Scott Van Wynsberghe: The history of spy ballooning is weirder than you think
The Napoleonic Wars. Ike. Batman. And ... breakfast?
By: Scott Van Wynsberghe
China's balloon spying is shocking on so many levels that you can take your pick. There is the ultra-flagrant violation of foreign sovereignty, the stunningly surreal air of denial exhibited by Beijing, and the fearful sense that something in the world order just lurched. There is also puzzlement: what, balloon spying is still a thing? Indeed it is, and its centuries-long history is instructive as to what China is now doing. It also makes clear that the U.S. is no innocent victim here but rather a past offender with a cleaned-up act.
Among the first major studies of aerial reconnaissance was a book brought out by military author Glenn B. Infield way back in 1970. In a way, Infield was charting unknown territory. When he addressed balloons in particular, he traced their use in spying to the many wars associated with the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. In 1794, he related, the French military officer Jean-Marie-Joseph Countelle made an ascent at the city of Maubeuge in order to monitor enemy forces in the area. In the process, Countelle became the first balloon spy.
As technology improved, other firsts followed. By the 1850s, cameras were mounted on French military balloons. In the 1860s, during the American Civil War, Union forces battling the Confederacy used balloons trailing telegraphic wires, which transmitted immediate updates from the balloonists. Yet technology cut both ways. By the early 1900s, balloons had a nemesis in sight, in the form of winged and powered aircraft.
The inevitable showdown occurred in the First World War, and it was ugly. Large numbers of observation balloons were used by all sides in the conflict, and WWI historian Denis Winter claims the Germans alone deployed 170 of them in France by 1917. Typically, such balloons were tethered in place near the frontline, floating at several thousand feet, with telephone wires dangling to the ground. Although they seemed vulnerable, they were actually protected from below by anti-aircraft units, which blasted at any enemy plane that got too close. However, the reverse was also true, with balloons themselves being fired at from the ground. By 1915, says aviation writer Ralph Barker, the British were losing at least a dozen balloons a month from all forms of enemy action. Those balloonists who were not shot to pieces often had to bail out, putting their faith in parachutes that did not always work. (Horrified onlookers called them "balloonatics.") The fighter pilots responsible for much of this mayhem — which they called "balloon-busting" — may not have had an easy time, but some of them scored heavily, with one Frenchman named Coiffard tallying 28 balloons. Although observation balloons managed to make it to the end of the war, it was a near-run thing. According to author Linda Hervieux, nobody after the war was talking about repeating that experience in any future fighting.
WWI also witnessed other activity. For example, Hervieux learned that unmanned balloons were successfully used to disperse propaganda leaflets. (As will be seen, this set a pattern for decades to come.) And there were zeppelins, those majestic German airships that always promised more than they could deliver. Capable of maneuvering for long distances at high altitudes, they seemed suited for covert operations. (This allure was still alive in 1971, thanks to the movie thriller Zeppelin, which is quite good, by the way.) But in reality, they underperformed, and the most ambitious mission attempted in the war was a flop, albeit a fascinating one. In 1917, a zeppelin crew tried to run guns to German forces in Africa but was called back at the last moment. What went wrong is murky. Edward Paice, an authority on WWI in Africa, says word of the mission leaked to the British, but he is skeptical of persistent claims that the recall order was really a bogus message concocted by London. (Oh, those zeppelins, always with the melodrama.)
Despite the low point of the First World War, the concept of balloon spying refused to die, and an oddball variation emerged in 1939, during the last months of peace before the Second World War. Unbelievably, it involved another zeppelin! Using a specially equipped airship at night, the German Luftwaffe twice tried to probe British radar defences. The effort was a failure, but aerial intelligence specialist William E. Burrows says the first of the two forays made history as "the world's first airborne radar reconnaissance mission." The second foray was also historic but in a less respectable way. When London complained about the violation of its airspace, Berlin insisted that the airship was "blown off course." According to Burrows, offending countries have been using this lie ever since.
Once the Second World War was underway, some propaganda leafleting did occur, but secret balloon activity seemed to be at a low level. That was very misleading, because one of the tensest moments in ballooning history was playing out in the background, but it occurred amid so much security that the entire tale took years to emerge. In 1944, Japan launched the first of over 9,000 bomb-rigged balloons across the Pacific. Robert C. Mikesh, in a comprehensive 1973 monograph issued by the Smithsonian Institution, noted that almost a thousand of the balloons may have reached North America, but the true number is unknowable, because so many came down in remote wilderness. (One was found by forestry workers in British Columbia as late as 2014.) Mikesh tabulated 285 known incidents, ranging from Alaska all the way south to Baja California and as far inland as Manitoba. Both the U.S. and Canada clamped down hard on any news about the balloons, for fear of providing Tokyo valuable feedback about the results of the campaign. (In other words, balloon counterintelligence became a priority.) In general, the balloons did not cause a lot of harm, but one of them slaughtered six people in Oregon in1945. By a strange fluke, one of the few groups in the U.S. that knew the full story of the balloons was an element of the Black community. The all-Black 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was sent to the U.S. West to handle emergencies caused by the balloons.
There is a strong temptation to blame the Japanese balloon bombs for what happened next, because the U.S. unaccountably entered the Cold War as the most pugnacious exponent of clandestine ballooning up to that time. Whatever the explanation, the epic struggle between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics plunged U.S. ballooning into a tangle of psychological warfare, shadowy science, under-the-table finances, and clandestine belligerence indistinguishable from military attacks. Plus, UFOs and breakfast foods were involved (seriously).
As proof that fact is stranger than fiction, one of the very first hidden U.S. balloon operations of the Cold War is known today only because of UFOs. It was called Project Mogul, and its existence was revealed in a 1994 report issued by U.S. Air Force Colonel Richard L. Weaver. Weaver's report was a response to pressure from a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Steven Schiff of New Mexico. Schiff had become caught up in relentless claims that a flying saucer had crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, back in 1947. No, Col. Weaver replied, the "crash" was probably Project Mogul.
Mogul had its origin in 1945, while the embers of the Second World War were still smouldering. Amid worries about whether or not the U.S.S.R. was developing an atomic bomb, a Columbia University scientist named Maurice Ewing pitched an idea to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF, later the U.S. Air Force or USAF). The idea involved "atmospheric ducting," by which "low frequency pressure waves" could be discerned at very long distances. That is, airborne detectors in the U.S. might pick up Soviet atomic blasts from the other side of the world. The USAAF was very interested indeed, and Mogul was born. In the summer of 1947, specialists from Columbia University, New York University, and a group called Watson Lab converged in New Mexico for highly secret balloon experiments that happened to leave debris behind in the desert. The rest, Col. Weaver related, was regrettable history.
As the scientists in New Mexico unknowingly laid the foundation for future conspiracy theories, something very odd was happening at General Mills, which was turning into the most bizarre cereal company in the world. Even the firm's own official history, published in 2003, admits that it became profoundly involved in balloon research right after the Second World War. Some of this occurred as early as 1946, and citizens of Minneapolis (which was then the company's hometown) were reporting unusual aerial objects by 1947. The research included purely academic studies but also the detection of airborne traces of nuclear tests. The clients included the USAF, the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, and the Atomic Energy Commission. But General Mills is still silent about one client — the CIA.
As to the CIA, the backstory there is complicated but much of it starts with the diplomat George F. Keenan, a very early sounder of warnings about the threat from Moscow. Impressed by Keenan, the-then U.S. secretary of state, General George C. Marshall, put him in charge of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff in 1947. This would have an impact for years to come, because Keenan used his power to mold the newly created CIA.
According to an historian of the CIA, John Ranelagh, Keenan considered the CIA insufficient for the job of Cold War, and he got the National Security Council — the security-orchestration wing of the White House — to do something about it. In 1948, the council issued "NSC 10/2," a directive that created what would eventually be known as the Office of Policy Coordination, a unit for covert action against Moscow. The OPC would be part of the CIA, and the CIA would be forced to pay for it, but the OPC basically could do whatever it wanted. By 1952, it had 47 offices around the world and a staff of 2,800, led by one Frank Wisner. The CIA was intensely frustrated by this unwelcome creature in its midst and worked to get the OPC under control, but Ranelagh says it was not until 1952 that the agency fully integrated the office. Before then, during 1948-1952, the OPC left its mark, all with the blessing of higher-ups.
One OPC preoccupation was propaganda. During 1949-1951, the office sprouted a network of front organizations that included the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE, later the Free Europe Committee), Radio Free Europe, Free Europe Press, and a dubious fundraising campaign called the Crusade for Freedom ( which was so closely linked to Radio Free Europe that it was later renamed the Radio Free Europe Fund). Appearing to be independent entities, these puppet groups featured a suspicious number of veterans of the Office of Strategic Services, the Second World War predecessor of the CIA. Richard H. Cummings, who has painstakingly investigated the world of Radio Free Europe, says the NCFE included OSS stalwarts Allen Dulles (later head of the CIA) and DeWitt Poole. The Crusade for Freedom was co-founded by OSS veteran Abbott Washburn, who headed public relations for ... General Mills. Washburn had been urged into this new job by company chairman Harry Bullis, a friend of DeWitt Poole.
A lot of OPC/CIA cash flowed into this incestuous network. Cummings verified over US$130 million for the NCFE alone during 1949-1960. Over US$9 million more went to the Crusade for Freedom and Radio Free Europe together during that same period. Without revealing its secret subsidy, the Crusade for Freedom also sought donations from unsuspecting citizens and corporations, to the tune of over US$21 million. The list of celebrities bamboozled into endorsing this camouflaged government scheme is startling. Among others, Cummings names Rosemary Clooney (George's aunt), Vincent Price, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda and John Wayne. One prominent journalist, Drew Pearson, was also ensnared, but he later sensed something was wrong and in 1953 accused Radio Free Europe of being a CIA front.
And then came the balloons. During 1951-1956, Free Europe Press ran an industrial-grade propaganda operation involving small balloons loaded with anticommunist leaflets aimed at Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. The balloons, which were only about four feet in circumference, were mass-produced by General Mills, which openly boasted of its involvement — without revealing its full knowledge of the spooky stuff in the background. In fact, the whole enterprise was like an intricate machine: General Mills made the balloons, Free Europe Press launched them, Radio Free Europe's broadcasts were coordinated with the launchings, and the Crusade for Freedom stirred up public excitement. By the time it was all done, going by writer Peter Grose, roughly 400 tons of material had been delivered. On the receiving end, communist governments howled in protest.
Exactly what this aerial onslaught achieved is unclear. Grose says that unspecified "military intelligence planners" who inspired the OPC's effort insisted that their ballooning experience in the Second World War had been positive. By contrast, General Walter Bedell Smith, a top-level WWII staff officer who led the CIA during 1950-1953, reportedly despised all psychological warfare as useless. One former CIA official, Lawrence Houston, told biographer Burton Hersh that he witnessed the foul-tempered Smith tear a strip off an underling, yelling: "Kindly do not bring in here any more of those goddamned balloon projects of yours." A similar attitude was shown by an unidentified military commandant of the U.S. sector of the divided city of Berlin. Co-authors David E. Murphy, Sergei A. Kondrashev, and David Bailey revealed that this officer banned leafleting based in that sector by early 1954. Certainly, the OPC's leafleting did have a farcical side, with some balloons going astray as far as Scotland.
Yet General Mills was still undertaking major studies related to leafleting in 1956. A cryptic passage in the company's official history states that one of its experimental manned balloons achieved a then-record ascension of 42,150 feet for purposes of "researching the weight of various papers, wind direction, and scatter patterns for leaflet drops." The passage does not explain the reason for this mysterious inquiry.
Whatever the worth of the leafleting, balloons had definitely become lodged in the CIA's system, because the agency also considered them for purposes of anti-Soviet espionage. This brings us to a project called Skyhook — in fact, two projects of that name, which is bewildering. One of them was a system for extracting agents from enemy territory by means of balloons that would be snagged by aircraft. When the balloon was snagged, an agent on the ground who was harnessed to the balloon would be hoisted up into the air and (hopefully) winched into the plane. As described by aviation historian William M. Leary in a thorough 1995 article, this system was devised by inventor Robert E. Fulton Jr., whose work was funded by the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR) during 1950-1958. Fulton also had CIA connections.
The other Skyhook was much more significant, involving balloon reconnaissance. Aviation writer (and UFO debunker) Philip J. Klass has described it as a collaboration between the CIA, the ONR, and the USAF concerning balloons equipped with cameras. A second aviation writer (and also UFO debunker), Curtis Peebles, adds that at least some Skyhook balloons were fitted for air sampling, to detect nuclear tests. Not surprisingly, General Mills was mixed up in all this. In its official history, it admits it worked on a project called Skyhook but insists that this project was just about conventional atmospheric research. Its consequent 1954 launching of a gigantic unmanned experimental balloon to a then-record altitude of 116,700 feet is ascribed to the need to "study cosmic rays." Unless a third Skyhook existed (not impossible, at this rate), then General Mills has been disingenuous. Klass found a 1952 CIA document showing that the agency was well aware of Skyhook and was staying silent about it even when Skyhook unintentionally caused UFO sightings. Plainly, there was something there worth hiding from the public. Without specifying Skyhook, Peebles mentions an incident in the 1950s in which the CIA released a "large balloon" from Scotland. The balloon drifted right across the U.S.S.R. before being recovered in South Korea.
As is evident from the foregoing, the U.S. Navy had a significant stake in 1950s ballooning, via its ONR wing, but a lot of misunderstanding has resulted from one Navy program, Moby Dick. Peebles makes clear that Moby Dick was not about intelligence but rather was focused on genuine scientific research performed in the open, yet some have mistaken it for a spy outfit. Dismayingly, longtime intelligence historians Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, in the 1998 edition of their voluminous espionage encyclopedia, call Moby Dick "one of the first strategic surveillance projects of the U.S. Navy and CIA." That is false. Alex Abella, who devoted a book to the prominent think tank known as the RAND Corporation, cites a RAND report about an initiative in which Moby Dick supposedly "sent a number of observation balloons flying over the U.S.S.R." in 1949. Either the report was mistaken or Abella garbled it, but that, too, is false. In fact, as will be shown later on, Moby Dick was so innocuous that it was used as cover for actual intelligence stunts — which may explain some of the mystification. In any event, for a hint of the Navy's true balloon spying, one has to consult an official history of Naval intelligence, compiled by Wyman H. Packard and published by the Navy in 1996. In it, Packard very carefully talks about an anti-Soviet "balloon program" that existed in the second half of the 1950s. He declines to name it.
Meanwhile, a major balloon frenzy was erupting at the U.S. Air Force, but who started it is uncertain. Abella thinks that Moby Dick inspired the USAF-connected RAND Corporation to push large-scale ballooning, but something is clearly wrong there. So if not Moby Dick and RAND, then who did get the USAF excited about balloons?
By this point, the main suspect should be tediously obvious: General Mills.
According to Peebles, an official at General Mills named C.B. Moore drew the attention of the USAF through a series of demonstrations of camera-equipped balloons in July, 1950. The USAF was won over, and a development project started — but it became a nightmare. The effort dragged on for so long (about five years) that it went through four successive codenames: Gopher, Grandson, Grayback, and finally Genetrix. (And this is where Abella is very unreliable, because he claims Gopher became fully operational. It did not.) The list of headaches associated with the project included a faulty supply of polyethylene used to make the balloons, endless bickering between the USAF and General Mills, and the now-standard string of inadvertent UFO sightings. Incredibly, General Mills — pretty much the nerve centre for Cold War ballooning — was fired.
On its own, the USAF at last got the balloons to the point where they were ready to be deployed and final approval was needed from the White House. President Dwight Eisenhower was hesitant, because he thought it all sounded recklessly provocative, but he gave the go-ahead at the end of 1955. Placed under the control of the USAF's Strategic Air Command for operational purposes, Genetrix (as it was now called) was immense and aggressive. Peebles says the intention was to release some 2,500 balloons from Western Europe and Turkey. The plan was that the balloons would float across the U.S.S.R. to the Pacific, where they would eject their photographic payloads, which would be snagged in the air by aircraft, much like the Fulton Skyhook. As a cover, Moby Dick was recruited to make it look like Genetrix was all about meteorology, and this portion of Genetrix was dubbed White Cloud.
After so much hassle, Genetrix finally launched at the start of 1956 — and was in trouble within weeks. Despite some promising initial results, the Soviets caught on to the assault and began shooting down the balloons. Moscow also loudly protested, and Eisenhower had enough by February, at which point Genetrix was terminated.
Genetrix is tricky to assess, because it has tended to polarize commentators. William E. Burrows, for example, scorns the project as "misguided and failure-prone," and he claims that contemporaneous CIA officials derided it, too. Against that, Curtis Peebles takes a more nuanced approach and argues that, for better or worse, Genetrix provided the best photographic intelligence on the U.S.S.R. up to that date. (And Peebles also points out that at least one CIA scientist, Philip G. Strong, helped out USAF project managers when they were at a particularly low point in the development of their hexed balloon system.) There is not even agreement on how many balloons were involved before Genetrix was scrapped. Burrows says 516 were launched, 399 "became operational" (presumably, entered Soviet airspace), and 44 reached the Pacific. Peebles counts 448 launches, 379 incursions into Soviet airspace, 66 transits to the Pacific, and 44 payload recoveries. In addition to that, however, were key stragglers that Burrows missed. Like Japanese balloon bombs, wayward Genetrix payloads turned up as late as 1958, and one of them came from a balloon that apparently almost circumnavigated the northern hemisphere, turning up in Iceland, of all places. Peebles applauds these latecomers for providing information on Soviet nuclear activity just when it was needed. Genetrix is also important for showing the inadequacy of the term "cold war." There was nothing "cold" about Genetrix. It basically dared the Soviets to go to war.
So how could Eisenhower approve such a dangerous thing? The simple answer is that he never explained. His two-volume presidential memoirs have no index entries relating to balloons. A more complicated answer is that, amid the many terrors of the Cold War (including nuclear ones), unmanned balloons were a bargain. William E. Burrows has compiled a list of U.S. air crews lost in missions involving spy planes that were shot down during the Cold War, and most of the carnage occurred during Eisenhower's time in office (1953-1961). In all, 89 personnel died or were never seen again because of his willingness to risk their lives in exchange for the intelligence gained. In comparison, unmanned balloons were easy to sacrifice. Genetrix, however, was not about a few gasbags; it was an invasion.
Amazingly, despite all the trouble of Genetrix, the USAF was still not done. By 1957, a second balloon program was in the works, championed by Deputy Defense Secretary Donald Quarles (previously secretary of the Air Force). This program is known only by an alphanumeric designation, "WS-461L." According to Peebles, Quarles and other senior officials badgered President Eisenhower about WS-461L for months, assuring him that the balloons would not enter Soviet airspace, would drift at extremely high altitudes, and would not even carry visual instrumentation. Eisenhower had great respect for Quarles — he called Quarles an "outstanding" defence figure in his memoirs — but he still balked for a year before granting approval in 1958. Three balloons were launched from the Pacific in July of that year — and, perversely, all came down in Soviet-controlled territory (including Poland). The Soviets showed off the wreckage and denounced the espionage. Eisenhower was incensed by the fiasco.
WS-461L turned out to be a swan song. Less than a year later, Quarles died unexpectedly — Eisenhower called this "a grievous loss to the United States" — so a significant champion of Cold War ballooning was gone. Then, in 1961, General Mills sold off its so-called "Mechanical" division, which was responsible for its ballooning since the 1940s. (As usual with General Mills, something does not quite add up here, because co-authors Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad found evidence of defence contracting by the company, in connection with biological warfare, as late as 1963.)
The Fulton Skyhook system got something of a last hurrah in 1962. A joint operation by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Office of Naval Research led to two volunteers being parachuted down to a stretch of drifting Arctic ice, where the Soviets had abandoned a polar research station. The two men gathered up a trove of discarded documents and then were successfully yanked out via Skyhook. The historian who unearthed this incident, William M. Leary, thought that the Fulton system "likely" was used in other intelligence missions, but he conceded that advances in helicopter technology offered a simpler option for getting out operatives. However, as the Fulton Skyhook fell into obsolescence, it became famous in Hollywood. A Google search for "Fulton Skyhook in movies" leads to James Bond (Thunderball, 1965), John Wayne (The Green Berets, 1968), and even Batman (The Dark Knight, 2008).
From the 1960s into the 2000s, U.S. covert ballooning almost seemed to disappear. A 1994 article by General Kenneth Israel, head of the Pentagon's Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, provided an overview of the aims and capabilities of DARO without once mentioning balloons. A 2001 book about the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, by Jeffrey T. Richelson, had no index entry for balloons. A 2008 volume on CIA gadgetry by Robert Wallace (former head of the agency's Office of Technical Service), H. Keith Melton, and Henry Robert Schlesinger merely rehashed the old Fulton Skyhook. There were exceptions to this pattern. For example, by 2004, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency was contracting the firm Lockheed Martin to create huge unmanned surveillance blimps to patrol the margins of U.S. territory. But that was a defensive measure, not an offensive one, and other countries were picking up the slack.
As recently reported by the New York Times, foreign spy balloons have been probing the U.S. for a while. Some of these incidents were initially misinterpreted and lumped in with UFO sightings by military personnel, only to be resolved later. Other incidents were understood to involve balloon spying right from the start but were kept secret.
So then, what about the current Chinese activity? Even without access to Chinese records, some safe assumptions can be made, based on past balloon spying and especially the U.S. experience.
First, China is clearly in the grip of a balloon frenzy that would have been immediately recognizable to U.S. security officials of the early Cold War. It is a good bet that China has the equivalent of General Mills, some institution that relentlessly pushes balloons. Yet its zeal must be greater than what General Mills ever showed, because balloons are now such a questionable technology. The First World War ended manned observation balloons in wartime settings, zeppelins barely survived to the end of the 1930s, helicopters made the Fulton Skyhook look quaint, and a host of spy planes, spy satellites and drones have been at work for generations. Anybody who ignores this pattern must really, really like balloons.
Second, what the Chinese are doing is not a rogue operation. Whatever the degree of ballooning extremism in U.S. ranks in the early Cold War, it was Eisenhower who approved Genetrix and WS-461L, and it was the National Security Council that endorsed George Keenan's drive to remodel the CIA, resulting in the balloon-fixated OPC. Repeatedly, major U.S. decisions related to ballooning occurred either at the top or close to it.
And third, what the Chinese have done is an act of war. That sounds alarmist, especially considering that we are not talking about Japanese balloon bombs. But consider the outrageous nature of Genetrix, which implied that war was an option if the gambit escalated.
That is what Beijing is telling us right now.
Scott Van Wynsberghe is a Winnipeg writer whose essays for (previously) the National Post and (now) The Line have often focused on espionage, the Cold War and popular culture, although usually not all together.
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