This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A grass-roots movement centered in Salt Lake City 30 years ago kept Utah and Nevada from hosting the world's largest weapons system.
During the final years of the Cold War, a peaceful rebellion against the MX Mobile Missile saved the Great Basin from significant environmental impacts and likely changed the course of the nuclear arms race.
The core of the rebellion was a loose-knit group of young people who became foot soldiers in the effort to stop deployment of the massive project. Three decades later, some look back at their unlikely success as a time that shaped their lives.
"It was a complete awakening for me, with the military-industrial complex and how little it has to do with national security and how much it has to do with fat cats getting contracts," recalled Maggie Laun, who volunteered at the MX Information Center and is now an elementary school counselor. "I became radicalized by the experience. It changed my life."
The MX Mobile Missile, as outlined by the Air Force in the late 1970s, would have shuttled 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) each armed with 10 independently guided nuclear warheads around the desert on both sides of the Utah/Nevada border. The missiles were to be hidden among 4,700 shelters in something of a nuclear hide-and-seek shell game.
Budgeted in the hundreds of millions, the project would have required 10,000 miles of roads and was advertised by the U.S. Department of Defense as "man's largest construction project."
Strategically, the Air Force trumpeted the system as a weapon the Soviets could not target. But critics feared that it would appear as a first-strike weapon, destabilizing the strategic weapons balance while making Utah and Nevada primary targets in a nuclear war.
An unauthorized map of the MX deployment was obtained by the late Frances Farley, a state senator from Salt Lake City, and Chad Dobson, a documentary filmmaker at KUTV. It was published in The Salt Lake Tribune on Jan. 28, 1980.
That was the first shot in a public relations war that, in the end, would doom the MX Mobile Missile. Disparate forces in Utah and Nevada came together when they saw the plan, recalled Mary Ann Breneman, another young activist.
"Conservative ranchers, environmentalists, peaceniks folks that normally wouldn't be on the same side of the fence worked together," she said. "A lot of long-standing relationships developed."
Farley and Dobson, along with former University of Utah Law professor Ed Firmage, and rancher Cecil Garland, were among the movement's brain trust.
But it was Stan Holmes,a recent U. graduate, who headed up the MX Information Center in the basement of the Campus Christian Center. He was central to the volunteer brigade of 20-somethings who sent out newsletters, held fundraisers and staged rallies to inform the public and keep the MX in the media.
"It was an adventure,"Holmes said in an interview.
Farley and Dobson brought Herbert Scoville to Salt Lake City, Holmes recalled. Scoville was a respected former CIA official who later worked in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
"He laid out the Air Force plan," Holmes said of Scoville. "He used the term 'Rube Goldberg' device. He said, 'You have to do something to stop it.' "
Steve Erickson was among the young group affiliated with the MX Information Center and remains an environmental activist.
"The critical reaction was, there's big power behind this national security," he said.
But he realized that Utahns had become suspicious of the Department of Defense (DOD) because of nuclear testing in Nevada and its aftermath. "The push-back came on the heels of the nuclear fallout issue in southern Utah," he said.
Nonetheless, picking a fight with DOD was "intimidating," Breneman recalled.
"I don't know that we were hugely confident we could succeed," she said. "It was the first time I was active fighting something."
She and Erickson later married and live in Salt Lake City. Now, she's known as Mary Ann Erickson.
Tom Hamilton and his wife, Lynne McCue-Hamilton, moved to Salt Lake City in 1981 from Philadelphia because they wanted a safe place to raise their two young children. They heard about the MX Information Center near the University of Utah campus and went to see what it was about.
"It was a small basement office and there was a lot of activity going on," he recalled. "Lynne and I became volunteer worker bees. We helped with mailings and organizing things and pitched in where we could."
For the Hamiltons, it was an instant community. "We found people we could relate to in our age group," he said. "And we hung out together."
The Hamiltons saw themselves as "very patriotic," Lynne said. Stopping the MX was the right the thing to do for the country and world peace. "We learned how to advocate for things we believed in. And I found I had skills I had no idea I had."
Today, she is a counselor at the Thayne Center for Service and Learning at Salt Lake Community College.
Laun, the elementary school counselor, recalls the anti-MX group didn't seem radical, like the 1960s and '70s firebrands in organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
"This group was smart and thoughtful," she said of the volunteers. "We did everything together. We hiked together. We partied together."
Marc Hoenig, 55, also remembers the positive vibrations of the MX Information gang. Then a student at the University of Utah, he was unsure whether he would stay in Utah after graduation. But that changed when he hooked up with the young band of activists.
"I was very optimistic" that anti-MX forces would prevail, he said. "The whole issue of nuclear weapons control was something I was interested in since junior high."
Dan Miller, who took the photo seen on A1, circa 1981, worked as a photographer for The Salt Lake Tribune but volunteered his skills at the MX Information Center. Today, he lives in Cache County and is executive director of the Bear River Watershed Council, a small environmental organization he helped found.
Miller remembers designing bumper stickers andT-shirts for the movement and was happy to help out doing what he calls the "little things."
As more details of the behemoth system emerged, the anti-MX Missile movement picked up steam, recalled Holmes. Polls that had once shown Utahns were in favor of the project began to shift. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unlike other denominations in Salt Lake City, wouldn't take a stand.
"It was seen as incredibly important that the Mormon Church come on board,"Holmes said. "But we were moving ahead anyway."
At that time, Firmage had the ear of the Mormon leadership, including then-church President Spencer W. Kimball and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Over a 2 1/2-year period, he worked to sway them.
"The military put huge pressure on the Mormon church," he said. "It was amazing there could be such stupidity and arrogance," he said of the DOD under President Jimmy Carter.
On May 5, 1981, with public opposition mounting, the LDS Church issued a statement against the MX, signaling its death knell.
It would take the election of Ronald Reagan, however, to kill it outright, Dobson said.
MX was far more than a Utah/Nevada issue, said David Cortright, professor of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The cancellation of the project significantly deflated the arms race. "It was a big boost for arms control," he said.
Or as Erickson likes to put it: "It goes to show what an engaged public can do to say 'no' to the powerful when they're wrong."
Today begins a series of occasional stories exploring how major Utah news stories of the past affected how those involved live today.
Is there another story you'd like to see us revisit? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where are they now?
Stan Holmes, 60, was coordinator for the MX Information Center in the late 1970s and early '80s. He teaches history and sociology at Alta High School in Salt Lake County.
"The notion that citizens could stop the MX was empowering."
Steve Erickson, 57, a volunteer at the MX Information Center, is a Salt Lake City-based environmental activist.
"Local activism can have national and international repercussions."
Mary Ann Breneman Erickson, 60, met her future husband as a volunteer at the MX Information Center. She is a retired information technology specialist for the state of Utah. "It brought together a lot of strange bedfellows, conservative ranchers and environmentalists."
Maggie Laun, 58, a volunteer at the MX Information Center, is a counselor at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City.
"It was a complete awakening for me. ... I became radicalized."
Dan Miller, 56, is a professional photographer who took the group shot featured in this story. He is the executive director of the Bear River Watershed Council in Cache County.
"The thing I remember vividly ... was this weight that lifted and feeling, wow, we did it."