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What America’s Last Cold War Command Bunkers Look Like Today

Once upon a time, these missile command centers housed the “big red buttons” that could have catapulted the Cold War into an all-out conflict.

Photographer Adam Reynolds used to be a conflict zone photographer, covering war in the Middle East. But for the last few years, he’s turned his lens on another kind of conflict zone–one he calls “the infrastructure of political conflict,” or the spaces around the world that facilitate war.

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In his latest series, No Lone Zone, that infrastructure is the underground command centers housing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles during the Cold War. Inside, two people at a time would man the red “launch” buttons 24 hours a day. If the Soviet Union were to launch a missile attack, these missiles were poised to counterattack; the U.S. missiles were spaced out so any attack wouldn’t impact the entire IBCM network. Thousands of these centers were active during the Cold War, but only two have been preserved in situ: the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, located in South Dakota, and the Titan Missile Museum, near Tucson, Arizona.

[Photo: Adam Reynolds]
Reynolds’s images, which focus on the interiors of these spaces, serve as a snapshot of a different era–albeit one that resonates with our own, as President Trump continues to escalate tensions with North Korea. The complexes themselves were heavily industrial underground bunkers, composed of the command center (which was always manned), rest quarters for those off-duty, and, in some cases, the giant nuclear warheads themselves. The photos also depict both the military and domestic aspects of the spaces: the living quarters of the people who manned them, the corridors connecting the control rooms to the missile silos, and the sprawling dashboards of buttons where inhabitants worked. One shot of a mural at the Minuteman Missile site depicts a cartoon missile penetrating the Soviet flag, a strikingly lighthearted representation of the U.S.’s devastating nuclear power.

Both sites have since been memorialized as museums. “These triumphs to the Armageddon are open to anyone who wants to visit,” Reynolds says. Who visits such places? Cold War tourists, for one, as well as former missiliers who like to give their families and friends tours.

[Photo: Adam Reynolds]
Reynolds was particularly struck by the rec room at the Minutemen Missile site, one of the few areas of the complex that’s above ground. There’s a game of Battleship set up as if the game were in progress when the station closed. It’s a cheeky representation of what war must have been like for the men living there, like an abstract game of strategy.

The Minuteman site commanded 10 missiles spread around the area, but none housed within the command center itself. But at the Titan Museum, you can see an actual Titan missile (without its bomb). In Reynolds’s photo, the Titan’s looming metal body takes up most of the frame.

[Photo: Adam Reynolds]
As tensions with North Korea, Russia, and other countries rise once more, Reynolds’s photos feel even more pressing. “Once the Cold War ended, we put the idea of nuclear weapons on the back burner and didn’t think about them as much until recently,” he says. “I think they’re a reminder that these places still exist in some capacity.”

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While the architecture of these command centers might seem like it’s from another era, the threat of the weapons they once stored hasn’t gone away. “We still have this destructive power,” Reynolds says. “Nuclear proliferation is spreading, whether we like it or not.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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