Historic Context for the Cold War and the Nike Missile Defense System
In the years following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union entered an era of highly strained foreign relations. This new type of world conflict centered around competing ideologies, atomic arms development, military build-up and the management of their respective spheres of influence. During this time, fear of nuclear attack from the Soviet Union became real and widespread throughout the United States. In 1947, the Truman’s Administration adopted the Containment Policy, asserting that the United States must contain Communism to its present boundaries and that further expansion of the Communist empire would be devastating to American interests. The U.S. policy was to peacefully block, through nuclear deterrents, the Soviet threat of domination over Eastern Europe and to limit Soviet intervention and assertion in other parts of the world.
During WWII, American became painfully aware of the damage caused by enemy aerial attacks. Lessons learned from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing forced the United States to focus national defense energy, research and budgets on protecting the country from high-altitude aerial threats, and later, enemy aircrafts carrying nuclear weapons. By 1945, the U.S. military was conducting research on a new missile defense system, with the code-name “Project Nike” after the Greek goddess of victory. These weapons, guided by a complex system of radars and tracking computers, had a range of up to 37 miles (under the Nike Ajax program) and 87 miles (with Nike Hercules program) and could shoot down planes traveling at two to three times the speed of sound.
In 1947, the War Department created the United States Air Force. As part of subsequent military agreements, the U.S. Air Force gained operational control of air defense and the U.S. Army was charged with staffing air defense units and development of Nike missiles. In 1950, the Army organized the Army Antiaircraft Command (ARAACOM) which controlled thirty-eight antiaircraft artillery battalions by 1951 and was assigned control of the Nile missile program by 1956. The Nike Missile Program was the most significant American military response to the Cold War.
The Nike Missile Program in the Bay Area
The U.S. Army has had a significant presence in the San Francisco Bay Area, since California became a state in 1848. From 1856 up through World War II, the army protected the valuable San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate strait from enemies. As each new generation of military advances made the previous seacoast fortifications obsolete, the army would replace the fortifications with new, state-of-the-art guns. In 1947, the Army declared the current coastal defense batteries, the hulking 16” casemated guns that hugged the San Francisco and Marin coastlines, then obsolete because they could now be attacked from the air.
By the mid-1950s, the army constructed twelve permanent Nike missile launch sites throughout the Bay Area. In the East Bay, there were launch sites at San Pablo Ridge, Rocky Ridge, Lake Chabot, and Coyote Hills. In the south, in the City of San Francisco and San Mateo County, there were sites at Milagra Ridge, Fort Winfield Scott (Presidio) and Fort Funston. To the north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County, there were sites constructed at Fort Cronkite, Fort Barry, Angel Island and San Rafael. The army believed this circle of defense protected the area from potential aerial attacks (at least until the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.) Fort Baker, located in Marin County, became the home for the Sixth ARADCOM region (Army Air Defense Command), the new headquarters for the Western Army Antiaircraft Command which commanded the operation of all 12 Bay Area Nike missile sites.
Presidio 1648: The AdministrationHeadquarters building for the Presidio’s Nike missile site
Battery Caulfield, the Presidio’s Nike missile site, was located in the center of the southwest quadrant of the Presidio, a quarter mile north of the former Public Health Service Hospital. As the army identified all the Nike missile sites by numbers, Battery Caulfield was assigned SF-89L; however it was the only Nike missile battery to be named after an army officer (Lt. Col Thomas D. Caulfield.) Since 1952, the 740th AAA Missile Battalion (740 AAAMBn), as part of the larger 30th Antiaircraft Artillery (AAA) Group, managed Battery Caulfield from Fort Winfield Scott.
In 1957, the army constructed Building 1648 to function as the 740th AAAMBn headquarters building and it housed the army’s S-2 branch (Security Intelligence) and the S-3 branch (Operations.) The Administration building was a long, rectangular concrete block building that had a central hallway running the entire length of the building, with a series of small and large offices to the east and west side of the hallway. The east half of the building included a rations breakdown room, administrative space including a front entry hall (with designated telephone shelf), a mail room and the message room; filing room, meeting rooms and executive office rooms for the Battalion Commander. The west side of the building included supply & storage rooms, conference rooms, and Intelligence, Operation and Missile rooms. The soldiers who worked in this building were responsible for establishing and maintaining security clearance levels, by preparing people for security clearance, establishing their personal histories and obtaining their fingerprints. All of the classified material related to the Presidio’s Nike missile program funneled through this office. The men who actually worked the launch site and the Integrated Fire Control (IFC) lived across the street in Fort Winfield Scott barracks.
Changes to the Nike missile program
In 1958, the Army began to upgrade most Nike Ajax sites to accommodate the more powerful, nuclear-capable Nike Hercules. However, the army did not upgrade Battery Caulfield to the Hercules missiles and as a result, the army inactivated the 740th AAAMBn in 1958 and re-designated them as the 4th Missile Battalion, 61st Artillery (4/61st). By 1962, the army inactivated the Nike Ajax missile function at Battery Caulfield. In 1964, the army inactivated the last Nike Ajax site in the United States. The 4/61st group maintained control of the Battery Caulfield Nike missile operations until 1969. After 1969, the Headquarters Battery of the 1st Battalion 250th (1/250th) AAA Regiment, California National Guard (CAArNG) moved into Building 1648 and remained its occupant until 1974.
By the late 1960s, The U.S.S.R. had developed an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (I.C.B.M.) with a range of 7,500 miles and the ability to fly higher than the Nike missiles. As a result, the United States discontinued the Surface to Air Missile program and refocused its energy and budgets into the Anti-Ballistic Missiles that could intercept an I.C.B.M. By 1974, after twenty years of first-line defense readiness, the army declared the Nike missile system obsolete and took the last missiles out of service in 1979.
The Last Tenants of Building 1648
In 1974, the 902nd Military Intelligence Group, S.F. Military Intelligence Detachment, Military Intelligence Battalion, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command moved into Building 1648 and remained the occupant for almost twenty years. To accommodate the new tenant and its new use, the army modified the building, most notably adding a security vault in one of the building’s largest office spaces. The walk-in vault included two separate rooms and functioned as a secure and controlled office space. The army installed an intrusion detection system for the vault as well as buzzers in three offices that would activate when someone opened the building’s front door. In 1992, likely due to the pending Department of Defense transfer of the Presidio to the National Park Service, the Military Intelligence Battalion moved out of Building 1648 and into a nearby building. The U.S. Park Police occupied the building from approximately 1993 to 1996. After 1996, the building has been mostly unoccupied.
[This historic building information has been edited from Historic American Building Survey (HABS) No. CA-2919 for the Presidio of San Francisco AAA Battalion Headquarters Facility Administration Building. The complete report and copies of the archival photos can be found at the Park Archives and Records Center, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Building 667, Presidio of San Francisco]
Last updated: August 13, 2019