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Reading 1: The United States Enters the Cold War
World War II left the United States and Soviet Union as the two world’s superpowers, two superpowers with very different values and agendas. Because the alliance between the United States and Soviet Union was created out of necessity and not based on a solid foundation of shared values or beliefs, the relationship quickly deteriorated after the end of World War II. The United States practiced and advocated democracy and a free market. It supported capitalism. The Soviet Union practiced communism with less free enterprise and less support of public dissent from its citizens. The United States and the Soviet Union "fought" each other indirectly for the next 40-45 years as each country competed to spread their own forms of government throughout the developing world.
In addition to their competing world views, the leaders of the United States felt the nation was threatened when the Soviet Union detonated a nuclear device in 1949. The United States was the only country with nuclear weapons until that year. The Korean War started one year later. That war was the first proxy war of the Cold War. Proxy wars were localized, armed conflicts that the superpowers participated in by supporting other nations and groups. Proxy wars were not fought in the United States or in Russia. The Vietnam War and the Nicaraguan Civil War were also proxy wars. These “hot” wars were officially fought between sides allied with the United States or Russia, but those two superpowers made the hot wars bigger with money, training, soldiers, and weapons.
This indirect fighting is called the Cold War because it was not like most wars, when nations fight each other in violent battles. The United States and the Soviet Union raced to make more-powerful weapons and have more of them than the other country. Leaders in the United States and Russia wanted these weapons so their nations would look so strong that no one would attack them. Both nations did everything possible to avoid a direct hot war with each other, because both nations wanted to avoid a devastating nuclear war. Americans and Russians did not know what the other side was going to do, but at the time it seemed like the question was not if a real war would happen, but when it would happen.
One of the most-important defensive weapons the United States made but never used was the Nike missile system. The U.S. military decided to create a strong anti-aircraft weapon because of the fast and dangerous aircraft and missiles Germany made during World War II. The military wanted a surface-to-air guided missile system that could stop and destroy attacking planes. The Nike system was made by Bell Laboratories, Western Electric Company, and Douglas Aircraft between 1945 and 1953. The system was made up of the missiles plus the computers and radar equipment that guided the missiles. It was named “Nike” after the Greek goddess of victory. The different types of missiles used in the Nike system had their own names. The Nike-Ajax was the first missile model and it was set up in Fort Meade, Maryland, in 1954. The Army placed other Nike missiles around major cities and military bases that they believed the Soviets wanted to attack.
The second Nike missile model was the Nike-Hercules. It replaced Nike-Ajax in June 1958. This better model could stop a whole group of supersonic enemy bombers. It worked at high or low altitudes. The Nike-Hercules was "fifteen times as effective" as the Nike-Ajax, according to a 1958 press release. A Hercules missile could travel 87 miles and it was easy to steer with the computers. It was fast, flying more than 2,600 miles per hour. The missile also had a stronger warhead that could be high explosive or nuclear. The Nike system was the best Army anti-aircraft weapon. There were 274 Nike-Hercules bases in the United States and more than 10,000 missiles by the early 1960s.
The Air Force and Army shared the task of defending the United States against airplane and missile attacks. But the Army and Air Force disagreed about who would run the ground-based air defense. In the end, the Army won command of the ground-based air defense. Key control over fighting enemy bombers was given to the Air Force. The Army Anti-Aircraft Command was formed in July of 1950 to run the ground-based air defense. It was renamed the U.S. Army Air Defense Command in 1957. In 1968, the Air Defense Artillery Branch was created. The Army still runs the country’s ground-based air defense weapons today.
Questions for Reading 1
1) Why were the United States and the Soviet Union enemies after World War II?
2) What are Nike-Ajax and Nike-Hercules? Why did the United States build Nike missile launch sites during the Cold War?
3) What is the difference between a "hot" war and a “cold” war? How did the Nike system support a “cold” war rather than a “hot” war?
3) How many Nike-Hercules sites were there by the 1960s? How many missiles did the United States supply them with? What effects do you think this system may have had on the Soviet Union’s own military strategy?
Reading 1 was adapted from Hollinger, K. (2004) July. Nike Hercules Operations in Alaska. CEMML. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado and U.S. Army Garrison, Alaska.