Atlas F Missiles affected how Nebraskans viewed Cold War

Oct. 1, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

Twelve Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile sites were planned and constructed around parts of eastern Nebraska, leading to extensive press coverage. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

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Throughout the late 1950’s and early 60’s, 12 Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile sites were constructed and operated around the Lincoln Air Force Base in eastern Nebraska. They included locations outside of Tecumseh, Avoca, Firth, and Eagle. Their presence piqued the interest of Nebraskans at the time, and coverage by local periodicals and newspapers reflect that. Historian Rebecca Berens Matzke has spent the past couple of years studying and analyzing those articles and recently had her work published in the Great Plains Quarterly. NET News' Ben Bohall sat down with Matzke to discuss her research.

NET NEWS: I’m trying to get an idea of what it must have been like during that time for Nebraskans. You’re not that far removed from the end of the Second World War and tensions are constantly rising between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. From what you could ascertain from these articles, what was the atmosphere like?

REBECCA BERENS MATSKE: The newspapers in eastern Nebraska I think reflected a lot of the worries that people felt at this time in the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just launched Sputnik, the first satellite, and then the first intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957. There were a lot of people who were afraid there was a missile gap - that the US was lagging behind the Soviet Union in nuclear missiles and was really vulnerable. There were a lot of stories about those missile gap concerns that made it into the newspapers pretty regularly. Even though, as a side point, the government now admits there never was a missile gap. But people were worried and that’s why the Atlas missile program had actually gotten sped up in the late 1950’s. Also, I found a lot of mentions in the local newspapers about civil defense classes that were being held constantly. That was something that the U.S. government had been pushing in the 1950’s. In 1960, President Kennedy is urging citizens to build fallout shelters… So there are these worries about civil defense, nuclear war that are always in the background. Then there’s always this sense of anti-communism. People in Nebraska really seem to have taken anti-communism for granted. There were a lot of stories about community groups, church group presentations on the evils of communism and the Soviet Union. The paper headlines frequently refer to anything related to the Soviet Union as “The Reds.” My favourite was “Reds Orbit Doggie Satellite."

Rebecca Berens Matzke, who is originally from Seward, Nebraska, has analyzed newspaper coverage of the 12 Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile sites constructed and operated around the Lincoln Air Force Base in eastern Nebraska. (Courtesy photo)

NET NEWS: Even though the presence of these missiles in Nebraska had to be notable for most Nebraskans, do you see a difference in how different papers across the state addressed them?

REBECCA BERENS MATZKE: Yeah, the Atlas do get covered in the Lincoln and the Omaha newspapers - which of course are larger and they probably had subscribers from across the state. But then there are a lot of the smaller newspapers in the communities that get the Atlas missiles. Those are usually weekly newspapers. The Omaha and Lincoln papers have national and international news in them. They subscribe to wire services like the Associated Press. When they’re reporting on the missiles, they’re often reporting about them next to an article about some kind of international news or something related to the Cold War. For example, the U2 flight being shot down in 1960 over the Soviet Union. People reading the Omaha and Lincoln newspapers would get more of a sense, I think, of the national level of the Cold War. That was a little bit different with the local newspapers. Most of them didn’t have wire services. They (only) had their own local reporters. They might on occasion cover a visit by the governor or maybe an Air Force official coming to look at a missile site. They might quote those people and those people might talk about the national Cold War mission that the missiles had, but that tended to be all that they said about the national context of the missiles. For the most part, they really seem to be reporting them as construction projects. They were really big, really technologically-advanced construction projects. The smaller newspapers, The Seward Country Independent for example, or The Tecumseh Chieftain, they would talk about the jobs being brought to the area or the payroll that was being increased and going through local banks while the construction workers were there. One thing I find really interesting about all the newspaper coverage in Nebraska is just how open it is. They do not keep a secret at all: where the missiles are located, where they’re going to be installed, and on and on. I found a letter to the editor in one of the Lincoln newspapers from a reader who was really worried about that; about the fact that the newspapers seem to be giving out too much information about missiles and that the enemy might find out something about that. I think it actually points perfectly to the fact that the U.S.’s policy at the time was that these Atlas missiles at the time were a deterrent. They’re not a defense. They’re a deterrent. Just by existing they would prevent the Soviets from launching the first nuclear strike.

Atlas F missile sites included locations outside of Tecumseh, Avoca, Firth, and Eagle, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

NET NEWS: There’s often been this question of the impact media has on public opinion. What do you think we can take away from looking at this point in U.S. and specifically Nebraska’s history, when trying to answer that question?

REBECCA BERENS MATZKE: I think the general research on news media concludes that it can shape public opinion, but it also reflects public opinion. It reflects the culture of the audience. It reflects the place that it's in. I think, in turn, that reflects eastern Nebraska's culture at the time. It was kind of moderately conservative, status quo, very polite, and also pretty supportive of the Lincoln Air Force Base. The base had been there for quite awhile. It was really a key part of the region. I think all of that gets reflected in the news media coverage of these missiles and site construction. Reflective, as opposed to shaping, but you have to take that into account as well. If Nebraskans are reading these stories and these stories are empathizing these construction projects and in the background maybe from the Lincoln and the Omaha papers you're getting the international stories about the Cold War, I think that can all sort of reinforce the idea that these missiles are indeed necessary and people accept them.