US sent 'weather' balloons to spy on China, USSR in 1950s
The Chinese balloon is not a surprise for the United States, they had employed it 70 years ago, and lied about it.
For the past week, US media was occupied with the large Chinese balloon floating over the United States. Before the balloon was shot down on Saturday, the Chinese government declared that it was a "civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological." That said, the Pentagon said it has "very high confidence" that the balloon is a surveillance balloon.
The US government's reactions are not a surprise since it sent spy balloons exactly the same size over both the Soviet Union and China in 1956, according to The Intercept.
What balloons did the US manufacture?
The US balloons were manufactured by General Mills. The website describes its mission as "making food the world loves," and is currently best known today for its products like Cheerios, Chex, and Lucky Charms.
General Mills provided the balloons to the US Air Force for Project Genetrix, a covert program that collected electronic and photographic data on communist countries. The National Reconnaissance Office of the US Department of Defense published a book titled "HEXAGON Mapping Camera Program and Evolution" in 2012, which discusses Genetrix.
While the US balloons were about 20 stories tall, or around 200 feet, reports indicated that the Chinese balloon “is believed to have been up to 200 feet tall."
The NRO book: HEXAGON
The cover story used to explain the presence of the large balloons argued that the project was part of a global meteorological survey... to secure vital high-altitude scientific data in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year.
"HEXAGON" revealed that the first of 512 balloons was launched on January 10, 1956. However, the Soviet Union quickly realized what was going on, and the program was suspended less than a month later, on February 6.
That said, of the 512 balloons, only 54 were recovered. However, the NRO book reports that these 54 balloons provided photographs of 1.1 million square miles of “the Sino-Soviet area.” This was quite a lot, almost one-tenth of the area of the Soviet Union and China combined.
What was the US goal?
At a news conference on February 7, 1956, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, engaged in a lengthy, hilarious prevarication about the spy balloons. First, there was outright deception. “The information that is being sought,” he said, “is not essentially or even at all military information.”
The question here is, what was the US goal with all these balloons? “They are gathering an extraordinary amount of new and useful information about these jet stream air currents. … [it] is a part of a project which has worldwide significance.”
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Asked if “the United States feels that they have the right to send these balloons at a certain height anywhere around the globe,” Dulles answered, “Yes, I think that we feel that way.”
He concluded that the US would “try” to avoid the territory of other countries that didn’t like it. However, this did not apply to US and British manned U-2 flights over the USSR.
"Ike and His Spies in the Sky”
David Haight, an archivist at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, wrote a 2009 article titled "Ike and His Spies in the Sky" about this general issue.
Based on records of White House deliberations, he writes that “Eisenhower authorized aerial intelligence collecting programs in order to better assess the military capability of the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist bloc nations to launch a surprise attack on the United States.” In other words, the US considered its balloon and U-2 programs to be primarily 'defensive.'
In any event, it's unclear what can be learned from the current balloon mania. However, other people think that a balloon revolution is just around the corner and that this is what some believe could be the beginning of a "balloon war."
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