If there’s any doubt that America’s pop-cultural magicand not just our military-industrial mightwon the Cold War, consider the way those frigid four decades are already being remembered. Just 10 years after Uncle Sam finally showed the Russkies their place, the popular memory bank is awash with campy images of schoolchildren ducking and covering, dads wood-paneling the family bomb shelter, and wacky ’60s spy flicks. But when it comes to that era’s nastier realitiessay, nuclear-tipped missiles ringing our major citiesthe collective memory draws a blank.
A quick tour around the Beltway, however, lets the curious glimpse an alternative version of history. When they weren’t digging swinging spies, Cold War Americans were apparently contemplating Soviet M-4 Bison and Tu-20 Bear bombers hurtling toward President Eisenhower’s Washington. Like other major American population centers”vital areas” in military parlancethe District had a circle of Nike defensive surface-to-air missiles to ward off the threat. Constructed in the ’50s, the Nikes warded off doomsday until the early ’70s, when intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) left them obsolete.
Today, a National Park Service publication about old missile bases declares that “most Nike sites are rapidly vanishing from the nation’s landscape.” And it’s not pacifists or Soviet bombs that are doing them in, either: The former missile sites are succumbing to simple wear and tear, and also to the evil empire of new real estate development. “It seems plausible that they go on the market and get obliterated,” local historian Christopher Bright says.
But the Nikes won’t wind up in history’s dustbin if Irma Clifton of the Lorton Historical Society has her way. In January, Clifton nominated the soon-to-be-redeveloped Lorton Reformatory complexwhich once housed the area’s biggest Nike siteto become a historic site. “There’s a whole generation coming along” that needs to know about Nikes, Clifton says. A preserved historic site would “let people know that they have to be ever-vigilant.”
According to a plan for the property approved by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in August 1998, the Nike site will be “a heritage park” after D.C.’s prison reverts to civilian use. It’ll sit cheek by jowl with a community park and, possibly, a middle school. Public hearings are scheduled for June and July.
The first missiles in the D.C. area were deployed at Fort Meade, midway between D.C. and Baltimore, in 1953. The Lorton site was constructed shortly afterward, in 1954, and the pair was followed by 11 more sites in the D.C. areaincluding Pope’s Head Road in Fairfax and sites in Rockville and Gaithersburg.
In those pre-ICBM days, the short-range Nikes were designed to be America’s last line of defense against Soviet bombers. Besides barracks, mess halls, and offices for the more than 100 officers and enlisted men, a missile site comprised two tracts set about a mile apart. The battery control area held towering platforms, “golf ball” radars, and positioning computers to guide the missiles. The launch site was composed of underground units where the missiles were held in magazines to be sent to the surface via hydraulic lifts and poised at a firing angle of 85 degrees.
Suburbanites of the ’50s weren’t as acutely infected with Red Scare as we’d like to think: Nike sites elsewhere regularly met community resistance from NIMBYs worried about aesthetics, property values, andoh, yeahthe occasional deadly misfire.
Lorton, located in a then-rural area, was “the nation’s Nike showplace,” says Bright. There was a small auditorium where visiting politicians, military officers, schoolteachers, and even the shah of Iran viewed films before touring the site. On a typical day in April 1957, 150 Cub Scouts and civil defense volunteers and their families visited the site, says Bright. Newsreels and press releases assured the public, “A Nike missile site will be as safe as a gas station.”
“They had an open house every Sunday,” says Clifton. “You could go in and see what they were doing.” A 30-by-15-foot platform lowered vistors to inspect the gleaming white missiles. An Army lieutenant interviewed in the Washington Star at the time described the scene: “This seems to awe them. When we tell them the Nikes have live warheads, some of the women utter faint screams.”
Fort Meade’s Nike site, meanwhile, always seemed a little more ominous in the eyes of its neighbors. “The Day the Earth Stood Still was filmed almost in its entirety at Fort Meade,” says Barbra Dlugokinski, museum specialist at the base. It was also the site of an early Nike accident, when a badly wired Nike Ajax was accidently fired before self-destructing over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in 1956. There were no casualties.
With the last round of Nike closings in 1974, the Army removed the missiles and began offering some of the ugly industrial sites it left behind to local governments. About a third went to other Army uses. Mostly, though, they sat unused and forgotten. Local skateboarder lore in Northern Virginia held that Nike’s concrete launch pads were shredworthy, so long as the barbed-wire fence could be hopped. After yet another series of non-missile base closings five years ago, Bright says, the Army “decided to get rid of little parcels.”
Luckily for folks like Cliftonwho courted her future husband while he worked at the Lorton control center between 1959 and 1962the decision coincided with moves nationwide to convert the Cold War from uncomfortable reality to historic museum piece. She daydreams of a link between the Lorton site and U-2 pilot Gary Powers Jr.’s traveling collection of Cold War memorabilia, which lacks a permanent home.
Richard Hayes of the American Institute of Architects says Clifton will have a strong case. From their Space Age radar gear to their looming sense of menace, Hayes says the Nikes are perhaps the most appropriate Cold War relics to save, both because they still exist and because they’re “readily identifiable as of the period.”
This time around, the biggest hurdle for the Nike sites is the same bureaucracy that once kept them on round-the-clock watch. “It’s in jurisdictional limbo,” says Clifton.
Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources accepted Clifton’s nomination of the Lorton site for historic status in March. According to Clifton, it’s now up to the General Services Administrationwhich administers federal propertiesto answer the question “At the national level, does this really have some importance?” If it does, the agency will endorse it for the National Register of Historic Places and hand it over to the Department of the Interior to administer.
The Nike history isn’t entirely tied up in the bureaucratic waiting game: Nike sites have sparked preservation battles elsewhereand have given preservationists at least one major victory. Just north of San Francisco, volunteers have fully restored a site that was earmarked for preservation because it sat in the Golden Gate National Recreation Center.
And a small preservation effort at Fort Meade is already under way. Recently, the base had its Directorate of Logistics clean up and reposition an old Nike Hercules missile for display. It will be accompanied by a plaque that gives a brief account of the history of the Nike. The fort’s actual missile sites, meanwhile, have been absorbed with 9,000 acres into the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. Within the military, preservation “always suffers from a lack of funding,” says Walter Bradford of the Army’s Center for Military History.
Bill Evans, a former fire-control operator stationed at the Rockville Muddy Branch Road site in 1967, believes that the sitewhose launcher area is just yards from the neighboring Hollywood Video parking lotis the best-preserved site in the Maryland half of the D.C. area. These days, the control area is being used as an engineering lab by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, while the launch area belongs to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Other sites are already fertilizer dumps and fire department training spotsmeaning that despite quickly shelved studies like one conducted by the Defense Department’s Legacy Resources Management Program, the Nike legacy mostly remains in the hands of folks like Clifton and a handful of ex-missile jocks who run Web sites. According to architectural historian Sally Berk of the D.C. Preservation League, the real aim is to lock and load on all the doomsday hotspots out there. “It’s time to do a survey of Cold War sites,” she says. CP