NO ATOMIC TARGET: Picking the Air Force Academy Location

Today’s post was written by William Carver, Archives Technician at the National Archives at Denver.

Amazon intends to unveil the selection of its new HQ2 location sometime in 2018. The buzz that has surrounded the selection process, and the various offers presented by states and cities, drew a lot of attention over the last year. The desire to lure Amazon drove many locations to offer the company extensive tax breaks and other benefits. Some locations went above and beyond in their attempts. Tucson, Arizona sent Jeff Bezos a 21 foot tall saguaro cactus as a way to illustrate their room for the company to grow. Stonecrest, Georgia de-annexed 345 acres and renamed the land “Amazon.” Even local companies tried to bolster their city’s bids, like Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh that offered free sandwiches to every Amazon employee if Pittsburgh was selected.[1]

This was far from the first time cities presented competing offers in hopes of bringing economic development to their back yard and cities have historically found interesting, and sometimes quirky, ways to promote themselves. The records of the Air Force Academy’s site selection provides an opportunity to look at what Amazon may have been offered if the company had existed 70 years ago. Much like the drive to score a deal with Amazon, cities across the country developed proposals detailing why they would be the best fit for the nation’s newest service academy.  These records, found in Reports Regarding Proposed Air Force Academy Site Selection, 1950-1950 (NAID 2580022) National Archives Record Group 341, Records of Headquarters U.S. Air Force, provide an interesting look at what cities considered important when attempting to entice development to their area in the late 1940’s.

Denver’s Beauty and Genius

Denver, Colorado presents one of the larger proposals preserved in the records. In addition to the braggadocios claims made in attempts to brand the city as the best choice for the Academy site, the documents from this proposal provide a look at how Denver has changed in more than half a century. The report compiled by the Denver Chamber of Commerce proposing the city as the Air Force Academy’s site stated that, “unlike other large cities Denver is not crowded or congested…” and “there is room in Denver, room to breathe the pure, fresh mountain air for which it is famed.”[2] The same sentiments may hold true today, though it may be hard to convince anyone stuck on I-25 during their commute. Where words may fail to properly illustrate the increased bustle of the Denver area, photographs may provide the better example. Denver’s proposal is luckily filled with wonderful photographs of all that 1950’s Denver had to offer. The prints provide a look at how far the city has come since they were taken. One photograph shows a Denver that would be completely alien to newer residents if not for landmarks like Mount Evans and the capital building. The pictures show a sparsely populated stretch leading up to the foothills and the absence of Denver’s currently robust skyline.

Despite not being selected, Denver had and still maintains a worthy appeal. With all the natural beauty and recreational opportunities that continue to draw visitors to the area, it should be no surprise that such topics were used as selling points in 1950. Scenic photographs were included with Denver’s proposal in an attempt to sway the selection process with majestic beauty. Perhaps scenes like these did influence the decision to place the Academy in Colorado. Denver did at least get the consolation of hosting the Academy at Lowry Field until construction was completed in Colorado Springs.[3]

Aside from natural beauty, Denver’s marketing campaign included a little bit of genius. Denver’s proposal insisted that the local climate was ideal for both “mental and physical vigor” and backed it up with data from Ellsworth Huntington’s Mainsprings of Civilization. Huntington was a professor of geography and was best known for his studies concerning environmental determinism.[4] His theories were presented heavily in Denver’s proposal as the city sought to present itself as the ideal location to shape the minds and bodies of future military personnel. Denver pointed out that more scientific leaders had come from Colorado than any other state and utilized Huntington’s theories to bolster its appeal. The theoretical benefits of the environment would likely be contested by other locations. One thing Denver could certainly not match another city on its ability to predict the future, or at least to follow through with its plans for development. What city had the best projections for where they would be almost 70 years later? Well, Rapid City of course.

These documents show Denver’s attempt to persuade the Air Force that Colorado was the ideal environment to develop intelligent minds. Denver used data presented by Huntington in the form of climatological maps and census data. National Archives at Denver, RG 341.
These documents show Denver’s attempt to persuade the Air Force that Colorado was the ideal environment to develop intelligent minds. Denver used data presented by Huntington in the form of climatological maps and census data. National Archives at Denver, RG 341.

Planning and Foresight

Rapid City, South Dakota included a portion in their proposal dealing with where they saw the city in the year 2000. Many of these predictions were very accurate and correlate to how the city stands currently. This is most likely the result of the city council being able to hold to development plans, but one may wonder if the Rapid City council members had a few tarot cards up their sleeves. Despite not being able to predict the selection of the Academy site, Rapid City was certainly able to make projections about their own growth. Much of the proposed development went exactly as the city council predicted, with residential and industrial development moving into areas to the east and south. The proposed development of the Canyon Lake area also went precisely as the city council planned. Rapid City’s city council may not have been able to predict the future, but they certainly were adept at forming and following through with goals. Still, it may be worth a telephone call to ask if they have any suggestions for lotto numbers.

Free Land and Few Outdoor Toilets

Stonecrest, Georgia may have de-annexed a large area in an attempt to gain Amazon’s attention, but it was not uncommon for cities to recommend land to the Air Force either. Many of the proposals in this series outline the cost of acreage in their vicinity. Some, like Weldon Spring, Missouri, illustrated their eagerness to allow the federal government to reclaim land in order to support the project. The Saint Louis chamber of commerce prepared a pamphlet promoting Weldon Spring and the large tracts of acreage the federal government had agreed to cede to the state of Missouri for conservation and experimental agricultural use. The brochure noted that the agreements provided for the federal government to recapture the areas and that doing so would cause “no considerable inconvenience or large loss of investment to the State of Missouri.”[5]

Saint Louis promoted Weldon Spring as meeting all the requirements of hosting a large development like the Air Force Academy, as well as being an ideal geographic location. The prospect of acquiring over 14,000 acres at no charge also made Weldon Spring an appealing prospect. Despite not being selected, the brochure generated by the Saint Louis chamber of commerce was well argued and presents one of the more artistic proposals found in the series.

Lander, Wyoming was another town that was more than willing to help the Air Force find free land. Lander flaunted the natural beauty and recreational opportunities that surrounded their proposed site. They also promoted their rodeo, claiming that it was the oldest in the United States. While Lander admitted in their proposal that they did not meet several of the requirements sought by the Air Force, they claimed to have an abundance of land available. Lander’s rodeo, older than Cheyenne’s Frontier Days but not the oldest rodeo, may have been an interesting event to draw cadets and families to the town, but the proposed location presented more than a few issues. The land in question was part of the Shoshone and Arapaho reservation and it is unclear whether or not the Shoshone or Arapaho were consulted about this generous offer. Even so, if the Air Force had selected the area around Lander, the proposal assured the selecting officials that the host town was “practically” clear of venereal disease.

Adequate Enough

Some towns are a little too humble when it comes to promoting themselves. Although Independence, Kansas did not meet many of the initial requirements set forth by the Air Force, they could have bragged a little more. Independence had excellent schools according to the Air Force’s site survey and the location, in general, was deemed adequate. “Adequate” may not be the best description to use when labeling a section of one’s own proposal, especially when addressing the condition of a school system. Such titles draw a sharp contrast with more flamboyantly labeled sections, like “INDEPENDENCE CHURCH LIFE A RICH EXAMPLE.” One would think Independence would be as bold as to label their schools as “excellent.”

Independence included a brochure in their proposal that illustrates the mindset of Americans after World War II. Although attacks from a foreign military may not be a concern when selecting Amazon’s HQ2, the prospect posed a fearful threat during the era of the Air Force Academy’s site selection. The pamphlet included by Independence pointed out the benefits of keeping the United States’ production capabilities inland, particularly military production. Although a service academy is hardly the same as a munitions plant, they do provide a possible target for those wishing to do the U.S. military harm. With that in mind, “Location…” may still be “the essence of today’s defense.”

Having come out of World War II and into the Cold War era, the push to keep military production inland was more than just an economic desire. Pamphlets, with pages like the one pictured, were used to promote maintaining such production centers in inland areas. National Archives at Denver, RG 341.

An Atomic Incentive

Perhaps the proposal that was most indicative of the times is the one from Alliance, Nebraska. Just like with Independence, safety and security played a prominent role in Alliance’s proposal to the Air Force Academy Site Selection Board. Like Saint Louis, Alliance offered land that had once been utilized and owned by the government during World War II. The proposal itself is not too different from any other site surveyed, aside from the prominence the threat of nuclear war posed in their material.

In addition to the typical geographical data concerning the location’s ease of access, climate, and transportation from across the country, Alliance proudly declared the site posed no nuclear threat. With the onset of the Cold War and the increasing fear of communism, it is no surprise that the people of Alliance would feel such a feature presented them with a substantial advantage. Additionally, promoting the fact that Alliance contained “No Foreign Element” falls well within the rationalization of the era’s thought. Cities today may be clamoring to showcase their diversity in hopes that Amazon will take notice. In 1950, the fear of the unknown and potential threat of outsiders weighed more heavily. One can hardly blame Alliance for promoting such features given the undertones of the period.

Growth and Planning Big

The Air Force had a great deal to consider before eventually selecting Colorado Springs as the location of its service academy. Amazon certainly has a lot to consider before they announce the location of their HQ2. With cities throwing down perks in an almost bidding war, both then and now, it can be both humorous and daunting to look upon. One thing is certain: which ever location is selected by Amazon, the locations hope to receive much of the same benefits cities were eager to find in the Air Force Academy site selection. Some larger metropolitan areas, like Denver, may have been able to absorb the Academy with little change to their operation. Smaller towns would have likely seen the Academy as a life source, drawing in additional development merely by its presence. The same is true for small towns hoping to persuade Amazon to take a chance on them. It is unlikely to see Amazon select a city like Stonecrest or Tucson for their HQ2, but sometimes it is fun to cheer for the underdog. In the end, perhaps the smaller locations that applied to Amazon can take heart in the Black Hills region’s proposal to the United Nations and will continue to dream big.

Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota came together to propose the United Nations establish a capital in the Black Hills region. Rapid City used much of the information from this proposal in their submission to the Air Force Academy Site Selection Board. National Archives at Denver, RG 341.

[1] Cuthbertson, Anthony. “Some cities will do anything to woo Amazon.” Newsweek. October 31, 2017. Accessed November 30, 2017.

[2] “AF Academy Survey, Denver CO.” National Archives Identifier: 2580022, Box 2.

[3] Records for the construction of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs can be found at the National Archive at Denver, Record Group 461.

[4]Ellsworth Huntington.” Wikipedia. Accessed December 11, 2017.

[5] “AF Academy Survey, Weldon Spring, MO.” National Archives Identifier: 2580022, box 6

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