Four Heartlanders Recall the Cold War

The “heartland” has long been positioned at the center of America. Geography has much to do with this, but so too do the uniquely American values that the heartland represents to many. It would thus seem natural that daily heartland life was dominated by the Cold War, a time when the United States and its values seemed to be under existential threat.

Interviews conducted with four “heartlanders” challenge such an assumption. Each of the interviewees displayed a keen awareness of at least some of the Cold War’s major events and each demonstrated that they and the region were affected in significant ways by the Cold War. Nonetheless, the interviewees also made it clear that daily life continued in the heartland, often in (seemingly) uninterrupted fashion, despite Cold War politics and nuclear threats. The oral history produced by these heartlanders serves as both a testament to the diversity of the region’s experience in the Cold War, as well as to the even more notable importance ascribed to everyday life by “ordinary” people living through turbulent times.

Memory and Proximity of the Cold War

The Cold War brought many changes to the heartland, including the construction of military bases, the creation of new conflicts that brought residents abroad for military service, and social change resulting from the entanglement of Cold War politics with the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, such changes were not always felt by all in the region. One reason was the archetypical rural heartland upbringing, which could make the Cold War seem far away for some. As recounted by Sharon Bissen, 74, “we didn’t have access to TV [on her family’s rural Iowa farm]…we had no newspaper.” She added: “[The Cold War] didn’t affect my life that much, personally, because we were raised in a rural area away from the media.” Darrell Wilham, 77, farmed for decades in Illinois and later Missouri and likewise discussed the effect his rural upbringing had on his understanding of the Cold War:

...we just didn’t seem to pay much attention... Like I was telling you, we didn’t have the communications, the media, I don’t think we even took a daily newspaper growing up. Listened to the radio quite a bit, but most of the time we didn’t have radio in tractors back then like we got today. We did have TV, but like I said, I was out running around—I didn’t pay much attention to that TV. I mean when I grew up most of the time when you turned sixteen you got an automobile and any spare time you used out running around.

For Wilham, however, the Cold War would later become very “real.” Wilham served in the US Navy’s Construction Battalions, or “Seabees,” in the early 1960s, taking part in the US Navy’s standoff with the Soviet Union and Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis:

I was down in Cuba on that blockade… We floated around out there for about six weeks. I was a Seabee but also I was trained militarily like a marine… We actually had our weapons out and loaded one night, we were supposed to land [in Cuba] but then they called it off…[we were] supposed to land eight mile(s) from Havana… We really didn’t know a lot, but they told us that night at midnight that we were going to land that next morning at six o’clock. When morning came, I knew we weren’t going in because the ships hadn’t…softened up the beaches.

Following this period of direct involvement in the Cold War, however, Wilham returned to farm in the heartland, after which the Cold War ceased playing a significant part in his memories of his post-service life.

Rural upbringings were not the only factor that could make the Cold War seem distant from daily life. Susan Nealy, 69, remembers her history teachers talking about the Cold War and communism in her Kansas City-area high school. She recalls how it was presented to her: “everything was very extreme on a lot of fronts…a lot of one-dimensional, one-sided thinking.” However, her youth prevented her from grasping it fully. In college, the global politics of the Cold War were still blurry. After 1974, when she became a single parent, the Cold War largely vanished from her view as she focused all of her attention on raising her child. “I was just trying to pay my bills, and raise my boy,” she explained.

Of course, there were others for whom the Cold War seemed much closer at hand. When queried as to whether he thought of the Cold War on a daily basis, Cherokee Nation member and long-time Kansas resident Jerry Aday, 71, replied: “Yes. We didn’t think about it in terms of the Cold War, but…growing up… nuclear arms was on our minds daily.” Indeed, Aday was not alone in positioning nuclear weapons as one of the more tangible manifestations of the Cold War in the heartland. Wilham recalled his country school’s steel tornado shelter doubling as a nuclear fallout shelter, while Bissen noted that a company she worked for in Omaha, Nebraska had its own shelters as well. Indeed, the fear of nuclear weapons was magnified by the heartland’s strategic and economic location, as noted by Aday:

A lot of people don’t know this, but [describes Air Force strike group based in Wichita] …and we got a lot of missile bases, I mean there was probably a hundred missile bases built here in Kansas… And then course we feed the world here in the heartland, so we kind of felt like we could be a target [be]cause I mean you destroy the food and the country gets hungry.

Other “Cold Wars” and the People’s Republic of China

The importance of nuclear weapons in bringing the Cold War home to the heartland helps explain why memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis were one commonality among several of the interviews. It may also explain why prior to being queried on the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Cold War, the interviewees generally did not ascribe a significant role in the Cold War to China, which did not test its first nuclear weapon until 1964. This relative absence of China from Cold War memories gets at the “slippery” nature of the Cold War itself—the Cold War was a global phenomenon that was experienced and understood quite differently in different parts of the world. While heartlanders associated the Cold War with the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, a range of conflicts unfolded in this period: communist Chinese “volunteer” forces clashed with US-led UN forces in Korea, socialist Yugoslavia under Josip Broz (Tito) steered a different course than the Soviet Union, Gamal Abdel Nassar’s Egypt and other non-aligned countries eschewed both the capitalist and socialist blocs, and the Soviet Union and China’s friendship fractured in the late 1950s and early 1960s in what is known as the Sino-Soviet split. In all of these places, the Cold War was experienced as more than a two-sided, or bipolar, struggle.

Once the interviewees were asked directly about the People’s Republic of China and its role in the Cold War, however, it became clear that China was more closely connected in their minds to the larger geopolitics of the Cold War than it first appeared. Wilham recalled China’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953), while Aday described the China as being “in the background waiting for something to happen so they could pounce on it.” Aday also recalled US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and his meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong as a remarkable but also worrying moment:

When Nixon met with [Mao] that was one of those joyful ‘oh [expletive]’ moments. Are you familiar with those? You’re so glad it happened, and you see so many possibilities of positive things, but you’re thinking…have we done the right thing though, because did we wake up the bear, the monster; you know, you let monsters lie, hopefully. We were so happy to bring them into the world with us, and open those markets up for us and hopefully it changed some things, but then you think they might be big enough to eat us up. So it’s kind of one of those things where…many of us were very happy we did it, but also very cautious or scared. Kind of like maybe Reagan said a few years later: “Trust but verify”—you know we’re happy but we want to keep an eye on them.

Such recollections, and the emphasis Aday and Wilham placed on China in their discussion of economics and trade, may be influenced by the prominence China has gained in the heartland since the Cold War’s end. In recent decades, enhanced economic and political ties have brought China “closer” to the heartland.

The Iron Curtain Lifted

Recollections of the Cold War often included its end, including the Berlin Wall being torn down and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nealy recalls the feeling of the time: “it was a relief to see the collapse of the Soviet Union for a lot of people.” Aday remembers the impact this had on the heartland. According to him, the end of the Cold War created new business opportunities for the heartland, including in post-socialist Romania and post-Soviet Georgia. Indeed, Aday played a significant role in forging trade agreements between local industries and Romania. With trade, in his view, came more economic opportunity, and even military cooperation.

Years later, after the Cold War had ended, Susan Nealy had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima, Japan. While the bombing of Hiroshima was, strictly speaking, not part of the Cold War era, Susan did seem to connect it to the Cold War in important ways: “It didn’t really come clear to me the power of nuclear weapons until I went there… I saw what happened.” For Susan, a true reckoning with the Cold War’s nuclear dangers came after the Cold War.

Sharon Bissen’s memories of the Cold War’s end could not be more different. Other factors in her life prevented her from being aware of the major events. In her subtly telling words, “a lot of us didn’t have the educational skills that a lot of people had…I don’t even know if I recognized ‘Oh gee, the war ended today.’ When you’re sitting around the kitchen table, [did I say] ‘oh guess what happened today, kids, the war ended?’ I don’t think we ever did that.”

Beyond the Textbook

There is a tendency to assume that history is the chronicle of events found in textbooks. The Cold War narrative contained in these is familiar and starts in the waning days of World War II, as the world was divided into capitalist and communist blocs. Next come the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the Sino-Soviet split, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Reagan years, glasnost and perestroika, the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. It is easy to conclude that the Cold War was not just of decisive importance to world history, but directly affected the lives of all who lived during this time. Indeed, for those heartlanders who lost loved ones in Vietnam, found themselves cut off from family members on the other side of the “Iron Curtain,” or simply maintained well-stocked backyard fallout shelters, the Cold War’s effects could be life-altering.

Yet for others in the heartland, these events of global importance glimmered faintly for much of this period, brightening only for brief moments. Jerry Aday was born in Oklahoma, moved with his parents to rural Arkansas and later became a long-term resident of Kansas, embarking on a career that would place him in a series of positions—tribal leadership, business, and eventually the Kansas House of Representatives—with which the Cold War and its aftermath intersected only intermittently. Sharon Bissen moved with her family from the heartland to various places around the country, focusing on surviving and raising a family even as the Cold War appeared on the nightly news. Susan Nealy established a career in human resources even as she worked hard to raise her child. And Darrell Wilham returned from active duty and the Cuban Missile Crisis to the rhythms and relative isolation of rural life in Illinois and later Missouri, the Cold War disappearing nearly completely from his recollections of his post-service years.

These stories, too, form the history of the Cold War. In them, the conflict appears as a backdrop that sometimes came to the fore in daily life, but other times went virtually unnoticed. For younger generations, memories of this tense and uncertain time may seem alien. The threat of nuclear devastation seems to have disappeared from the collective American consciousness. Nevertheless, rising tensions between the United States and China and Russia over trade disagreements, human rights violations, geopolitical interests, and ideological differences have opened up the possibility of a new Cold War, a fact that worried the interviewees as a group. If their memories of the Cold War teach us anything, it is that while a future Cold War would doubtlessly leave a mark on experience and memory in the heartland, the region’s residents will also continue to live their everyday lives, focusing on surviving and thriving in the “heart” of America.


Preston Decker

University of Kansas


James R. Bissen

Benedictine College

Fort Riley Water Tower
Water towers are prominent landmarks in rural Kansas. This particular water tower, set against the open sky of the state’s Flint Hills, bears the name of Fort Riley, a US army installation that played an important role in the Cold War.