WASHINGTON — Fearing a Russian invasion and occupation of Alaska, the US government in the early Cold War years recruited and trained fishermen, bush pilots, trappers, and other private citizens across Alaska for a covert network to feed wartime intelligence to the military, newly declassified Air Force and FBI documents show.
Invasion of Alaska? Yes. It seemed like a real possibility in 1950.
‘‘The military believes that it would be an airborne invasion involving bombing and the dropping of paratroopers,’’ one FBI memo said. The most likely targets were thought to be Nome, Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Seward.
So J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, teamed up on a highly classified project, code-named ‘‘Washtub,’’ with the newly created Air Force Office of Special Investigations, headed by Hoover protege and former FBI official Joseph F. Carroll.
The secret plan was to have citizen-agents in key locations in Alaska ready to hide from the invaders of what was then only a US territory. The citizen-agents would find their way to survival caches of food, cold-weather gear, message-coding material, and radios. In hiding they would transmit word of enemy movements.
This was not civil defense of the sort that became common later in the Cold War as Americans built their own bomb shelters. This was an extraordinary enlistment of civilians as intelligence operatives on US soil.
This account of the ‘‘Washtub’’ project is based on hundreds of pages of formerly secret documents. The heavily censored records were provided by the Government Attic, a website that publishes government documents it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Russians never invaded, of course.
So the covert cadre of ‘‘stay-behind agents,’’ as they were known, was never activated to collect and report wartime information from backwoods bunkers. It was an assignment that federal officials acknowledged (to one another, if not to the new agents) was highly dangerous, given that the Soviet Union’s military doctrine called for the elimination of local resistance in occupied territory.
To compensate for expected casualties, a reserve pool of agents was to be held outside of Alaska and inserted by air later as short-term replacements. This assignment was seen as an easier sell to potential recruits because ‘‘some agents might not be too enthusiastic about being left behind in enemy-occupied areas for an indefinite period of time,’’ one planning document noted dryly.
‘‘Washtub’’ operated from 1951 to 1959, according to Deborah Kidwell, official historian of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
‘‘While war with the Soviet Union did not come to Alaska, OSI trained 89 SBA [stay-behind agents], and the survival caches served peacetime purposes for many years to come,’’ she wrote in an Office of Special Investigations magazine last year.
With the benefit of hindsight, it would be easy to dismiss ‘‘Washtub’’ as a harebrained scheme born of paranoia. In fact it reflected genuine worry about Soviet intentions and a sense of US vulnerability in a turbulent post-World War II period. As the plan was being shaped in 1950, Soviet-backed North Korea invaded South Korea, triggering a war on the peninsula that some in the Pentagon saw as a deliberate move by Moscow to distract Washington before invading Europe.
The previous summer the Soviets stunned the world by exploding their first atomic bomb. Also in 1949, the US locked arms with Western Europe to form the NATO alliance, and Mao Zedong’s revolutionaries declared victory in China, adding to American fear that communism was on the march.