Florida’s Parallel Universe
The abandoned Nike Missile Site, surrounded by the Everglades, is a reminder of when humans almost destroyed the world and a warning that we could still lose everything today.
On October 1962, the world almost ended. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called it the most dangerous moment in history. Never before had the world’s two greatest nuclear powers — the United States and the then-Soviet Union — come so close to pulling the trigger. Never before had two countries been on the verge of mutually assured destruction.
It started with an idea to place missiles in the newly Communist nation of Cuba. Nikita Khrushchev was weary of the United States’ antics in Cuba and its outrageous attempts to dethrone the new Cuban president, a young Communist revolutionary named Castro. Khrushchev didn’t intend to use the weapons, he would later tell people. “We just wanted to frighten them, to restrain the United States in regard to Cuba.” The Soviets had nuclear weapons, to be sure, but they didn’t reach as far as U.S. missiles. If ever there came a time when the button was pushed, the USSR knew they would be hit first. But if the Soviets had missiles closer to United States shores, the balance of power would be restored. Khrushchev figured he would hide his missile installations until just the right moment, when he would reveal them with a flourish, and then make his demands.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the Americans discovered Khrushchev's secret. On October 16, 1962, the CIA paid a visit to Kennedy. They told him they had discovered Soviet nuclear warhead-equipped medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. They could barely hide their panic. They did not know what Khrushchev’s intentions were; they told the President to assume the Soviets were planning an attack. The coast of Florida, they reminded Kennedy, was just 90 miles away.
The President ordered, as Michael Dobbs wrote in One Minute To Midnight, the greatest emergency mobilization of U.S. troops since World War II and braced for a possible invasion of Cuba. For the first time in the nation’s history, Strategic Air Command was placed on DEFCON II. Nuclear bombers were positioned throughout the country. All other U.S. military commands were placed on DEFCON III.
No place felt more vulnerable than Florida. The Army deployed defense battalions around the region, and prepared for a possible air attack on Miami. U.S. soldiers were deployed to south Florida with little warning — ordered to tidy their personal affairs and pack their bags. They flooded in by car and rail, setting up primitive, temporary camps inside tomato fields and forests. Within days, Florida became a military zone. HAWK and Nike Hercules missile battalions appeared in Florida’s south. Every road, airport and rail station in Florida was clogged with military personnel, tanks, and artillery. Parking lots became temporary bases. One observer, wrote Dobbs, recalled the napalm bombs stacked like “mountains of cordwood” around Florida airfields.
The tensions that led to this crisis had been building for decades. The two main victors after World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, split the world into two rival ideologies. The fear of Communism inspired capitalist America to extend her technological and military prowess across the globe — what was known as the containment doctrine. At first America feared the spread of Communism in Europe, but the fear (and the weapons) spread everywhere else soon enough. The U.S. put military bases in Asia and led covert actions in Latin America. For the decades between World War II and 1989, it was perpetually wartime for America. But there was something more terrifying than the Communist threat, more powerful than ideas.
The world almost ended in August 1945 too. It was in 1945 that the United States tested the real-world impact of atomic weapons for the first time on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nothing made Americans fear atomic weapons more than seeing them used on others. Indeed, after World War II, Americans would come to fear the bomb more than anything they had feared before. The United States could have taken its victory after World War II and dismantled its nuclear capabilities, vowing to never again use such weapons of devastation. But everyone knew it was too late. In 1949 the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb of their own. Never again would there be a World war without nuclear weapons. World war would now be more terrible than anyone could imagine. Never again would Americans feel protected. Never again could America take solace in the safety of her shores.
“You know, this tour attracts a different demographic than the other Everglades tours,” says Leon, our guide. “Most people are drawn here by the wind and the nature,” he says as he scans our faces for clues.
“It was a mad world in the days of the Cuban missile crisis,” says Leon. “Yeah, we all thought we were gonna die.”
Behind us is a pink abandoned headquarters building. In front of it is a sign that reads “Panther Xing, next 4 miles.” Leon leads us over to a cracked section of concrete. There are letters and circles carved into it, the inscriptions of the soldiers who once lived here.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was over in 1962. But the militarization of Florida and its national parks had only just begun. Nike Hercules Missile Site — also called Alpha Battery or HM-69 — was completed in 1964. “Nike,” like the Greek goddess of victory, was the name the United States’ government gave to a widely deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system installed to protect the country from any missile attack — threatened or real. From the mid-20th century, Nike Missile defense sites were built all over the United States in rings around cities and major industrial sites — around 260 all told. But no other state was as physically close to an “enemy” nation as Florida. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with an uneasy détente, it was only after 1962 that the U.S. government realized how especially vulnerable south Florida was. HM-69 — and all south Florida — became the frontline defense against enemy attack.
146 U.S. Army soldiers and technicians made HM-69 their home. Their main task was to operate the site’s three aboveground launchers and, ostensibly, protect south Florida from Cuban air strikes. Flight time for a supersonic jet bomber launched from Cuba to Miami was very short. This meant that the people manning HM-69 were on perpetual high alert. They lived daily with the knowledge that they would receive little or no warning if there was an attack, and that they would not live to tell the story. “We were the first line of defense the Russians would have had to take out before they could attack the rest of the country,” Charles Carter, a veteran who served on the base for three years, told the South Dade News Leader last year. The highly restricted HM-69 was also a training ground for CIA-sponsored Cuban exile espionage teams, and a research lab for advanced Cold War-related military sensor technology.
HM-69 was officially closed in 1979 and now it is a museum of Cold War leftovers, 22 buildings and structures that spread across 40 acres of the Everglades National Park: the barns where missiles were stores, a missile assembly building, a barracks, a kennel for dogs who were trained to kill.
To this day, most Floridians don’t know the full extent of the activities carried on in this parallel military universe. Leon remembers as he and his neighbors watched convoy after convoy of warships and military personnel coming in along U.S. Route 1 at the beginning of the Crisis. They didn’t realize that, after the crisis was over, the tents would be turned into permanent barracks. The soldiers and weapons would stay.
Just past a missile assembly building with cartoonish, soldier-made murals on its side, Leon takes us to a grassy hill. The hill is a control bunker for the missile launchers. It is concrete and small, we are told it is filled with asbestos and lead paint; it’s hard to know how anyone in it could breathe. Leon tells us that the soldiers would spend hours inside this bunker during drills. The launch crew would go to the bunker after the missile was prepared to launch and wait for orders, though the attack they spent each day preparing for never came. On the wall the word ‘cofe’ is spray-painted in red. We are told that this graffiti is not historical. It is just graffiti. At the entrance to the bunker is an informational sign that says, CAUTION BEES!!
Leon then takes us to a missile barn that has been made into a museum of sorts. Laminated copies of old recruitment signs are pinned to the wall. NIKE, Family With A Future, says one. On another wall is stenciled PERSONNEL LOAD LIMIT 20, EXPLOSIVE LOAD LIMIT 37,000 LBS. Most dramatic is an actual 5-ton Nike Missile, without payload, that was returned to the base last fall. But most unnerving is a metal door on which someone has scrawled ‘Lock Door Immediately Upon Entry’.
HM-69 is considered among the best-preserved monuments to Florida’s role in the Cold War. But the base was just one part of a greater military defense system hidden within the state. There were three other Nike Hercules missile sites; B Battery in north Key Largo (now Key Largo Hammocks State Park), C Battery in Miramar (now a Publix grocery store), and D Battery, which is now the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Krome Detention Center, an immigration facility detaining mostly Haitians but also Mexicans, Guatemalans, Chinese, and El Salvadorans. Undercover operatives hid in residential neighborhoods from Miami to Key West that were not quite as developed as they are today, making them better camouflage.
Nor was the Everglades the only national park to be used for national defense. The coastal Biscayne National Park — with its pirate ships and manatees and coral reefs — was a training site for Cuban exile paramilitary groups and demolition teams, and a weapons cache storage for Cuban exile commandos. The remote Dry Tortugas National Park 113 kilometers west of Key West housed Cold War-related radio installations and signal intelligence facilities, as well as being an entry point for exiles fleeing Castro’s Cuba. Of the activities conducted in the wet cypress forests of Big Cypress National Park, the Cold War in South Florida Historic Resource Study only says, “very little documentation was found.”
Sometimes the military used the semi-tropical environment of Florida’s parks to test the equipment they wanted to use in Vietnam. But mostly they found it was a waste of time — they learned the Everglades were not like Vietnam at all. Some Everglades visitor centers were turned into secret fallout shelters and medical facilities where casualties, “in the event of a catastrophe,” could receive care. The Parks Department is just coming to comprehend the full impact that the Cold War had on Florida’s parks. “We’re still learning about this place,” Leon says of the park, and possibly Florida itself.
The subtropical wilderness of the Florida Everglades once engulfed the bottom half of the peninsula, from central Florida down to the Bay. It was a tangle of razor-sharp sawgrass and swamp, the dominion of alligators and panthers and birds that darkened the sky — the largest wetland system in the country. “We observed great flocks of wading birds flying overhead toward their evening roosts,” wrote John James Audubon in the 1800s. “They appeared in such numbers to actually block out the light from the sun for some time.” Where was space in all this for the settlers that came to make southern Florida their home? For them the Everglades was alternately terrifying and useless. Unlike the Great Lakes and rivers of America, the thirsty Everglades didn’t want to provide them with water; it only wanted to drink it. There was nothing about the habitat to thrill the American spirit, nothing to make anyone stand up and cheer. "The southern Florida wilderness scenery is a study in halftones,” wrote Daniel B. Beard, the first superintendent of the Everglades National Park.
There are no knife-edged mountains protruding up into the sky. There are no valleys of any kind. No glaciers exist, no gaudy canyons, no geysers, no mighty trees…not even a rockbound coast with the spray of ocean waves… Instead, there are lonely distances, intricate and monotonous waterways, birds, sky, and water.But do we preserve nature because it thrills us, asked Beard, or just because it is there?
There was little compromising with the Everglades — it was conquer her or let her be. Although a fragment of the Everglades did get preserved for a National Park, this fragment is still under threat. To this day less than half of the original wetlands prior to drainage remain. The Parks Department website has a long list of threatened and endangered Everglades flora and fauna: the Atlantic Ridley Turtle, the Arctic Peregrine Falcon, the Florida Panther, the American crocodile, the American alligator. Of the wading birds that once darkened the Florida skies only 7% remain.
To be sure, the Everglades has many champions. But Florida is the fourth most populous state in the country. Most of those people live in south Florida and the development is growing. Nearly abutting the eastern entrance to Everglades Park is an alligator farm offering airboat rides, a prison, miles of farmland and miles of farm workers loading up trucks with zucchini. The Everglades Park map has a long green border separating it from big swathes of land it calls AGRICULTURAL AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT ZONES; URBAN DEVELOPMENT ZONE.
Floridians did finally manage to seduce water away from the Everglades and into the cities — a third are now dependent on the Everglades for drinking water. Farms and urban zones that were built directly on drained Everglades territory take the water and deposit pesticides and pollutants back into the park. This diversion of water is now thought to be the Everglades’ number one threat. Additionally, as less freshwater goes into the park and more is taken out, the ocean is filling the void.
In 2007, National Geographic rated US National Parks in terms of environmental sustainability. Everglades National Park/Big Cypress National Preserve came in last. "Encroachment by housing and retail development has thrown the precious ecosystem into a tailspin," said one panelist, "and if humankind doesn't back off, there will be nothing left of one of this country's most amazing treasures."
And maybe nothing left of Florida. The negative effects of Florida’s complicated water choreography are not just a concern for the park. The shifting of the Everglades ecosystem could result in more frequent or more intense hurricanes, or intensive droughts, increasing the risk of major wild fires.
And then there is the sea. The southern tip of the state is just a few feet above sea level — and the sea levels in the Everglades are rising. Wetlands act like giant sponges during storms, soaking up ocean storm water and then releasing it back into the water cycle. This helps prevent flooding. With diminishing wetlands and diverted water, the Everglades is losing its ability to protect Florida from flooding. Last year, during a conference on climate change sponsored by Florida Atlantic University, it was agreed that, under present conditions, the Atlantic Ocean would swallow much of the Florida Keys in 100 years. Much of the southern peninsula south of Lake Okeechobee would be virtually uninhabitable within 250 years, one speaker told the crowd. “There’s good reason to believe,” he said, “[that] southern Florida will eventually have to be evacuated.” Other more recent reports say the floods will come much sooner — possibly in a matter of decades.
The first settlers wanted to know what the Everglades would give them. The gift they didn’t think about was safety. Once, Everglades activist Joe Pogdor called the Everglades a test. “If we pass,” he said, “we may get to keep the planet.”
The Cold War is over and the missile sites have closed. Many say Americans born after 1989 cannot comprehend the terror of living under the constant threat of nuclear war, nor the relief when that threat passed. This is likely true. But there is a new fear that has replaced the old one and it’s no less apocalyptic: the threat of environmental annihilation. This is why HM-69 feels important even beyond its role as a reminder of a bygone America. Dwelling in the heart of the Everglades, the missile site embodies both the old fears and the new. It reminds us how civilization is always butting up against itself, horrifying us with our own weapons. What better and more complete testimony to American anxiety than the ruins of a missile base buried deep inside a national park in the furtive swamps of the South?
HM-69 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. The designation prevents the site from being destroyed by humans but the Everglades are always creeping in. The sawgrass threatens to wind into the cracks where soldiers carved symbols to remind us, and themselves, they were there. The panthers and the wood storks are looking to dance over the remains of a bulwark that shows how vulnerable we are. • 22 March 2013
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the arts collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Dolor Ipsum / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.