The Cold War in Our Own Backyard
Nike, named for the mythical Greek goddess of victory, was the name given to a program which produced the world's first successful, widely-deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system. Planning for Nike was begun during the last months of the Second World War when the United States Army realized that conventional anti-aircraft artillery would not be able to provide an adequate defense against the fast, high-flying jet aircraft which were being introduced into service, particularly by the Germans.
From 1955 to 1963 a Nike defense site, armed with 60 Nike Ajax missiles, sat in a salt marsh in the sparsely developed area known as Lido Beach. A "typical" Nike air defense site it consisted of two separate parcels of land. One area was known as the Integrated Fire Control Area. This area contained the Nike system's ground-based radar and computer systems designed to detect and track hostile aircraft, and to guide the missiles to their targets. These buildings now house the Blackheath Pre-Kindergarten and the Long Beach Teacher Center. The second parcel of land was known as the Launcher Area. At the launcher area, now the Nike Environmental Center, the missiles were stored horizontally within heavily constructed underground silos. A large, missile elevator brought the Nikes to the surface where they would be pushed manually by crewmen, across twin steel rails to one of four satellite launchers. The missile was then attached to its launcher and raised to a near-vertical position for firing. This ensured that the missile's booster rocket would not crash directly back onto the missile site, but, instead, would land within a predetermined "booster impact area".
Although Nike was created in response to Russian efforts to design and deploy long-range bomber aircraft during the early years of the Cold War, Russian military strategy soon changed. Fearing that their manned aircraft would be too vulnerable to attack by supersonic American interceptor aircraft armed with rockets and missiles, the Russians decided to focus their attention on developing ICBMs - Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles - against which there existed no effective defense. As a result, the Russians never deployed a large and capable strategic bomber force comparable to the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force. The shifting nature of the Soviet threat meant that the air defense role, for which Nike was originally intended, became less critical as time passed. Defense dollars were needed for other projects (including the development of American ICBMs and potential missile defenses) and to fund the rapidly growing war in Vietnam. Accordingly, beginning in the mid 1960s, the total number of operational Nike bases within the continental U.S. was steadily reduced. The Lido base was closed in 1963 and the missiles removed. Today only the silos remain as a reminder of this chilling period in United States history.