Looming over the North Dakota plains lies a massive and ominous concrete pyramid, each face displaying four large discs leering out over the surrounding terrain, as if keeping watch. The mammoth structure rises seventy-nine feet above the surface and extends fifty-three feet below grade with the total building encompassing 127,000 SF, but these are not the building’s most defining characteristics. The construction of this gargantuan building and surrounding military complex exceeded six billion dollars, but the facility was only active and in operation for three days. Say what?
An eerie reminder of a bygone era, the now abandoned Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, in Nekoma, ND, encompasses 470 acres and contains 46 underground missile silos in addition to the massive concrete pyramid. Construction on the project began in the 1960s and was not complete until 1975. The discs on the side of the pyramid were state-of-the-art radar technology that, in theory, could be used to detect multiple incoming missiles simultaneously without having to maneuver a more traditional large mesh dish. It was purported to be able to provide a six minute warning and could hit a target on thirty seconds notice.
Visually surreal, the facility is more reminiscent of a fictional movie set from the 1960’s film Dr. Strangeglove than anything grounded in reality. In this case, truth is stranger than fiction and the circumstances regarding how a facility like this could come into existence at such a tremendous cost, yet abandoned so quickly, provides a fitting catalyst regarding the rise of the military industrial complex, or The War State, as put more succinctly by author Michael Swanson.
The Nature of the State
The State, despite its claim of being “for the people,” exists solely to feed itself and to obtain more power. It works the same under any form of government, be it Communism or Representative Democracy, both will feed the population with lies to prop up the belief in its necessity. Indeed, the common view of the U.S. population is that the War State was an entity that grew out of necessity. A necessity that could only be handled by a giant military-security apparatus to direct, plan and navigate an increasingly complex world of international geopolitical tensions. Author Michael Swanson casts aside this narrative in lieu of an interpretation focusing on the alliance with, and cartelization of, big business, manufacturing, government and perhaps most importantly, the opinion-molding military experts. These so-called experts were able to convince not only an entire generation of independent minded civilians of the necessity of their existence, but were able to convince the vast majority of infallible top government officials as well. This unholy alliance of business and government was a natural progression of the cartelization that became de rigueur throughout the Progressive Era, as most explicitly evidenced by the railroad, petroleum, iron and steel, and sugar industries (or the monopolization of Public Utilities), as painstakingly detailed by Murray Rothbard in his book The Progressive Era.
The existence of the Nekoma facility is indicative of the nature of imperialist bureaucracies, where doing more of the same is the norm, regardless of necessity. It’s easy and tempting to wag our collective finger at failed Communist states throughout history, pointing out the economic fallacies and planning blunders, but there are some uncomfortable similarities when one looks at the War State and begs the question: is the U.S. really all that different? We live out our lives under a continuous government left unchecked and detached from reality, one that creates useless programs and their requisite physical manifestations like the Nekoma facility, all under the illusion of democracy, freedom and protection from the evil-doers.
Circular Logic as Justification
A common theme of any centrally planned government is using circular logic to justify any number of allegedly necessary programs. A mind boggling example of this is recounted in The War State where, “Dmitri Ustinov, who served as the Soviet defense minister, decided that he didn’t need any more nuclear missiles. One of the heads of Russian weapons production asked him to order a dozen more rockets anyway. ‘What will I do with them?’ Ustinov asked. ‘But if you don’t order them, how will I feed the workers?’ the weapons producer responded. Ustinov put in the order.” (p401) No doubt this is Communism in action, but are we any different? Stories abound regarding the wastefulness of the U.S. military, where if you don’t use up an allotted budget, that funding will go away in the next cycle, or wildly expensive toilet seats being purchased via no-bid construction contracts, or criminal investigations into petty theft at a chow hall (for more on this absurdity, give a listen to the Biting the Bullet podcast, a weekly show where three former marines clue you into the utter wastefulness surrounding the military writ large, among other topics).
The lies presented as the justifications for the necessity of military installations like Nekoma went hand in hand with the threat that all of humanity was about to be obliterated at the hands of the Soviets! Action must be taken! The wildly exaggerated news stories parroted by state controlled media outlets caused many Americans in the 1950’s to live their day to day lives in a constant state of terror, even though, “the Soviet Union didn’t even have the capability to launch a missile that was able to reach the United States until the 1960s. Nor did it have a viable bomber force. In the 1950s, Air Force General Curtis LeMay said he had the ability to order SAC bombers to attack the Soviet Union and destroy all of its war-making capabilities ‘without losing a man to their defenses.’ Americans were completely safe, but they lived in constant fear.” (p294) The experts had spoken: fear for your life, citizen and leave the thinking to us, we’ll protect you.
NSC-68 and Propaganda
The standard narrative that the U.S. military is underfunded and the resultant consequences will be dire if increased funding is not provided is ever present and has been for some time. Even now, almost seventy years later, the myth lives on. A willing media parrots the government lines through a myriad of sources and beltway think tanks where it serves the propaganda machine well. To wit: earlier this year, as relayed by Ryan McMaken in this article where, “…in the wake of this year’s  budget deal, researchers from the American Enterprise Institute claimed the binge still was not enough. For them, a trillion dollars per year is just barely enough to ‘avoid outright disaster.’ ”
This message is very intentional and was first codified via NSC-68, a National Security Policy paper concerning the United States Objectives and Programs for National Security. The initial report and its subsequent modifications advocated for a large expansion in the U.S. military budget and increased military aid to U.S. allies. NSC-68 described the challenges facing the United States in cataclysmic terms involving the destruction not only of the Republic but the whole of humanity as well.
The reality on the ground was far different and The War State continually lays bare the propaganda regarding the threat of the Soviet Union which, “was not as powerful as the American politicians, reporters, and national security bureaucrats linked to the military-industrial complex claimed it was. NSC-68… argued that if the country did not vastly increase its defense spending, then in just a few years Russia would be on track to produce enough conventional and nuclear weapons that they would be able to completely run over Western Europe and defeat the United States in an atomic attack.” The theory here being that the U.S. needed to out-compete the military buildup with the Soviet Union and scare them into submission.
It wasn’t so much the military build up per se, but the potential economic power that the Soviets were worried about, as clarified by John Mueller in his book Atomic Obsession (via this article), “the Soviets during the Cold War were not primarily deterred by the size of the US conventional military, or even by its nuclear arsenal. Instead, they were deterred by the ‘the enormous potential of the American war machine’ which existed not in already-made weapons, but in the form of the world’s largest economy. In other words, the best defense is a capitalist one in which enormous amounts of wealth make it clear that the potential for successful war-making is enormous.” This all to say nothing of the conditions of Soviet occupied East Germany, where a wall had to be constructed to keep people in, the economics of it all should have been obvious. Wouldn’t a vast economic powerhouse who ostensibly was set to out-compete the U.S. be able to provide living conditions that would be they envy of the world? But, the experts deemed that the untouched U.S. economy was going to get steamrolled by a depleted and decimated Communist economy and fear won out.
They Saw What they Wanted to See
Delving into the concept of the continued cartelization of the U.S. economy at the hands of the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Complex, Swanson reminds the reader that, “During the Eisenhower administration, politicians, such as Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, linked to Boeing and other defense contractors, claimed that the Soviet Union had produced so many bombers that a ‘bomber gap’ existed, while the Gaither Report [a Security Resources Panel report presented to President Eisenhower that recommended a significant strengthening of U.S. strategic offensive and defensive military capabilities] claimed that by 1960 Khrushchev [Former Premier of the Soviet Union] would have the ability to launch a first-strike missile launch that would cripple the ability of the United States to retaliate. Such claims helped complete the transformation of the United States into a permanent war state by the end of the 1950s, but none of them were even close to reality. (p264)” Context is crucial and if you are trying to secure lucrative government contracts, you might leave out the details and play up the scary imagery, especially in an era where only a handful of government controlled news outlets exist and the reports are covering a country that is thousands of miles away, it was easy to mislead the people. The government knew the reality and allowed the misinformation to spread, junior high civics book propaganda be damned, we’ve got a war to sell!
Swanson delves into the details and provides the reader with the much needed context in the following paragraphs:
…in 1955, the Soviet Union had plenty of nuclear bombs and was more than capable of exploding them in tests, but it had no way to deliver any of them as a weapon against an American city. The American B-52 bomber could fly 7,343 miles when refueled, which was far enough to reach the Soviet Union, but the Russia M-4… couldn’t reach the United States, because its designers couldn’t figure out an easy way to refuel it in the air. The M-4 could only fly five thousand miles, which was too short for it to reach either coast of the United States from the closest point of the Soviet Union. (p265)
What is more, the Soviet Union had only four of these M-4 bombers. When the Russians put on a major air show, they took the four bombers and had them fly around in wide circles to give the impression that there were dozens of them. Khrushchev was pleased when American newspapers reported on a supposed “bomber gap” thanks to the Bison bomber. They saw what they wanted to see. (p265)
In reality, the Soviet rocket program was pitiful. The R-7 could barely function as a viable weapon. It weighed three hundred tons and operated on liquid oxygen fuel. That made it so that when the rockets were fueled up they were in danger of exploding. American missiles used solid fuel, which enabled them to be launched on about ten minutes’ notice. The Russians, though, couldn’t keep their missiles fueled up all of the time. That meant it took them hours to prepare them for launch, making them very vulnerable to attack. (p266)
All this in just two pages of the 410 page book and there’s plenty more information to go around, but it’s easier for the media to parrot the old standard lines of the absolute necessity of a huge war state apparatus and it is repeated ad nauseum on news shows and reruns of WWII era documentaries. Unfortunately, the lies and falsehoods are still being parroted today, even on newly produced shows. For instance, a segment from the Science Channel’s show Mysteries of the Abandoned (Season 2, Episode 2) expounds upon the alleged necessity of the Nekoma facility and is described by self proclaimed Military experts thusly:
“[The Nekoma Facility] Had to be able to target multiple incoming missiles [from the Soviet Union] all at the same time.”
“You had ‘seconds to decide,’ or was it a decoy?”
“To make us feel safe to take out a warhead headed to the mainland US.”
All the hand picked, nonsensical, and easily repeatable Cold War talking points were packed into this short, ten minute segment, not backed by fact, but by fiction given the previously presented information conveyed in The War State. But, how do you get access to the military base to take amazing drone footage? You play their game. You get to sell ads and they get to continue the propaganda; the public eats it up and the fairy-tale lives on.
Many may be quick to say that hindsight is 20-20 and those in charge of the safety of the world did their best with the limited information that they had, but without a doubt, the information to make a different decision was available. The CIA had the intel and the experts deliberately mis-lead everyone involved:
Intelligence analysts were about to know without a doubt what the Russians actually had. After twelve failed launches, the CIA put into space its first spy satellite code-named Corona. It passed over Russia and found that their few intercontinental missiles were all at one launch facility, which made them vulnerable to a surprise attack. They also now had 200 bombers with questionable ability to reach the United States and seventy-eight missiles on about a dozen submarines that spent almost all of their time in port. The United States had more than an overwhelming nuclear strike advantage over the Soviet Union. Yes, there was a missile gap, but it was in favor of the United States. (p296 [emphasis added])
In the end, the Nakoma facility came about through lies, deliberate misinformation and propaganda, without which the whole system would have come tumbling down. This whole situation is perhaps best summarized by Christopher Black, in his essay, Western Imperialism and the Use of Propaganda:
The primary concern they [U.S. government officials] have, in order to preserve their control, is for the preservation of the new feudal mythology that they have created: that the world is a dangerous place, that they are the protectors, that the danger is omnipresent, eternal, and omnidirectional, comes from without, and comes from within. The mythology is constructed and presented through all media…All available information systems are used to create and maintain scenarios and dramas to convince the people that they, the protectors, are the good and all others are the bad. We are bombarded with this message incessantly.
The War State provides much needed clarity and removes the veil in front of our eyes. In this age of plentiful information, it should be easy to counter the official narrative, but plentiful information is a blessing and a curse, sometimes it is easier to just tune out. If only everyone in the 1950’s had done that, instead of tuning in to the nightly news, the Cold War may have fizzled away. We should be wise to never proffer up deference to a group of self appointed elites who have been proven time and again to lie, manipulate and mislead on matters of most grave importance. And as Ludwig von Mises reminds us in Human Action, that with, “such vital matters, blind reliance upon experts and uncritical acceptance of popular catch words and prejudices is tantamount to the abandonment of self-determination and a yielding to other people’s domination.” These words still ring true today, just as when they were written in the 1940’s.