In 1983, Staten Island Narrowly Escaped Becoming a Nuclear Stronghold - Atlas Obscura
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In 1983, Staten Island Narrowly Escaped Becoming a Nuclear Stronghold

The remains of the decommissioned Stapleton naval base are a reminder of Cold War-era nuclear anxiety.

The USS Iowa firing her nine 16″/50 and six 5″/38 guns during a target exercise. [Photo: Public Domain

New York City’s waterfront isn’t short of piers, but one of those piers is truly unusual: it is the remnant of an incomplete, abandoned naval base built during some of the most fraught years of the Cold War. In the 1980s, the U.S. Navy proposed and built a 35-acre, multimillion-dollar homeport at Stapleton, a neighborhood on Staten Island’s northeastern waterfront, to permanently station a fleet of ships potentially armed with nuclear warheads.    

The construction of the Stapleton Navy base was a result of the nuclear fear that swept the world during the “Second Cold War.” Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high, with the latter country’s rapid nuclear weaponry development. U.S. president Ronald Reagan decided to bolster military defense and grow the Navy fleet from 400 to 600 ships. The vessels, capable of carrying nuclear missiles, were going to be stationed at new ports scattered across U.S. territory.

By dotting the country with Navy ships, Navy Secretary John F. Lehman reasoned the Navy couldn’t be crippled by a “Pearl Harbor type of catastrophe,” Clifford D. May wrote in New York Times in 1987.

President Ronald Reagan ordered the U.S. Navy fleet grow to 600 ships. [Photo: Public Domain

In July 1983, the Navy proposed the Stapleton base, a 45-foot canal and 1,410-foot pier that would house the reactivated World War II battleship USS Iowa and six support vessels. Stapleton was chosen as the preferred homeport over other cities that fought for the Navy’s business, as it would provide an easy portal to Britain, Greenland, and Iceland.

Federal and local officials, including New York’s Mayor Ed Koch, also believed the base would drive up the economy of the New York metropolitan area, provide thousands of jobs, and clean up Stapleton’s dreary ports.

The base, which faced Manhattan from a run-down section of Staten Island’s east shore, was also intended to make the public feel safer: “The reality of America’s nuclear vulnerability—now publicly confirmed by Presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan—has become a steadily growing part of the public consciousness,” journalist L. Bruce van Voorst wrote in the 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs, adding that “the cavalier attitude of many senior Reagan Administration officials toward nuclear issues has contributed significantly to the widespread fears outside government.”  

The view of Manhattan from Stapleton Station. [Photo: Adam Moss/CC BY-SA 2.0]

Stapleton first hosted ships along its waterfront when it started a ferry service in 1752. New York City built piers in 1920, which were used during World War II by both the Navy and the Army as the New York State Port of Embarkation. After the war, the shipping industry shifted to New Jersey, causing the waterfront to lose traffic and fall into a state of disrepair. The naval presence would revitalize the area, the shiny new base costing an estimated $799 million.

“There was a time when New York City was the No. 1 home port,” Mayor Koch told the New York Times in 1983. “And we want to make it that again.”

Despite governmental support, many still feared a nuclear accident. The government’s policy prohibits the Navy from confirming or denying if ships carry any nuclear weapons. The ships at Stapleton may not have even had any onboard, but even the possibility riled up antinuclear groups, particularly religious organizations in favor of peace and disarmament. 

USS Iowa. [Photo: Public Domain]

While many Americans had been vocal about atomic warfare since the 1940s, antinuclear organizations in New York and New Jersey attracted people who had never been involved with any kind of political activity before. Roman Catholic bishops, rabbis at reform synagogues, and Quakers in Manhattan all fought to freeze testing, production, and deployment of nuclear weapons in both the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1982, the New York Times reported growing opposition to nuclear arms in the New York area, with petition drives on the Staten Island Ferry, church meetings in New Jersey suburbs, and even a high school essay contest in Rockland County. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s 1983 Notre Dame commencement speech included a strong plea for nuclear disarmament:

“Because the nuclear issue is not simply a political but also a profoundly moral and religious question, the Church must be a participant in the process of protecting the world and its people from the specter of nuclear destruction.”

The Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan ran a disarmament program that did everything it could to make the public aware of the harms of a nuclear accident, even producing a propaganda map that states: “The basing of the Nuclear Navy at Staten Island threatens us all.”

Accident! [Photo: PJ Mode Collection at Cornell’s Digital Library/CC BY-SA 3.0]

“It’s a striking poster,” says PJ Mode, a persuasive map collector who owns a copy of the 1984 Riverside Church Disarmament map titled “Accident.” The poster shows splattered red paint over the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area, and dubious statistics about “a cloud of plutonium dust 28 miles long” that could arise should an accidental fire or explosion occur onboard. 

The debate waged on until the Navy finally began building the base on March 1987. Five ships were stationed at the pier, but the USS Iowa retired after one of its turrets exploded. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, military spending was scaled back, which halted the construction in 1993. The incomplete Stapleton base was decommissioned in 1995.

Over the last two decades, there have been many different proposals to transform the abandoned waterfront space, from a NASCAR racetrack to a movie studio. Soon, people will be able to live on the nuclear navy ship base. In 2013, construction began on a massive $180 million redevelopment project that will build 350 housing units, restaurants, recreation centers, and waterfront esplanade. This will comprise the new Stapleton waterfront.

Today, many have forgotten the controversy over the base as the Navy’s presence slowly disappears. But Stapleton’s pier remains as a reminder of Cold War military tactics—a New York shoreline altered by nuclear panic.