of a missile base, but not much beyond that.
Either way, for a time the nuclear threat loomed big over Texas. I’m glad that time has passed.