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The U.S. Army Tried to Build a Secret Nuclear City under Greenland’s Ice

Long before Greenland’s shifting ice threatened sea level rise, it doomed one of the military’s most audacious Cold War projects.

In the late 1950s, the U.S. Army was under attack from a formidable foe: budgeting.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy sought to reorganize Cold War military funding so that it focused on tactical nuclear weapons as America’s main deterrent against potential attacks from the Eastern bloc. Defense spending would now be split among the Air Force (49 percent), the Navy (29 percent) and the Army, which was allocated the smallest share (22 percent).

Determined to preserve its status, the Army focused on promoting the ground deployment of mobile missiles as a key part of America’s nuclear deterrent. What the Army brass needed was a terrain that was within striking distance of the Soviet border and that offered a degree of natural concealment.

They found it in the frozen wilds of Greenland, which became the setting for Project Iceworm, a top-secret plan to convert part of the Arctic into a launchpad for nuclear missiles — and at the same time construct “a city under the ice.”

The goal of Project Iceworm, described by Professor Nikolaj Petersen of Denmark’s Aarhus University in 2007 in the Scandinavian Journal of History, seemed straightforward. Rather than base long-range Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) at silos in the United States where the Soviet Union might target them, the Army could instead burrow beneath a less monitored location, closer to the U.S.S.R.

The Greenland ice sheet lies less than 3,000 miles from Moscow. The plan called for digging underground trenches, through which medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) could be deployed.

But before the requisite number of warheads could be installed, Project Iceworm came up against a force even greater than the Soviet Union or budget constraints: Mother Nature.

Long before a study last week found that a warming planet had claimed all but five of northern Greenland’s ice shelves and threatened a dangerous sea level rise, Greenland’s shifting ice compromised one of the U.S. military’s most audacious projects.

The plan to station nuclear missiles under Greenland’s ice was inspired by Bernt Balchen, a Norwegian-born U.S. Army colonel who in the 1930s had spearheaded polar aviation and who had pointed out the strategic advantage of Greenland’s location between the superpowers.

Balchen had been involved in the construction of two U.S. air bases in Greenland. He noted that the United States was permitted to store nukes in Greenland under the Thulesag 1 agreement, signed with Denmark in 1941 following the country’s occupation by the Nazis, which gave America jurisdiction over the defense of Greenland. (Greenland had been under Danish control since the 1814 Treaty of Kiel, and there were fears that the Germans might use Greenland as a base from which to attack North America.)

Despite the threat’s dissolution at the end of World War II, Soviet ICBM tests conducted in the 1950s and the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957 reaffirmed the belief that a U.S. military presence on Greenland should be maintained. But how could America install underground nuclear missiles without transparently violating Denmark’s 1957 nuclear-free policy?