Leaving Cheyenne Mountain

Leaving Cheyenne Mountain

Post-cold war America is looking a lot like the former Soviet Union.


It took three years just to excavate that mountain redoubt outside Colorado Springs, that cold war citadel whose two huge blast doors weighed twenty-five tons each. Within its confines, under 2,000 feet of Rocky Mountain granite, fifteen buildings were mounted on steel springs, each spring weighing nearly half a ton, so that when the Soviet nukes exploded, each building would sway but not collapse.

When it became operational in 1966, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex was the ultimate bomb shelter. Its 200 or so crew members were believed to have a 70 percent likelihood of surviving a five-megaton blast with a three-mile circular error of probability, even if the surrounding countryside became an irradiated wasteland. Today, more than four decades later, the complex remains an important command center, though in 2006 the military announced that it would now serve primarily as a backup facility (on “warm standby,” in military jargon).

From 1985 to 1988, in the waning years of the cold war, as a young Air Force lieutenant, my job took me inside that mountain citadel. The approach to it wasn’t in any way awesome, since the mountain, at the south end of the Front Range, is overshadowed by Pike’s Peak. Except for all the communication antennas blinking red at night, you’d hardly know it was the site of a major command center for nuclear war. Yet each time I drove up its access road, its solid granite bulk made an impression; so, too, did the security fence topped by cameras and razor wire, the police toting M-16s and the massive access tunnel, bored out of solid rock and paved for vehicular traffic that still leads inside the mountain to the actual command center.

Like cereal-box atomic decoder rings and “duck and cover” exercises, the complex is a relic of the cold war era. I entered on a bus that, though painted Air Force blue, was similar to the ones I had taken in grade school. On a few nights I left work after the last bus had taken off and had to hike the third of a mile out of the tunnel, a claustrophobic and often bone-chilling experience in the windy and wintry Rockies–until, that is, you emerged into a starry night above, with the lights of the city twinkling below.

Of that mountain, meant to corral and contain our nuclear fears, what struck most first-time visitors were the steel-reinforced blast doors, more than ten feet high and several feet thick. They were supposed to seal the complex, protecting it from a nuclear strike. Then there were the enormous springs (1,319 in all) on which each of the fifteen buildings inside the mountain rest. I liked to think of them as giant (if immobile) Slinkies. As visitors got their bearings, they were sometimes disconcerted by the bolts embedded in the granite walls and ceiling. These held wire mesh, meant to stabilize the rock and protect against falling shards. Exposed pipes and cables gave the mountain a style that might be termed “early industrial chic”–one you sometimes see echoed today in high-end lofts and dance clubs.

The blast doors were usually open–except, of course, during “exercises,” when the mountain “buttoned up” its self-contained world. Along with enough food and other provisions to weather any initial rounds of earthly devastation, the mountain also had four freshwater reservoirs, each with a holding capacity of 1.5 million gallons. The inside joke was that the complex, technically an Air Force station, had its very own navy–the rowboats used to cross the reservoirs (though, sad to say, I never used one). Today, when I think of them, the River Styx and Charon come to mind.

Images of the underworld were then, and remain, all too appropriate. By the time I was inside Cheyenne Mountain, we knew it was vulnerable to a new generation of high-yield, highly accurate Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In case of a full-fledged nuclear war, as a popular poster of the 1970s put it, we had no doubt that we could “bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.”

The citadel that had been built to ensure official survival during a planetary holocaust was, by then, sure to be among the initial targets struck by those ICBMs–perhaps a dozen or more warheads–to ensure a “first-strike kill.” Our job was simply to detect the coming nuclear attack by the Soviets and act quickly enough to coordinate a retaliatory strike–to ensure that the Soviet part of the planet went down–before we were obliterated, along with Colorado Springs (a “target-rich” city that includes Fort Carson to the south, Peterson Air Force Base to the east and the US Air Force Academy to the north).

Launched over the North Pole from missile fields in the USSR, those Soviet ICBMs would explode over American cities in thirty minutes. Reacting before they hit placed a premium on decisions based on computers and early-warning satellites. Due to the hair-trigger nature of such a scenario, human errors and system malfunctions were inevitable. One false alarm came on November 9, 1979, when a technician mistakenly loaded a training tape that simulated a full-scale Soviet missile attack. Two false alarms followed less than a year later, on June 3 and June 6, 1980, and were eventually traced, according to an official Air Force release, to a defective integrated circuit, a silicon chip that cost less than $100. In each case, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) alerted ICBM crews and scrambled air crews to nuclear-armed B-52s, which were warming up engines for takeoff before the alarms were rescinded.

Mountain Men

Cheyenne Mountain was something more than a bastion to seal in our nuclear fears. It was also a repository of our technological dreams and a response (however feeble) to our technological nightmares. In this high-tech, man-made cave, we could for a moment forget how hydrogen bombs had reduced the bravest of warriors to inconsequential matter. To this end, we cultivated a quiet professionalism–a studied detachment from our surroundings as well as the implications of cold war deterrence theory.

That said, working within the mountain was decidedly unglamorous. Obviously, there were no windows, so no natural light. Air circulated artificially (and noisily). As big as that cavern sometimes seemed, space was often at a premium in a complex manned 24/7–with at least a brigadier general always on duty in case the “nuclear balloon” went up. (I recall one quiet midshift when I read several chapters of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. The irony was not lost on me.) Crew members sat in the Missile Warning Center in front of consoles, processing data from satellites and other sensors. The most vital of these were the supersecret DSP satellites used to detect Soviet missile launches. I worked mostly in the Space Surveillance Center, which kept track of the objects orbiting Earth, including lost wrenches and shattered satellites–tedious but necessary work that involved weekly software “crashes.”

The men and women who served in the complex were anything but Strangelovean. The US strategy of that time, known as mutually assured destruction (which boiled down to the distinctly Strangelovean acronym of MAD), may have been comical in an obscenely dark way, but the crew members did their duty with little fanfare. Like them, I was caught up in “the mission,” in making everything work, even if everything included a potentially world-ending event. We all, each in his or her own mundane way, became servants of the early-warning machinery of nuclear war. We were, as technology critic Lewis Mumford might have put it then, “encapsulated men” serving the Pentagonal megamachine.

“Manly” military glory was still an ever-present ideal in those years; but, as we all were well aware, it lay somewhere beyond the mountain and missile silos in the so-called air-breathing element of the Strategic Air Command. It was the property of the air jockeys in the long-range bombers. Today, it’s not the brilliant but intentionally deviant Dr. Strangelove that really catches the ethos of that SAC moment: a certain cocksure insouciance toward what bombing actually meant when your planes were nuclear-armed. For that, check out the 1963 movie A Gathering of Eagles, starring Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. Watch for the scene in which Taylor resolutely reacts to the news of a no-notice, make-or-break “Operational Readiness Inspection”–the dreaded ORI. He rips off his tie, Clark Kent-style, exposing an impressive thatch of chest hair. It’s a classic embodiment of testosterone-driven, hard-charging command, whose endpoint is redemption for him as well as the wing–not the extinction of life as we know it.

Certainly, though, Dr. Strangelove did a better job of capturing the surreal world of nuclear theory outside Cheyenne Mountain, rather than the humdrum one inside the complex. Serving in SAC in the early 1970s, for instance, my brother routinely appended to its official motto, “Peace is Our Profession,” the unofficial but popular “War is our hobby.” That, after all, was more consistent with the mailed fist that dominated SAC’s emblem. While it clearly existed to deter nuclear wars, SAC also stood ready to fight and “win” them. As late as 1999, one B-1 bomber pilot assured me, straight-faced, “Don’t tell me we can’t win a nuclear war–that’s what I train for.” Buck Turgidson, eat your heart out.

In 1986, the year Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev teetered on the brink of eliminating superpower nuclear weapons at their summit meeting in Reykjavik, I participated in a computerized war game inside Cheyenne Mountain. It ended in a simulated nuclear attack against the United States. By today’s standards, our computers were primitive leviathans: IBM mainframes with old-fashioned tape drives–roughly the size of jumbo subzero refrigerators in today’s McMansions; they had disk drives, or “packs,” roughly the size of dishwashers. Our computer screens were a monochromatic green. From a Hollywood special-effects perspective, they were poorly lit and relentlessly boring–not at all like the glitzy nuclear war room in the 1983 film WarGames, which starred a fresh-faced Matthew Broderick.

As those monochromatic missile tracks crossed the Arctic Circle and began to terminate at various US cities, the mood among the battle staff grew reflective. Yes, it was only a game, but everyone knew that nuclear Armageddon with the Soviet Union was possible, and that it would kill tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people in both countries. That day in that command center we were virtual witnesses to our worst nightmare: a nuclear holocaust that might not only destroy our country and the Soviet Union but civilization as we knew it.

How We Never Left Cheyenne Mountain

When the Soviet Union began its collapse in 1989, few people were more surprised than our intelligence agencies and our military (myself included). After putting decades of thought and planning into mutually assured destruction, after planning not just to fight but to win nuclear wars, we now faced a brighter, potentially less nuclear, or even nonnuclear, future. And all this had come about–under the shadow of true global terror–without a Department of Homeland Security or an Orwellian “Patriot Act” or so many of the other accouterments of our present homeland security moment (without, in fact, even the emotive, vaguely un-American word “homeland” being in use).

Indeed, when it was over, we claimed victory on the very basis that our freedoms, and our political system, were stronger than our rival’s. We had, those declaring victory claimed, trusted and empowered the people, not an ossified state bureaucracy.

The optimism of 1990 was strikingly mainstream. President George H.W. Bush spoke of “a new era, freer from the threat of [nuclear] terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace.” We were supposedly lining up as a society to cash in our “peace dividend” chips, with our winnings designated for pressing domestic concerns. Like President Warren Harding, who campaigned for a return to “normalcy” after World War I, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s tough-talking ambassador to the United Nations, wrote that after so many decades of vigilance and sacrifice, we could once again become “a normal country in a normal time.”

But it never happened. Instead of normalcy, we remained hunkered down in Cheyenne Mountain. We continued to look fearfully out at the world while arming ourselves to the teeth. We became wedded to the idea of bunkers and barriers, whether fortified fences along the Mexican border, imperial military bases along the peripheries of a swollen empire or, on a micro scale, security gates patrolled by small armies of private guards to keep the have-nots out of have communities. (To these, the ultrarich have now added “panic rooms” in their mansions–tiny domestic Cheyenne Mountains secured by mini steel blast doors, monitored by cameras and stocked with provisions.) After the attacks of September 11, 2001, it was as if we had “buttoned up” and slammed shut the blast doors to Fortress America.

How did the planet’s self-proclaimed “sole superpower” in its moment of triumph become such a fearful country? In our endless face-off with the Soviet Union, did we come to resemble it far more than we ever imagined? After all, instead of the USSR, it’s now we who are fighting a difficult war in Afghanistan; it’s now we who are deflating our currency with massive deficits for weapons of marginal utility; it’s now we who put forward unilateral proposals for earth-penetrating, bunker-busting nukes; it’s now we who are often seen as aggressors on the world stage.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the agreement creating the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in May, isn’t it high time we closed those twenty-five-ton blast doors one last time and, without glancing back, walked toward those starry skies and the twinkling lights of that city in the distance? Isn’t it high time we fulfilled the Reykjavik dream?

As Americans, shouldn’t we again learn to start worrying and loathe the bomb–so much that we roll up our collective sleeves and work to eliminate it from our planet? It’s never too late to cash in whatever peace-dividend chips remain. And as we walk away with the last of our cold war winnings, no matter how meager, let’s leave behind as well the bunker and barrier mentality that went with them.

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