The Pershing Missile: Peace Through Strength

The Pershing Missile: Peace Through Strength
October 01, 2020

The grave announcement came during the early-morning hours of November 4, 1956. Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy, speaking for just 35 seconds in dire tones appropriate to the hour, announced to his fellow countrymen that their worst fears had come to pass.

After 12 days of uprisings and promises of future negotiations, the Soviet Union reversed its course. At that moment, 30,000 Soviet troops were streaming into Hungary, bent on squelching the uprising.

“Our troops are fighting,” Nagy said. “The government is in place.”

Within hours, however, Nagy would be seeking asylum in the Yugoslav embassy, and within days, Soviets would be in control of the country with a puppet regime in place—clear evidence that dissent in any of the Soviet’s satellite nations would be met with brute force.

In 1957, NATO officials, fearing further Soviet aggression into the heart of Europe, decided to act swiftly. Should any member of NATO be attacked, they declared, the United States would be forced to respond with a large-scale nuclear strike.

But to enforce the strategy, U.S. officials needed an imposing weapon on the ground in West Germany, something to make the Soviets think twice about any attempt to expand the Iron Curtain westward.

The Big Pitch

On January 7, 1958, the Department of Defense authorized the Army’s Ballistic Missile Agency to develop just such a weapon, a new solid-propellant nuclear missile to replace its aging Redstone missiles. The request-for-proposal was sent out to seven firms. Most came before the selection board with complex slides and detailed handouts. One—the Martin Company—came bearing only a piece of chalk and a few brilliant ideas.

Martin’s proposal manager was Sid Stark, a skilled engineer of few words, whose evenly pitched voice exuded both confidence and authority. Standing before a committee that included German scientist Dr. Arthur Rudolph and six U.S. colonels, Stark drew a missile with a sharply pointed warhead and then proceeded to detail a design that met all of the committee’s needs.

Martin’s missile would be easily transportable by helicopter or aircraft, durable enough to withstand extreme weather conditions, and capable of being fired at a moment’s notice by a squadron of well-trained soldiers.

Ed Uhl, a fellow member of the proposal team, then added a key incentive. Recently, Martin’s new president George Maverick Bunker had built a 500,000-square-foot, ultra-modern plant in what was then the sleepy town of Orlando, Florida, between the Army’s key installations at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Huntsville, Alabama.

Imagine, Uhl said, the cost-savings of assembling the missile in Orlando and then transporting it a mere 50 miles down the road to Cape Canaveral for testing.

After more than two weeks of nervous anticipation, Uhl received a phone call on March 22, 1958, informing him that Martin had won the contract.

Pershing II Missile

Going Mobile

The first version, dubbed the Pershing I, was delivered to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1962 on the back of a tracked vehicle with launch capabilities. It required a caravan of three other vehicles to carry its radar and command equipment, but in flight the missile’s range was 400 miles, twice the distance of the Redstone. This was due in large part to Martin’s use of a solid propellant, which was easier to handle, safer, and more reliable than liquid propellants.

Impressed with its range, Army officials then spent the next two years testing the Pershing’s reliability across the globe, including in Alaska and Panama. The Pershing passed all of its tests with flying colors, leading to the first installment of a Pershing system in West Germany in 1964, just as the Soviet Union was making a transition in leadership from Nikita Khrushchev to Leonid Brezhnev.

Measure for Measure

Over the following decades, Pershing became America’s primary deterrent in an ongoing chess match with the Soviet Union in Europe.

In 1968, a near replay of what had played out in Hungary just a decade earlier was occurring in Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union marched 500,000 troops into the country under the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that the Soviet Union would not allow any Eastern European country to reject communist ideals.

In response, U.S. and Martin Marietta officials devised a new Pershing Ia model in the fall of 1969, replacing the Pershing vehicles’ tracks with wheels, which allowed for better movement over the paved roads of Germany. The Ia helped usher in a short period of détente, but soon the Soviet Union had developed a new medium-range SS20 missile, which it deployed on the European border. NATO responded in 1979 by calling for new arms-control negotiations and a complementary program of missile modernization in Europe.

After four years of tense on-again, off-again negotiations with the Soviets, the United States delivered Martin’s new Pershing II nuclear missiles to West Germany in 1983. Although roughly the same size as previous versions, the Pershing II’s range was increased to 1,500 miles, which became an even stronger deterrent against potential Soviet aggression.

In short time, the Soviet Union found itself back at the negotiation table, this time ready to sign one of the most sweeping nuclear missile reduction treaties in history.

Making Peace

On December 8, 1987, at a summit in Washington, D.C., U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement (INF), which called for the elimination of all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems with a range between 300 and 3,400 miles in a little over three years.

During a speech in Longhorn, Texas, in 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush summed up the legacy of the Pershing. “The Pershing missile system strengthened deterrence and was concrete evidence of United States resolve,” he said. “If we had not deployed [Pershing] … there would not be an INF treaty today.” A fitting tribute to a system that defended Europe the United States, and NATO for 28 years.

Sources and Additional Reading

  • Aybet, Gülnur, and Rebecca R. Moore, eds. NATO: In Search of a Vision. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010.
  • Byrne, Malcolm, ed. “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents.” The National Security Archive., accessed August 24, 2012.
  • Harwood, William B. Raise Heaven and Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
  • U.S. Department of State. “Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty).”, accessed August 12, 2012.