Wall, S.D. – During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President John F. Kennedy referred to it as his "ace in the hole."
With a turn of the key, the Minuteman missile became one of the most significant strategic weapons in U.S. history, capable of delivering its nuclear weapon to a Soviet target in 30 minutes or less.
For nearly three decades, the 44th Missile Wing, based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, was ground zero — standing watch over a 150-missile deployment, covering 13,500 square miles of the upper Midwest.
But On July, 4, 1994, in compliance with a U.S.-Russian treaty, the 44th Missile Wing was inactivated, a victim of its own success. The war had been won.
On Thursday, a potent symbol of the Cold War era returns to this peaceful corner of the Prairies with the installation of a 56-foot Minuteman missile and disarmed warhead at the Delta 9 underground silo.
The hardware will be an integral feature of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, telling the story of the Cold War and the nuclear weapons that never were used, said acting site manager Marianne Mills.
"It's kind of an international point of contemplation," she said.
The silo and a nearby underground control center will be transferred to the National Park Service later this year, and the missile site will likely be ready for public viewing next spring.
The Delta 1 underground control center, which once controlled 10 missile silos, will take several more years to complete as will a visitors' center.
Politicians have lauded the project. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has said the site would preserve the historic role of South Dakota residents and Ellsworth AFB in winning the Cold War.
But the prospect of a Cold War theme park has alarmed some residents and anti-nuclear groups.
When Mills spoke in North Dakota in 1999, protesters pelted her with origami peace cranes.
Marvin Kammerer, who ranches near the Ellsworth base, believes the site will be a waste of money, just as the missile system was.
The nuclear arms race prevented the United States and the Soviet Union from spending money on health care and other services needed by their citizens, he said.
"It was plumb goofy," Kammerer said of the arms race.
Kammerer, who protested in earlier years at the missile sites, said a missile display at the air base and a simple sign at the silo site would have sufficed.
The Minuteman I missiles became active in 1962, during a tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union when the world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
The confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba led to a U.S. blockade of the island and the downing of an American spy plane.
At the height of the tensions, Kennedy told Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that the missile system was his "ace in the hole." Cuban leader Fidel Castro backed down, sending the missiles back to Khrushchev.
The original missiles were replaced later by Minuteman II models, which flew at 15,000 mph, had a range of 6,300 miles and weighed about 73,000 pounds. The missiles were designed to survive a first attack by an enemy and then strike back, reaching its target within 30 minutes.
Some 150 were scattered across western South Dakota when former President George Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All Minuteman II missiles in other states also were removed in the 1990s, some replaced with newer missiles. A silo and one control center were saved for the historic site.
Air Force officers said the Minuteman II missiles were one of the nation's most efficient weapons for three decades, helping prevent nuclear war because the Soviet Union had no weapon that could destroy them.