Historian revisits Cold War in Montana

Author Ken Robison explores the Cold War era and its impact on Montana

Books & Writers

“From Stolen Secrets to the Ace in the Hole” could be the unofficial subtitle of Cold War Montana, the latest book by Great Falls author Ken Robison, published by the History Press.

Historian Ken Robison revisits Montana's contributions to the Cold War Era.
Historian Ken Robison revisits Montana’s contributions to the Cold War Era.

While Robison’s previous books often read as if he’d lived through the events he describes, (especially Historic Tales of Whoop-Up Country), here Captain Ken Robison, United States Navy, (Ret.), gives his own eyewitness reports in sidebars, crafting what may be his best book yet. Archival photos and the author’s photos enhance the riveting text.

Less than a year after the end of World War II, the lowering of the Iron Curtain by former ally Joseph Stalin announced the beginning the Cold War.

While our memories of the years from 1945-1991 might range from participating in school civil defense drills to serving in the military, Robison recounts other surprising, essential roles that Montana and Montanans played in the Cold War strategy of the United States.

Great Falls, home of Malmstrom Air Force Base, was the “aerial gateway” for military aircraft, served as a training center for aircrews for the Berlin Airlift (“Operation Vittles”), mobilized the Ground Observer Corps, and had the largest missile network in the country.

Even during the war Gore Field became the operating base for the Seventh Ferrying Group, which worked with the USSR; the Lend-Lease program provided a crucial 12 percent of the Red Air Force strength.

During that time Russians, many undocumented, were flooding Great Falls. According to Major George Racey Jordan, the U.S. Army officer in charge, there was a constant illicit flow to Russia of classified documents, and quantities of uranium and heavy water, all related to developing atomic bombs.

The following are a few of the many famous and not-so-famous Montanans who played important roles in WWII and the Cold War (and the space race):

  • A graduate of the University of Montana (then Montana State University), Dr. Harold C. Urey earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1934, and then had an important role in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bombs that were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II.
  • Major Halvorn Olaf Ekern from Lewistown, an officer in the State Department, was instrumental in helping Austria form a democratic government, free from the Soviets.
  • Lt. Diane Carlson of Helena was one of 11,000 women who served in Vietnam. She founded and chaired the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation, which eventually succeeded in placing a monument in Washington, D.C. honoring those women.

The end of the war brought on the issue of finding homes for displaced persons, including about 1 million Eastern and Central Europeans living in refugee camps in Germany. The Soviet Union wanted them out, but many refugees faced probable death if they returned to their home countries, now under Soviet rule. At least 350 found new homes in Montana as individuals and groups of Montanans offered money for camps or sponsored others to live in their communities.

In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis highlighted the importance of the ICBMs located near Great Falls. When John F. Kennedy visited a year later, he paid tribute to this “ace in the hole.” As Robison shows, Malmstrom AFB remains an important player in Montana, and in the defense of the United States.

– Carole Ann Clark