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

 /  Oct. 7, 2014, 8:28 p.m.


Part II - “A Thorn in the Side of My Constituents”

For voters with a cause “before its time,” Ab Mikva was a natural champion.

He had already bounced back from an unpromising start in public service. Not long after arriving for law school at the University of Chicago, Ab sought out a volunteer job with Senators Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.  In early 1950s Chicago, that meant seeking approval from the city’s powerful, jobs-for-votes Democratic Machine. The party’s Ward Committeeman, Timothy O’Sullivan, sized Mikva up, took the cigar out of his mouth, and asked, “Who sent you?”


“We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

With ward committeemen like O’Sullivan guarding the gates to Chicago’s public offices, the prospects for a young Wisconsin native looked grim. But Mikva had ambition on his side. Raised in Milwaukee by Ukrainian immigrants under Socialist Mayor Dan Hoan, Mikva’s left-leaning views took shape early. He first channeled them into politics during a high school experience with the American Legion’s Boys State Program. “It was mock legislature,” he recalled decades later. “We went up to Madison and pretended to pass laws for a day or two. I was so excited about this idea, this notion of trading ideas with other people…I fell in love with the process then.” [ref]

"Mikva, Dem., for State Rep. The Candidate..." The Hyde Park Herald[Chicago] 10 Oct. 1956: n. pag. The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


That spark survived Ab’s first brush with Chicago’s Democratic Machine. After graduating at the top of his 1951 law school class, he began to circumvent the networks of nepotism and patronage that had nurtured many Chicago politicians of the day. Ab became a regular at local civic groups: the Committee on Illinois Government, the ACLU and NAACP, the Chicago Bar Association, and, of course, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. [ref]

“About IVI-IPO.” Independent Voters of Illinois Independent Precinct Organization. Web. www.iviipo/mission.htm 28 Sept. 2014

[/ref] He also came into the good graces of the Independent Voters of Illinois, organized in 1944 by voters weary of candidates’ special favors and general greed. [ref]

“Mikva, Dem., for State Rep. The Candidate…”

[/ref] When Mikva announced his candidacy for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly’s 23rd district, he had their full endorsement. [ref]

"Park District-HP ‘Log’" The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


The op-eds and testimonials from that first campaign show little concern for the Nike missile installation. How could a state representative in Springfield contend with the Pentagon? Yet with voters still sour over the army’s $1-per-acre-per-year, and Superintendent Donohue’s glum explanation that “the Park Commissioners feel there is nothing else they can do in the matter,” [ref]

Mikva, Abner J. "Mikva: Put Parks Under City Rule." Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 21 Mar. 1956: n. pag. The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014. 

[/ref] one of Mikva’s campaign promises likely struck a chord. “The recent revelations of deplorable conditions in our parks demonstrate very clearly that people have lost confidence in the Park District,” he wrote to the Herald’s editorial board. “This is one of many reasons why there should be a consolidation of the Park District with the City Government. With such a merger, the parks would function directly under officials responsible to the voters.” Linking this prospect to his campaign, Mikva reminded the Herald’s readers that power over such a merger lay with the state legislature. “I pledge myself to leadership in this action in concert with other like-minded men.” [ref]

“Mikva, Kennaly, Lee.” The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 7 Nov. 1956 The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


A resolute tone in Hyde Park, bold vision for Springfield, and only three opponents vying for a total of three seats: voters had it easy in the 1956 election for the 23rd District of the Illinois General Assembly. Mikva claimed the most votes from Hyde Parkers that November. [ref]

“Mikva Named Leading Freshman Legislator.” The Hyde Park Herald [Chicago] 19 June 1956 The Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref] In the months that followed, the “nobody that nobody sent” sponsored over ninety bills and won the title of Best Freshman Legislator. [ref]

“Urges Merger of Chicago and Park District.” The Chicago Tribune 20 Mar. 1957. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref] Making good on his campaign promise, he also voted for Rep. Michael Zlatnik’s bill to bring the Chicago Park District under the City of Chicago’s full control. [ref]

Gottlieb, Harry. Letter to Dan Flaherty. 3 Nov. 1960. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.


If the merger had raised hopes among opponents of C-41, they were soon dashed. In the early 1960s, as the army cleared even more trees to make way for the Nike-Hercules, Hyde Park began to realize just how little sway cities and neighborhoods held in Pentagon conference rooms. In a November 3, 1960 letter to the CPD’s latest Superintendent, Dan Flaherty, HPKCC Director Harry Gottlieb reiterated his group’s hunch that the new ICBMs had “materially decreased the likelihood that, if Chicago is attacked, it will be by the manned bombers which the Nike installations are designed to intercept.” [ref]

Flaherty, Dan. Letter to Leon Despres. 13 March 1961. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.


Gottlieb’s complaint took a few months to work its way up the army’s chain of command. Flaherty passed down its response through Alderman Despres. “The Army has advised us,” he wrote, “and we have no reason to question its advice, that the safety of Chicago would be adversely affected to a serious degree if this Nike installation were to become inoperable.” [ref]

Johnson, Paul and Dorothy. "..decided" Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald[Chicago] 1 June 1966: 4. Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


It was time to seek help in Washington.

Hyde Park’s voice in Congress was Rep. Barratt O’Hara. Eighty years old and praised for having the “closest to a 100% Rooseveltian voting record” by Americans for Democratic Action, [ref]

Horowitz, Irving. Letter to Barratt O’Hara. 26 July 1962. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.

[/ref] O’Hara commanded respect from Chicago politicians and neighborhood groups alike. He also represented HPKCC Executive Director Irving Horowitz’s best hope in a July 1962 request: “we would like to receive guidance from you as to the most effective means of having the need for the Nike-Hercules installation re-evaluated.” [ref]

O’Hara, Barratt. Letter to Robert McNamara. 31 July 1962. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.


Rep. O’Hara duly followed up. Upon receiving Mr. Horowitz’s letter, the Congressman wrote to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “The Nike-Hercules on Promontory Point in Jackson Park, Chicago, has long been a thorn in the side of my constituents in the Second District. They regard it as a hazard and resent it because it occupies a limited recreation space badly needed in a densely populated area…I shall, therefore, appreciate your cooperation with my constituents by ordering an investigation into the necessity for maintaining this military installation in a public park, and the possibility of its removal.” [ref]

Palmer, Edward. Letter to Robert McNamara. 3 June 1965. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.


But the towers stayed.

Nearly three years later, another HPKCC director, Edward Palmer, appealed to McNamara directly, only to hear back from Col. Robert Palmer, Deputy Director of Installations. [ref]

Palmer, Robert. Letter to Edward Palmer. 18 June 1965. Hyde Park-Kenwood Historical Society Papers, University of Chicago Library Special Collections. Print.

[/ref] “In the selection of sites, tactical consideration is of primary importance. Other considerations such as the use of community support facilities must, of necessity, be secondary. Relocation or elimination of this installation would create a serious and unacceptable gap in the air defense posture of the Chicago-Gary area.” [ref]

McDavid, Glenn. "...missiles" Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald[Chicago] 27 July, 1966 pag. 21 Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


At first, only one Hyde Parker sought to explain why. In 1966, a 15-year-old University of Chicago Lab School student named Glenn Truxtun McDavid vouched for C-41 in the pages of the Hyde Park Herald. Drawing on intelligence reports that tallied the Soviet and American ICBM arsenals at 270 and 854, respectively, McDavid suspected that “the Russians would have to devote most of their missiles to the elimination of our missiles.” The elimination of America’s cities would fall to bombers. With the Nike-Ajax’s 80% success rate, McDavid argued that C-41 represented Chicago’s best chance. No other residents planned such elaborate war games to justify or condemn C-41. But on the missile testing fields of New Mexico, McNamara’s Defense Department had been tinkering with a new generation of rockets, one that promised cover from the growing fleets of ICBMs. It passed through several labels—Nike-X, Nike-Zeus, Safeguard, Sentinel—all with one common purpose: Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM). [ref]

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

[/ref] On September 18, 1967, citing the threat from China’s newly-deployed nuclear missiles, McNamara announced the deployment of a “thin” ABM system to parry attacks from across the Pacific. [ref]

"Congress Authorizes Controversial ABM Funds." In CQ Almanac 1969, 25th ed., 257-92. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1970. http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal69-1248065.


A new generation of missile defense meant a new, much louder public reaction. “Many of the communities that welcomed Nike-Hercules objected to Nike-Zeus, but all of their objections could have applied to those older systems,” explains Bright. From a fifty-year vantage point, Bright sees a sudden surge in hostility to defensive missiles. “There’s nothing special about anti-ICBM weapons,” he made sure to clarify. “What brings this opposition about is a sea change in the American national consciousness…and the reason, of course, is Vietnam.” [ref]

Bright, Christopher. Telephone Interview. 2 July 2014


By the time McNamara made his pitch for Safeguard, the Vietnam War had made itself felt on the streets of Chicago. Nearly one thousand residents never returned from the jungles of Southeast Asia, [ref]

"Persons from Illinois Who Died in the Vietnam War." The Virtual Wall. Vietnam Veterans Memorial, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref] while many of their friends and relatives felt the war’s costs secondhand. Over the course of the 1960s, funds channeled by President Johnson’s Great Society Programs into the city’s African-American neighborhoods began to shift overseas. “It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program,” reflected Martin Luther King, Jr.  “…Then came the build-up in Vietnam…it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor.” [ref]

King, Martin Luther. 1967. MS, Sermons. The King Center, April. The King Center Digital Archive. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

[/ref] Conditions for Chicago’s poor only worsened in the wake of King’s 1968 assassination, when rioters and looters left much of the West Side in flames.

The city’s ills soon spread to Hyde Park. Behind C-41’s barbed wire fence, Spc. Ritt was grateful to have avoided both the riots and the conflict in Vietnam. Yet he, too, saw signs of trouble. A gang named the Blackstone Rangers roamed Hyde Park’s streets, and “we saw police chases on Lake Shore Drive that looked like something out of The Blues Brothers.” [ref]

Ritt, Frank. Telephone interview. 3 Sept. 2014.


Some Hyde Parkers had had enough. Nearly 30 percent of the neighborhood’s citizens fled for the suburbs between 1960 and 1970. [ref]

Michele Pazul, Population Size and Race Composition of Hyde Park and the Surrounding        Communities: 1960—1970—1980, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 4

[/ref] Those who remained faced a dwindling amount of green space. Alderman Despres lamented that “Chicago now occupies 34th place [among American cities] in per-capita park-area. The average for the entire city is 509 persons to each acre of park,” a far cry from the one hundred people per acre recommended by Burnham’s Plan of Chicago. [ref]

Despres, Leon. "New Threat to Parks." Editorial. Hyde Park-Kenwood Voices [Chicago] Apr. 1969: n. pag. Print.


While Chicago scrounged for funds to combat these and other ills, the military’s Nike-Hercules missiles remained in Jackson Park at a cost of $200 million per year. [ref]

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

[/ref] By 1969, when Congress approved $4.2 billion to field the first ABM rockets, [ref]

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

[/ref] Hyde Parkers took the deployment of missiles in their crumbling city as proof of skewed national priorities. Fourteen years into his service on the city council, Alderman Despres had built a reputation by fighting Chicago’s housing segregation and corrupt leaders. Now, he linked these and other urban ills to a waste of resources on missile defense. “About 15 years ago,” he reminded an audience at St. Mary’s Church, “…[the Army] foreclosed all discussion and told us that the Nike installations were essential to the defense of the United States. Then, as now, the scientific experts said that the installations were already obsolete and ineffectual. They were proved right. The Nike installations merely provided work for soldiers and contracts for suppliers…billions spent on ABM exacerbate the cities’ shortages and undermine our ability to provide a decent present and future for our citizens.” [ref]

"Nike Battle Revisited in ABM Issue" Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald[Chicago] 22 Jan. 1969 pag. 2 Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


Others expanded on Alderman Despres’s bleak assessment. On the same Hyde Park Herald page that covered the meeting, a reader named Wheeler Summons perceived a similar waste in another government rocketry program. “Once we actually land upon the moon, let’s call a halt,” he wrote. “Let’s allow the Russians to go zooming around the rest of the universe if they must. And let us spend most of those tens of billions, and hopefully more saved by ending the Vietnam misadventure, on the good old USA itself…We desperately need new housing, rebuilt cities, new schools, better teachers, improved urban transportation and, most of all, food and aid to the poverty-stricken.”

Mr. Summons saw hope in the nation’s new political leadership—and Hyde Park’s new representative. He urged readers to “let him [Nixon] know, [and] our new man in Congress, Mikva, who’ll certainly understand.” [ref]

Summons, Wheeler "...moon" Editorial. The Hyde Park Herald[Chicago] 22 Jan., 1969 pag. 2 Hyde Park Herald Historical Archives. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.


Missiles on the Lakefront: The Forgotten Story of Congressman Ab Mikva and Nike Base C-41 – Part II: “A Thorn in the Side of My Constituents” is the second 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 

Patrick Reilly


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