clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seattle History Lessons - Nikes Made Sense At The Time

Seattle is known for tree-huggers, Earth-firsters, moss-between-the-toes nature lovers. So, here's a story about how Seattle got this way by leveling hills, filling valleys, and rerouting water - and considering exploding nukes over the suburbs. It made sense at the time.

Say Nike and the swoosh and athlete endorsements come to mind. Seattle hosted a ring of Nikes during the Cold War, and while they were incredibly fast, the only games they were involved in were war games. Poke around Seattle and you can find the remnants of the Nike Air Defense system, a ring of emplacements that housed very early computers, impressive radar stations, and troops that existed to protect Seattle from fast, high bombers with even faster missiles. The missile's armament? Nuclear warheads. That would've been a different type of swoosh.

The Cold War was more than just a spy game. Seattle was more than just another city. After World War II and before the Rocket Age, the Soviet and NATO forces had civilization-ending arsenals. Their power scared everyone. Duck and cover was not a joke. That power, though, was hard to deliver. The new superpowers relied on high-altitude bombers that hoped to find gaps in radar. Fly high and fast enough, and the fighters won't have time to climb up to shoot you down. One answer was the Nike system, a series of sophisticated radars coordinated with state-of-the-art analog computers (you knew there was a type of computer that came before digital computers, right?), that would direct and fire supersonic missiles at the approaching threat. It made sense at the time.

by BWmoll3 -

The problem of hitting a supersonic airplane with a supersonic missile is that they're moving so quickly that exploding a split second too early or late merely makes a big boom in the sky. The solution, make a much bigger boom in the sky. That's where the nuclear warheads came in.

Pause. Consider. The defense of Seattle, and other cities, was based on purposely exploding nuclear warheads within a few dozen miles of downtown, to keep the Soviets from exploding even bigger nuclear warheads directly over downtown. It made sense at the time.

It made sense until it didn't. The invention of the ICBM meant much less need for bombers, and therefore much less need for the Nike system. The threat was actually worse, but the missile defense became less effective than duck and cover and negotiate, negotiate a lot.

by United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The missiles were removed. The crews restationed. The foundations, however, remain. Bothell, Redmond, Cougar Mountain, Lake Young, Kent, Vashon Island, Olalla, Poulsbo, and Kingston contain remnants, though they may not be recognizable or accessible. Some are on private property. One is a FEMA site, another is storing old vehicles, another is a private school, and some are part of public parks. Check before visiting. Don't expect to see much, but if you get the chance, take the time to consider the extremes taken to protect the city, its industry, and its people. It made sense at the time.

by Redmond Parks and Recreation

· Project Nike [wikipedia]
· Nike in WA [HL]
· Nike in WA [wikipedia]
· Bothell [FEMA]
· Redmond [RPR]
· Cougar Mountain [KCPR]
· Lake Young [RCSD]
· Kent [KPR]
· Vashon Island [VPR]
· Olalla [OGL]
· Poulsbo [PPR]
· Kingston [NKHS]
· All History Lesson coverage [CS]
Written by Tom Trimbath
Image: United States Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons