Many years ago I was told there were Nike missile sites along the Chicago lakefront. Supposedly they were scattered from Grant Park to somewhere north of Lincoln Park, and consisted of underground bunkers that would open to let the launching platform rise up and fire the missile. Was that a cold war urban legend?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Nope, that was cold war reality. Chicago’s lakeside rockets were more conspicuous than most, but in the 1950s and ’60s more than 50 U.S. cities, military bases, etc., were surrounded by Nike missile batteries, the better to fend off Soviet bombers. Soviet bombers, you say? What about the USSR’s far more fearsome intercontinental ballistic missiles? Just so, which explains why few remember Nike missiles today. They date from an era when people still believed it was possible to mount an effective defense against nuclear attack — in fact, the Nike batteries near some cities replaced antiaircraft guns. Then along came the ICBM, which rendered the whole thing quaint.
The Nike missile program had its origins during World War II, when U.S. military planners realized that jets and other fast, high-flying aircraft then under development were beyond the reach of existing antiaircraft weapons. Rockets seemed the answer. The postwar Soviet threat made the matter more urgent, and in 1954 deployment of what became known as the Nike Ajax began around U.S. cities. The slender missiles were stored in underground magazines and could be elevated into firing position when required. Though equipped with a computerized radar guidance system that was advanced for its day, the Ajax had a range of only 25 miles, so you needed lots of them to defend a big city. The exurbs of New York, for example, bristled with 19 Nike missile emplacements.
Most Nike batteries were built on the urban fringe or in outlying or otherwise remote city districts — the Los Angeles sites included one at Fort MacArthur at the city’s southern tip and another on San Vicente Mountain in Van Nuys. Chicago’s sites were largely in the boondocks as well, but three Nike installations were spread along the densely populated Lake Michigan shoreline, from Jackson Park on the south side to Montrose Point on the north. In some cases rockets were housed only a few hundred yards from ranks of high-rise apartments. Geography dictated the atypical deployment — without the missiles, the long, uninflected lakefront was vulnerable to invading Hoosiers from Michigan City or, a bit more plausibly, an attack by Russian bombers coming in over the water.
Local leaders complained loudly about the use of public parkland for missiles, contending among other things that the Ajax was already obsolete. They got no argument from the military on that point. Even before the Ajax was deployed the Pentagon pushed to replace it with a newer model, the Nike Hercules, which went into service in 1958. Larger than the Ajax, the Hercules had greater range (75 miles plus) and could deliver a nuclear warhead rather than conventional explosives, the thought being that you could take out several attackers per missile rather than just one. These nukes weren’t just firecrackers, either — they could be set to explode with a force of as much as 40 kilotons, twice as powerful as the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The thought of detonating a nuclear warhead within 75 miles of a city you were nominally trying to protect today seems insane, but to be fair the Nikes were the last line of defense in a system that also included early-warning radar and interceptor aircraft. Also, while the Hercules could be equipped with nukes, given cold war secrecy we don’t know how many actually were.
The arms race soon made such questions moot. In 1957 the Soviets flight-tested the first ICBM and in the same year launched Sputnik, making it clear that henceforth rockets rather than bombers would be the nuclear delivery system of choice. Although the Hercules succeeded in destroying other missiles in tests, its technology wasn’t designed to counter a full-scale ICBM assault. (A third Nike, the Zeus, was developed with ICBMs in mind, but technical flaws led the Pentagon to scrap it in 1963.) Nike batteries remained operational for quite a while, no doubt on the theory that as long as the Soviets maintained strategic bombers we needed a bomber defense, however small the odds of using it. Although some installations were phased out in the 60s, the last ones weren’t dismantled until the late 70s.
Today the odd support building, concrete slab, or other vestige is all that remains of the missile emplacements around Chicago and most other cities. The curious can head out to Golden Gate National Recreation Area north of San Francisco, where a restored old site has been converted into a Nike museum — surely a fitting end. Whatever complaints we may have about the current state of the world, we ought to be grateful that to most people Nike means shoes, not the latest in urban defense.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.