The Bombs Next Door: Nice Nuclear Neighbors

I wrote this article for TowerTalk, my apartment building’s newsletter. Montrose Beach is less than two miles to the south of us.

Crazy as it sounds, missiles stationed near Montrose Beach during the Cold War were armed with nuclear warheads. Even crazier, people seemed to think it was a good idea. This US Army “Family With a Future” decal anticipated a series of Nike missiles.

The missiles formed part of the Nike air defense system, one of 22 sites that ringed Chicago. These sites protected Chicago from Soviet aircraft flying over the North Pole and Canada to drop atomic bombs on the United States.

The Cold War was a time of international conflict that, for the most part, stopped short of violence. It began as World War II ended in 1945, leaving two major powers in the world: the United States versus the Soviet Union (USSR). The US already had atomic weapons, and the USSR exploded its first “A-bomb” in 1949.

The arms race was on, but neither side had long-range aircraft or missiles. As the Iron Curtain fell across Europe in 1946 and the Berlin Crisis sparked an airlift to the western half of the divided city in 1948-49, each side desperately researched improved weaponry.

Soon, about 300 Ajax launch sites were built to guard strategic locations. “Chicago has become the best-defended city in the Middle West against enemy air-to-ground attacks,” declared the Chicago Sun Times in 1960. Most of the city’s 22 sites were at its fringes, including in Indiana, but the lakefront had to be defended, too. Sites opened in Burnham Park, Jackson Park, and Lincoln Park.

A Nike Ajax missile in firing position at Montrose Beach in 1956.

The Lincoln Park site, operational from 1955 to 1965, was typical. An underground magazine of four missiles was installed just north of Belmont Harbor, where a patch of grass grows now. The radar and computers were housed in a building just south of Montrose Beach, where a restaurant operates now.

The sites opened to praise from the Chicago American newspaper. “The thing you ought to remember is that the Nike’s presence hereabouts should enable you to sleep a lot more soundly.” The missiles, it said, “make nice neighbors.”

Meanwhile, the Cold War kept heating up. As both sides improved their weapons, Americans began to build fallout shelters and create Civil Defense Systems with hopes of surviving a nuclear war. The Korean War from 1950-53 tested the limits of the Cold War. Then in 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth. The space race was on, and the US lagged behind in missile technology.

A nuclear-capable Nike Hercules missile and its crew at the Montrose Beach site in 1959.

In 1958, the Army replaced Ajax with Hercules missiles and nuclear warheads. The missiles had a range of 100 miles, a top speed of 3000 miles per hour, and greater accuracy. The warhead could destroy ballistic missiles as well as several aircraft at once.

The Cold War remained tense. In August 1961, the Berlin Wall was built.

Not everyone liked living with the threat of sudden annihilation, and in November 1961, the first US Women’s Strike for Peace inaugurated the slogan, “End the Arms Race, Not the Human Race.”

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Later that year, the US discovered USSR missiles armed with nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the crisis almost sparked a nuclear war. That led to the 1963 Test Ban Treaty that prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, which had been spreading around a lot of radioactivity.

But as a consequence of the space race, missile technology improved. Soon the USSR and the US could launch intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads, and the Nike sites became obsolete. In 1965, the site at Montrose Beach and Belmont Harbor returned to park use, as did nine of the other sites around Chicagoland.

Eventually, the Cold War became history. Now Montrose Beach hosts the joys of nature and piping plover nests — but we still live in crazy times.

For further information:

Chicago Uptown History: “Nike Missile C-03 Montrose Harbor/Belmont Harbor Chicago”

Ed Thelen’s Nike Missile Web Site

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