In Nuclear Country, Catherine McNicol Stock explores the question of why, between 1968 and 1992, most voters in the Dakotas abandoned their distinctive ideological heritage and came to embrace the New Right. Stock focuses on how this transformation coincided with the coming of the military and national security states to the countryside.
2020 | 312 pages | Cloth $34.95
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. "Under God, the People Rule"
Chapter 2. "Humanity Gone Mad"
Chapter 3. "100% Against Communists"
Chapter 4. "An Entire World in Khaki Brown and Olive Green"
Chapter 5. Secrets and Lies
Chapter 6. George McGovern's "Lost World"
Chapter 7. Wounded Knee, 1973, and the War at Home
Chapter 8. "The Companies You Keep"
Appendix. Methodology:Total Population of Military Personnel and Dependents Stationed in the Dakotas, 1955-1995
Mike Jacobs, editor of the Grand Forks Herald during the historic 1997 Red River flood, won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service when he made sure the paper never missed an issue, even when "hell and high water" destroyed its entire facility. However indispensable to the community in crisis, Jacobs did not think that accomplishment was as daring, at least politically, as an essay he had written thirty years earlier. In September of 1967, Jacobs was both the new editor of the Dakota Student and a sandals-and-ponytail-wearing anti-war activist. In his first month on the job, he learned that one of the university's wealthiest alumni, Jack Stewart, wanted to sponsor an essay contest and give the winner a scholarship. Stewart suggested the topic too: "Our American Heritage—How Can It Be Eternally Yours?" Outraged by the idea that the university would essentially bribe students into expressing conservative views, Jacobs responded with an essay of his own: "The Prostitution of Patriotism." Young people in 1967, he argued, knew that "old ladies in furs and men in uniforms or business suits waving flags" had been trying to "spoon-feed patriotism" to them their entire lives. It was too late for that now. "Our generation is beyond it."
Soon after "The Prostitution of Patriotism" hit the newsstands, angry letters began to pour into the university president's office. Some parents and alumni demanded that Jacobs be dismissed from his position or even expelled. Letter-writers berated, insulted, scolded, threatened, and mocked the young editor. One man suggested Jacobs should have encouraged students to participate in the contest: "But no, an editorial to this effect wouldn't have been any fun, not in keeping with the fashion. 'Protest' is the magic word. Raise hell with everything that is or has been . . . ridicule, tear down, protest. To be constructive is 'square.'" Citing freedom of the press, President George Starcher let Jacobs stay on as editor. Many years later, Jacobs admitted the essay had created an enormous "kerfuffle" and caused Starcher a lot of "trouble." Even so he did not regret writing it. Instead he regretted the gradual fading away of the liberal ideals that his generation had been so sure were in ascendance. In their place conservatives like Stewart and many others had found increased political power and cultural authority. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the angry letter-writers and the flag-waving men in uniforms and business suits would have the last word on regional politics—even if they could never get rid of the outspoken young editor himself.
It is hard to imagine that a student from North Dakota ever published an article in which the words prostitution and patriotism appeared in the same sentence. Both North and South Dakota have long been among the most reliably Republican states in the nation. Since the presidential election of 1920 voters have only chosen two Democrats—Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2016 South Dakotans preferred Donald Trump by more than thirty points, inspiring a local journalist to say his state was "as red as a lazy August sunset." Moreover, between 1968 and 1992, the majority of voters in both states came to embrace all tenets of the brand of conservatism associated with the New Right. Overwhelmingly white and Christian, with large numbers of Catholics, conservative Lutherans, and rapidly increasing numbers of evangelical Protestants, Dakotans began to bring their home-grown cultural conservatism to the ballot box, promoting prayer in school and resisting abortion rights and marriage equality. They also took a "law and order" stand on crime, gun rights, and incarceration, with a particularly chilling effect for Natives who had experienced interconnected and historic systems of de facto and de jure segregation, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and unprosecuted cases of sexual assault and murder. Albeit more reluctantly, in the 1980s and 1990s, white voters in both states embraced the Reagan-era ideals of small-government-style fiscal conservatism and strived to become the most "business friendly" in the nation. In South Dakota special deals made with the finance industry kept unemployment rates low and corporate campaign donations high; in North Dakota deals with multinational energy corporations did the same and more.
But it is the region's support for national defense—the foundational pillar of New Right conservatism—that makes any reiteration of the "Prostitution of Patriotism" unimaginable. During the Cold War, the air force built three large bases on the Northern Plains, one each in Rapid City, Grand Forks, and Minot. Beginning in the 1960s, the national security state installed 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in concrete silos beneath farm fields and grasslands surrounding the bases. As Dakotas became the "center of the bulls-eye" for comparable Soviet ICBMs in Siberia, "distant strategists" designated the region as a potential "national sacrifice area," should nuclear war begin. This new reality, this Nuclear Country, essentially obliterated the distinction between soldiers and civilians. Since then, the people of North and South Dakota, like many other rural Americans, have created what J. D. Vance has called a "kinship" with the military and have enthusiastically embraced American culture's broad associations of patriotism with "supporting the troops" and their wars. As they did, flag-waving became a nearly universal gesture, with flags flying outside homes, on windows, silos, and the sides of barns; festooned across shirts, jackets, pants, bandanas, and bikinis. Of far greater consequence has been the overrepresentation of young men and women from the Dakotas in the regular military and National Guard. In 2011 they ranked near the top of the list of casualties per capita in the Iraq War. Yet the appeal of war endured. Adam Schumann of Minot, North Dakota, one of the "good soldiers" from the Iraq War, said that during his second deployment, every time he "[got] shot at in a firefight," it was "the sexiest feeling there is."
But if we look back in time rather than ahead to the twenty-first century, Mike Jacobs' unapologetic 1967 editorial becomes far less surprising. In the decades before World War II, the people of the Northern Plains were not universally politically conservative; indeed, far from it. They certainly were not conservative in the ways that came to define the New Right. Instead they created a broadly mixed heritage of left and right that defies today's polarized bifurcations. Many people in the Dakotas, including Republicans, supported experiments in agrarian democracy that incorporated ideas from Populism and Progressivism to socialism and communism. Likewise for more than a century, most rural Dakotans had belonged to left-leaning agricultural organizations including the Nonpartisan League, the Farmers Holiday Association, the Farmers Union, United Family Farmers, the National Farmers Organization, the American Agricultural Movement, and Dakota Rural Action. In each of these movements, they fought against "bigness" in all its forms: "bonanza" farms, out-of-state railroads, corporations, banks, corrupt political parties, and distant federal bureaucracies. At the same time they demonstrated their faith that activist governments, particularly at the state level, could protect ordinary citizens from the worst manifestations of concentrated power. They believed, as Sarah Vogel, the former North Dakota commissioner of agriculture put it, that government should always embody the principle of "people first."
Creating democratic reform was not easy, however: Agrarian radicals consistently encountered opposition from wealthy businesspeople and large landowners. Furthermore, the reforms they sought were sometimes infused with ideas that we would see today as less than fully democratic. With important exceptions, Populists and their political descendants broadly shared exclusionary views on race, religion, and gender with their opponents as well as with most other white Americans. Nevertheless they left a legacy of institutions: a state bank, mill, and grain elevator in North Dakota; and political practices: initiatives and referenda and bans on corporate farming in both states—meant to exemplify the principle that government could and should work for the public good.
The story of the "agrarian revolt" on the Northern Plains is remembered proudly even today. But the fact that Populist opposition to "bigness" and concentrated power included opposition to the military has nearly been erased from memory. White Dakotans benefited immeasurably from the army's genocidal removal of indigenous people and appreciated the "small but reassuring numbers" of soldiers and forts that guarded the territory. But with no sense of irony or complicity, they were wary of the culture of militarism, the establishment of a permanent standing army, and the expansion of American military power abroad. Some had emigrated from countries with overseas empires and universal conscription. Many others were influenced by the socialist idea that wars only benefited the rich or the suffrage-era feminist belief that women's political activism could stop mass violence. Members of Anabaptist sects believed that war violated their religious beliefs. For those reasons and more, most Dakotans opposed American entry into every war in the first half of the twentieth century, beginning with the US expansion of the war in Cuba to the Philippines and extending to intervention in Hitler's Europe.
Every Populist anti-militarist—from South Dakota senator Richard Pettigrew, North Dakota governor "Wild Bill" Langer, and North Dakota senator Gerald Nye to 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, the region's final anti-war champion—faced harsh criticism for their views; many people still believe their resistance, particularly to entry into the Second World War, was unforgivable. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dakotans may well have agreed; South Dakota senator Karl Mundt, for example, shredded his files of correspondence with the anti-militarist and antisemitic America First Committee. Until that date, however, most men and women on the Northern Plains returned again and again to their commitment to peace. Those who had served with courage and honor in one war counted themselves among the resistors to the next, testifying as did a North Dakota farm boy caught behind German lines in 1915: that militarism had the power to "hypnotize the people" and that war was "humanity gone mad." Even after World War II, a few "old Progressives" from the region warned that a permanent state of military readiness and aggressive intervention overseas put the United States in danger. In 1952 as war in Korea raged, North Dakota representative and longtime member of the Nonpartisan League, Usher Burdick, wrote: "we cannot bring peace by furnishing guns."
These two major shifts—from the complex political heritage of Populist-style agrarian radicalism to the tenets of new conservatism and from anti-militarism to support for a well-funded, "muscular" national defense—require an explanation. This book provides one by suggesting that we see these seemingly distinct developments as inexorably dependent upon and related to each other. Furthermore it demands that we see the experiences of rural men and women in one of the "reddest" regions of the country as illuminating of our own in ways we might only see by looking there. Whether there are nuclear weapons buried on our land or not, we all live in a country where war has gone, in Marilyn Young's words, from being a mere "shadow" to the "substance of American history." And yet on the Northern Plains, there were nuclear weapons buried in land whose citizens had long decried the very idea of a permanent standing army. The Northern Plains in the late twentieth century, far from being a "flyover story," shine a bright light onto the all-encompassing nature of "the militarization of everything" in the current-day United States. Americans share this militarization so completely as to make its deep-seated consequences difficult for us to articulate or even to perceive. That makes it all the more important that we try.
This book examines two of the most important historical developments in the Dakotas as well as the modern United States as a whole. Both have been written about at length—some have said too much length—but rarely together. The book roots the first—the rise of the New Right in American politics—in the experience of men and women in a region perhaps less well understood than any other in the United States. In the explosion of studies of new conservatism, the Sunbelt states of the South and West and the Rust Belt states of the deindustrializing North have figured prominently and the Northern Plains, indeed every rural state in the North, appear as an afterthought, if at all. One reason is evident: in the mid-1960s Republican strategist Kevin Phillips and others believed the trick to creating an "emerging [New Right] Republican majority" lay in recruiting resentful southern whites and northern blue-collar "ethnics" who had voted as Democrats before. However much this might have been, in Richard Nixon's words, an "American" rather than a "southern strategy," early operatives like Phillips nevertheless largely ignored the states of the Northern Plains. Aware of but unconcerned by the radical agrarian and anti-militarist countertraditions within the states' Republican voting patterns, Phillips assumed that rural voters in the North would simply stay in the conservative fold even as the party's ideas about what conservatism meant changed. But their presumption was as ignorant and arrogant then as it is now. The political traditions of the Northern Plains included strains of thought that simply did not fit into an emerging new conservative view of the world. Furthermore, Dakota voters had only voted fully in concert with white southerners twice between 1890 and 1980. So it would take significant changes to the political and economic culture of the Dakotas and a repurposing of its own cultural conservatism, led at times by national organizations and media, to transform the region into a bastion of the New Right. In short, the emergence of the New Right on the Northern Plains—what I call the Rural New Right—was anything but assured. The story of its complex and contentious ascendance suggests that, given the perils of our own time, Republican strategists still err when they take the political landscape of the Northern Plains for granted.
Essential to the emergence of a Rural New Right on the Northern Plains was the coming of the military and national security states to the countryside. Thus the second development addressed in the book, the militarization of society and culture in the Cold War years recontextualizes the history of the Dakotans within the story of American imperialism. In experiencing rapid militarization and nuclearization, Dakotans were far from alone. While its footprint "abroad" began in westward expansion and other imperial efforts in this hemisphere, during World War II and the Cold War the United States Department of Defense built an "empire of bases" around the globe; the national security state established an "empire of nukes" near overseas bases, on remote proving grounds, in submarines, and on aircraft that flew twenty-four hours a day on alert. By 1960, a million soldiers, civilian employees and their families were stationed at 815 bases in 41 countries. By 2010 the number had risen to 70 countries and a variety of new facilities—sometimes called "forward operating sites," "zones of protection," or secret "lily pads"—were planned throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The cost of maintaining what Daniel Immerwahr calls "Baselandia" is at least two hundred billion dollars per year.
The expansion of the American military empire had social, cultural, and political consequences. Wherever they went in the world, American military men and, in time, women brought with them American norms, frames, and practices of race, class, gender, and sexuality. During the Cold War, for example, servicepeople carried the arrogance that accompanies victory as well as long-held ideas of racial and cultural superiority. The ritual practices of "military masculinity," with its all-but-required performance of aggressive heterosexuality, led to the establishment of "hybrid" spaces just outside American bases, like "Hooker Hill" in Itaewon, South Korea, where "drinks, drugs, and women" are available, racial segregation tolerated, and instances of sexual violence common. Overseas bases are also among the most dangerous places for enlisted American women. As one serviceman put it, "You can't expect to treat women as one of your own when, in the same breath, you as a young soldier are being encouraged to exploit women on the outside of that base." Several American servicewomen died of dehydration in their tents in 120 degree heat in Iraq rather than risk drinking water and having to use the outdoor privies where several sexual assaults had taken place.
A major figure in the modern history of indigenous resistance, the Ojibwa Dennis Banks, knew exactly what was expected of him both as a Native person and as a young male when he arrived at a base outside Osaka in 1954; his experiences would later sharpen his ability to see American empire in operation at home. Like many other Native men and women who have served in the military, Banks had been proud to join the service and "kill a Commie for Christ"; in fact he had felt "so patriotic it was ridiculous." He tried to ignore the fact that whites still called the enemy "Injuns" and their missions "Injun fighting." After a long trip by sea, Banks and his shipmates arrived at the Sunagawa Air Force Base; soon they were looking for something to do. Even though the air force rules stated clearly, "No fraternization" with the Japanese, Banks knew that, far from forbidden, sex with local women was practically required. "We were surrounded by bars that were right off base. We called them the Thousand-Yard Strip—saloons, pawnshops, clip joints, and whorehouses. It was said that if you didn't hock your watch, drink a gallon of beer, and get laid, you were not a man." Thinking back on it later, he realized that "They tell you you're going to see the world, have a woman in every port. Then when you are actually there, you're supposed to be macho and use women as sex objects."
Banks did not learn his lesson, falling deeply in love with a Japanese woman, Machiko Inouye; in her company he felt liberated for the first time from the ever-present glare of white racism. He felt this liberation so fervently that when asked to shoot to kill Japanese anti-base protesters, he became unsure if he was on the "right side" of his gun. After all, his indigenous ancestors had also been vanquished in battle, their land stolen or degraded, their culture demeaned or destroyed, their women sexually assaulted, exploited, or murdered. What was he doing "guarding the ramparts of Empire?" To officials in the air force his marriage and his refusal to follow orders did not just show bad judgment. They were criminal. He was arrested and put on a plane back to the United States, never to see his wife again. But Banks continued to believe that America was misusing its military power, particularly against people of color. In 1968 he helped to found the American Indian Movement and in 1973, with other Native veterans, fought the "vanguards of empire" closer to home, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
While the American government was building bases around the world—and inadvertently inspiring critiques of American power among local people and servicepeople of color alike—they were also building them in the United States. Some, like the army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina, were first established in World War I. Others, like the air force bases scattered across the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, eastern Wyoming, and Kansas, were established during or after World War II and expanded with the introduction of nuclear weapons. As in Europe and Asia, not all Americans welcomed the bases: protests against the establishment of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, for example, succeeded in delaying construction. But most communities welcomed, even competed to acquire, bases. By 1980 the strategic dispersion of military bases across the United States meant that there was at least one base in every state and nearly a thousand in all; in states like California, Florida, and Texas there were a dozen or more. Hundreds of thousands—even millions—of military personnel cycled in and out of local communities in the Cold War era, making themselves very much "at home."
The presence of the military as a constitutive part of American society, not a separate or anomalous entity, amplified social and cultural tensions already present in local communities, in the Dakotas, as much as overseas. Wherever it is, a military base is made up of large numbers of young men, new to the area, looking for "drinks, drugs, and women"—or just any kind of diversion. Some return from deployment having refined their conception of military masculinity and racial and cultural superiority. Thus hybrid spaces—like Box Elder, South Dakota, near Ellsworth Air Force Base; or Emerado, North Dakota, near Grand Forks Air Force Base—boasted bars, liquor stores, pawn shops, and sex workers, as comparable spaces do abroad. Conflicts over race and religion and the meaning of full citizenship also arose at domestic bases. In the early parts of the century, whites in some southern communities rioted when African Americans were trained at bases nearby. In the 1960s servicepeople of color experienced discrimination in their base communities—Rapid City, South Dakota, among them—and filed complaints to civil rights commissions. They had come to see that racism and colonialism were baked into the military's structure and history. In the early 1970s African American servicepeople, including a group at the Minot Air Force Base, protested how seldom blacks were promoted and how often they were disciplined. Meanwhile, in the wake of the loss in Vietnam to a military force of nonwhites, some veterans founded paramilitary units and other white power organizations to fight for "their race" in Rhodesia, South Africa, and inside the United States. At Fort Bragg in the 1980s and 1990s, the presence of white supremacist groups was well-known; membership was not even a violation of base regulations.
The military also arrived in the American countryside in the form of defense-related civilian industry; these too influenced culture and politics. As Dwight Eisenhower warned, the "military-industrial complex" connected military needs to diverse sectors of the economy—from manufacturing to finance and university research. In World War II and the early Cold War, the Pacific coast and other parts of the American West received such enormous federal investments in wartime industries that one historian deemed it the "largest peacetime militarized zone on earth." At first, major manufacturers were slow to relocate to the remote interior West but the officials in the nuclear weapons industry, which required both secrecy and low population density in case of an accident, thought it was perfect. By the mid-1950s, boomtowns like Rocky Flats, Colorado; Amarillo, Texas; and Hanford, Washington—as well as the sites eventually chosen for the installation of missiles—owed their low unemployment rates to the manufacturers of nuclear weapons. At first, workers were told neither that they were handling toxic materials nor what they were making. When they found out, they saw their work as part of the larger national project. By the1970s and 1980s, these workers' experiences and ideological commitments also began to influence their political views. Kristen Iverson, who worked at the Rocky Flats plant, came to resent antinuclear protesters whom she dismissed as "Boulder [Colorado] crazies," "kooks," and liberals "who cared more about wildlife more than people." Soon some of her coworkers translated their prodefense and anti-liberal views into local political organizations and votes for conservative candidates of the New Right. In Jefferson County, Colorado, where Rocky Flats was located until 2006, Republican presidential candidates won a majority of the vote in every election between 1980 and 2004. By and large voters made a singular calculation: even if the military put their lives at risk, why risk the military's commitment to the local economy? In places large and small, the growth of corporate capitalism, funded by and affiliated with the military, overcame anti-militarism among workers on the "front lines" of nuclearization.
However consequential the impact of bases and nuclear weapons industries has been for local communities, militarization as a whole has had even more wide-reaching ramifications. Militarization is an all-encompassing experience, one with deep implications for the economy, politics, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, the environment, and much more. In her study of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Catherine Lutz concluded that "we all live in an Army camp" where "we have raised war taxes at work, and future soldiers at home, lived with the cultural atmosphere of racism and belligerence that war mobilization often uses or creates, and nourished the public opinion that helps send soldiers off to war or prevents their going." Even so it can be difficult to see, and certainly to write about, this "Army camp." Gretchen Heefner adds that the "very normalness [of militarization] renders it illegible." But if we try, it is there: where children play video games of war and new recruits are trained on similar systems; where khaki is a fashion statement; where police attack protesters with leftover military-grade weapons; where a memorial is being planned for the Mall in Washington, DC, to honor the dead in a war that has not ended; where some refugees from our wars, including those who fought on the American side, are cast as, and cast out as, our enemies. Last, the universal army camp is where most Americans—both Republicans and Democrats—consider questioning war to be at odds with "supporting the troops," even though veterans themselves increasingly demand that we do so.
Just as we struggle to discern the consequences of militarization in our lives and yet know it is there, we struggle to fathom its costs—perhaps as much as a trillion dollars a year. We have been paying for what Mary Dudziak calls our "war-but-not-war" for so long that we cannot imagine the country we might have built with even a tiny portion of that fortune. In 2019, Jessica Mathews, longtime president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and a past member of the National Security Council, warned: "The political momentum that drives [increases to the military budget] . . . threatens to become—or may have already become—unstoppable. The consequences are huge. At home, defense spending crowds out funds for everything else a prosperous economy and a healthy society need. Abroad it has led us to become a country reflectively reliant on the military and one quite different from what we think ourselves to be or, as I believe, wish to be." During the Farm Crisis, some activists from the Midwest did imagine a country that supported human needs more than military ones; in fact, they demanded it, calling for "Farms not Arms." From our vantage point nearly forty years later, we can see that their worst fears are close to being realized. The Northern Plains may be becoming more devoted to arms—as well as the multinational corporations that profit from them—than farms. And if that region is, so is the country as a whole. As early as the 1950s, President Eisenhower urged Americans to understand these trade-offs: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
A decade later, on March 18, 1968, a very different politician, Robert F. Kennedy, made the same point in a speech he gave to hundreds of student supporters at the University of Kansas. The University of Kansas was the state's flagship public institution, just like the University of North Dakota where Mike Jacobs had published "the Prostitution of Patriotism" just months earlier. Kansas also shared with the Dakotas a history of agrarian activism that included anti-militarism, yet during the Cold War it came to house military bases and ICBMs. Moreover, in the 1960s, Kansas young people, like many in the Dakotas, were not yet ready to abandon their radical heritage; yet their commitment to peace and justice fueled their conservative opponents' fire. By the end of the twentieth century, Kansas would be such a fortress of the New Right that it would be hard to imagine that Robert Kennedy had ever dared travel there.
But he did and he did not disappoint. Kennedy reminded students that America's finest ambition was to seek peace and justice. He used an extended metaphor about what lay behind a bland statistic: the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Kennedy argued that the nation's enormous GDP, which President Lyndon Johnson cited frequently as evidence of his success in office, measured little of real value. Rather it measured things that reflected the American tendency toward violence, racism, and war. It measured "air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. . . . It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts . . . the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children." In other words, it measured "everything . . . except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
Both the aspects of militarization that can be counted and measured, and those that cannot, help us understand how the people of the Dakotas came to abandon anti-militarism and believe that war might be "the sexiest feeling there is." Furthermore, they help us see how the coming of military bases and nuclear weapons to the region and the experience of militarization writ large made possible, perhaps even inevitable, the region's shift from Populist agrarian radicalism to new conservatism. When the military came to the country, so did new facilities, new jobs, new associated industries, new exits off the interstates, new fast food stores, new big box stores, new bars, new housing, and more. Most importantly it brought new people—largely young white male military people. Along with personal needs for distraction, these military men—who after 1973 came disproportionately from the South or rural communities in other regions—brought conservative religious traditions, political beliefs, racial practices, and ideas about gender and family, forged by their upbringing and reinforced through the institutionalized conservatism of the military. As time passed, hundreds of thousands of service personnel, military staff, and their families cycled through the region. Each one, even if he or she only served their time and accepted a transfer to a warmer station, influenced their communities. But others came to stay, settling in, finding a local partner, starting a business, or coming back to the region to retire. These active-duty and retired military people volunteered, coached, attended church, supported veteran organizations, and joined school boards. A few got involved in local electoral politics, generally as prodefense Republicans. One became the mayor of Grand Forks, the third largest city in North Dakota—and, after he was licensed to carry a concealed weapon, a top-tier member of the NRA.
The coming of the military also affected regional political culture by reinforcing or recontextualizing long-standing local ideas and practices. Both Populists and their opponents had long been suspicious of concentrated power and bigness; it was at the root of both their prewar anti-militarism and their concerns about the New Deal. And while Dakota communities largely welcomed the bases, individual farmers and ranchers whose land was taken by the national security state for missile sites began to resent a distant, secretive, sometimes incompetent federal bureaucracy with new vigor. At the same time, the people of the plains shared values with the military too, particularly culturally conservative views about race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Thus while some Dakotans joined the anti-war, antinuke, and feminist protests of 1960s and early 1970s, more resented activists who flouted social conventions, especially support for the military. When in the 1970s Dennis Banks' American Indian Movement organized protests in the region that sometimes turned violent, Dakotans found common purpose with resentful white southerners and northern "ethnics," and created a multiregional coalition of whites who were determined to restore "law and order" and willing to engage militarized state violence to do so. At that moment, while Republican operatives were looking elsewhere, the success of the "Southern strategy" was complete.
While embracing the need for a strong national defense and rejecting liberal social ideas, Dakotans adopted the third plank of New Right ideology—fiscal conservatism. They did this more haltingly, however, as it brought full circle the changes in priorities that militarization required of them. Strains of Populist agrarianism in economics—and pride in their "people-first" political traditions—had persisted in both states. Again and again voters made sure they sent representatives to Congress who would push legislation to support farmers and farming. Dakotans had long distrusted big government and many did not like the agricultural programs members of Congress had designed. But they liked Ronald Reagan's threat to get government "out of the farming business" even less. At the same time, however, Dakotans voted against tax increases that their "New Populist" leaders needed to solve the states' fiscal problems. Without them, officials sought private solutions to the most public of problems. They encouraged large-scale corporate investment and ensured that the states would remain "business friendly"—even when the corporations they enticed damaged farmland, exploited local consumers, and either directly or indirectly profited from, even helped to prolong, war. In time, these efforts to diversify the states' economies would succeed beyond anyone's wildest dreams. They represented the final triumph of conservative politics in the region. Yet in Matthew Lassiter's words, what they really did was "social[ize] risk for major corporations and privat[ize] risk for ordinary households, an underlying feature of modern American politics." They also created conditions for the rapid consolidation of farms and the collapse of many small towns where rates of suicide, addiction, and child death remained among the highest in the nation. Of course had the federal budget, or just a trillion dollars of the federal budget, been allocated to farms—or to schools, addiction treatment centers, suicide prevention hotlines, or hospitals—rather than to arms, those hard choices might never have had to be made.
Nuclear Country locates the gradual commitment to all aspects of New Right conservatism on the Northern Plains in the experience of militarization and nuclearization. It argues that, over the course of several decades, white men and women in North and South Dakota from both sides of the aisle figuratively shredded the evidence of their commitment to Populist anti-militarism as surely as South Dakota senator Karl Mundt literally shredded his. On the other hand it does not claim—however tempting it might be—that militarization and nuclearization are the sole reasons for these shifts. At the very least the out-migration of small farmers in the postwar period, long the backbone of Populist organizations and the Democratic Party, indisputably changed the political landscape, particularly because they have been "replaced" by military families and energy workers. Instead it contends that militarization and nuclearization, the full scope of which remain hard to discern, were the historical developments most essential to the creation of the Rural New Right, that they can be best seen in this often-overlooked region, and that they link men and women in the Dakotas to people in the rest of the country and even the world. More personally, this book makes clear my view that a great deal is lost when "material" values of militarization and global power take the place of more "spiritual" values of seeking community among our diverse humanity. And it seeks to imagine—indeed demands that even the most skeptical reader imagine—a country in which, rather than having the occasional unpopular war, war itself has become unpopular, even un-American. As did Martin Luther King Jr., I refuse "to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation." Furthermore I agree that a nation that promotes war cannot also promote justice.
Again writing about Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the army's Fort Bragg, Catherine Lutz suggests that the normalization of permanent war, nuclear catastrophe, injustice, and inequality does not have to remain a defining part of American culture and its role in the world.
Fayetteville's people have enjoyed a unique . . . history, but they have also suffered a history only partly of their own making. Like people across America, choices made in Washington about war and war preparation have deeply shaped their lives. . . . the sacrifice and suffering war exacts from the home front has often been denied by official narratives, even as the costs abroad have been. But however permanent the present may seem, other histories—both of the past and the future—can still be made from the insights of all the people who have lived under war's shadow and nursed its hidden injuries.
This book is written in the hope that such new histories can still be made and that all Americans can write them together.