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DC-area nuclear Nikes

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  • Albert LaFrance
    The very interesting Washington Post article quoted below was forwarded to me. The source URL is
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 25, 2000
      The very interesting Washington Post article quoted below was forwarded
      to me.

      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
      this story.

      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.

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