Utah and the Cold War

Rebecca Whetstone

Utah, like the rest of the world, was greatly affected by World War II. The end of the war marked the rise of two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. The two countries supported differing ideologies. The United States embraced capitalism while the Soviet Union supported communism. These differing economic systems set the two countries against each other, created suspicion and created the Cold War, remnants of which still remain today.

After WWII, Utah’s defense installations became drastically reduced. Many people were out of work. However the threat of communism in the Soviet Union and China and the Korean War gave the defense industry in Utah a major boost. At the end of the Korean War in 1953, military installations gained a new life with the development of satellites and missiles.

In the 1940s Utah’s defense installations were decreasing but had little impact on the economy of the state. In 1950, the beginning of the Korean War, gave the installations an opportunity to skyrocket. North Korea armed with weapons from the Soviet Union invaded South Korea. The United Nations sent troops to counteract these attacks. American soldiers had retreated the North Korean soldiers near the Chinese border. The Chinese fearing American troops so close sent their own troops to help the North Koreans, turning the war to a bloody standstill.

Because of the Cold War and the Korean War the federal government increased defense employment in Utah. In 1950, nearly 14,800 people worked for the Utah defense installations; by 1951 the employed had increased by almost 90 percent. The war required more materials sent to help the Americans fight the battles.

On the other side of the world Congress decided to assign the Ogden Air Materiel Area at Hill Air Force Base to store and maintain World War II aircraft. As the fighting in Korea started to heat up the Air Force ordered jets and the Ogden Air Materiel Area began storing and repairing the new fighter jets. At the same time places like Utah General Depot (renamed Defense Depot Ogden) and Tooele Ordinance Depot (renamed Tooele Army Depot), performed the same responsibilities.

The lack of numbers compared to World War II created fewer needs for installations. Some wartime installations didn’t survive, and because of the lack of needs of the Korean War reopening them seemed wasteful. The Standard Surplus Inc., a wartime installation, bought the Kearns Army Air Base and built what we know as Kearns City.

Once the Korean War ended the Defense Department was planning on closing down all the installations. However, the Cold War intensified and the installations were saved. America entered into an arms race with the Soviet Union. To help both countries found ways to get German rocket scientists to work with their own technicians to make the most devastatingly powerful weapons possible. By 1958 the Ogden Air Materials Area was storing, supplying, and repairing new generations of missiles. Meanwhile in Nevada in the Yucca Valley atomic tests were being conducted in the open air and underground forcing radioactive debris through the air that was harmful to the inhabitants of Southern Utah.

The people of southwestern Utah felt the reverberations of the nuclear testing from the Nevada Test Site. This testing took place in the desert of southeastern Nevada. The government knew that the wind would not carry the radioactive materials to the Pacific Coast. Instead the citizens of St. George, Utah bore the brunt of the pain caused by the radioactive debris. Between 1951 and 1958 the nuclear explosions above ground greatly affected the people of southeastern Nevada, northwestern Arizona, and southern Utah. Later a ban was placed to no longer detonate nuclear bombs above ground so testing explosions underground began. Utah residents were more affected than their neighbors. As evidence was brought to the attention of the AEC (the company in charge of nuclear testing), officials encouraged their employees to lie about the harm of the chemicals. However, the AEC started a ground-monitoring program.

One of these tests nicknamed “Dirty Harry” left a mushroom cloud floating over St. George for over two hours. The fallout reached levels far beyond the standards of everyone including the AEC. The damage was hidden to the nation. When humans and animals became ill the AEC falsified information to say that the situation was not as awful as it seemed. Utah residents feared the Soviet Union but the fear of radiation poisoning was equally frightening. Most suffered the idea of poisoning rather than being unpatriotic.

The AEC sponsored a scientific study to prove whether or not the exposure to radiation increased the chances of getting Leukemia or cancer. The test showed the affirmative on the increase. The AEC wanted to yet again hide the truth. Scientists who were willing to lie replaced the scientists who refused to lie; they were offered great pay and compensation for their willingness to hide the truth. The twenty years that open air testing was practiced more people contracted leukemia and cancer than the normal amount of these diseases at the time.

Another aspect of the Cold War that affected Utah as well as the nation was fear, distrust and suspicion. The United States and the Soviet Union were afraid of each other. People were afraid that the “other” was going to attack them with a nuclear bomb. Suspicions and paranoia became rampant in the United States. Patriotism and anti-communism were followed to an extreme. Nobody wanted to be called unpatriotic; people turned on other American citizens claiming they were communist spies. Many of the so-called spies would lose their jobs and no one would hire them. These people were put on the black list and it was very difficult to get your name taken off once it was placed on the list. There was no forgiveness. This action of fear was called McCarthyism. The idea was named after the man who brought the idea about, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. These actions mirrored those of the Salem witch-hunts and trials. McCarthy accused fellow senators, military leaders, artists, and public servants. Nobody was above suspicion that created a sense of uneasiness in the country affecting everyone.

Another bright spot against McCarthyism came from a United States Senator from Utah, Arthur V. Watkins. Watkins was one of the most respected U. S. senators from his generation. Elected in 1952, he was most well known for his service as chairman of the Senate Select Committee. The Senate Select Committee recommended censure of Joseph McCarthy for his conduct in investigating and accusing “suspected communists” in government service. After he retired from government service in 1967, Watkins wrote a book entitled Enough Rope that detailed his activities in the Senate Select Committee.

On a positive note, the fifties in Utah (and the United States) weren’t all bad. The government gave contracts to private businesses to make war supplies. Millions of dollars given by the government was spent in Utah. The money helped build highways, public roads, schools, law enforcement, and other public domains. Following WWII Utah needed improvements. Most aspects of the infrastructure needed attention: education, roads/highways and law enforcement especially needed help. Teachers and schools were badly needed. This need led to a major increase in funding for education. Even today Utah government spends almost half its budget on education.

The economy was booming, manufacturing in Utah and processing of raw materials occurs in Utah. Jobs that had been outsourced were now done in Utah. During the post war years, manufacturing firms tripled; the number of workers tripled due to mining, agriculture, printing and publishing industries and the defense/missile industries. Payrolls increased over 16 times and people had more income to spend on their families and activities.

Transportation grew at astonishing rates. The Federal Highways Act of 1958 began the interstate highway system. Utah’s Gov. Clyde concentrated on the roads in the Wasatch Front area. With interstate highways being built and roads improving the accessibility to get around became easier. Trucking became a more popular job because of the ability to travel through other states to get the needed supplies to their destination. The airplanes industry, especially, grew dramatically. The Salt Lake International Airport added buildings to keep up with traffic. More people owned cars, 2,000 people owned a private jet, and 40,000 people owned boats to travel around on lakes and reservoirs.

Because people had more money to spend and traveling was easier. People started doing it more and it became a popular pastime. As people traveled more it became a priority to “spruce up the town” a bit. More money went to build the Salt Palace and hotels/motels for visitors to stay. Tourist hotspots were, and still are, Temple Square, lakes and reservoirs, national parks, state parks, and of course the fluffy, white powder that attracted skiers from all over the world to the ski resorts.

Communication grew due to technology. Improvements occurred in television and radio.  Television, invented by Philo T. Farnsworth a Utah scientist, brought many changes in the way we communicate and became the dominant mass media. Television in homes became the trend. In the 1950s and 1960s a chip in the radio could store music, words and other information. This led to the invention of the computer. Computers were used in every field imaginable from aviation to medicine to business. The computer technology helped immensely with space exploration. We use computers in our homes now to communicate with people all over the world and to play games. There are a hundred companies in Utah who build computers and other communicable technologies we use today.

While the 1950s were an era of suspicion and distrust, people were branching out to embrace new freedom, technology, and ideas. Fads, fashions, art, architecture, television, literature, technology all were influenced by a strong element of conservatism and anticommunism that was prevalent in society. However a growing sense of freedom and adventure prevailed during this conservative era that led to creative ventures in most fields over the following decades.

Rebecca Whetstone
April 18, 2007