Sunday Read: When Metro Detroit had Cold War nuclear missile defense system

Detroit was on the Soviet Union’s first strike list

Nestled into what are now parks, picnic spots and soccer fields are the scattered remnants of an era gone by. The left behind ruins of when Detroit was on the literal front lines of the Cold War.

Between 1953 and 1974, Metro Detroit was home to 16 missile sites for Nike missiles. The name comes from the Greek goddess of victory, not the shoes. Each battery of warheads sat ready to shoot down incoming nuclear bombers and then later actual missiles from then Soviet Russia.

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“It was the original homeland security mission here. We’re trying to protect our country,” said Steve Mrozek.

Mrozek is a historian at the Selfridge Airbase museum where he maintains two separate Nike missiles. He also has an entire exhibit in the museum dedicated to memorabilia from Detroit’s Nike era.

“Most people may remember these from when they were kids, if they were boomers, baby boomers. They were all over the place,” he said with a laugh.

The idea was pretty simple. The missiles had a specific range, roughly 90 miles. Those ranges overlapped making explosive Venn diagrams to, in theory, create a shield of missiles to protect some of the country’s most important factories and industrial places in Detroit. Nicknamed, “The Arsenal of Democracy,” Detroit was on the Soviet Union’s first strike list, those cities deemed important enough to be among the first taken out by a nuclear attack.

At first, the program used the Nike Ajax missiles, but as Soviet planes got more advanced and flew higher, the US Army, which ran the program at the time, had to do the same. American scientists developed the Nike Hercules to replace their smaller predecessors. Their iconic shape with triangle fins are still recognizable today. They could also be equipped with conventional or nuclear warheads, but Mrozek said there were never any actual nukes in Detroit.

The missile sites usually meant a control and command building, a set or radar towers and the missile batteries themselves. The radar would pick up incoming Soviet bombers or a missile. Soldiers in the command building would start the launch and in the case of the site on Detroit’s Belle Isle, the missiles would have launched over the city of Detroit. Thankfully, a launch was never necessary.

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“Originally it was the Nike ajax rocket that would go up, reach an altitude which could be command directed to explode,” Mrozek said.

Metro Detroit was also key to the US defense for another reason. It was one of the northern most states, making it one of the closest to Russia.

The shortest route between Russia and the United States is over the north pole across Canada into the northern states of the United States.

It wasn’t just Detroit either, the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack was a daily worry for millions of Americans. There were more than 265 Nike missile bases in places all across the country.

The Nike program did have some serious drawbacks, not least of them was the missiles had the tendency to blind US radar because they were, after all, creating a nuclear explosion. There was also the bigger problem of what it meant to detonate not one but potentially two nuclear weapons above a major city.

Eventually that idea put an end to the program and it was officially ended in 1974 with the revision of the ABM or Antiballistic Missile Treaty under President Richard Nixon. Around that same time, the Soviet development of better Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles or ICBM meant they had missiles that traveled into orbit and didn’t need to be dropped by planes.

The US moved on to other programs like the Safeguard program. Which is what most people think of when they think nuclear missiles, underground silos in unpopulated parts in the Dakotas and western states. But even those didn’t really last more than a couple of months.

In the decades after the Nike program, the US would try a lot of other ways to keep the country safe from a nuclear attack and show supremacy. Those had names like kinetic kill vehicles, Minutemen and of course, President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. (That one had the way more fun name of Star Wars.)

Nuclear efforts even lasted well past the fall of the Soviet Union, which toppled along with the Berlin Wall in 1989, but fears of a full scale nuclear war mostly subsided.

Then, in 2002 president George W Bush pulled the US out of the ABM Treaty which prompted Russia to essentially restart its nuclear missile program just one day later. Likewise, in recent weeks as the war in Ukraine has raged on, there have been more worries Russia may have developed more sophisticated nuclear bombs that could hit smaller targets.

Related: West, Russia mull nuclear steps in a ‘more dangerous’ world

Today, the US has a network of ICBMs that can be launched from Navy ships, high altitude missiles and agreements with global allies about using and storing nuclear weapons. Most European countries and two-thirds of Americans oppose all nuclear weapons, according to a survey from the Chicago Council done in 2020.

In 2021 things changed again. President Biden suggested shifting the US’s currently vague stance on when to use a nuclear weapon, to a much more firm “no-first-use” strategy along with winding down new research into more advanced nuclear weapons. That decision angered some Republican lawmakers like Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, the ranking member on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee.

“If we cut back our own nuclear deterrent and take away that umbrella,” Inhofe said in a speech on the Senate floor last year. “It’s likely that nuclear weapons will become more common, not less.”

But none of the systems the US has now are anywhere near as robust or close to home as the Nike program for most Americans and there’s likely a reason that goes beyond what’s most effective. The threat of nuclear war faded as the Cold War ended. Missile sites like the ones around Detroit just weren’t needed any more and only served as frightening reminders of a world on edge.

“I think it put that episode behind us. Our children, grandchildren hopefully they live in a world where they don’t have that hanging over their heads anymore,” Mrozek said.

In a way, our missiles around Detroit were more than just a show of force to would be enemies, they were our fears and anxieties literally on display. So, maybe that’s why as we watch that world on the brink of change again, our interest turn to what life was like in the shadow of nuclear war.

Related: The Manhattan Project: Behind the secret mission to build first atomic bomb, Detroit connection