I grew up in Great Falls, Montana, an industrial town on the banks of the Missouri River and home of Malmstrom Air Base and the 341st Strategic Missile Wing of the United States Air Force. The base's combat-ready forces are there to secure, monitor and, if ordered, launch 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles spread over 20,000 square miles of northern Montana, the largest nuclear missile complex in the Western Hemisphere.
On picnics and camping trips in the 1960s, my family were frequently stopped on the highway by military police ushering convoys of ICBMs to and from their sites. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when I was in the second grade at St Gerard's School, President Kennedy referred to the nuclear arsenal around our town as America's "ace in the hole". During that confrontational month, missiles around Great Falls were prepared for full deployment; and on October 26th, manpower shortages at Malmstrom resulted in one live missile being readied with launch-enabling equipment and codes in its silo. It thus became physically possible for a single operator to launch a fully armed missile at a Soviet target, a situation that the website nuclearfiles.org includes in its list of "20 mishaps that might have started accidental nuclear war".
In such an atmosphere, civil defence drills were more than an exercise. My second-grade teacher, Sister Rita Ann, told our class that Great Falls was number three on the list of places the Soviet Union would strike in the event of nuclear war, after Washington DC and Fargo, North Dakota. At noon each day, the civil defence siren atop our school would wail for two minutes, and Sister would lead us through a familiar routine: we crouched beneath our school desks, heads between our knees, and recited a Hail Mary. The theory was that the wooden desktops (and the prayer) would protect us from a thermonuclear blast; as the joke now goes, in reality we were preparing to kiss our asses goodbye.
Yet in 1942 the US military had established Malmstrom (known then as East Base) for a very different purpose. Franklin Roosevelt's Lend-Lease Act of 1941 had authorised the president to provide aid to nations whose defence he considered essential to US security, and the Soviet Union was a major recipient.
Instead of aiming missiles at Russia, my home town was sending it warplanes: East Base was the chief staging-point for the delivery of lend-lease aircraft to the Soviet Union. Factories all over the US sent new planes to Great Falls, where they were weather-protected, painted with the red star insignia of the USSR, and loaded with cargo before being flown to Russia via the Alaska-Siberia air route. The first five planes, Douglas A-20 Havocs eventually used in the defence of Stalingrad, left Great Falls in September 1942, and within a few months 500 planes a month were being delivered.
To oversee the lend-lease arrangement, the Soviet Union sent members of the Soviet Purchasing Commission to Great Falls, where they stayed at the Rainbow Hotel, displaying a taste for bourbon and a flair for all-night drinking. The commission was headed by Col Anatoli N. Kotikov, a man the Soviet newspapers of the time called "the Russian Lindbergh" because in 1935 he had made the first seaplane flight from Moscow to Seattle across the polar icecap. For two years, Kotikov supervised the shipment of 3,200 aircraft from Great Falls, which he and his staff packed with as much cargo as the planes could carry, including tools, cigarettes, false teeth, drugs and other goods required by a country experiencing severe wartime shortages.
After the war, it emerged that the US was lending the Soviets more than anyone suspected. According to Kotikov's American counterpart, Maj George Jordan, the Russians were also smuggling maps, patent information, blueprints of industrial plants and top-secret government documents. At the time, Jordan could do nothing to prevent the espionage, as all cargo was protected by diplomatic immunity. But he began keeping a diary listing the materials being loaded onto the lend-lease planes, including, in April 1943, more than two pounds of enriched uranium, enough to build an atomic bomb. Jordan published his diary in 1952, provoking an FBI investigation. However, the probe concluded that the Soviet activity in Montana had been legal under lend-lease rules.
Twenty-five years after crouching in fear beneath my school desk, I began visiting Russia. In Magnitagorsk, site of the world's largest steel mill, I stayed in a villa filled with old photographs of the American consultants Stalin had hired in 1930 to help build the mill. In Moscow, in the midst of the August Coup of 1991, I watched tanks heading into the city centre from my hotel balcony on Leningradsky Prospect. On two occasions I saw familiar-looking convoys on Russian highways, the camouflage paint and netting failing to disguise the distinctive shape of their cargo.
Over the years I have met countless Russians who, like me, grew up curious about what people from the "other superpower" were like. Our curiosity is usually satisfied over a bottle of vodka, and we often laugh uneasily at my story of how the American town that has the most warheads pointed at Russia also happens to be the place that may have helped the Soviets to get their missile programme going in the first place.