Foreign policy tensions continue to swirl following the February 4th Air Force shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon and the subsequent downings of three other so-called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs). On this week’s episode of Now and Then, “What UFOs Say About Us,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman – who chose to use the old-school “UFO” terminology – discussed the long American obsession with unknown aerial objects, from Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop’s preoccupation with 1600s sightings to the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A particularly high-stakes moment of aerial contestation came in 1956, when the United States government faced Soviet ire and domestic criticism after sending covert surveillance balloons behind the Iron Curtain. 

In 1946, General Mills – arguably best known for Betty Crocker and Cheerios – created an aeronautics division specializing in high-altitude balloons. The new unit was headed by Otto Winzen, a pre-WWII German immigrant who pioneered the use of polyethylene resin in creating very light and thin balloons. The Navy began utilizing Winzen’s research in the late 1940s in Project Skyhook, a stratospheric research initiative. 

Then, following a 1950 study by the RAND Corporation, a powerful think tank, and encouragement from Polaroid magnate Edwin Land, the military began to explore the possibility of mounting cameras on Winzen’s balloons and setting them aloft to gather data on unfriendly nations – or even to fly over them.  

By 1953, a series of interconnected research projects were afoot. The Army had Project Mogul, which affixed microphones to the balloons to detect Soviet atomic bomb tests. And the newly-minted independent Air Force began a Soviet Union-centric reconnaissance project that shifted names several times – Gopher, Grandson, Grayback – before becoming Operation Genetrix. 

The Genetrix balloons were over 100 feet tall when inflated. They could reach 60,000 feet and could travel at speeds of 125 MPH with the right winds. Powered by hydrogen, the balloon carried a gondola with a Fairchild camera that had the capacity to store 500 images. When the balloon reached the Pacific Ocean, a transmitter sent a charge that blew up an on-board explosive and sent the camera gliding toward the ground with a parachute. 

President Eisenhower signed off on the project in December 1955. On January 10th, 1956, the Air Force began launching the Genetrix balloons. Some went up from Turkey, while others left from bases in West Germany, Norway, and other NATO nations. 

The Air Force and State Department pushed a cover story that the balloons were purely tracking meteorological data that would be shared with the entire world – Russia included – as part of the upcoming 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY). The IGY, a global collaborative earth sciences project, spiraled further into a hyper-competitive expansion of the space race after the Soviets used the initiative to launch Sputnik 1. 

Quickly, however, the Genetrix spying program and the IGY cover story began to plummet to earth. The Soviets detected the balloons and shot many of them down. Others deflated on their own, or blew hopelessly off course. Of the 516 balloons launched, the camera-gondolas of only 44 were recovered in the Pacific. 

But the Soviets had certainly recovered some. On February 5th, 1956, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote a scathing letter to Charles Bohlen, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, calling the balloon incursions “a gross violation of Soviet airspace.” Gromyko demanded “the adoption of measures for the immediate cessation of the said inadmissible acts by the United States military organs.” 

The Gromyko letter was front-page news across the United States on February 6th. The media also noted charges from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who alleged that the U.S. had committed “provocative acts in sending military reconnaissance balloons over Chinese territory.” 

When Secretary of State John Foster Dulles held his weekly press conference on February 7th, he was buffeted with twenty separate questions about the balloons. 

Dulles used the conference to philosophize about the legal ambiguities of overflights: “The question of the ownership of the upper air is a disputable question, and also of the ether above the air. In the main, it is a recognized practice to avoid putting into the air anything which could interfere with any normal use of the air by anybody else.” 

The Secretary also argued that the wind meant that the balloons could, of course, end up in the Soviet Union by total accident. “And, for one thing, it is not very easy, when you put up a balloon, to tell with any confidence where it is going to go,” he said. “It is true that in the main the winds flow from the west to the east, but that’s not uniformly true.” 

Dulles ultimately acknowledged that there were cameras aboard the captured balloons, but assured the press that they were simply for filming scientific phenomena in the sky: “It would be quite accidental if the camera picked up anything significant on the ground.” 

Two days after Dulles’ press conference, the State Department replied to the angry Russian note with an agreement to provisionally stop the launches: “In order to avoid misunderstandings, the United States government will seek to avoid the launching of additional balloons, which, on the basis of known data, might transit the U.S.S.R.” 

The American press at first largely bought the official story. On February 10th, Boston Globe reporter and lifelong meteorology enthusiast Sumner Barton offered a poignant defense of the data that supposedly was the raison d’être for the balloons and called for peaceful scientific collaboration between the West and East. “Weather is a one-world science and no one nation [can] afford to shut off another without doing itself harm.” 

Other journalists took on a less idealistic and more stridently jingoistic tone toward the Soviet reaction. In a February 11th New York Herald Tribune editorial entitled “Russia’s Balloon Hallucination,” the paper called the Soviet response “a full-dress propaganda campaign.” 

A February 12th Baltimore Sun op-ed argued that the Soviets should immediately give the captured equipment back to the United States: “Rather than protesting hysterically about the balloons which have come down in Russian territory, the Soviets should, in the interest of science, be returning the cameras and equipment to American researchers so that the information they have recorded can be evaluated.”  

The Soviets, however, had by this point started to display the balloons at Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s residence, the Spiridonovka Palace, in Moscow. Soviet Colonel A.V. Tarantsov narrated the demonstration for the media, which consisted of more than 50 of the deflated balloons. “So all this equipment is meant exclusively for aerial photography and it can be called a flying camera,” Tarantsov argued.  

Meanwhile, Soviet Foreign Ministry Press Chief Leonid Ilychev argued at the display that the balloons signaled a bellicose posture, reappropriating a controversial Dulles quote about the effectiveness of brinksmanship from a LIFE Magazine article published a month earlier. “All such attempts by the American military organs are an attempt to conduct a policy of ‘to the brink of war’ which has been condemned by the peoples,” Ilychev declared. 

The Russian display sparked a break from the Washington narrative by some papers. An early media dissension came in a brief Valentine’s Day op-ed in The Washington Post. “If scientific information is what the United States has been seeking with the ‘weather’ balloons about which Russia has been raising such a fuss, this country has explained its case poorly,” the piece contended. 

The Post also argued against any further moralizing on the issue by American commentators: “We ought to have no illusions about what we are doing and what we are inviting, and we ought to avoid any false piety in the matter.” 

On February 18th, Gromyko sent another note, this time offering – with perhaps a bit of a tongue-in-cheek tone – to display the recovered balloons in the West: “The Government of the U.S.S.R. proposes to organize in New York, Washington, London or Paris, with the agreement of the nations concerned, exhibitions of the balloons caught over Soviet Territory and their equipment.” 

The letter also followed up on Tarantsov’s claims that the balloons were clearly outfitted with spying apparatuses: “It is sufficient to say that not a single captured balloon has any sort of equipment designed to measure meteorological data, atmospheric pressure, temperature or humidity.”

The continued Russian claims led to further criticism of the U.S. strategy surrounding the balloons. Hanson W. Baldwin, the legendary military analyst for the New York Times, wrote an angst-ridden editorial on February 19th, arguing that the balloon misdirection signaled an escalation in Cold War secrecy. 

“If the balloon incident had provided the first occasion when correspondents and the public found it hard to swallow the whole truth of the statements issued by [the] State Department and Pentagon, the damage would not have been so great,” Baldwin wrote. “But several times during the ‘Cold War,’ incomplete, belated or distorted announcements from Washington have cloaked the whole truth or have created doubt.”  

Baldwin also implicitly argued that the government should have simply ignored the Russian protests rather than lie about the International Geophysical Year. “The integrity of the Government is one of the most precious assets of a free people and the confidence of the people in the word of their government is beyond price,” Baldwin reminded his readers. “The feeling among many experts here is that if the Government, for various reasons, cannot present a balanced picture, it should say nothing.”  

On March 1st, with the Russians still protesting the balloons, the U.S. government charged that Russia had launched its own balloons that had hovered over Alaska in the previous years. “It is illogical that the Soviet Government should desire one rule for itself and another for the rest of the world,” State Department officials wrote in a letter to Moscow. 

The Russians also denied using reconnaissance balloons, although a deflated balloon was found in West Germany later in the month. By this juncture, the point was largely moot. Eisenhower had vetoed Project Genetrix, and – according to his Staff Secretary and surveillance maven Andrew Goodpaster – had told Air Force Chief of Staff Nathan F. Twining that “The President is not interested in any more balloons.” 

In a final twist of resonance to our current UAP conundrum, researchers believe that many of the UFOs reported in Europe during the decade following World War II – Roswell included – were in fact balloons associated with Project Genetrix and its relatives.

Clearly, in 1956 as well as today, objects in the sky can unleash a political furor over geopolitical power, legal boundaries, press partisanship, and perhaps even our own individual hopes and fears. 

For much more on Project Genetrix and the history of Cold War aerial surveillance, read William E. Burrows’s 1986 Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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