If you’ve ever driven between Anchorage and Eagle River, you might have noticed a group of distant, vaguely ominous white towers on top of the mountain above the highway, and perhaps you wondered what they were. These buildings are what remains of Nike Site Summit, a Cold War-era military facility designed to protect the Anchorage area from nuclear attack. Over the last several months, I have become involved with the Friends of Nike Site Summit, a group of local citizens dedicated to preserving the site as a monument to the men who served there and as a living museum of the Cold War. This weekend, the Friends opened the site up for it’s first public tour in history. Its story, and what it tells us about our past and present, is worth sharing.
During World War II, the United States and the USSR (and many other countries around the world) allied together to defeat the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. In the aftermath of that victory, the US-Soviet alliance rapidly fell apart, beginning a 40-year-long struggle for global supremacy between the United States and its allies on one side, and the Communist nations of the Soviet bloc on the other—the Cold War. Conflict between great powers is nothing new, but this stakes in this conflict were especially high because of technology both sides had access to: high-yield nuclear weapons. It was also a conflict fought in the age of modern aviation, when airplanes could fly non-stop between continents. For forty years, Americans woke up every day to face the possibility that nuclear weapons might destroy the cities where they lived.
Alaska was literally on the front lines of the Cold War—in order to reach the major population centers of the United States, Soviet bombers had to pass through Alaskan airspace. During the 1950s the military constructed an elaborate system of military infrastructure, stretching from the Arctic Coast all the way to Anchorage, to cope with this threat. The Nike-Hercules, a surface-to-air-missile system designed to shoot Soviet warplanes out of the sky, was a key component of this defense network. Nike Site Summit was one of three Nike sites built in the Anchorage/Cook Inlet region, and the only one still intact. (The second was across Knik Arm in the general vicinity of Goose Creek Prison; the third was located on a military reservation south of the international airport; you likely know it today as Kincaid Park.) For 20 years, from 1959 to 1979, the men of B Battery, 4th Battalion (later re-named1st Battalion)/43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, lived and worked at those buildings on the wind-swept top of Mount Gordon Lyon. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they stood watch over the city below, scanning their radar scopes for Soviet intruders, prepared to shoot them out of the sky before they could drop their nuclear bombs. Some of these men were volunteers; some were draftees; most preferred their duty to a tour in Vietnam. All did their part to keep the city and America safe.
Americans disagree about politics; it’s part of what makes us Americans. We might even — in fact, we do — disagree about the proper scale and scope of our military, and how our military power should best be implemented. We might even worry, as Dwight Eisenhower did, about the undue influence of the military and the industrial base that supports it, on our political institutions. But few Americans (I hope) would challenge the claim that our society, though flawed, is worth defending, and that national defense is one of the key functions of government. The veterans of Nike Site Summit were doing national defense in the most direct, uncomplicated way possible—providing physical security for their fellow-Americans against foreign attack. And they succeeded: the Cold War ended peacefully,without either side ever launching a nuclear weapon at the other. The soldiers at Nike Site Summit never fired a missile in anger.
I was born in 1982, so I was in kindergarten when the Berlin Wall came down. I just barely remember learning about a dangerous and unhappy country called the Soviet Union, which collapsed when I was in second grade. My peers and I are just about the youngest people on Earth who can personally remember what it was like to grow up during the Cold War, under the shadow of mutually assured destruction. But if I ever have children, they will grow up—as all children should—untroubled by fears of the world being destroyed in a nuclear war. And that didn’t just happen; like all outbreaks of peace, the end of the Cold War happened for a reason—indeed, many reasons. Chief among those reasons is that the veterans of Nike Site Summit–and all veterans of the Cold War–were willing to stand guard on a mountain in winter, to defend their home and fellow-citizens.
In his book Freedom from Fear: the American People in Depression and War, the historian David M. Kennedy wrote, of the Americans growing up in the aftermath of World War II, “They had inherited a new world, and a brave one, too. Like all worlds, it held its share of peril as well as promise.”
Americans living in the 21st century live in the aftermath of a terrible war that never happened. We also live in an age of perils—mass shootings, mounting debt, global terror—but one peril with which we no longer have to contend is the threat of major nuclear war. We live in a safer and more peaceful world than we did in 1959. For that we should be grateful–not in an abstract way, but grateful to all those who stood watch through the long night of the Cold War. Something, perhaps, to think about the next time you drive past those distant towers.