Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1991 to 1993, told some of his old CIA yarns at a confab for current CIA chief General Michael V. Hayden, who is staying with the Agency but retiring from the Air Force (note to job seekers: lots of top vacancies at the Air Force).
LA Times reporter Greg Miller says Secretary Gates reminisced about a CIA plan to float balloons over Libya and drop leaflets urging the overthrow of the government. Mr. Gates told the underspooks to re-write the pamphlets and specify just which government. If the wind shifted and the pamphlets fell on neighboring Egypt, he said, “General Mubarak would have been none too pleased.”
Oops! Secret weapon revealed! Balloons dispersing propaganda and disinformation. Stealth drones wafting silently through the sky. A great concept. It was even great the first time it was done, 200 years ago.
In the winter of 1808-1809, Swedish dissident Carl Fredrik Ehrensvärd (aka Gyllenburg and Gyllembourg), living in Denmark, published a pamphlet urging Swedes to overthrow their king (allied with England) and choose the Danish king (allied with Napoleon) as head of Sweden and Norway.
Already sentenced to death in Sweden, Mr. Ehrensvärd/Gyllenburg/Gyllembourg chose not to return there. He bought ten balloons. filled them with hydrogen, packed ten pamphlets on each, and launched them from Kronborg castle in Helsingør, hoping the balloons would land on the Swedish coast and the pamphlets would convince Swedes to help invading Danes.
Swedish authorities found the balloons, collected the pamphlets, and destroyed all but four, which were sent to the King. A copy in the War Archives bears the pencilled note: “Found in a Danish balloon that fell near Knutstorp in Skånia on 9 March 1809.”
During the Franco-Prussian War, some of the 66 manned French balloon flights leaving Paris during the seige (1870-1871) dropped propaganda pamphlets over the Prussian lines (they were also useful as ballast). A 1909 Suffragette attempt to leaflet the British Parliament by balloon was foiled by adverse winds.
In World War I British Military Intelligence developed a paper balloon with a fuse to drop pamphlets over enemy lines after the Germans declared leafleting from airplanes was a war crime. By September 1918 the British MI7 (b) (4) unit sent 2,000 balloons with propaganda loads to France each week, for a wartime total of 32,694.
World War II saw propaganda pamphlets delivered by balloon, airplane, artillery shell and rocket. The British “M Balloon Unit” had a sophisticated line of propaganda goods and great technical abilities. It developed new vehicles, constant-altitude and release devices, even a self-destruct mechanism. The Japanese used free balloons during the war, but as incendiatry devices. Released from Northern Honshu, several crossed the Pacific, reaching as far as Mexico, the U.S. West Coast, and even Michigan. The only casualties were in a group of amateurs who attempted to open an unexploded payload. It opened, all right.
The Cold War saw a rebirth of slow but stealthy balloon propaganda dissemination. The CIA’s Special Procedures Group (SPG) had already put together Project ULTIMATE in 1948, with printing facilities and a stockpile of weather balloons to deliver propaganda leaflets to Eastern Europe. By August 1951 hydrogen- or helium-filled balloons floated east from West Germany with millions of propaganda leaflets from the Free Europe Press (FEP). Balloon delivery was cost-effective and relatively non-confrontational. Timing devices used dry ice to release pamphlets.
Three balloon launch sites were prepared and four major operations carried out between 1953 and 1956 targeting Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, some coordinated with programming on Radio Free Europe. Balloon operations ceased in 1956 after an unsubstantiated rumor that a balloon had caused an airliner crash. More powerful transmitters and attennas allowed better RFE coverage of Eastern Europe. so broadcasts replaced the pamphlet-balloon flights.
American aircraft are said to have dropped 2.5 billion leaflets on Korea during the Conflict, but the following four decades of propaganda war between the Koreas was largely balloon-propelled. Both sides only agreed to stop balloon flights in 2000, and some of the nastier pamphlets from both sides are now prized collectibles, displayed in the Remembrance Museum in Chongson, South Korea.
A 1962 “Operation Mongoose” memo during the Cuban Missile Crisis recommends that the CIA shouild “continue to build balloon propaganda facilities” for use against Cuba, but there is no indication that there was follow-through.
The Cold War was often fought though proxies in parts of the world where literacy was far from universal, so dropping pamphlets was of little use. Some things just cannot be communicated through illustrations. By the 1960s we hear of balloon drops of transistor radios. Cheap, they operate in areas without electrificaion, since they run on batteries. A CIA attempt to balloon transistor radios into the Peoples Republic of China was thwarted when the winds reversed and blew them back to Taiwan, but I’m sure we made new friends in Taiwan.
The CIA is said to have balloon-dropped combat instruction manuals into Nicaragua in 1983, but whether these were really meant to guide the anti-Sandinista “Contra” forces or merely give the impression that there was a much more viable military resistance than there really was is debatable.
Germany seems to have used balloon-dissemination of pamphlets during Operation Desert Storm, something they learned from the CIA in the 1950s (see above). There were lots of nifty leaflets but no other indication of balloon distribution.
There you have it: two centuries of propaganda propagated by balloon. Are palmtops and flashdrives sailing through the air, rocking under balloons over some contested somewhere? Let NotionsCapital know.
Top Image by Mike Licht, in tribute to Otto Messmer. Download a copy here, and credit Mike and Otto. I’ll fill in the other credits later today; I promise.