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Safeguard: Local, Regional, and National Attitudes

Safeguard: Local, Regional, and National Attitudes

(Excerpt from Historic American Engineering Record, HAER No. ND-9)

IV. Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex

D. Local, Regional, and National Attitudes

1. Local

The far-reaching influence of an ABM installation was not lost on the contemporary news media; it seemed that the furor would engulf the entire country. But even so, skeptics chose to keep the North Dakota news scene in the headlines, giving the foes of Safeguard a more basic, personal approach. One of the most critical articles appeared inThe Nation in 1969:

When the ABM was moved from the cities to the wide-open spaces, the hope of its sponsors was that opposition would wither away. Indeed, in some sections, the prospect of an influx of mammoth construction funds overrode all other considerations. Not in Fargo, North Dakota, however. At Fargo, population 50,000, and regarded as a slightly overgrown country town, several hundred citizens gathered to hear Rep. George Brown of California, a member of the Science and Astronautics committee, and Dr. George Stanford, a nuclear physicist attached to the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, deliver scathing attacks on Safeguard. The meeting adopted a policy statement to the effect that fallout over the wheatlands was no more acceptable than fallout over the cities....North Dakota is said to have the highest concentration of nuclear weaponry per acre of any state; evidently some of the citizens want no more of it.

In retrospect, after SRMSC was nearly in full swing, opinions softened somewhat. In a North Dakota State University interview poll taken in 1974 of both long-time residents, newcomers, and local officials, four out of five respondents indicated that the overall effect of the Safeguard project had been beneficial in terms of the augmentation of business activity and employment opportunities, whereas only one in ten thought the effects were detrimental. When asked if they felt they were personally better or worse off as a result of the ABM impact, more than half believed the changes brought about by the project were beneficial. Only one in six insisted that the effects had been detrimental to their way of living. For instance, residents and community leaders felt that failure to provide adequate housing in the short run caused housing costs and rents to increase significantly.

The majority of residents felt the ABM project led to an overall improvement in public services and utilities. Additionally, interviews with Langdon high school students indicated that extracurricular and sports activities had been bolstered and that the new students' talents and skills only served to stimulate their own. At the same time, it should be noted that some students had a difficult time adjusting, due primarily to shortages in equipment and supplies.

The problems of Langdon were best summarized by one resident who, when asked of the impact of the Safeguard system on his town, commented, "The impact on Langdon can be compared to the problems a 180 pound person would have if he woke up one morning weighing 250 pounds."

2. Regional

In the early stages of Safeguard construction, many North Dakotans were not happy at the prospect of an ABM system in their area. Hence, "International ABM Day," an anti-war, anti-ABM event was planned to coincide with Armed Forces Day, 16 May 1970. The Safeguard sites at Grand Forks were obvious protest targets, and the first tangible indication of demonstrations there appeared as a short article in the Fargo, North Dakota, Forum on 19 April 1970. The same announcement spread to the Grand Forks Herald on 21 April and reappeared in several area newspapers and in newscasts after 30 April. By this time, representatives of the "North Dakota Citizens for a Sane Nuclear Policy" and the "North Dakota Clergy and Laymen Concerned," two of the sponsoring groups, were advocating mass demonstrations at Fargo, the Nekoma MSR location, and at the campus of the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks. In early May, organizers announced that some 2,000 people were anticipated from a five state area, at which point this demonstration could become the "largest political protest ever staged in North Dakota." Outside of the planting of wheat seeds, musical entertainment, and scheduled appearances by activists, including the notorious "Chicago Seven," officials were unsure as to what path the demonstrations might take.

This anticipated "Festival of Life and Love" was a great matter of aggravation to both the Corps of Engineers and M-KA (Morrison-Knudsen & Associates, the general contractor). The worries centered around the presence of M-KA's huge, costly earthmoving equipment at Nekoma and the possibility that the demonstration might disrupt the construction schedule. Accordingly, as the North Dakota anti-ABM activities took shape, Col. Beatty (Safeguard Area Engineer), representatives of M-KA, and security officers from Huntsville agreed on appropriate measures to preclude obstruction or property damage. Policies directed from the Huntsville Corps of Engineers to the Area Office recommended a cautious approach. They intended to provide for the comfort and freedom of the protesters without hinting at any potential for retribution. Local law enforcement officials were briefed and their assistance was solicited with the understanding that, in order to avoid any hostilities, a bare minimum of visibility was to be maintained. On the site itself, a plot was staked off for the demonstrators to use away from the large foundation excavation. On the plot were plastic sheeting, portable outhouses, and even a flatbed trailer complete with electric power for the use of orators and bands. Around the excavation itself, M-KA placed simple barricades and posted "no trespassing" signs in the hopes of passive deterrence. Moreover, once it had been determined that North Dakota Governor William Guy would not authorize state resources for the protection of a Federal installation, all mobile equipment was evacuated to an off-site location, and the Saturday construction shift was canceled completely.

Demonstrators began arriving at the Nekoma site before noon on Saturday. According to United States Corps of Engineers' reports, 500 people had assembled on the site by 12:30 pm. No violence erupted, and no arrests were made. The "Festival of Life and Love" in North Dakota proved to be just one of hundreds of similar events across the United States during the time, but state officials had already taken sides. "In a stinging letter to Senator John Stennis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee," said The Nation, "North Dakota Governor William L. Guy repudiated the notion that he should support the ABM program as good for his state's economy....Senator Milton Young has given a measure of support to ABM sites in North Dakota, but Senator Quentin Burdick has voiced opposition." Indeed, North Dakota never fully endorsed Safeguard; some welcomed the boon to industry, citing higher salaries and better opportunities, whereas others pointed out the difficulty in meeting employee demands for increased wages.

3. National

Throughout the fall of 1968, opposition to the deployment of the Sentinel ABM system (the predecessor to Safeguard) had steadily grown more extensive and vocal, becoming a significant citizens' movement in the north-central and New England states as well as in some smaller isolated enclaves on the West Coast. The anti-ABM movement especially began to make itself heard after the adjournment of Congress in late October and the election of Richard M. Nixon as President in early November. Prior to this period, anti-ABM activists had been primarily limited to the scientific and academic communities. However, the well-publicized leadership in these circles and general local concerns about Sentinel's potential dangers vis-a-vis its actual worth prompted a spread of opposition to ABM programs.

In Washington, Senator Edward Kennedy maneuvered himself into the midst of the controversy, writing to the Secretary of Defense that Sentinel was technically deficient, dangerously sited, unduly costly, and deleterious to domestic priorities as well as to prospects for an arms agreement with the Soviet Union. This letter fueled a bitter debate in Congress, which resulted in the House Armed Services Committee's threat to cut off approval for Sentinel land acquisition unless the entire ABM plan was reviewed. As a result of the subsequent Presidential review, the Sentinel gave way to what was to become the Safeguard system, but the arguments did not end there. Few issues in American history have been debated so long, so hard, and so seriously in public forums, the media, and Congress as the ultimate authorization of the Safeguard program. Regardless of opposition, though, this hotly contested issue was passed by the narrowest margin in the Senate when it authorized the go-ahead of the system on 7 August 1969, by a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Spiro Agnew casting the deciding vote.

The debate did not stop on the floor of Congress; the Facts on File publication provides an overview of the public outcry at the time. For example, on 3 May 1969, a petition against Safeguard by the "Federal Employees for a Democratic Society" was circulated among Federal employees, collecting approximately 1,500 signatures from nine departments and agencies. The Alliance for Labor Action, composed of the teamsters and auto workers, drafted a request for a deferral of the Safeguard ABM system that same year "on the grounds that it would increase not U.S. security, but the threat of nuclear war." The following year on 27 June, a Princeton professor of physics, brought into Congress to debunk the pro-Safeguard experts, called the project a "technically makeshift system." Even as late into the construction as 19 January 1972, presidential hopeful George McGovern made ABM a part of his platform, saying that proceeding with Safeguard was the difference between "conservatism and paranoia," and between a "buying what we need" approach and a "wasteful arms race."

In "The ABM Blues," The Nation editor Carey MacWilliams opined "the only true friends it (Safeguard) seems to have are the President, Secretary Laird, and of course, Gerald R. Ford, the House Republican leader." He also cited a meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wherein scientists and students took part in a "research stoppage" and listened to scholarly anti-ABM sentiment. Even in Canada, a dispute erupted over Safeguard when it was learned that the Canadian government was never consulted for permission by the United States to fire defensive warheads over Canadian soil. This is not to say that the SRMSC project was universally maligned; there were a great number who saw Safeguard as an important check to Soviet missile advances, both in the military and in the scientific world. Rather, it demonstrates just how important the issue was to the nation and its neighbors as a whole. It also appears, years after the wrath and contention, that in a seemingly "middle of the road" opinion for the time, one source stated: "Even if the complex never sees action, its champions assert, it is worth the cost if its presence deters Russia from making the test."