In Arizona, Tucson shouldered the most dangerous part of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Some seventeen Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles ringed the Old Pueblo from 1963 to 1982 in blast-hardened silos (one still exists as a museum near Sahuarita). The silos wouldn't have been enough to protect the ICBMs from the many incoming nuclear warheads targeted by the USSR, especially as the Soviets gained parity with the United States in missiles and warheads. So facing a launch warning, a president would have had minutes to get the Titan IIs, which carried the largest U.S. warheads, airborne. Tucson would have been engulfed in a firestorm of hydrogen bombs. The motto of the Strategic Air Command, on display at the gates of bases such as Davis-Monthan, was "Peace is Our Profession."
Still, Phoenix was an important target during much of the Cold War. In addition to two Air Force bases used primarily for fighter-jet training (Luke and Williams), the city had a relatively large set of valuable aerospace and technology plants, plus research operations. It was the state capital. And, had "the balloon gone up" in such a way that city-for-city targeting happened, Phoenix was a major population center. It was highly vulnerable. As one of my mother's water engineer friends said, "Bomb the dams and it's all over." The evacuation plans drawn up by Civil Defense for American cities in the 1950s wouldn't have worked: Where would you send half a million souls in an isolated place largely surrounded by desert?
Even in a limited nuclear exchange, Phoenix would have been vulnerable to fallout. It was badly lacking in fallout shelter space (I remember seeing a report in the early 1970s that, as I recall, claimed space for about 100,000 when the metro area held six or seven times that number). Still, the ubiquitous shelter signs were everywhere downtown: The round older ones in red-white-and-blue with CD (Civil Defense) emblazoned on them, the more spare "Fallout Shelter" black-and-gold rectangles from the '60s. (One of the old ones was on a lamp post near First Watch downtown well into the 2000s; I hope somebody preserves it). These were mostly basements of office buildings, stocked with food and water by the feds, meant to protect against radioactive fallout. I remember one in the utility tunnels under Coronado High School; when I went down there in the '70s, the food, water and geiger counters were all neatly packed, a decade old. Yet these were not blast shelters. Few Phoenix houses had even basements. Few Phoenicians dug their own shelters.
Planning, such as it was, was rudimentary. A bunker cut into a butte on the military reservation in Papago Park served as the city and county emergency center in the event of attack (it's still there). Sirens were placed around the city, bright yellow, tested every Saturday at noon. A long wailing meant tune into the radio — first CONELRAD, then the Emergency Broadcast System — while a rapid rise and fall of the siren meant "take cover immediately." The EBS was regularly tested with a long, high-pitched tone on every radio station. In the bomber era, the 1950s, Luke and Williams were assets, protectors, especially when America had such a huge advantage. Once ICBMs became operational, they were just targets. And the reaction time had shrunk from hours to about 30 minutes, 15 or less if the missile were launched at a low trajectory from a Soviet "boomer" submerged off the West Coast. Phoenix was not large enough to have Nike anti-aircraft missile batteries such as those that stood sentinel over New York, Cincinnati, Seattle or San Francisco. And once ICBMs established the balance of terror, the Nikes were obsolete.
We made plans, of course. In an emergency, my grandmother and I would go downtown and join my mother in the basement of her office in the Heard Building. But in reality, about the best one could do, as the authentic-looking Civil Defense poster hanging in the ambulance station advised, was "kiss your ass goodbye."
A Titan II missile, the most powerful U.S. ICBM, in its silo near Tucson.
I'm sure most children who grew up in the 1960s had nuclear-free childhoods, innocence unmarred by constant thoughts of fiery annihilation. I was not one of them. The drills at Kenilworth School, where we were led away from the glass-windowed classrooms into the interior auditorium — face the wall, cover your head — filled me with primal fear. I remember watching President Kennedy's speech during the Cuban Missile Crisis on the black-and-white, rabbit-eared television. Even when that confrontation was snuffed, the weekly siren testing froze my blood. Doomsday dreams haunted my sleep; I heard the lines "thine alabaster cities gleam" and imagined Phoenix being vaporized by flash, blast, shockwave, fire, elements that could overpower even the everpresent sun overhead. I always assumed these complex missile systems would really work and that the Soviets would be perfect marksmen, using the Valley Center tower as the aiming point for several megatons of hellfire.
My anxieties were not eased by a family friend who was a reserve rear admiral, pal of Polaris sub boss Hyman Rickover and close to the Atomic Energy Commission. He gladly educated me on all the theories and tools of nuclear holocaust. For hawks on both sides, nuclear war was not only thinkable but winnable. America had the likes of Gen. Curtis LeMay, forerunner of the neocons, and the Soviets had recently sacrificed 30 million dead in World War II. I sent off for Civil Defense material to learn more. By the age of nine, I knew about airbursts vs. groundbursts, counterforce vs. countervalue strikes, missile throw weight, how to turn a dining table into a makeshift fallout shelter, every missile and bomber type on both sides (there had been a "missile gap" in 1960, but it was in our favor). Only by learning everything I could was I able to maintain my own interior balance of terror.
The only time it cracked was when I was 13 and walking down Palm Lane with my first girlfriend. It was twilight and a long, strange arc of icy white appeared above the western horizion. She was curious. I was turned to dread stone. It was, I immediately knew, an ICBM. Or, more precisely, an SLBM lanched by a sub, for the ICBMs would come from the north, over the pole. "We need to go home," I managed, and after getting her to her front door, I ran in a panic. "We've got to get in the car, get out to Shea Boulevard, toward Payson," I told my mother. She calmed me down and we later learned it was indeed an ICBM, but one of ours, a Minuteman headed from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California out over the Pacific Test Range.
Payson called because I had spent a summer there with my grandmother, when it was a tiny speck and the Mogollon Rim was still wild and empty, unprofaned by subdivisions of "cabins." This was 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out between the Arabs and Israelis, with the United States and USSR barely on the sidelines. Every day I expected to see a flash come from the south. But there, in the pines, we would be safe. (Later, the admiral showed me a Soviet study about plans to start a Hamburg-like firestorm using hydrogen bombs on the Southwestern forests). I never doubted that, given the chance, the Russians would, as my grandmother put it, "jump on us." Nevermind that the reality was both sides would have been doused with fallout, whichever "won."
Adulthood mostly rescued me. The banal apocalypses of individuals we faced daily on the ambulance were more important than planning for the Big One (although I kept a nuclear war "go kit" well into my late twenties). I lived in cities that faced much bigger threats, especially San Diego where the Navy kept nukes in bunkers on the Point Loma Peninsula — with the usual pro-forma denials. This was during a moment when we came as close to nuclear war than perhaps any other. In September 1983, with President Reagan building up American defense and the Kremlin occupied by old men who feared an American pre-emptive attack, Soviet air defense satellites and computers picked up what appeared to be a missile launch from the United States. If doctrine had been followed, the Soviets would have retaliated with a massive strike to keep their missiles from being destroyed in their silos. Fortunately, the lieutenant colonel in command that night, Stanislav Petrov, doubted that the Americans would launch just one missile. He knew it was a false alarm and we're all still here. I only knew about this one-tick-to-midnight years later.
Still, whenever I think of the Cold War, I think of Phoenix. Somehow we got through this long, genuine existential threat without taking away civil liberties, strip-searching diapered old ladies or locking down ze homeland. Phoenix went on to set up its own manmade demise. Nukes will probably still be used someday, by Iran, Pakistan, North Korea. But I remain persuaded that American nuclear power did, in fact, keep the peace. Unlike the neo-con vision of today, it was wielded with great restraint, but also steadfast will. One of my high-school friends went on to be a missile officer in a Minuteman launch control facility. I have never asked him whether he really could have turned the key if the command had come. As for me, my downtown Seattle condo faces away from the Trident ballistic submarine base at Bangor, across Puget Sound, a first-strike target for our friends and debt-holders, the Chinese.
Learn more about Phoenix in the 101 archive.