DC-area nuclear Nikes
- The very interesting Washington Post article quoted below was forwarded
The source URL is
Shrines on the Information Highway
Nuclear warheads were once deployed at Lorton prison.
Okay, maybe not in the prison. But from 1958 until the early 1970s, the
Army stationed nuclear-armed Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles on the
3,200 acre grounds of the Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County.
The warhead bunkers, located at the launch site at Hooes and Furnace roads,
are an official secret.
Internet detractors say the Web is a repository of dangerous information,
but the nuclear deployments at Lorton are not discussed anywhere online.
This despite dozens of Internet shrines to the Nike missile that now serve
as a modern-day mess hall, where former crewmen jabber away, sharing
experiences and swapping stories.
More than 15,000 such shrines to military units and individual weapons exist
on the Internet. The sites reveal fascinating details, many still guarded by
an over-classified military. And the phenomena of the Internet shrine
reveals some tensions between history and remembrance.
<h1> Ack, Track, Smack </h1>
Christopher Bright, a doctoral candidate in history at George Washington
University, is an expert on the now-obscure Nike Hercules missile. As a
historian with a capital "H," Bright displays an academic skepticism about
the Internet as a source for history. "Thirty-five percent of the stuff is
inaccurate or distorted" on the Nike Web sites, he says.
Bright's attitude about the Web isn't entirely dismissive, and it might in
fact be posturing - "professors would shudder at the thought that I rely on
the Internet," he says - yet his research bread and butter remains the
traditional instruments of academic history: paper archives and official
documents. Having started his academic career before the emergence of the
Web, he admits the ease with which his work is accelerated by the Internet.
Given Bright's unqualified search for the impeccably reliable, his favorite
Nike missile Web site is the U.S. Army's official history site for missiles
at <a href="http://www.redstone.army.mil/history/">Redstone Arsenal</a>. The
site, I agree, is one of the finest government-run online archives in
existence, with one of the largest photo and video repositories available on
any military Web site.
<h1> A Devoted Following </h1>
That Redstone Web site, according to a historian at the base, was all done
voluntarily - no government computers, software or time - must be a story in
itself. But Redstone shares a certain cultural similarity to the mere
enthusiast home pages. And that is that the energy and love devoted to
telling the story of the Nike and other Army missiles at Redstone is the
very signature of an Internet shrine, whether it is official or garden
variety, whether the subject matter is a missile or a mushroom.
Three private Nike Web sites - <a href="http://www.jps.net/ethelen/">Ed
Thelen's Nike Missile Web Site</a>, Donald E. Bender's <a
href="http://alpha.fdu.edu/~bender/nike.html">Nike Missiles & Missile
Sites</a> and <a href="http://goerigk-jever.de/index.html">Rolf's NIKE
Pages</a> in Germany - exemplify the military shrine, and are particularly
strong in keeping the Nike legacy alive. A fourth site the <a
href="http://www.zianet.com/dpiland/ordnance/">Nike Ajax and Hercules
Ordnance Support Units</a> home page is devoted to the "special weapons"
technicians and guards who toiled on the Nike missile during the Cold War,
keeping custody of the warheads and the codes to fire them.
No self-respecting historian, or journalist, can any longer ignore the
Internet resources embodied in these shrines. The writing of history and
the shrine are not incompatible.
<h1> The Nuclear Umbrella </h1>
From 1958 to 1979, according to Chris Bright, small numbers of nuclear
warheads were dispersed to 134 Nike missile sites in 26 states, ringing 29
major cities and 11 military bases. The Internet tells bits and pieces of
It is a history worth preserving. Bright, who grew up in Fairfax County not
far from the Lorton site, can rattle off the 25 missile sites that ringed
the Washington-Baltimore area. Deployment of the missile, he says, was the
largest defensive building program in the continental United States since
the Civil war; the building of the launcher themselves constituted the
largest elevator order let in the United States at the time.
Site W-64 at Lorton was the first site to open - the largest in the
Washington area - and was for a while the national visiting site, frequented
by VIPs (the crown prince of Iraq once paid a visit) and open to the public
on Sundays. That is, until the nuclear warheads arrived.
<h1> The Nike Legacy </h1>
The entire history of the program, Bright says, is "typical of the holy
smokes we have to do something right now" attitude of the Cold War.
Bright has written in historical journals about the development of the
Washington area sites. Almost every site has a story behind it regarding
the "handling" of local sensitivities in construction and use of land. In
other words, not-in-my-back-yard is hardly some postmodern symbol of citizen
selfishness and lack of martial spirit. It was alive and well even during
the darkest days of the Cold War.
What is more, the entire Nike enterprise, based upon a Soviet bomber gap in
intelligence knowledge, still has relevance as we debate national missile
defense and electronic defense of the homeland today.
The 90-year-old Lorton prison is scheduled to close by December 2001, and
the fate of the land, and the Nike artifacts, is still up in the air. The
only restored Nike missile launch site is located in the Golden Gate
National Recreation Area, in a former military installation known as <a
ort Barry</a> in San Francisco. Site W-64 is unlikely to follow as a
memorial or a real shrine. That duty will have to be assumed on the Web.