Missiles on the Lakefront: The Forgotten Story of Congressman Ab Mikva and Nike Base C-41

 /  Oct. 10, 2014, 11 a.m.


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Part III - “The Plain Hard Facts”

Before Congressman Ab Mikva could cut funding to ABM, “call a halt” to the Apollo Program, or shutter a certain defense installation, he had to find a legislative aide.

For Ab, it was a good problem to have. In the past year, he had secured an endorsement from the Cook County Central Democratic Party, survived accusations of Daley-ism from Republican challenger Tom Ireland, [ref]

“Ireland vs. Mikva: A Pre-Election Conversation.” Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices [Chicago] Nov. 1968: n. pag. Print.

[/ref] and scored an election-winning endorsement from former Kennedy campaigner Richard Wade: “Abner Mikva constitutes not only the obvious choice over his opponent, but presents a unique opportunity for people in this area to send to Congress a man who will make a mark among his legislative colleagues, and who will, I think, create a new and modern relationship between the power of Washington and the sovereignty of the neighborhoods.” [ref]

Wade, Richard. "I’m Voting Mainly Democratic." Editorial. Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices [Chicago] Oct. 1968: n. pag. Print.

[/ref]

That prediction carried weight with Alex Eleson, Irving Horowitz, and every other Hyde Park resident whose complaints had vanished into a Fifth Army filing cabinet. But before Mikva could set his sights on C-41, he needed a wingman in his Capitol Hill office. His campaign manager, Michael Douglas, had shied away from DC politics, leaving Mikva without a legislative aide.

Enter Joe Lundy, a Wilmette native with a freshly minted law degree and dreams of working on Capitol Hill. “I was a resident of the Chicago area,” he recalls, “so a liberal Democratic Congressman from Illinois would have been an ideal guy for me to work for.” A few phone calls later, Mr. Lundy found himself sitting across from Ab, being cautioned not to expect the same pay as more experienced aides, then asked, given those conditions, if he would take the job.

Mr. Lundy was sold. Decades later, he recalls his time in Mikva’s office without a hint of regret. “Great experience,” he remembers, “Couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning. I would get there at 6 or 6:30 in the morning, read 5 papers every day, [and] helped prepare him for committee hearings…I thought what was most amazing was [Ab’s] ability to get along on a personal basis with other members of Congress with whom he had absolutely nothing in common ideologically, and in fact with whom he decidedly disagreed on the issues…He had developed the ability to relate on a personal basis with people that he had nothing in common ideologically. He was quite popular! There were a number of other liberal democrats in the House at that time, but they didn’t get along at all with the conservative Republicans…Ab had a genius for doing that.” [ref]

Lundy, Joseph. Telephone interview. 5 Sept. 2014.

[/ref]

He also managed to keep his finger on the pulse of problems back home. With the 91st Congress off to a slow start, Ab steered Hyde Park’s focus towards the larger forces at work behind C-41. In 1969 and 1970, the Hyde Park Herald and Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices, founded to report on South Side affairs, carried eight of Mikva’s Op-Eds and speeches on the logic and implications of ABM and Cold War defense. “The plain hard facts,” he wrote in his June 1969 newsletter, “are that 80 cents out of every dollar over which Congress has any discretion is spent on military or related purposes, that our present armed forces total approximately 3 ½ million men…and that we spend a larger percentage of our gross national product for military purposes than any other major country.”

In 1969—a year when defense spending’s share of the federal budget stood nearly three times as large as in 2014, [ref]

Chart Defense Spending: History and Charts for US Governments - UsGovernmentSpending.com. Web. 26 Sept. 2014.

[/ref] and when a long-running war had claimed fifteen times as many lives as the current war in Afghanistan [ref]

"Coalition Military Fatalities by Year." ICasualties | Operation Enduring Freedom | Afghanistan. ICasualties, n.d. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. "Statistical Information about Casualties of the Vietnam War."  National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. 

[/ref] —Mikva found plenty of colleagues with those same concerns. On March 28 and 29, they organized a Congressional Conference on the Military Budget and National Priorities. Its focus: the “increasingly prominent role that military considerations, military objectives, and military expenditures have come to play in the nation’s life.” [ref]

Pg. v. Knoll, Erwin, and Judith McFadden, eds. American Militarism 1970. New York: Viking, 1969. Print.

[/ref]

In its bid to narrow this role, the conference saw missile defense as an ideal starting point. “The ABM issue was, in a sense, a gift,” wrote former presidential adviser Richard Goodwin, who observed that “people now are much more worried about domestic problems than they were four or five years ago. Expenditures on ABM mean no increase of police in the streets, no chance of lowering property taxes, and an improved educational program deferred.” Canceling the program might not only free up funds at home, he argued, but pave the way for further defense cuts. “The ABM is not to be deployed around cities, [but] it has become an issue important in itself, but also symbolic. If you could win it politically, it would open the door and demonstrate for the first time that you can challenge a weapons system.” [ref]

American Militarism, 83-84

[/ref]

With the ABM, progressives on Capitol Hill had staked out a chance to trim defense spending; when it came in President Johnson’s Fiscal Year 1970 Defense Appropriations bill, Ab Mikva was quick to pounce. “No one can be sanguine about voting ‘no’ on an authorization bill designed to provision our Armed Forces for the next two years,” he assured the House. Despite his misgivings, he explained that “the presence in this authorization bill of over $746 million for procurement and deployment on the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system—the ABM—alone is enough to convince me to vote against it…It is, as someone has said, ‘too much to pay for a system we do not know will work against a threat we are not sure exists.’” [ref]

Congressional Record, October 3, 1969. HTTP://congressional.proquest.com.proxy.uchicago.edu/congressional/docview/t19.d20.cr-1969-1003?accountid=14657

[/ref] Unfortunately for Ab, most Congressmen felt more certain about that threat. An amendment to strip the bill of ABM funding failed, 270-93. [ref]

"Congressional Vote Database." GovTrack. Ed. Keith Poole. Civic Impulse, LLC, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref]

Ab then took aim at another of the bill’s provisions: the sheer size of the standing military. During consideration of the bill, he proposed an amendment to cut the size of the military from 3.285 million to 2.8 million. Opponents argued that Mikva’s proposal could hamper Vietnam peace negotiations, and the House rejected it on a 38-85 standing vote. [ref]

"Congress Authorizes Controversial ABM Funds." In CQ Almanac 1969, 25th ed., 257-92.

[/ref]

In his January 1970 newsletter, Mikva conceded that “My proposal to cut military manpower by 10% did not pass in the form I proposed it. However, for the first time since the Korean War a great deal of attention was focused on Congress’s constitutional responsibility to set military manpower ceilings. As a result, the cut for 1970 will be almost 7%. I think my proposal generated some of the pressure towards that result.” [ref]

“Abner J. Mikva: Your Congressman Reports” (Newsletter), January 23, 1970

[/ref]

In the same newsletter, Mikva also admitted that one very important task remained undone. “The Nike Site still sits in Jackson Park, and while my file with the Army grows larger, my powers of persuasion with the military do not.” [ref]

“Abner J. Mikva: Your Congressman Reports”

[/ref]

Fortunately for Mikva, the military no longer required his persuasion. With Vietnam and increasingly advanced weapons systems squeezing the Pentagon’s budget, the military was eager to phase out aging installations. [ref]

Morgan, Mark L., and Mark A. Berhow. Rings of Supersonic Steel

[/ref] Four years after McNamara’s call for an anti-ballistic missile system, the military bureaucracy finally turned its attention to C-41. Over the course of the summer of 1971, as workers dismantled the base’s reviled radar tower, Hyde Parkers celebrated with a July 4th picnic on the Point. An ad for the event in Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices proclaimed, beneath a cartoonish, anthropomorphized tank, “Get the War Machine Out of Indochina and Hyde Park.” [ref]

Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices, July 1971

[/ref]

Stationed at C-41 until the bitter end, Spc. Ritt saw little evidence of Hyde Park’s hostility. Surprised to learn about the neighborhood’s long effort to remove the missiles, he remarks, “I didn’t realize the neighborhood didn’t like us at the time…I never got a sense that anyone had a hard time with us as individuals.” As for Ab Mikva? “I hadn’t thought of that name until you mentioned it tonight. I remember him in the newspapers…[but] there was no attack on what we did. We took our orders through the chain of command.” [ref]

Ritt, Frank. Telephone Interview. 3 Sept. 2014

[/ref]

If Mikva held such little leverage over Nike Base C-41, why did he press military-related issues so relentlessly? After our interview, Frank Ritt came up with one theory. Sharing his thoughts in a follow-up email, he suspected that Mikva’s “targeting the benign Nike Site would increase his visibility and value as an independent Democrat with the informed voters of the 2nd District. Little or none of that would have had much of an impact on the blue collar and under-employed local people that were part of the lives of the service men that served at C-41 on the lake.” [ref]

Email from Frank Ritt, 4 Sept. 2014

[/ref] Recalling a similar experience, C-41 crew member Rick Miller explains that “I personally didn’t hear negative sentiment from civilians while I was there.”

Indeed, it appears that concerns over the military emanated from a small, vocal subset of Hyde Park’s voting public. “That turned out to be a very high-profile issue,” Mr. Lundy recalls, describing Mikva’s bid to reduce the size of the military. “There was no way that a freshman congressman was going to be able to cut the size of the standing military, but it was a great issue for Ab politically, especially in Hyde Park.” [ref]

Lundy, Joseph. Telephone Interview. 5 Sept. 2014

[/ref] Prior to 1972, when Mikva moved to Evanston and a supportive group of Hyde Park transplants, he managed to inspire his small, left-leaning base with promises of a smaller military and safer neighborhood.

Although few in number, Hyde Park’s anti-missile campaigners raised valid points about the safety and merits of missile defense. During his tour of duty, Spc. Miller bought into the Nikes’ mission, and “felt that people who were against them were unwise or possibly un-American.” However, he wrote me in an email, “I now agree with the Chicago residents that did not want the nuclear warheads…Since the range of the Nike Herc was only 87 miles and the bombers would have traveling toward Chicago they probably could have exploded Nike Herc nuclear warheads fairly close to Chicago… The Nike Herc nuclear explosions would have caused a tremendous amount of damage.”

That knowledge might have proven useful to Milton Yusem. In a rebuttal to Glenn Truxtun McDavid’s defense of C-41, he noted that, “If the ‘kill rate’ of the Nike missile against incoming bombs at Mach 2.5 is 80%, then out of five bombs fired at us, one would probably hit and blow up Chicago…a single bomb exploded 50 to 100 miles away from Chicago, in a largely forested area, might also wipe us out.” [ref]

Yusem, Milton "Nike Site Called False, Expensive" Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald[Chicago] 8 Aug., 1966 pag. 4 Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref]

Several decades removed from such a grim prospect, Professor Bright reached a more open-ended assessment of the Nike system. “There is no doubt in my mind that Nike-Ajax missiles launched at aircraft would have struck a high percentage of their targets. Does that count as working?” [ref]

Bright, Christopher. Telephone Interview. 2 July 2014

[/ref]

That question, perhaps the most important legacy of C-41, remains today.

Missiles on the Lakefront: The Forgotten Story of Congressman Ab Mikva and Nike Base C-41 – Part III: “The Plain Hard Facts” is the third chapter in a four-part series by Gate editor, Patrick Reilly.

The image featured in this article has been published with permission from Christopher Bright. The original image can be found at http://www.christopherjohnbright.com/index.htm 


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