‘Cold War Montana’: How the Treasure State helped win the war against communism

Montana historian Ken Robison follows up ‘Confederates in Montana’ book with one about more recent history

By: - November 26, 2021 9:49 am

The cover of “Cold War Montana” by Ken Robison (Courtesy of Arcadia Publishing).

When folks think of the “Cold War,” they may remember Soviet warships with nuclear missiles steaming toward Cuba. Or maybe they’d recall the proxy war fought in Vietnam that purported to stop the spread of communism by preventing its spread to a small southeast Asian country.

Not many may think about Montana being on the frontlines of the war that pitted the capitalist societies of America and western Europe against the communist countries of eastern Europe, Russia and Asia.

Yet historian Ken Robison, who has chronicled Montana’s other forgotten military involvement, has recently published a new book, “Cold War Montana,” which describes the state’s involvement in the protracted battle, including housing part of the Minuteman defense missile system siloed deep in the ground of the state.

Robison, himself a career naval intelligence officer, said the book fills in an important historical gap. His previous book, “Confederates in Montana,” looked at the state’s activity producing gold for the Union during the Civil War as well as being a popular refuge for former Confederates. “Cold War Montana” was a natural fit, filling in another somewhat overlooked period of military history in the state.

His interest was piqued by fellow historian Jon Axline, who wrote an article for “Montana: The Magazine of Western History” about the “ground observer corps,” which had as many as 11,000 Montanans staring at the skies while the U.S. military rushed to install field radar to detect Russian spy planes.

That kind of patriotic participation eventually led to Montana getting part of the missile defense system, which is also housed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Minot, N.D., as well as Great Falls at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Robison begins the book with the “1941 Christmas Miracle,” where Great Falls Mayor Ed Shields got the head of the U.S. Army Air Force to listen to a pitch to put an airfield there. A study suggesting siting a base in Great Falls had been relegated to the “dead file” – a morgue for plans that wouldn’t be pursued. Shields convinced Gen. Henry Arnold to reconsider. That led to the notification that Great Falls would host one of six new sites to support the Air Force just months after the deadly Pearl Harbor attacks.

“Just think of what would have happened if we had not gotten that airbase,” said Robison, a former Navy captain.

The Army also established air fields in Glasgow, Cut Bank, Lewistown as well as Great Falls.

“Cold War Montana”

The book is available currently in bookstores and through online retailers.

Author: Ken Robison
Publisher: The History Press
Cost: $23.99
Format: Softcover

“Rather than tell an isolated story, I wanted to tell the history of the Cold War in Montana for people who didn’t have air raid drills or have to hide under a school desk,” Robison said, referring to the practice of crawling under school desks for a Soviet-led air raid or nuclear war.

Robison’s book is a mix of personal and institutional history, sometimes telling about individuals like Apollo Astronaut Frank Borman, to the amazing history of Col. Fred Cherry, who withstood torture by the North Vietnamese Army after being shot down. The North Vietnamese tried to coerce Cherry into speaking poorly about racial tensions in America as part of propaganda, but Cherry never gave in and spent two separate missions in Great Falls.

From a former Soviet pilot who fell in love with the Montana mountains to the tour of the state by President John F. Kennedy where he touted the missile program, “Montana has played an incredibly important role in the military,” Robinson said.

He said because Cold War tensions have changed, most Montanans do not remember being less than an hour away from fire. However, during the Cold War, it would have been likely that the Soviet Union would have sent missiles up over the North Pole and strike Montana with 60 minutes’ time.

“Great Falls was just 30 minutes from the firing line,” Robison said. “Great Falls was the right location for the center of air defense in this country.”

Looking back, Robison sees the military presence as a good thing – an economic engine as well as tapping the patriotic vein that runs rich here – Montana usually ranks at the top of the list when it comes to most military members per capita. However, that’s not to say the entire book is rosy.

For example, there was an incident that largely escaped the public’s attention in November 1983, when an exercise could have provoked an accidental nuclear war, if not for the calm demeanor of U.S. Air Force commanders in Europe.

“This helps folks who want to understand how we won the Cold War,” Robison said. “But there was an absolute danger that lurked at any given moment and any given day during a 50-year period. Luckily, there was some good judgment and in some cases, luck that it didn’t turn into war on a nuclear scale.”

Robison also said that like much history, it’s also helpful for understanding today’s events, especially an increasingly aggressive Russia.

“We need to understand our luck or good judgment and do everything we can do not to get in that situation,” Robison said. “We need to be aware of a resurgent empire of Putin and the aggressive reconstruction of the old Russian empire.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.