Updated: October 16, 2013 6:26AM
For just about anyone under 50 — whose knowledge of the 1960s is limited to Beatlemania, assassinations and Vietnam — the news of two Homewood parks closing temporarily this past week for possible chemical contamination must have been a jolt.
It wasn’t any old site containing leftover industrial pollutants, but the nature of a hazardous chemical found buried and requiring a cleanup at an Army Reserve Center near Apollo Park and Rover’s Run Dog Park. Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine was used as starter fluid for the Nike ground-to-air missile fleet that ringed Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s.
The cleanup found no evidence that the pollutant had seeped into the soil at the parks. Why any containers of it remained underground after so many years, and how many more are there, are disturbing questions that we hope are answered, publicly, by the Army’s investigation of the incident.
At one time, Chicago was one of the most heavily fortified cities in the world against a threat that strategists later agreed was largely a phantom. Most of the 600 Nike missiles at 22 Chicago-area sites carried nuclear warheads to cleanse the skies of Soviet bomber fleets.
But the Pentagon knew the Soviets were unlikely to launch a bomber attack. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were the new scourge, but jobs created by the Nike project were too lucrative to surrender.
By 1970, the Pentagon ditched the Nikes. Their sites from Skokie to Navy Pier to Homewood were filled in, and many were turned into parks. Some remain derelict fields ringed by fences.
Nike electronics were too primitive to stop incoming missiles, though the Nike’s 75-mile range and Mach 3 speed were great PR tools — photos of the jagged-angled missiles pointed skyward in defiance reassured Americans at the height of the Cold War.
It all seems so paranoid and unnecessary now, but the fear was very real back then. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis may be the closest America has come to nuclear war. The Cold War has been over for nearly 25 years, but it has sent a chilling message that its threat was not solely foreign.