By Sharon Watkins Lang, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Historical OfficeFebruary 3, 2015
In January 1969, missile defense meant the Sentinel Ballistic Missile Defense System. The proposed Sentinel system deployment plan would provide a defense against potential ICBM threats posed by the People's Republic of China and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1970s.
The initial deployment, to defend the continental United States, Alaska and Hawaii, included six Perimeter Acquisition Radars, or PARs, and 16 Missile Site Radars, or MSRs, as well as 480 Spartan and 192 Sprint interceptors.
The first Sentinel sites were to be constructed near Boston. Testing began at various Boston locations in the summer of 1968 and in September, Congress approved the land acquisition for the MSR while construction bids were received for the PAR.
In January 1969, as construction continued at the Sharpners Pond PAR site, the Corps of Engineers, Huntsville Division issued a notice to bidders for site preparation on the Sentinel Ballistic Missile Defense System Missile Site Radar.
The 300-acre site was located near the former Nike-Ajax site on Camp Curtis Guild outside Reading, Mass. At this point, the work involved constructing a wood frame area engineer's office and communications buildings; an access road; installing a water distribution system and furnishing and installing approximately 3,800 linear feet of 4-inch force main sewer lines. Plans called for the corps to advertise the Phase I construction package in March.
In conjunction with site selection and construction efforts across the nation, the Corps of Engineers hosted a series of public relations meetings with local communities to discuss the Sentinel program and construction plans for its location.
One such meeting was planned for Jan. 29 in Reading. A climate assessment from a September 1968 newspaper report and a January review of congressional letters found no organized opposition in Reading, but by January 29 the situation had changed.
According to the Corps of Engineers Annual Historical Review, this meeting was to be a public preconstruction meeting to discuss the impact of construction activity at Camp Curtis Guild on the local community.
Sentinel opponents across the region, however, had organized and planned to pack the audience "to debate the effectiveness and safety of the system and the national policy decision to deploy Sentinel."
The 32 officers of the Reading Police Force anticipated a possible crowd of 5,000 people. Although a heavy snow storm reduced the attendance, 1,800 people, many of whom traveled from outside the local community and the state, filled the high school.
As preparations were made to accommodate the crowd, which exceeded the limits of the auditorium, anti-ballistic missile opponents arrived two hours early and set up tables in the entrance to distribute literature and petitions.
Brig. Gen. Robert Young of the Corps of Engineers, Huntsville Division and other ABM delegates addressed the audience, which included national and local press, radio and television, for three hours presenting information on the Sentinel components, the phased construction program and the anticipated impact on the local community to include utilities, housing and education.
Questioners however focused upon other topics to include the threat posed by an accidental explosion. As one historian noted, "unlike previous meetings, the Reading meeting deteriorated from a civil discourse into a series of shout-downs, prolonged applause, and cat-calls aimed at the presenters."
From here, the grass roots movement gained momentum as political leaders further questioned the Sentinel program. Immediately after the meeting, former John F. Kennedy presidential advisers, Dr. George Rathjens, who attended the meeting along with Dr. Jerome Wiesner, and Richard N. Goodwin, contacted Sen. Edward Kennedy and urged him to join the opposition movement.
In a letter to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and in the Senate chambers, Kennedy raised their concerns regarding the value of the program and the dangers of deploying Sentinel in populated areas.
On Feb. 6, the Pentagon ordered a temporary halt to all site acquisition and construction for the Sentinel, pending the completion of an on-going review.
Upon his inauguration on Jan. 20, President Richard Nixon had initiated a review of strategic offensive and defensive priorities.
Although the assessment was not yet complete, President Nixon, in conjunction with the Pentagon decision, formally "discarded the Johnson administration's rationale for Sentinel."
A new era for missile defense was about to begin.