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The Cold War

The four-decade era following World War II had the U.S. and Soviet Union at odds with each other.

by Vince Farinaccio

To define the Cold War, it might be fair to say it was roughly the four-decade period following World War II that witnessed the U.S. and Soviet Union squaring off in an ideological boxing ring, surrounded by nuclear arsenals to defend either side’s stance should things exceed the status quo.

Louis Menand, in his 2021 book The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, dates the start of the period to March 12, 1947, the day President Harry S. Truman delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in which he referred to supporting “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure.” As Menand notes, “everyone who heard him understood that ‘armed minorities’ referred to Communist insurgents and that ‘outside pressures’ referred to the Kremlin.”

Identifying the president’s speech as the “Truman Doctrine,” Menand says that it was “effectively, the declaration of the Cold War,” a period during which “each nation accused the other of cynicism and hypocrisy…claimed that the other was seeking to advance its own power and…honestly believed that history was on its side and that the other was headed down a dead end.” The dichotomy, he writes, drew the U.S. into “the struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism.”

One thing the U.S. government learned early in the Cold War was that drawing a line in the ideological sand came with a high pricetag in military spending, especially if the country was to protect itself against enemy attack in the nuclear age. According to Menand, “In 1953, even though the Korean War had ended, $53 billion dollars of the nation’s $76 billion budget was spent on defense, and the defense budget remained around 10 percent of GDP [Gross Domestic Product] for the rest of the decade.”

Some of that money was siphoned off to create the Nike surface-to-air missiles that could be positioned at over 200 bases throughout the country. The Nike missile (named after the Greek goddess of victory) originally consisted of the Ajax (named after a Trojan War hero) which, according to the Britannica website was “guided by a radar system designed by Bell Laboratories…[and] could intercept aircraft flying as high as 70,000 feet (21,000 meters) within a range of 30 miles (50 km) at more than twice the speed of sound. The missile carried three high-explosive warheads that would be detonated by the guidance system at the predicted interception point.”

These were the missiles installed in the first U.S. bases established in 1953 to protect the country from air attacks. But by 1958, the Hercules missile, which could travel three times the speed of sound and better than double the altitude and distance of the Ajax, became the preferred model. The most significant distinction between the Ajax and the Hercules was that the latter could carry nuclear warheads.

The concern over enemy aerial attacks meant that U.S. citizens in the1950s and early 1960s, were inundated with “duck and cover” tutorials and in-school air-raid practices in the event of such threats. Many New Jersey residents at the time, however, were unaware that they were already rather well-protected from such invasions because of defense systems situated throughout the state.

Sadly, it wasn’t New Jersey that was of paramount concern when it came to protection. No, that honor went to Philadelphia and New York City, but we might have reaped some benefit, however slim, if any sort of attack had occurred. Of the 14 missile bases established in the state between 1955 and 1958, there were five located in the lower portion of New Jersey, several in the central region and the remainder in the northern area. And they were armed with Hercules missiles. n

Next Week: The Bases

Jersey Reflections