North Dakota and the Cold War, 1951-1972

July 27, 1953

A tense peace has been achieved, ending three years of war between North and South Korea. On June 25, 1950, North Korean (the People’s Republic) communist forces crossed the 38th parallel in a sneak attack against South Korea (the Republic of Korea). The division of Korea along the 38th parallel was intended to be temporary until a unification election could be held. The attack violated that agreement, causing the United Nations to come to the military assistance of the South Koreans. American troops under the flag of the United Nations were fighting in Korea by July 5.

President Harry Truman’s decision to send thousands to fight in Korea was based on the primary goal of American foreign policy: containment of the spread of Russian and Chinese communism. Within weeks huge communist Chinese armies crossed the Yalu River, the Chinese-North Korean boundary, to help their fellow comrades and to nearly obliterate the South Korean army.

But American forces, supported by other United Nations countries, slowly, hill by hill, pushed the Chinese beyond the Yalu and routed the North Korean army.

Senator Milton Young visits Korean in 1952.  On the far right is Colonel Jim Hanley of Mandan.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

During the course of the three-year conflict, North Dakotans generally were dissatisfied with American involvement. In February 1951, when American casualties were on the rise, the North Dakota Senate passed a resolution that called for the withdrawal of American troops from Korea. Senator William Langer, NPL opponent of the war, concluded in 1952: “The issue is: Shall we have more carloads of coffins?” His ROC Republican colleague, Senator Milton Young, warned against sending, in his words, “our sons to the slaughter fields of Europe and Asia.”

But several thousand North Dakota sons, both National Guard and Regular Army draftees, had been sent to a “slaughter field” called Korea. The War Department reports that 33,000 Americans were killed in action, of whom 172 were North Dakotans. The conflict is over, but the scars of battle remain.

Sgt. Douglas Tompkins of Jud, N.D. fires his machine gun at Chinese communist troops, July 14, 1951.  Courtesy of Department of Defense, U.S. Army, Signal Corps.

Bismarck, N.D.
May 8, 1956

The federal government has organized the Ground Observation Corps, the GOC, to keep eyes on the sky for possible Russian aircraft. From rooftops or observation towers, volunteers scan the horizon for low-flying aircraft. North Dakota is especially important since Russian bombers would probably fly over the state en route to their targets.

Every North Dakota town has its volunteer GOC watchers on a 24-hour basis. If a plane is spotted, the information is relayed to officials in Bismarck and Fargo. Most communities, even the smallest, are taking this operation seriously. New Hradec, 35 residents, has recruited 125 observers. At Stanton, families are assigned GOC duty.

Some cities, however, have difficulty finding enough volunteers. Minot had to close its observation tower for a few months earlier this year for lack of observers. Lt. Colonel Noel Tharalson, who is in charge of the state’s civil defense operation, told The North Star Dakotan, “If you talk to North Dakotans about the possibility of bombing raids, they’ll laugh and turn their backs. They just won’t believe that an enemy bomber would bother with the wide open spaces around the state.”

The GOC, however, with a few exceptions, has been a successful program in North Dakota.

Minot and Grand Forks, N.D.
February 8, 1957

Yesterday the 32nd Fighter Group landed at the Minot Air Base and today the 478th Fighter Group arrived at the Grand Forks Air Base. In 1954 the Air Force decided that northern North Dakota was an excellent location for bases since a Russian attack would most likely come over the North Pole.

Each base is equipped with SAGE, a computer system that is able to detect Russian bombers flying over the Pole. An Air Force spokesman told The North Star Dakotan that interceptor and air refueling squadrons will be arriving at both bases soon.

North Dakota air base activity.  Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

September 17, 1963

As the Cold War intensifies, each county has developed a civil defense plan. In the event of a nuclear attack on North Dakota, citizens have been informed how to avoid radioactive fallout and where the safest cities are for medical attention. The state has just published a booklet, “How You Will Survive,” which includes information on the use of basements as fallout shelters and how to decontaminate people and animals after a nuclear attack.

North Dakota State University has distributed a guide on how to construct a fallout shelter. Many people are using this guide. Just how many, we do not know. Most owners keep their shelters a secret so that if a nuclear attack happens, neighbors could not pound on the door for protection. When a poll asked Americans if they would rather wage a nuclear war or live under communism, 80 percent responded: war. That is what North Dakotans are preparing for.

Star athlete Cliff Cushman won a silver medal for the high hurdles in the 1960 Olympics and is now headed for Vietnam.  Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

December 15, 1966

Three hundred nuclear missiles are now ready for launch from their North Dakota silos. Construction on the missile silos began in 1962 and the first was operational the following year. Ever since Russian premier Nikita Krushchev boasted that the Soviet Union was turning out nuclear weapons like sausages, the United States has been frantically working to strengthen its nuclear weapons arsenal. The silos that dot the North Dakota landscape reflect that effort. Fear of a Russian nuclear missile attack persists.

Langdon, N.D.
October 15, 1970

That the Russians had ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) that could penetrate the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear missile silos worried President Richard Nixon. The answer: an anti-ballistic missile system (ABM). Such missiles would intercept Russian or Chinese missiles and blow them out of the sky. Although opposition to an ABM system was strong, it passed Congress by one vote in 1969.
Labeled SAFEGUARD, the ABM system planned for North Dakota would work like this: a site (PAR) near Concrete would use radar to track potential incoming hostile missiles and would guide long-range missiles for distant intercepts. If enemy missiles would get through this intercept, a complex near Nekoma, 12 miles south of here, would launch missiles for a closer intercept.
Hundreds, into the thousands, of government and construction workers will be busy building the new ABM facilities. With an estimated cost of $6 billion, the complexes are scheduled for completion in 1975. The influx of site-related people has been a tremendous economic boom to the region.

Grand Forks, N.D.
May 17, 1972

That same policy of containment that drew the United States into the Korean War has kept the country fighting on the side of South Vietnam against communist North Vietnam since the mid-1960s. The antiwar movement grows with each passing year of the conflict. The Ohio National Guard’s killing of four students who were part of an antiwar rally at Kent State on May 4 has fueled the protest movement, especially on university campuses.

Catholic priest, Father Branconier, and three students picket army recruitment at the University of North Dakota.  Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

Heated though peaceful, antiwar rallies have been held on North Dakota campuses, especially the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University. The government’s plan to build a huge ABM site at Nekoma has intensified antiwar feelings.

Yesterday, May 16, a planned demonstration at the site came off peacefully, although authorities feared violence. A crowd estimated at 3,000 gathered at UND the evening before the rally and most of them made the trip to the ABM site.

A Fargo Vietnam War protest held during visit of Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1967.  Courtesy of North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies.

Governor William Guy, who is an opponent of the ABM system, called out the National Guard, with strict instructions to avoid confrontations. Guy gave permission to the demonstration leaders to plant small trees along the highway near the site as a symbol of creating life rather than destroying it.

Governor Guy told The North Star Dakotan, “The ABM demonstration was noteworthy for the restraint of both the demonstrators and the law enforcement agencies.”

The North Dakota National Guard has not been deployed in the Vietnam War. Estimates place the number of North Dakotans who are or have been fighting in Vietnam at about 28,000. More than 100 have been killed in action.

UND students protest the Vietnam War at the army ROTC building. Courtesy of Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, UND.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Grade Level

3-5, 7, 9-12

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

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