SAHUARITA, Ariz. — Our tour guide begins by making reference to the classic Cold War-era movie "Dr. Stragelove," which he boasts of having seen multiple times. It is an entertaining farce whose humor seems more like wisdom as the years pass.
The journey from 2012 into the ever vigilant, uniquely irrational and strangely comforting world of that era is not far. Just take a few steps down a staircase out of the penetrating desert sun. It is, however, a journey that makes the distance between that world and today seem much farther than a mere 25 years.
This tiny town south of Tucson is home to the Titan Missile Museum. During the height of the decades-long standoff with the Soviet Union, there were 54 Titan missile silos in the United States kept on constant alert by four-person crews. This one, known officially as complex 571-7, is the only one that remains, complete with a now-unarmed missile.
For a small fee, anyone can take a guided tour through the innards of the silo, stare at the huge rocket on its underground launch pad, look at the stark living quarters and see the control room where the buttons of Armageddon were constantly guarded.
The United States still has an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to strike. But the urgency seems diminished, as does the comfort of an enemy that, for all its ruthless oppression, could be kept at bay by the thought of its own destruction.
Today's world labors with a strange an unpredictable new set of rules. In recent days, pundits and politicians have argued over how best to counter the emerging nuclear threat from Iran.
Some of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's public comments about annihilating Israel would suggest he isn't rational, but there are many complicating considerations, including the mindset of the ruling clerics above him.
The United States launched a war against Iraq based partly on Saddam Hussein's actions that suggested he had weapons of mass destruction. He didn't.
The United States is knee-deep in a war on terrorism in which the enemy thinks nothing of sacrificing its own life for a cause. Nuclear weapons are not a deterrent, but the enemy may find ways to use them against us.
Things were simpler in the Cold War.
Our guide chooses my 9-year-old son to man the control center deep in the silo as he walks us through what would have happened if the president had activated the "nuclear football," the coded device for launching such weapons that still travels with President Obama wherever he goes.
The museum says it would have taken 58 seconds from order to launch. We watch as the guide explains the sequence of steps to ensure that no mistakes were made, and as he and my son turn separate keys and hold them for five seconds.
Lights go on. An alarm sounds. The guide now explains that, at this point, the missile is operating independently. There is no way to undo what has been set in motion. A 9-year-old has destroyed the world.
Speaking of children, the museum displays an old civil defense film teaching school kids how to "duck and cover" in case of a nuclear attack. The crowning scene shows a family enjoying a picnic when a flash lights the sky. Mom and the kids throw the picnic blanket over themselves. Dad hides under a newspaper.
The 8-foot-thick walls of the missile silo tell a different story. Our guide explains that, after launching the bomb, the crew would have about 20 days worth of food, water and air. They would await further orders or, in the absence of those, might decide to climb the stairs and see what was left of the world.
At the end of "Dr. Strangelove," leaders debate placing a ratio of 10 women for every man in mineshafts where they could safely reproduce until radiation subsides and normal life can resume. But then they begin arguing about a possible "mineshaft gap" with the Soviets.
Maybe there simply is no way to measure rational thought where nuclear weapons are concerned.