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The United States and balloon warfare

RICHARD SAVILLE looks back at how Washington used balloons during the cold war to spread propaganda and spy on the Soviet Union and eastern bloc

ON FEBRUARY 3 1956 astonished residents in Lewisham, Pinner and Farnborough were greeted with the news that several US propaganda balloons had crash-landed locally.  

Appearing in the local press and the publication World News, the report brought the cold war to our very doorsteps, quite literally.  

This was not the first landings of such large balloons, normally used to carry propaganda over eastern Europe, regularly over Hungary and Czechoslovakia and as far as the Soviet Union.  

This type of simple large air-space balloon was off-course. In Czechoslovakia, for example, this high-pressure publicity stunt extolling Western ideas had been going on for some two years, during which about 400,000 balloons were counted into Czechoslovakia carrying an estimated 250 million leaflets.  

As farmers have found, balloon lanterns can cause animals to choke. But these big US balloons were filled with hydrogen — the explosive gas of the Hindenberg — and included a container box for dropping the leaflets and an explosive device which opened the box.  

As a result of this bang, many Czech citizens were burned or otherwise injured by debris. (When President Joe Biden was faced with a recent balloon over the US, and worried about the debris, he had it shot down over the Atlantic)

The US propaganda balloons had a diameter of from 20 to 25 feet, and, floating freely at various altitudes, endangering air transport, electricity pylons, farm buildings, oil depots.  

As these balloons were landing for nigh on two years, the composition was well known, as was the source — Radio Free Europe — an organisation dependent upon US funding, flying mostly from Federal Germany.  

Transmission was enabled by the prevailing westerlies, common over western and central Europe, with the periodic eastern and northern winds and occasional southerly sirocco winds. Eastern winds could be the cause of the off-course English balloons.  

Seeing this ability to shower paper over socialist countries, the US moved to manufacture more sinister balloons. This new type were first deployed early in 1956, and were fitted with equipment designed for aerial photography, and for radio-technical manoeuvring of the balloons, all manufactured in the US.  

On February 9 1956 at a Moscow press conference (with over 100 journalists listening) Soviet technical expert, Colonel Tarantsov, described these balloons: “A sphere inflated with hydrogen gas of nearly 1,600 cubic metres, with a carrying capacity of some 650-700 kilograms. The envelope is made of thin, transparent organic fabric: a two-lens aerial camera with a considerable supply of film and a technical device for determining the co-ordinates of the locality surveyed; radio-technical equipment to control the balloon all along the route of its flight from the ground, to keep it at a uniform height by exhausting the ballast; an automatic camera control device and parachuting equipment to operate over the final points of flights.”  

These were long-haul flights, destination Japan. Inevitably, such a press conference, talking about flying cameras and equipment over the Soviet Union for military purposes, implied serious diplomacy.  

Balloons were the latest, up-to-date weapons of the cold war; as the diplomats complained of their use as it, “constitutes a flagrant violation of international law, the whole purpose of using them is part of the attempt to maintain the ‘brink of war’ policy of John Foster Dulles,” secretary of state.  

Dulles even tried to impose a ban on release of information, but this failed, aided by the interest shown by the anti-imperialist press, and serious worries about what the Americans were up to.  

Khrushchev and Soviet diplomats complained of this flagrant violation of Soviet airspace, not to mention the danger of a wider conflict.  

On February 4 Moscow issued a formal protest to the White House and within a few days president Dwight Eisenhower ordered Dulles to stop the use of his military spy balloons.  

This cancellation and the press conference in Moscow gave a boost to the position of Khruschev and the Soviet diplomats, just in time for the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, which started on February 14.


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