Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Nike Defends Washington: Antiaircraft Missiles in Fairfax County, Virginia, during the Cold War, 1954-1974

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Nike Defends Washington: Antiaircraft Missiles in Fairfax County, Virginia, during the Cold War, 1954-1974

Article excerpt


FOR Mark Turner, the Cold War was close to home. In 1957 he ran a successful and well-known dairy farm of 180 acres in Fairfax County, Virginia, some sixteen miles northwest of the White House. The Beltway did not yet circumscribe Washington, and the rural western half of the county was home to the farms that fed the city. As a former member of Fairfax's governing board of supervisors, a master of the Virginia State Grange, and past chairman of the state milk commission, Turner was an accomplished farmer and community leader. He lived with his wife in a two-story frame Queen Anne-style farmhouse his father had built fifty years earlier in Forestville, between Herndon and Great Falls.1

The United States Army was his neighbor. Two years before, the federal government had condemned twelve acres of his land to build barracks for one hundred soldiers, three radar towers, and other equipment to control twelve antiaircraft missile launchers located three-quarters of a mile to the west. There, on 16.5 acres acquired from Ida Christine Money, the army had constructed additional buildings and three underground concrete bunkers for storing Nike-Ajax missiles beneath their firing platform? The soldiers and their weapons were there to defend the nation's capital from attack by Soviet bombers.

Collectively, the parcels adjoining Money's and the Turners' properties were considered a single missile battery, or "site," in army parlance, and it, along with similar emplacements in Fairfax County close to Lorton and what is now Fairfax City, was among twenty that encircled Washington and Baltimore. Although the Cold War had many profound effects on Fairfax County-including spurring a population explosion as families moved there to be near the Pentagon and the ancillary businesses that sprang up around it3-to Mark Turner, Ida Money, and other citizens of the time, such missiles were the most obvious and tangible manifestation of the postwar tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Construction of the Fairfax installations and similar ones around Virginia's Hampton Roads and major cities and military facilities across the country marked probably the largest defensive building program in the continental United States since the Civil War, when a system of forts developed around many of the same areas.4 Although all of the batteries closed by 1974 because of new beliefs about the means of a possible Soviet attack and a changed political climate, they were during the 1950s powerful symbols to a nation unaccustomed to direct military threats to its heartland. The funding, development, and deployment of the Nike missiles can be seen as a broad metaphor for the American conduct of the Cold War. As prevailing perceptions and attitudes about the Soviet Union changed, so did the defense programs to which they gave rise.

The International Scene and the American Response

By the late 1940s, the United States and the USSR, former wartime allies, had become locked in the Cold War. The Soviets had imposed Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe, erected a blockade around the Western-controlled portion of Berlin in 1948, and broken the American monopoly on nuclear weapons a year later. President Harry S Truman's national security advisers, fearing that a somnolent America faced an expansionist enemy governed by a messianic ideology, drafted a policy paper in 1950 calling for ambitious efforts to protect the United States and to challenge Soviet attempts to consolidate power around the world. Soviet support for North Korea's invasion of South Korea months later seemed to confirm the argument advanced in the planning document, called "NSC-68" because of its relative order among other papers produced by the National Security Council. Fear of the USSR grew.

Although the advocates of NSC-68 did not think the Soviets were on the verge of attacking the United States in 1950, they worried about this eventuality. …

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