Unsuspecting civilians are doused with radiation and germ weapons. Intelligence agents recruit psychic spies. Generals plan an attack on a Chinese nuclear weapons plant. A phantom army triggers the largest arms buildup in history. Politicians secretly construct an underground city to escape fallout. The United States comes within 7 minutes of launching its ICBMs.
No, these aren’t screenplays that were junked when the Soviet Union went belly up. Each of these events actually happened. For the two generations of Americans who fought and financed the Cold War, it was an epic struggle between us good guys and the “evil empire.” Now, as the epoch fades into history, the declassification of tens of thousands of pages of secret documents has begun to cast a penetrating light on the era. As nine of these files reveal, truth can be stranger than fiction.
(See original article for images referenced in the text below:)
Target San Francisco
Most people remember the Cold War as an era when the greatest threat was a nuclear strike launched by a foreign power. In reality, Americans were also at risk from testing by their own military.
In addition to nuclear weapons, the U.S. military feared an attack by an enemy employing less publicized technologies. The most serious scenario was a biological warfare attack mounted against a seaboard city from a submarine or a small, fast patrol boat.
According to declassified records, the Pentagon attempted to estimate how cities might be damaged by such an attack by ordering the U.S. Navy to spray a cloud of supposedly harmless bacteria over San Francisco.
Historians say local health records show an upsurge in cases of a pneumonia-like illness after the 1950 experiment. They also claim that one death was caused by the attack.
In 1966, the Pentagon ordered the U.S. Army to launch a similar biological attack on the New York City subway system. Details of this experiment remain classified.
A generation ago, the White House was gripped by reports that “Red” China was preparing to build its own nuclear weapons. Top officials considered several strategies to stop the Chinese program.
In 1963, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, planned Unconventional Warfare Program BRAVO. It called for the United States to prevent the People’s Republic from building a nuclear weapon by launching a secret attack against a weapons plant in north central China. The attack was to be carried out by a nonnuclear bombing mission or a 100-man sabotage team made up of Chinese Nationalists.
The plan was vetoed on the urging of the State Department. China went forward with its nuclear weapons program, exploding its first device (right) at its Lop Nor test site on Oct. 16, 1964.
One of the strangest files reveals the use of psychics as spies. The CIA-financed project-code-named GRILLFLAME-was conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), beginning in the early 1970s. The CIA says its ESP troopers, who used sensory deprivation (left), never produced useful information. Yet the project may still have been a success.
It turns out that for two decades Stanford University had also worked on a secret over-the-horizon radar (OHR) system to spot Soviet ICBMs seconds after launch.
The OHR system operated at the same microwave frequencies the Soviets believed were responsible for brain waves. For reasons he later said he never understood, OHR inventor Oswald G. Villard Jr. found himself assigned to GRILLFLAME.
Some speculate that the ESP troopers were a ruse to divert Soviet spies away from OHR.
The Green Run
Soon after the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear bomb in August of 1949, the United States decided it needed to learn more about the types of weapons its enemy was building. To find out, the Air Force conducted the Green Run experiment at the Hanford nuclear production plant (right).
On the night of Dec. 2, 1949, the plant “released three tons of irradiated uranium fuel that had been allowed to cool only 16 days,” reports a declassified Department of Energy document. The release-aimed at duplicating pollution from a Soviet reactor-placed more than 7800 curies of radioactive iodine, well-known to concentrate in human thyroids, into the air of the Pacific Northwest. By comparison, the accident at Three Mile Island released only 15 curies of radioactive iodine.
Americans know NASA’s Gemini program as a followup to the Mercury manned orbital missions. Few know about a shadow effort, Blue Gemini, that sought to recruit NASA technology and astronauts to fly military missions.
At first, NASA warmed to the idea of sharing launch costs in exchange for allowing Air Force officers to fly as copilots. Documents suggest the military had offered NASA as much as $100 million. But as senior officers began laying out the details of their proposed operations, administrators of the civilian agency became less and less enamored with the idea of using astronauts as high-flying military observers.
As with the proposed Operation BRAVO attack on China’s nuclear weapons plant, State Department reservations would eventually quash the plans to militarize NASA’s manned space flight. Blue Gemini would never fly.
Beginning in the 1970s, curious tales began to emerge from Washington, D.C., about a “doomsday hotel.” Located near the nation’s capital, it was said to be the ultimate fallout shelter. But only for the well-connected.
In congressional testimony, military officials acknowledged the shelter-called Mount Weather?existed, but refused to disclose its whereabouts, lest it be targeted by a Soviet ICBM.
With everyone’s ICBMs now targeted at the open sea, the location of Mount Weather (right) has been revealed to be in Berryville, Virginia, about 75 miles from Washington.
Today it houses the computer and phone-system hubs for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In 1995, the existence of a second doomsday hotel, located beneath the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was revealed. It is now open to group tours.
Secret Soviet Fallout
The Russian government has acknowledged that a long-rumored series of accidents at Soviet nuclear weapons plants actually did take place.
These events occurred beginning in 1948 at the Mayak complex in the southern Ural mountains, where the Soviets operated seven plutonium production reactors. Soviet records reveal that these events released into the air more than five times as much radiation as that produced by all the world’s 500 above-ground nuclear tests plus the major nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Windscale (now Sellafield), England (in 1957).
While the report may be new to the public, it was old news to the U.S. government. A highly secret monitoring unit called the Air Force Technical Applications Center has been operating a long-range detection program to monitor Soviet fallout for 50 years.
7 Minutes To Armageddon
If you’ve ever had to give your boss really, really bad news, you can imagine how officers in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, felt when their radar screens lit up with 2200 Soviet missiles.
The “launch on warning” protocols required confirmation, followed by the immediate notification of then-President Jimmy Carter.
When other tracking stations reported all clear, the mystery deepened. With supposedly only 7 minutes left to launch U.S. ICBMs, the mystery was solved. Someone had put a training tape on the wrong machine-it was literally a textbook attack.
After the 1979 incident, the Air Force moved its training operations to another location, and it has since upgraded its tracking center.
Moscow’s Phantom Arsenal
During the 1980s, the rationale for the United States undertaking the largest weapons buildup in history was detailed in a widely circulated Defense Department document titled Soviet Military Power. The report estimated that the Soviet Union commanded weaponry that exceeded the U.S. arsenal in every category.
It turns out many of those weapons never existed. Declassified CIA estimates of Soviet military power suggest the Defense Department’s fears were caused by a phantom arsenal of nonexistent weapons. One example: The much-feared improved T-80 tank never existed. It appears analysts mistook an outmoded T-72 retrofitted with armored fabric side skirts for a new weapon.
In fact, the Soviets weren’t even maintaining the weapons they did have. At a press conference late last year, Gen. Eugene Habiger, top commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, acknowledged that during the 1980s “the Russians weren’t modernizing their forces as we were.” As a result, “The service life of their systems is coming to an end.”
Author: Jim Wilson
News Service: Popular Mechanics