The Cold War took place from around the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During that time, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in nuclear brinksmanship time and time again but miraculously avoided total war. There were, however, smaller engagements such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and extremely close calls like the Cuban Missile Crisis. Millions of Americans served their country during this period, and as someone who was born in 1990, it is hard for me to imagine the intense stress that service members must have felt knowing that nuclear warfare was always just one incident away.
While it’s true that the United States is home to several battlefields from our early history, there are also sites that played a crucial role in the Cold War that can be just an interesting and rewarding to visit. For Cold Warriors especially, these locations serve as a reminder of their service and of the fact that they saved the world from annihilation. Here’s a list of five Cold War historical sites you can visit in the United States.
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
The Kennedy Space Center is the United States’ gateway to the stars and the site where the first American astronauts strapped themselves to modified ICBMs and flew into space. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union competed for cosmic dominance in the “space race.” Although the Soviet Union pulled ahead early with the launch of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, the US eventually won when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon.
At the KSC visitor’s center complex, tourists can see the US Astronaut Hall of Fame as well as the famous “rocket garden” where America’s early spacecraft are on display — including a Saturn 1B. There is also an option to tour the first launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where the Mercury program launches took place. Located about an hour east of Orlando, KSC is easy to get to and is a perfect day trip for those staying at an amusement park or waiting for their cruise ship.
Minuteman Missile Historic Site, South Dakota
Located in Philip, South Dakota, the Minuteman Missile Historic Site is home to some fantastic relics from the Cold War, including exhibits showing how the threat of nuclear war influenced popular culture during the second half of the 20th century. The biggest draw to the MMHS is the ICBM silo that once housed an actual nuclear-tipped missile. According to the National Park Service, the MMHS is one of only two sites in the US where visitors can see inside a Cold War-era silo. There is also a replica of an ICBM control room and loads of information about how the United States Air Force’s Cold Warriors kept constant watch over the country from underground bunkers.
Submarine Force Museum, Connecticut
The submarine first saw major deployments during the first World War, but it wasn’t until the advent of nuclear power that it transformed into the modern weapon platform we know it as today. That all started with the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus. The Nautilus is on display at the Submarine Force Museum, and visitors can get a once in a lifetime opportunity to tour inside the “boat that started it all.” Besides the Nautilus, the museum is also home to “33,000 artifacts, 20,000 significant documents and 30,000 photographs,” related to America’s silent service.
National Museum of the Air Force, Ohio
The nuclear triad is composed of ICBMs, nuclear submarines equipped with nuclear missiles, and heavy bombers capable of delivering atomic bombs. At the National Museum of the Air Force in Ohio, visitors can get a first-hand look at a few of the US’ past and current nuclear-capable aircraft, including the only publicly available B-2 Spirit. Besides nuclear bombers, the museum has fighters, attack aircraft, helicopters, and even a B53 thermonuclear bomb on display.
Bay of Pigs Museum, Florida
Possibly one of the most debated incidents during the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs invasion was a failed Central Intelligence Agency operation that took place in 1961. According to History.com, the CIA trained and equipped around 1,500 Cuban exiles, known as the 2506th Brigade, to land on the Caribbean Island and overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro. Unfortunately, the CIA-backed Cubans met intense resistance when they landed at the beach, and the operation was over in about 24 hours. The Bay of Pigs museum in Miami, Florida, is home to several artifacts related to the operation. According to Lonely Planet, the museum is “more of a memorial to the 2506th Brigade,” than a complete repository of Bay of Pigs artifacts, but any Cold War history buff would be excited to pay homage to the men of the operation — and you may even get a chance to talk to some of the survivors, who are known to frequent the museum.