Curious citizen Ian Larkin hooked us on Cold War history with a story. As he tells it, he met a retired Illinois state trooper and they somehow got to chatting about the Skokie lagoons, which happen to lie near Ian’s residence in Winnetka. The trooper said he spent breaks at the lagoons and would soak up some quiet time near the old Nike missile site there.
Which caught Ian’s interest.
“Wait - what?! Nike missiles?!” he told the trooper. Ian tells us that the casual mention of anti-aircraft weapons being nestled in this idyllic preserve during the Cold War era “blew me away.”
Nike arrives on the Third Coast
If your recollection of the Cold War is foggy or you haven’t had reason to pick up a history textbook lately, here’s what you should know before you learn about Nike missiles. The Cold War was not just the backdrop of many James Bond and other spy movies; it was a quest for ideological dominance between the United States and the Soviet Union. The conflict never materialized into active military hostilities on either countries’ soil (hence the use of the term “cold”), but the two parties were involved in several “hot” proxy wars in Asia (e.g., Vietnam and Afghanistan), Africa (e.g., Angola), Latin America (e.g., Cuba) and elswehere. The era began shortly after World War II in the mid-to-late 1940s and lasted until the Soviet Union was dissolved in the early ‘90s. In the early part of the Cold War, the threat (perceived or real) of Soviet attack prompted the creation of several U.S. weapons, including the Nike missile.
Nike was created to address a new reality of warfare: The front lines had moved to the skies. While the coasts of the United States had traditionally been considered targets, new nuclear-equipped bombers (and later, missiles) made the American heartland equally vulnerable. War planners suspected that a Soviet bomber attack would come over the North Pole and focus on major industrial centers such as Chicago. And the guns previously used to shoot planes proved no match against high-flying bombers.
Experiments for what became the Nike missile program began in the mid-1940s, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that the major industrial centers around the United States, including Chicago, had operational battalions of anti-aircraft guided missiles.
Mark A. Berhow, a research chemist with the USDA, happens to be a Nike missile history buff and co-wrote the book “Rings of Supersonic Steel,” which details the history of the more than 300 Nike missile sites that were peppered across the United States.
Chicago, being a major commercial and industrial hub, was among the best-protected cities. It had 22 Nike sites, two of which Berhow says had single radar systems that controlled multiple sets of launchers. Berhow says in the mid-1950s more than 600 Nike Ajax missiles were in the Chicago area. This first-generation weapon was designed to intercept a single bomber. A few year later the Ajax was replaced by the Nike Hercules, which would use a nuclear-tipped warhead to destroy multiple aircraft at once. In other words, the Hercules would use (nuclear) fire to fight (nuclear) fire.
The sites were strategically located to make the Nike Ajax missiles’ ranges overlap, meaning no area around Chicago would lie unprotected. These missiles, though, were not able to shoot down other missiles and it was this flaw that ultimately rendered the Nike obsolete. More on that in a bit.
Thanks to Debra Rade, Diane Addams, Rich Hayes and Cheryl Albers for calling in with their memories.
Berhow says the Nike missile program consisted of equal parts defense and deterrence. The latter was coordinated through an enormous public relations effort that had two aims: make the Soviets think twice about an attack, and reassure Americans. The Army encouraged officers to be visible members of their communities, and the media wrote extensively about the missiles. The weapons were also showcased at public events, such as parades.
Northwestern University Associate Professor of History Michael Allen says there was another strategy to comfort Americans — the preparedness drills performed by children during the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“The duck-and-cover drills and the civil defense drills did scare some people, but they were also designed principally to reassure people that they could survive a nuclear war, when in fact, the likelihood of surviving a nuclear war — especially if you lived in a metropolitan area — was slim,” Allen says.
Again, the Nikes' high visibility was directed to the Soviet Union as well, to let them know the U.S. was armed to the teeth. It's not clear, though, whether the defense strategy would have worked or whether it would have saved many lives, since the Soviets never provoked any action that warranted a Nike launch.
Detractors in Hyde Park
“Two unmistakable attributes of Cold War culture were conformity and fear. There was a great deal of centrism, as it was understood at the time,” Allen says, “because it was still thought that Americans must ban together, regardless of their differences, to beat a common foe.”
Still, there were citizens who raised concerns about the missile programs; some used the “not in my backyard” argument, calling the missile installations unsightly. Others questioned the need for the weapons.
The Hyde Park area was a hotbed for protest on both fronts, as Chicago’s southernmost lakefront missile site was, after all, in that neighborhood's backyard. A 1955 Chicago Tribune article mentions that members of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference “vigorously protested” construction of a radar center on Promontory Point. That didn’t stop the Army from installing it, however.
Berhow says “So once they [the U.S. Army] realized that the Soviets were no longer deploying large numbers of bombers, they were deploying large numbers of ICBMs. That'ss when it’s like: If these things are no good against missiles and the planes aren’t coming, why do we have them? Shut it down.”
That realization, Berhow says, was likely made in the early 1960s, but leaders didn't decide to close and demolish the sites until the 1970s. Berhow says the last Chicago site was shut down in 1974. So why did it take so long to shutter the program and associated sites?
If you ask Allen, Nike was a “cash cow” and that “once it was started, it was very hard to stop.” Allen explains that it was more than a defense initiative, the Nike program was really “... a kind of jobs program that was very hard to challenge because it had a national security justification put on it.”
Can I see what's left of them?
Adventure seekers and history buffs who want to see remnants of old sites will get the most satisfaction at the only fully-intact site: SF-88 in San Fransicso. But you can get a more local flavor, too, albeit in various states of ruin. Berhow recommends the following spots:
SL-40 in Hecker, Illinois was part of the St. Louis defense system. The site has buildings intact and in use now as a career center. Berhow cautions to get permission from staff before touring the area.
C-44 at Wolf Lake, Illinois was part of the Chicago-Gary defense area. The lake spans the Illinois and Indiana state borders. On the north shore of that lake you can see remnants of the former site and do not need permission to explore.
C-93 in the Skokie Lagoons, Illinois was part of Chicago’s defense. A portion of bike trail in the preserve was part of the road that led to the launch site and part of the Nike site’s perimeter can be viewed from the bike trail. There’s not much of anything left to see here.
If you know of other area sites to experience Nike history, please let us and other readers know by commenting.
Special thanks to Michael DeBonis for contributing to this report.
In the audio feature version of the story Michael Allen is mis-identified. His correct title is Associate Professor of History. Also, we wrongly described the location of a Nike site pictured at the top of this post. The correct location, according to Mark Berhow, is San Francisco Bay.