Activists Oppose Deployment of the MX Missile

Activists and local citizens joined forces to protest deployment of the new MX intercontinental ballistic missile in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada.

Summary of Event

In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon, Nixon, Richard M. supported by his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, Kissinger, Henry won approval from the U.S. Senate for the second treaty to come out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, known as SALT II, SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] which limited the total number of nuclear warheads in the arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union. The treaty essentially capped the arsenals of the two nations at a level of rough equality but left the Soviets with the latitude to replace their land-based missiles, which greatly outnumbered those of the United States. To obtain the approval of the Senate, Nixon and Kissinger had to gain the endorsement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in turn wanted assurances that the agreement would not lock in the obsolescence of the U.S. strategic triad consisting of manned bombers, ballistic-missile submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The chiefs demanded and received assurances that the United States, while lowering the total number of nuclear warheads, would replace older weapons with newer equipment, including a new ballistic-missile submarine (the Trident), a new bomber (the B-1), and a new ICBM, dubbed the MX. MX intercontinental ballistic missiles
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Missiles;intercontinental ballistic
Environmental activism
[kw]Activists Oppose Deployment of the MX Missile (1981)
[kw]Deployment of the MX Missile, Activists Oppose (1981)
[kw]MX Missile, Activists Oppose Deployment of the (1981)
[kw]Missile, Activists Oppose Deployment of the MX (1981)
MX intercontinental ballistic missiles
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Missiles;intercontinental ballistic
Environmental activism
[g]North America;1981: Activists Oppose Deployment of the MX Missile[04360]
[g]United States;1981: Activists Oppose Deployment of the MX Missile[04360]
[c]Environmental issues;1981: Activists Oppose Deployment of the MX Missile[04360]
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;MX missile deployment
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;MX missile deployment
Laxalt, Paul

Research and development proceeded on the MX during the mid-1970’s; the first Trident was under construction in 1974. The new president, Jimmy Carter, canceled the B-1 bomber and indicated that he might table the MX. In 1979, when the missile had entered production and was ready for deployment, the imbalance of ICBMs had shifted dramatically in favor of the Soviets. In particular, the Soviets had developed new SS-18 ICBMs that carried 100-kiloton warheads. Those weapons appeared to have only one purpose to destroy U.S. missiles in their silos in a surprise first strike because weapons designed to retaliate against cities had much smaller but more numerous warheads. In addition, Soviet nuclear strategy had shifted to frequent references to a first strike, and U.S. strategists became concerned that U.S. missiles in stationary silos might be vulnerable.

As a means of reducing the vulnerability of its missiles, the U.S. Air Force in the 1970’s had examined more than thirty alternative basing schemes to protect the ICBMs, including dropping the missiles from transport planes or putting them on slow-moving barges on inland waterways. Finally, the Air Force recommended a scheme that would disperse the missiles over a wide area in the American heartland through some type of mobile launcher, either by land transports or by rail transports. This “multiple protective shelter” (MPS) approach would use a land transport system that consisted of moving two hundred missiles randomly from shelter to shelter across forty-seven Great Basin valleys in Utah and Nevada. The roadway or “racetrack” would cover ten thousand miles, on which a 1.6-million-pound, 201-foot-long launcher-transporter would travel. Each missile was to shuttle among twenty-three shelters spaced one mile apart. Local politicians supported the plan at first, citing the number of jobs it would bring to the states.

Opposition from local ranchers and the Sierra Club, Sierra Club with assistance from the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), surfaced immediately. Critics, including Senator Paul Laxalt, who was governor of Nevada during the 1950’s atomic testing programs, and Nevada congressman James D. Santini, Santini, James D. argued that Nevada was selected because its sparse population made it impossible for the state to mount a solid opposition to the MX. At the same time, local administrators started to develop their own cost-benefit analyses to compare with those offered by the U.S. Air Force.

In 1980, the Air Force began a series of hearings in which local citizens presented their opinions and their arguments against deployment of the MX. Citizen response fanned by antinuclear activist groups was frequently negative and occasionally hostile but was based on genuine concern. Local citizens worried that their towns would overflow with military personnel and that acceptance of the ambitious racetrack proposal would result in damage to ranch lands. Not all of the local citizenry opposed the MX, however, and local papers carried a heated debate. One poll taken in February, 1980, showed that 39 percent of Nevadans opposed MX deployment, 37 percent favored it, and 24 percent were unsure.

The effort to change that opinion took shape that same month under the leadership of Joe Griggs, Griggs, Joe a Nevada resident who organized the anti-MX groups at a meeting called Rockhouse I. The group developed a strategy to portray efforts to stop the deployment of the MX as being in the best interests of the nation, not simply of Nevada or Utah residents. The group benefited from frequent visits by scientists, such as Richard Garwin and Sidney Drell, who were generally associated with antinuclear or antimilitary positions.

Joining the opposition, the Nevada and Utah Cattlemen’s Association and the Wool Growers Associations of Nevada in August, 1981, filed a joint suit claiming that the Department of the Interior had cooperated with the Air Force without authority. Ranchers hired a professional lobbyist, and Great Basin opponents created a common source for channeling all anti-MX funds into the effort. In October, 1981, President Ronald Reagan, following meetings with Paul Laxalt and Senator Jake Garn Garn, Jake from Utah, announced plans to table the mobile-basing mode while procuring fifty of the missiles for future deployment in an undetermined mode.


The anti-MX alliance succeeded in bringing public attention to previously unexamined aspects of the deployment debate. It also underscored the significance of proper environmental protection analyses whenever the Department of Defense or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) proposed a large new system that might disrupt the environment. When ranchers and, later, Utah Mormons joined the movement to stop the MX, a fundamental change occurred in the way Washington responded to opponents. For the first time, an opposition group could not be written off as a troop of environmental “nuts” or fringe activists.

The success of opposition movements’ efforts to derail military projects is sometimes exaggerated. The U.S. Navy, for example, relocated its extremely low frequency (ELF) system (used to communicate with submerged submarines) from Wisconsin to Michigan. Activists take credit for instigating the move but fail to point out that activists also opposed it in Michigan without success. Mass protests in Europe, including the full efforts of the Green Party, failed to derail the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles in several North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. The MX was vulnerable politically not because groups opposed it, but because the MPS basing system was vulnerable strategically.

Between the time the Air Force studied the MX in the 1970’s and the time its deployment approached in the 1980’s, several developments had occurred in the realm of strategic weapons. First, the Soviet Union’s advantage in hard-target-kill capability had diminished because of the presence of several Trident submarines that had since gone to sea. Each Trident carried twenty-four ballistic missiles with multiple warheads and had proved so stealthy that its operating range had been decreased, giving its missiles even more accuracy than anticipated. The ELF system, deployed in Michigan at the state’s request in 1977, made communicating with the Tridents much more reliable through a 2,400-mile antenna spread over 4,000 miles. Furthermore, when Reagan tabled the racetrack plan, he announced plans to renew construction of the B-1 bomber (and word leaked out that the Air Force already had a second, stealthier bomber in production, the B-2). Taken together, the submarines and the bombers made it much more likely that a Soviet first strike would be unsuccessful unless the Soviets devoted two or three warheads to every submarine location and bomber base, which would dilute their ability to strike land-based ICBMs.

Equally important, Reagan had ordered deployment of cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads on attack submarines and surface ships, thereby expanding by a factor of three the number of targets with which the Soviets had to contend. He also thought that the United States could develop an entirely new system of high-capability defenses against ballistic missiles and indicated in December, 1982, that the Joint Chiefs should consider ballistic-missile defenses. In February, 1983, the Joint Chiefs officially recommended studying the technology, and later that year Reagan made the strategy public as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

While these developments drastically altered the strategic balance in the favor of the United States, confidence in any protection system for land-based missiles, short of ballistic-missile defenses, diminished. Because antimissile systems were prohibited by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972)[Antiballistic Missile Treaty] analysts within the Air Force concluded that the MPS scheme had serious strategic weaknesses against a concentrated attack.

By building the fifty MX missiles and deploying them in existing Minuteman III silos, Reagan updated the existing ICBM force with better-quality and more reliable weapons. He understood the weaknesses of the existing basing proposals and declined to spend the billions of dollars any one of them would have cost. It is likely that none of the multiple-shelter schemes would have been implemented even with unanimous public approval. However, the most significant result of the rearmament and deployment of the MX and other weapons was that the Soviet Union perceived that it was necessary to respond by spending huge amounts of its resources on new air defense, early warning against cruise missiles, and antisubmarine warfare measures. By 1983, any Soviet plans for a first strike had vanished.

Environmentalists considered the outcome of the MX dispute a victory for opposition groups in the same manner that they had claimed success in opposing the supersonic transport Supersonic transport (SST). Factors other than environmental concerns, however, were also at work. With the SST, major opposition arose over plans to require the U.S. government to subsidize U.S. private aircraft manufacturers to build the airplane, in the same manner that the British and French governments had subsidized construction of the Concorde. Moreover, no significant improvement in transportation for the large majority of air travelers could be guaranteed if the U.S. government subsidized the SST; as a result, the aircraft did not receive support.

The relentless activity of environmentalists had sharpened the oversight endeavors of the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it came to large-scale military projects. Basing of the Trident submarine in Bangor, Washington, promised not only to bring thousands of construction workers and engineers to the area to build the base but also to station thousands of Navy personnel in the area. The Navy thus conducted extensive studies of the flora and fauna of the Bangor area as well as the impact on water and sewage treatment, road construction and traffic, and employment. Similar studies of the ELF system had involved scientific analysis of potential damage to rock formations in which the transmitters would be placed, and of possible effects of low frequencies on human and animal life.

Increasingly, officials of various types of government programs have shifted the focus of their assessment procedures away from merely inhibiting damage to the environment to enhancing and replenishing aspects of the environment. Future aircraft fuels, for example, might be extensively hydrogen-based, producing water as a by-product. Some studies suggest that high-flying hydrogen-based aircraft can use simple electrical charges to convert the water to ozone. Ultimately, however, for the military, national security tends to take priority over anticipated environmental impact. MX intercontinental ballistic missiles
Intercontinental ballistic missiles
Missiles;intercontinental ballistic
Environmental activism

Further Reading

  • Baucom, Donald R. The Origins of SDI, 1944-1983. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992. Excellent scholarly history of antimissile defense and the SDI asserts that Reagan’s SDI policies were instrumental in ending the Cold War.
  • Boyer, Paul. “From Activism to Apathy: The American People and Nuclear Weapons, 1963-1980.” Journal of American History 70 (March, 1984): 821-844. Useful survey of the antinuclear movement discusses a combination of factors that caused a general apathy about nuclear weapons in the 1970’s. Contends that several issues caused that apathy to dissipate in the 1980’s.
  • Culhane, Paul. “Heading ’Em off at the Pass: MX and the Public Lands Sub-Government.” In Federal Lands Policy, edited by Phillip O. Foss. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. An approach to the MX debate from the perspective of federal land use.
  • Dalgleish, D. Douglas, and Larry Schweikart. Trident. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. One of the most thorough discussions available concerning the Trident submarine program. Contains a chapter on the Bangor base and environmental questions and includes extensive attention to strategic issues in the 1970’s and 1980’s that led to the MX’s being essentially superfluous in strategic terms by the mid-1980’s.
  • Glass, Matthew. Citizens Against MX: Public Languages in the Nuclear Age. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Examines the topic by way of linguistic analysis. Provides an excellent overview of the events surrounding the MX protest.
  • Gray, Colin. The MX ICBM and National Security. New York: Praeger, 1981. This book remains the standard work on the subject of the MX debate and includes analyses of pro- and anti-MX positions. Well researched and authoritative, Gray’s book deals with the MX in strategic terms, and while environmental concerns are not ignored, they are put in a national security perspective.
  • Hershman, Robert. “The Great Basin: First Casualty of the MX.” The Atlantic Monthly, April, 1980, 4-14. One of the early reports on the effects of the multiple-basing system on Utah and Nevada.
  • Katz, Milton S. Ban the Bomb: A History of SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, 1957-1985. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. A sympathetic treatment of peace protests in general and SANE in particular.
  • Kitts, Kenneth. Presidential Commissions and National Security: The Politics of Damage Control. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2005. Evaluates government attempts to mitigate crises of confidence with regard to national security issues, including the problems of finding a basing for the MX missile. Discussion ranges from Pearl Harbor to the September 11 attacks.

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