“There’s no nowhere anymore.” With these words, a science professor played by John Lithgow in the 1983 television film The Day After dismissed the idea that America’s “heartland” might be spared a nuclear attack because of its distance from the capital and the coasts. In its own mythology, the heartland is a place isolated from the outside world but also held to represent the unchanging essence at the nation’s core. In reality, few places were as profoundly shaped by the global trends of the Cold War as the Midwestern United States.
Far from being confined to the margins, the region occupied a central place in the Cold War, and the global conflict had a profound impact on the people, environment, economy, and culture of the heartland. The region was the birthplace of four of the nine US presidents who served during the Cold War and the site of Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech. Its farmland became the backdrop for the first visit of a Soviet leader to the United States, and its farmers depended on selling grain to the Soviet Union even as they expressed their distaste for Soviet socialism. The region’s landscape was transformed by the construction of new military bases, which became integral to its economy, and Kansas at one time was home to more intercontinental missile sites that any other state in the nation.
After Lawrence, Kansas was chosen as the location for The Day After to depict the devastating impact of a potential nuclear war on a heartland city, its streets and residents were shown in millions of homes across the country. Around the same time, the home of the University of Kansas also hosted Soviet track and field athletes and the Soviet national basketball team. The Cold War also impacted the region in less visible—but no less important—ways, with nuclear tests and labs affecting the population and natural environment, their effects lingering to this day.
Created by faculty and graduate students at the University of Kansas, The Cold War in the Heartland brings together primary source documents, landscape case studies, and oral history interviews. It also provides tools for teachers and students to learn more, with guided discussions, activities, and an interactive timeline.
Conceived and supervised by Erik R. Scott
Content by Andrew Avery, Reid Bissen, Preston Decker, Marjorie Galelli, Michael Hill, Alana Holland, Devin McFadden, Steven Mutz, and Adam Rodger, and Erik R. Scott. Web design by Alyssa Gonzales.
Supported by the U.S. Russia Foundation and KU’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Gratitude is expressed to the Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History, Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, and Robert Swan, Jr. for generously providing primary source materials and to the residents of the heartland who kindly agreed to provide interviews.