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Pyramid of Promise


On this day, exactly thirty years ago, President Gerald Ford's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced, in his Annual Report to Congress, the termination of a nuclear missile defense system that had recently become operational at Nekoma, ND. The Senate approved the decision the same day. Interestingly, the House of Representatives had first voted to shut down the system the previous October, just one day after it had become fully operational.

The Nixon administration had advocated the new "Safeguard" system, and Congress had authorized its deployment seven years earlier. It was a much-debated Cold War program, as evidenced by a 50-50 tie vote in the Senate, with Vice President Spiro Agnew casting the deciding vote to build it.

Initially, Safeguard was to have several component sites around the nation, but it was pared down to a single site with the sole purpose of defending the Minuteman missiles that were already in the ground in eastern North Dakota. With the system operation, the greater Grand Forks area was one of the most heavily armed and most powerfully defended territories in the history of mankind…for awhile.

The apocalyptic vision of missiles launching to intercept incoming nuclear missiles, with potential subsequent counter attacks and the unearthly destruction eventually led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviets; ultimately, the missiles and anti-missiles on the North Dakota prairie were to be removed. But not before they were installed and completely operational.

Nekoma is a village about 100 miles northwest of Grand Forks and about 10 miles south of Langdon. The town's founders must have had great vision for the town when they named it, 100 years ago this March. Nekoma is a Chippewa word meaning, "I promise to do something." Without a doubt, the people of Nekoma did many notable things over the years…as promised. So far, one “something” dwarfs all others.

If you want to know what that "something" looks like before you make the trip to actually see it, look no further than the backside of a U.S. one-dollar bill. The most striking facility at Nekoma is a massive reinforced concrete pyramid that looks like it's missing its top, just like the one on the dollar. Note, there is no "All Seeing Eye" hovering over Nekoma's topless pyramid, at least as far as we can tell. Also not seen are the 100 underground silos that once held missiles designed to intercept incoming missiles.

According to the Federal Citizen Information Center, the pyramid on the dollar signifies "strength and duration." The look-alike pyramid at Nekoma is definitely strong -- it's made of thousands of cubic yards of concrete reinforced with thousands of tons of steel. Duration will likely not be a problem. Other well-known pyramids in Egypt and the Americas have far outlasted the great civilizations that built them.

As for the duration of the operation of the Safeguard system at Nekoma, it lasted for less than a year. Safeguard was fully deployed -- that is, all 100 missiles were installed and ready to launch, but for just four months.

If you're wondering how many of those one-dollar bills it took to build and operate the whole Safeguard system, that's a little hard to pin down. For a good round number, Time magazine puts it at $25 billion -- with a "b".

A cold concrete pyramid remains as a monument to…rocket science?…the Cold War?…the military industrial complex?…Congressional…foresight? We'll let you decide. At a minimum, it represents the fulfillment of a prophetic promise made 100 years ago…"to do something."



Koehler, Darrel. “Community of the Week: Nekoma, N.D.” The Grand Forks Herald 28 Sep. 1998.



Thompson, Mark. “The Secretary of Missile Defense” Time 14 May 2001.