It might seem implausible today, but Cold War dramas played out all across the hot desert of Arizona in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
And the stakes couldn’t have been higher. For the United States Air Force personnel who manned top-secret sites like the Titan II missile site near Green Valley, Arizona, nuclear war was a possible outcome.
Of course, it never came to that, and the disarmed nuclear missile site south of Tucson now serves as a museum and National Historic Landmark — a testament to the era when Arizona’s schoolchildren were instructed on how to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack.
Although the Titan Missile Museum is perhaps the most dramatic of the state’s Cold War relics, it is not the only one. A number of former installations and museums are sprinkled throughout southern Arizona.
Here are five of the most fascinating places to take in Cold War history in Arizona.
1. Titan Missile Museum, Green Valley
As I walked along the tubular corridor connecting the missile-launch control center with the 104-foot-high Titan II missile, I couldn’t help but feel that I had wandered into a Tom Clancy novel.
Certainly, it wasn’t hard to imagine the tense moments that had likely taken place in those rooms burrowed 35 feet below ground. Just prior to my walk down the metal hallway, my tourmates and I had participated in a simulated missile launch, complete with sirens, floor-to-ceiling control panels, flashing lights, and the fateful telephone call.
The Titan Missile Museum features the only preserved Titan II missile installation of 54 built in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. It offers an unnerving but riveting peek at the technology used by the U.S. to prevent nuclear war.
The excellent tour guide who led my group offered interesting information about the secretive culture that pervaded the mission. The officers and enlisted personnel who manned the missile site were not allowed to reveal the goings-on even to their family members. The museum’s website also refers to the guarded atmosphere: “What was once one of America’s most top-secret places is now a National Historic Landmark,” it says.
On the day of my tour, only four people participated, so we were all drafted to take part in the simulated attack. My job: deputy commander, the officer who would have handled the communications and phone lines. In that role, I would have confirmed the coded information that the commander also received — a pre-internet form of two-factor authentication.
A missile launch would have occurred only in the event of a verified attack, our tour guide told us.
“And that means missiles are in the air, and it means there’s less than a half hour to do anything,” she said.
If the U.S. president gave the order and the Pentagon directed strategic air command, a missile could have been launched toward enemy territory from the Arizona missile site.
The tour emphasizes that the Titan II missiles were never launched, and they were deactivated starting in 1982.
For anyone with an interest in Cold War or military history, a visit to the museum is definitely worth the half-hour drive south of Tucson. The tour, which requires a fee, takes about 45 minutes. Participants must be able to descend and climb 55 metal-grate stairs and stand for the duration of the tour. Closed-toe walking shoes are recommended, with no heels or flip-flops. Tours fill up during peak season, so booking online in advance is recommended.
Pro Tip: For other things to do in the area, check out my article 7 Reasons Snowbirds Love Adorable Green Valley, Arizona.
2. Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson
Featuring about 400 historic aircraft from a Wright Flyer to a 787 Dreamliner, the Pima Air & Space Museum is said to be one of the largest government-funded aviation and space museums in the world.
Gazing out onto the 80 acres packed with every form of aircraft imaginable, I didn’t doubt that claim to fame. The planes — a mix of military and passenger aircraft — are arranged on the desert landscape with the rugged Tucson Mountains as a backdrop.
And that’s not even to mention the six massive hangars that house the museum’s indoor exhibits (three dedicated to World War II) or the separate building that serves as the poignant 390th Memorial Museum honoring the World War II-era 390th Bomb Group personnel.
The Pima Air & Space Museum, which opened in 1976, has evolved over the years, and although World War II history is prominent, the museum also focuses on other eras, including the Cold War.
Perhaps the most famous aircraft from the era is the Boeing EC-135, best known for its use during the Operation Looking Glass mission, in which one EC-135 was airborne 24/7 throughout the Cold War threat. The planes served as flying command posts for the Strategic Air Command in the event of nuclear war.
Entrance to the museum requires a fee, and tours are largely self-guided. Note that a tram tour is typically available, but it has been suspended until further notice.
Pro Tip: Although the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, the last admission is at 3 p.m. It’s best to arrive early and plan for at least 2 or 3 hours to take in all of the aviation history on display at the museum.
3. Davis–Monthan Air Force Base AMARG, Tucson
Located near the Pima Air & Space Museum is the Davis–Monthan Air Force Base’s Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) facility, known as an aircraft boneyard. The Cold War was ushered in at Davis–Monthan in the late 1940s with the presence of Strategic Air Command at the base.
Said to be the largest aircraft boneyard in the world, the Davis–Monthan AMARG is open to the public, but touring opportunities are fairly limited. According to information on the Airplane Boneyards website, the only access to the boneyard for non-cleared people is via a bus tour that begins at the nearby Pima Air & Space Museum, located across East Valencia Road from Davis–Monthan. No one is allowed off the bus, although photos are permitted from the bus.
Pro Tip: Typically, tickets for bus tours of the boneyard are available at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Note that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tours are discontinued indefinitely, so it is advisable to check on availability in advance.
4. Military Intelligence Soldier Heritage Learning Center, Sierra Vista
Housing everything from a large fragment of the Berlin Wall to a vehicle operated by the U.S. Army Military Liaison Mission, the Military Intelligence Soldier Heritage Learning Center in the Sierra Vista area of southern Arizona offers a unique perspective of the Cold War.
The website notes that the museum acts as custodian and repository for artifacts significant to the history of intelligence organizations, operations, and individuals. It aims to provide military history education by highlighting the role of military intelligence from 1775 to the present day.
Along with its section of the Berlin Wall, the museum has a collection of artifacts including agent radio communication gear, aerial cameras, cryptographic equipment, an Enigma Code machine, and two small drones.
The Military Intelligence Soldier Heritage Learning Center is located on the Fort Huachuca Army installation, and information about visiting the site is available here.
5. Arizona Military Museum, Phoenix
Arizona’s military service, including during the Cold War years, is featured at the Arizona Military Museum in Phoenix. The museum, which is operated by the Arizona National Guard Historical Society, offers an overview of military service in the state from the early Spanish conquistadors to today’s Arizona Air National Guard.
The museum features artifacts ranging from military vehicles and weapons to photos and newspaper clippings. The museum’s website notes that both the Army and Air National Guard were involved in the Cold War’s Berlin Crisis, adding that an Air National Guard and Transportation Company of Winslow, Arizona, “were mobilized and supported this Cold War effort.”
Pro Tips: The adobe museum building has a history of its own, having been built in 1936 as a Depression-era public works project. It later served as a maintenance shop for German prisoners of war confined at a nearby POW camp.
Looking for more Cold War history? Here are five spots in the Midwest where you can learn more about the conflict.