Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Revisiting the Cold War

June 10, 2013
nike hercules missiles sf-88 san francisco
Nike Missile Site SF-88 in the Marin Headlands, circa 1959.

Ben and I aren't old enough to remember the Cold War. We were 4 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. The first geopolitical event either of us remembers is the Gulf War. (The first historical event that Ben remembers understanding is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.) Luckily for those of us too young to live through the threat of impending nuclear doom, there are historical artifacts like the Nike Missile Site, which we visited a few weeks ago.

Just a couple of miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, the missile site was one of 12 in the Bay Area prepared to launch a nuclear-armed missile in the event of a Soviet attack. It represented the last line of defense against an air assault. If Soviet bombers got past the Navy and the Air Force out in the Pacific, the missile defense airmen were in a position to detonate a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb within 100 miles of the U.S. coast. When the threat of attack shifted to come from over the North Pole, they aimed to detonate over northern California.

The theory was to explode the bombs into the stratosphere — the second major layer of the earth's atmosphere, which begins at roughly 40,000 feet — to avoid the formation of a mushroom cloud. In the nightmare scenario for the Bay Area sites, the Russians would force an explosion over the San Francisco Bay that would suck all the water out of the bay and draw up a cloud of sludge that would have covered the city. By detonating further away from the city and higher in the atmosphere, the military calculated that the harm to civilians from the nuclear blast was preferable to the widespread destruction that would be wrought by the incoming megaton bombs.

The airmen didn't need to hit a precise target; the real threats were the shock wave and electromagnetic pulse that accompany a nuclear explosion. The overpressure from the explosion created by the shock wave would cause the bombers to fall out of the sky while the electromagnetic pulse would knock out electronic devices, including communication systems, electrical appliances and aircraft ignition systems. The blast would have the intended consequence of halting the attack, but it would have also disabled U.S. military and civilian hardware. (A 1962 nuclear test on Johnson Island in the Pacific caused a much larger than expected electromagnetic pulse, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and shutting down telephone lines in Hawaii, 900 miles away.)

The site in the Marin Headlands, known as SF-88, was manned round-the-clock by 18- and 19-year-old soldiers schooled in the mantra: "We are the last line of defense." The Army Air Defense Command required that 25 percent of all Nike sites be capable of launching a missile within 15 minutes of receiving a signal or warning; 50 percent had to be capable of launching a missile within 30 minutes. Recounted Chief Warrant Officer Terry Abel:
[During] the Arab Israeli 1973 War we actually were at battle stations. We were not even at five minute. Everything was hooked up, all the launchers were loaded, all the missiles were elevated and we were ready to fire.
Nike missile sites in the Bay Area.
The Nike antiaircraft missile system remains the most expensive missile system ever deployed, as well as the most widespread (300 sites in 30 states) and longest-lived (25 years nationwide)[1]. The development of inter-continental ballistic missiles — which fly at altitudes and speeds beyond which the Nike missiles could reach — rendered them obsolete and the last Nike missiles were taken out of service in 1979. The site in the Marin Headlands was closed in 1974, but escaped demolition and is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is the only restored Nike missile site in the country and Nike veterans host an open house there on the first Saturday of every month.

At each part of the base, a veteran of the Nike units gave a history lesson combined with personal memories of being stationed there. In the highlight of our visit, a docent raised one of the missiles to the firing position before leading us underground to the missile storage facility, which illuminated for us just how nuclear war could have begun. The docent for that section of the tour focused mainly on the technical specs of the weapons and the state of readiness of the soldiers, while a docent from earlier in the tour enjoyed recounting stories of the geopolitical tensions of the era. (He claimed that one of the Soviet leaders was terrified by the Star Wars movies, believing that if George Lucas could have imagined the Star Wars technology, then the U.S. must have been able to build it. We're pretty sure he said it was Nikita Khrushchev, but Khrushchev died six years before Episode IV, and even if he wasn't talking about Khrushchev, we've never heard any such claim before — has anyone else?)

And what's a little firsthand history without crazy conspiracy theories, thanks to the docent manning the warhead building. It's never a good sign when someone asks you (with the requisite drawl), "Have you read the internet lately?" Ben tried to answer diplomatically by asking if he was referring to the recent NYT editorial on Obama overspending on nuclear upgrades — thinking the guy, like the one at the previous station, thought MAD was pretty mad and the de-prioritization of nuclear readiness was a good thing. But instead we got an earful about how afraid we should be, with the government not investing enough in tactical nukes. China and all these other countries are building tactical nukes, and we've got nothing comparable to retaliate with, so be afraid! Then he told us all about the beauties of the neutron bomb, describing its radioactive after-effects like a pyromaniac bragging about the awesome fireball he just made. It's not everyday you run across someone who is sad that the government took his nuclear weapons away!

- Steph

I've made every attempt to factcheck the information I've included above, but I had to rely on the oral history recounted by the docents and publicly available information on the internet, and as such cannot guarantee its accuracy.

Photos from the Nike Historical Society, Telstar Logistics via flickr, National Park Service, AlexK_MA via flickr and me.

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