The last of the 14 ground-to-air Nike missile bases sprinkled throughout New Jersey to stand guard over Philadelphia and New York City were finally shuttered in 1974, concluding a gradual process that stemmed from a change in Cold War temperament between the U.S. and Soviet Union.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson broached the subject of placing limitations on the manufacture of missiles that could carry nuclear warheads like that of the Nike Hercules, which could be found at the New Jersey bases beginning in the late 1950s. The Soviet Union agreed on talks to limit such weapons in 1968. Negotiations, dubbed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), began in November 1969 but would take several more years to reach an agreement.
According to Britannica, an Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty “was signed by U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at a summit in Moscow in May 1972, and it was ratified by both the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Soviet later that year.”
The new tack taken by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. left a series of unneeded missile bases throughout this country, and New Jersey’s would be repurposed, sold or ignored as the world slowly reimagined its image as a Cold War battleground and assumed a new role outside the shadows of the two superpowers.
Bases throughout the state met with various fates, some becoming a location for housing or a school facility. In these instances, private enterprises assumed control of the acreage.
As recently as April of this year, 14 of the 33 acres on which the Woolwich Township base had been housed was purchased by an industrial property developer in a deal the Courier Post reported was worth $2.7 million. That property, located on Paulsboro Road, had been for sale since April 2020 when, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the sellers had hoped “a commercial developer will buy it.”
But not all the sites wound up in the hands of private contractors. The 42 acres that comprised the Livingston base, the New York Times has reported, was purchased by Essex County for one dollar after it closed in 1974.
Today, Sandy Hook provides the best view of a New Jersey Cold War defense system from 60 years ago. The former Nike base was refashioned into part of a tourist attraction at Gateway National Recreation Area where tours of the site are conducted.
In 2010, NJ Monthly’s website reported that, with the exception of the underground missile magazines, “the site remained barren…until 2001, when the park service rescued five about-to-be demolished control vans and five radar antennas from Pennsylvania’s Letterkenny Army Depot and secured an Ajax on its launcher from a private collector…Two more Ajax and [a] Hercules with its launcher were obtained from Florida’s Patrick Air Force Base in 2006.”
Tours had begun in 2003, and as of 2010, NJ Monthly explains, guides would “take visitors close to the missiles…into the control vans to see the launch and guidance equipment…into the nearby launch pads, and for a look down an entryway to underground missile storage magazines.”
The site is considered “the most complete” of New Jersey’s 14 bases. According to NJ Monthly, “many regard it as the country’s second-best Nike site—after San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.”
Anyone interested in taking a closer look at New Jersey’s Cold War era can visit and tour the Sandy Hook site. Or, if you’re more inclined to see where it all began, you can travel to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on the first Saturday of April or October when civilians are allowed to tour the Trinity Site, which the New York Times recently called the location “where the very first atomic explosion was set off and the history of nuclear dread began.”