This map shows a ring of Nike missile bases protecting Pittsburgh from Soviet bombs. Most of the bases were decommissioned by the 1970s.
By Jamie Wiggan
When the 9,000-pound atomic warhead known as “Little Boy” detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, an estimated 60,000 people lost their lives immediately. In the years following, many thousands more withered and died from radiation exposure.
The immediate effect of Hiroshima — and a second atomic attack on Nagasaki — was to force Japanese surrender and bring an end to World War II. More permanently, the arrival of nuclear weaponry recast the basic currency of military power, setting the tone for the Cold War and present conflicts with Iran and North Korea.
On July 16, 1945, allied leaders Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin convened in Potsdam, Germany to iron out a strategy for ending the war and rebuilding a shattered Europe. Germany had surrendered two months previously, but Japan still hung on.
Desperate for an end after six years of warring, the allies concluded their 13-point Potsdam declaration with a stark warning:
“We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces…The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.”
Unaware of the newly developed atomic bomb, which could substantiate the allies’ threats, Japanese officials skeptically debated the surrender request at the time “Little Boy” scorched Hiroshima.
Three days later, a second, larger bomb known as “Fat Man” obliterated the Japanese harbor town of Nagasaki, claiming 40,000 lives within minutes. Although the bomb was more powerful, the hilly contours of the harbor town limited the bomb’s destruction.
Japanese leaders saw their position was hopeless and conceded defeat. In announcing the surrender to his people, Emperor Hirohito made his first ever public radio broadcast.
“The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives,” he said. “Should we continue to fight… it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.”
Hirohito’s words came to define the feeling of ordinary citizens around the world who lived through a constant backdrop of nuclear fear during the height of the Cold War.
Soon after emerging from World War II as victorious allies, ruptures began to show between the Marxist Soviet Union and the capitalist Western Bloc.
The two powers scrambled for dominance over unaligned states. The Soviet empire expanded westward, swallowing up much of eastern and central Europe. Defeated Germany was carved up, with the Soviets occupying the East, and Britain and America overseeing the West.
“An iron curtain has descended across the continent,” former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told an American college audience in 1946, defining the onset of the Cold War.
The United States responded to the perceived Soviet threat by installing anti-aircraft bases around major cities, including Pittsburgh. Initially, these bases housed regular rockets designed to pull down Russian bombers; however, by 1958 these rockets contained small nuclear warheads, each capable of eliminating an entire squadron.
School students prepared for the ever-present threat through repeated “duck-and-cover” drills. In a government-led effort to safeguard the general public, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed buildings across the country, marking appropriately shielded structures with yellow and black fallout shelter signs.
After peaking in the 1960s, the nuclear arms race began to taper off in 1972, when President Richard Nixon brokered an agreement with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev limiting future arms production.
Nuclear fears continue
Even after the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 closed out the Cold War chapter, the threat of nuclear war has continued to steer foreign policy and negotiations over the balance of world power.
In the wake of 9/11, fear Saddam Hussein’s regime might possess nuclear weapons led to the deployment of more than 160,000 American and allied troops to Iraq in 2003.
Stretching out across eight years, the warring claimed more than 4,000 American lives and inflicted nearly 32,000 casualties.
After the final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, world leaders turned their attention to Iran, which, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had begun stockpiling reserves of enriched uranium in sufficient quantities for developing nuclear weapons.
Iran agreed to limit uranium production in a 2016 agreement granting oversight to several world powers in exchange for lifted economic sanctions. Two years later, President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement and resumed the sanctions.
In retaliation, Khamenei vowed to quadruple uranium production.
In recent years, North Korea has made strides with its nuclear program, as demonstrated by a series of well-publicized testing.
The isolated autocracy has a history of human rights violations and has long been seen as a threat by the United States and other world leaders.
Successful testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile in 2017 indicates North Korea may now have the ability to reach the U.S. mainland with nuclear warheads.
Trump became the first sitting president to meet a North Korean leader, when he and Kim Jong-un held a summit in 2018 to discuss international relations. The leaders both agreed to concessions – the U.S. was to halt military training exercises at the Korean border, while Jong-un vowed to halt nuclear testing. Both have, however, reneged and talks have since stalled.
Moon missile site
As Cold War tensions ramped up during the early 1950s, the federal government sought to protect industrial cities from the threat of Soviet bombs.
In Pittsburgh, anti-aircraft missiles were stationed in several bases that together formed a circular defensive chain around the city. One of these was located in Moon Township and was paired with a radar control station in Robinson.
Photos courtesy: Earl Edwards, Moon Township Historical Society
A covert picture shows the Moon Nike base prior to its decommission in 1974. The base was under tight restrictions and operated under strict secrecy. Few photographs remain of the site.
The first rockets installed at the base in Moon were regular anti-aircraft missiles, designed to strike down a single bomber; however, these weapons were soon upgraded to include nuclear warheads capable of destroying an entire fleet.
Had the weapons ever been deployed, nuclear fallout would have rained down around the point of explosion. With a maximum range of just 87 miles, any Nike Hercules missile launched from Pittsburgh would intercept its target over American soil.
The Moon and Robinson sites were decommissioned in 1974, as new technology rendered the aging missiles obsolete.
• Dec. 28, 1942: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the formation of the Manhattan Project, commissioning a body of scientists and military officials to work on nuclear research.
• May 8, 1945: Allies declare Victory in Europe Day following Nazi surrender.
• July 10, 1945: American scientists successfully detonate the first atomic bomb over the New Mexico desert.
• July 26, 1945: Allied leaders promise “prompt and utter devastation” of Japan, should its leaders refuse calls for surrender.
• Aug. 6, 1945: “Little Boy” atomic bomb is detonated over the Japanese town of Hiroshima, instantly killing around 60,000.
• Aug. 9, 1945: “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 40,000.
• Aug. 15, 1945: Japanese Emperor Hirohito announces Japanese surrender.
• March 5, 1946: Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives a speech at Westminster College in Missouri declaring “an iron curtain has descended across the European continent.”
• May 26, 1972: The United States and Soviet Union agree to limit nuclear arms production as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement Treaty (SALT I).
• Nov. 9, 1989: Millions of East Germans scale the Berlin Wall after the government issues an order lifting travel prohibitions. The collapse of the wall signals the inevitable demise of the Soviet Union.
• March 20, 2003: A coalition led by the U.S. deploys troops to Iraq, beginning a war prompted by fears Saddam Hussein’s regime harbored weapons of mass destruction.
• July 14, 2015: The U.S. and five other world leaders sign a treaty limiting Iranian uranium production in exchange for lifted economic sanctions.
• July 4, 2017: North Korea successfully deploys its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, which analysts believe could reach U.S. mainland.
• June 12, 2018: U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for historic talks. The leaders make promises, which they later relinquish.