A secret intelligence report about Moscow’s aggressive intentions predicts “an airborne invasion involving bombing and the dropping of paratroopers.” But the probable targets are listed not as Kiev, Tbilisi, Vilnius, or Tallinn but as “Nome, Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Seward.” Right: Alaska. The report, only recently declassified by the US government, dates to 1951. It describes a secret collaboration between the FBI and Air Force counterintelligence to prepare for a successful Soviet invasion of Alaska by training a cadre of nearly 100 “stay-behind-agents” — undercover backwoodsmen, bush pilots, anglers — to spy on the Red Army occupiers. “Survival caches” of supplies and radio gear were hidden in remote locations, ready for use. From 1951 to 1959, the stay-behind agents stood ready.
It never came to that, but the revelation of the program, dubbed Operation Washtub, provokes an eerie resonance today. Russia, having invaded Georgia and seized Crimea, is now flouting its border with Ukraine. Citizens of half a dozen European countries in Moscow’s “near abroad” find that fear of invasion no longer seems paranoid. For me, news of the declassification landed with a personal jolt, since it identified the Air Force intelligence officer in charge of Washtub as my father, then-Brigadier General Joseph Carroll. Good God, Dad, what were you thinking?
But it’s not that hard to figure out. When Washtub began, Joseph Stalin was in power. That murderer of 20 million of his own countrymen had enslaved Eastern Europe, and had recently ended the American monopoly on the atomic bomb. With Communist China ascendant, Stalin was riding high. From Washington, it did not seem paranoid to imagine his move across the 50-mile wide Bering Strait.
In hindsight, though, the Cold War fears of Americans were indeed paranoid, generating catastrophic Red Scare overreactions at home, and hugely self-destructive adventures abroad, eventually including Vietnam.
But before condescending to America’s Cold War leaders who put in place the structures of opposition to the tyranny of the USSR, including for a time the now ludicrous and ludicrously named Operation Washtub, one would do well to recall that across the half-century of the Washington-Moscow standoff, those officials sustained a strategic system of containment and deterrence that, for all its dangers, evolved into detente, arms control, arms reduction, and trust. The tribunes of our garrison-nation never imagined that the Soviet empire was capable of being dismantled without war, yet it was. We thank our lucky stars that World War III was averted, but, given the slender thread on which the human future hung, we should thank the Cold Warriors, too. Such gratitude has come to define the heart of my memory of my father, who was one of them.
The point is that, across decades in which the East and West avoided mass war, the corruptions of Soviet Communism undid themselves, and the virtues of liberal democracy re-shaped the political conscience of much of the world — including of a surprisingly self-critical United States, which in that same era underwent its own civil rights and peace-movement revolutions. Ultimately, Americans found it possible to follow a Russian’s lead in ending the Cold War. Humane change, that is, was given space and time to remake societies on both sides of the divide.
But that peaceful denouement seems jeopardized now, as Vladimir Putin, shoring up his political standing at home, ignites a new nationalist aggressiveness abroad — not only threatening neighboring states and unsettling the post-Cold War order of Europe, but sowing seeds of mayhem to sprout in the Middle East, too. Putin is trouble.
What is America to do now? The answer is complex. The problems are larger than anything Washington caused, and larger than anything Washington, acting alone, can resolve. Measured American leadership is needed. Realistic assessments of danger are needed, too. In any resuscitated hostility with Moscow, the Cold War would inevitably become a point of reference. Yet it should not be the Red Scare paranoia that returns, but the steadily maintained structures of international cooperation, based on a final preference of dialogue over force, that once allowed the strengths of democratic value to prevail in far more dangerous circumstances.
Operation Washtub reads today like a Walter Matthau film script. But it was part of a campaign to buy time. And for all the excesses and abuses it unleashed, that campaign succeeded. There is something in America to trust.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.