Resisting the Plans for America's "Nuclear Sponge"Roundup
tags: nuclear weapons, environmental history
Taylor Rose is a PhD candidate at Yale University and held the AHA Fellowship in Aerospace History in 2020–21.
Since the onset of World War II, the US Armed Forces found a home in the Desert Southwest. With vast expanses of lightly populated, barely vegetated land—much of it already overseen by the federal government—states including New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah became hosts between 1940 and 1970 to some of the largest and most important military installations in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) “base structure.”
In the mid-20th century, Nevada in particular came to rely upon defense dollars to generate profits from what many Americans considered wastelands. Powerful politicians, including Democratic senators Pat McCarran (1933–54) and Howard Cannon (1959–83), ensured a warm welcome for militarization in the state. Nevada is now home to Nellis Air Force Base, Hawthorne Army Depot, Fallon Naval Air Station, and the former Nevada Test Site, where nearly 1,000 nuclear weapons were detonated between 1951 and 1992.
By the 1970s, however, many Nevadans had had enough of the bombs in their backyard. With the postwar transformation of Las Vegas into a multicultural metropolis, the state’s electorate had become more progressive. But more significantly, DOD plans for the state were growing more audacious as Cold War tensions rose anew, and Nevadans—newcomers and old-timers alike—felt the federal government was abusing their trust.
In 1979, controversy ensued when President Jimmy Carter proposed a bill that would locate America’s nuclear arsenal, a collection of 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles, on a massive complex straddling the Nevada–Utah border, a project officially named the “Missile Experimental Basing Program,” but known to many simply as “the MX.” The conservative Cannon, who was initially pro-MX, championed the project for its “infusion of jobs and capital spending.” One letter to the editor of a local newspaper agreed with the senator, arguing that hosting the MX was a “small price to pay for democracy.”
But many Nevadans balked at the plan’s sheer size. One economist estimated the scheme would require fencing off 25,000 square miles of land from public (and bovine) use—an area five times the size of Connecticut. In addition to its footprint, it would have been one of the largest construction projects in human history, consuming as much as 100 billion gallons of water over its lifespan, “enough to supply Las Vegas for almost six years.”
Most importantly for nearby residents, the MX would have made the region into a “bullseye for attack,” as one newspaper put it. Strategically located in the remote desert to absorb an initial strike by the Soviet Union, Cold War defense theorists called it America’s “nuclear sponge.”
For these reasons, in addition to the urban environmentalists and pacifists one might expect, MX opposition first emerged out of two perhaps surprising strands of grassroots activism: Native American treaty rights movements and the Sagebrush Rebellion, a loose collective of states’ rights ranchers. What united them in this “unlikely alliance,” as one scholar has described it, was a concern for the future of the land they loved.