Dakota Datebook

Cold War Civil Defence Plan

Thursday, December 2, 2010


On this date in 1943, the first nuclear chain reaction took place as part of the Manhattan Project. The creation of nuclear weapons would soon change North Dakota forever. One such change was the construction of the Air Force bases at Minot and Grand Forks in the 1950s. Even though North Dakota was right in the center of North America, it was no longer safe from attack. The fear was of Russian atomic bombs, delivered by long-range bombers, flying over the North Pole. To counter this threat, the Air Force constructed a chain of bases across the northern perimeter of the U.S. from which U.S. jet fighter planes could intercept the Russian bombers.

In order to deal with the hazards of an atomic attack, a federal Civil Defense plan outlined what North Dakotans were supposed to do to survive. The plan predicted that Russian bombers would likely target four cities in the state – Grand Forks and Minot, because of the air bases; and Fargo, the state’s largest city; and Bismarck as the capital and government center.

In the event of a pending attack, the plan called for evacuation in a twenty-mile area around each city. In Bismarck’s case, the state government would re-locate in Jamestown, and the citizenry would go either west to Richardton; north to Underwood or McClusky; or south to Linton.

For Minot, a 1957 test alert revealed further the grim reality of an atomic attack. In this test, Minot was hit by a hypothetical bomb with the force of one million tons of T-N-T. The burst would destroy an area “eleven miles in diameter,” wiping out all buildings, vehicles and highways, not to mention the people.

The nuclear fallout from this single hydrogen bomb, carried by the prevailing westerly winds, would spread in a 45-mile-wide swath all the way to Bemidji, 325 miles to the east. Residents of Minot, were to evacuate to the neighboring towns of Stanley and Kenmare.

It was understood that the evacuation plans for each city could also be used for natural disasters. The Civil Defense plans of the 1950s may not have reduced fear of a nuclear war, but they did provide a practical response for disasters, providing a foundation for further measures in the 1960s, when nuclear fears grew more ominous as the superpowers developed intercontinental ballistic missiles with far more powerful warheads than the nuclear bombs of the 1950s.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Date to be used: December 2, the date of first nuclear chain reaction in Manhattan Project in 1942.


“Sites Chosen in Montana, Michigan and North Dakota,” Minot Daily News, June 18, 1954, p. 1; “For Base Hailed,” Minot Daily News, June 18, 1954, p. 1.

“Minot Only City ‘Hit’ By A-Bomb in Test Alert,” Ward County Independent, July 18, 1957, p. 1.

“North Dakota Defense Plans Survival From Attack And Disasters,” Ward County Independent, August 22, 1957, p. 1.

“Civil Defense Plan For State Is Now Completed,” Bismarck Tribune, August 15, 1957.

Bismarck-Mandan Target Area, Preliminary Operational Survival Plan: North Dakota Survival Project, A 134/3/3/ in Kenneth W. Simons Papers, Box 3, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, N.D.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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