The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Panic over spy balloon echoes misguided alarm over Sputnik

In this case, freaking out makes even less sense because spy balloons are historically a sign of weakness

A balloon drifts above the Atlantic Ocean off South Carolina on Feb. 4, shortly before it was shot down. (Chad Fish/AP)
8 min

The discovery of a Chinese spy balloon over the United States triggered hysteria from media outlets and politicians alike. Unsurprisingly perhaps, with a Democrat in the White House, Fox News spat out a steady wave of paranoia. Fox hosts and guests speculated that the balloon could be filled with everything from bioweapons — perhaps a new virus “from Wuhan” that would kill us all — to electromagnetic pulse weapons to solar-powered devices for “unlimited surveillance.”

But while the right’s theories were outlandish, the balloon dismayed Democrats too. Rep. David Scott (Ga.) confessed to being “concerned, deeply concerned.” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) vowed that the United States would consider “other actions” to retaliate for China’s brazen violation of American sovereignty.

This hysteria will probably only grow after the U.S. military shot down three other objects from the skies over Alaska, Canada and the Great Lakes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It’s eerily reminiscent of the 1957 freakout after Sputnik made history as the first satellite to orbit the Earth. The Soviet Union satellite triggered a major panic in which no hyperbole was spared. Americans called it, among other things, a dangerous turning point, a sign of our decline as a civilization, a national humiliation and a “technological Pearl Harbor.”

Reckless speculation abounded. Some even ruminated that the satellite could drop nuclear bombs on American cities — despite its technical capability being limited to broadcasting “beep, beep.” But facts didn’t matter. As a political adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson observed, Sputnik had “opened up limitless vistas of hideous nightmares … Visions were created of Soviet spies with super powerful binoculars who could ferret out the most cherished secrets of our country.”

Not only does the reaction to the Chinese balloon echo these fears, but the panics also share the same causes: partisan politics and media hype. The irony in 2023 is that we know from history that a spy balloon is even less cause for worry than Sputnik was.

Historically, governments have generally deployed balloons to compensate for deficiencies in defense capabilities and intelligence. During World War I, balloons were used to surveil enemy positions and disseminate propaganda across miles of essentially impregnable trench lines.

In World War II, inadequate air defenses led to the use of barrage balloons dangling heavy steel cables to ensnare enemy dive-bombers or force them up into the range of antiaircraft guns. In the closing months of the war, Japan set thousands of balloons floating across the Pacific toward the western United States. Outfitted with incendiary bombs, they aspired to set the northwest ablaze — in the middle of winter. Their lone casualties were a picnicking family in Oregon. Children discovered the balloons and triggered the explosion.

In the early years of the Cold War, it was the United States that relied heavily on balloons. Frustrated by the lack of intelligence on Soviet military capabilities, and unable to acquire much of anything through human intelligence in communist police states, the CIA and military intelligence used balloons for aerial reconnaissance. But the United States gleaned little useful intelligence until a more capable technology was invented: U-2 spy planes able to fly above Soviet air defenses.

More imaginative schemes proposed using balloons for psychological warfare. So many such ideas came up the CIA’s chain of command that, in 1951, the agency’s director, the irascible Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, profanely threatened to throw a staff member out if he sent Smith one more project with balloons.

And yet, between 1951 and 1956, the CIA still sent thousands of balloons into the airspace of communist Eastern Europe. Many dropped propaganda leaflets encouraging revolt and resistance against communist governments. Some balloons were tested as a means of infiltrating saboteurs and spies into Iron Curtain countries.

Most such operations were conducted by a CIA front group that pretended to be a private American organization. The Free Europe Committee, as it was called, proudly touted its balloon warfare in U.S. media, and Americans of all kinds volunteered ideas for what else might be carried by balloon to harass communist regimes. Widely read columnist Drew Pearson suggested bars of soap and Mickey Mouse watches. Famed author John Steinbeck recommended ballooning counterfeit rubles into Russia to wreak havoc on the economy. Others proposed Sears catalogues to whet the appetites of deprived communists. Intelligence operatives suggested, with an unknown degree of seriousness, dropping enormous condoms labeled: Made in the USA, Size Small.

Whatever the absurdity of the schemes, they were pursued with resolute seriousness, a sign of the desperation Americans felt as they looked about for means to undermine the Kremlin. An existential threat to the U.S.S.R. they were not.

That climate of angst and desperation might appear to explain why Americans, already concerned they were losing the Cold War, melted down over Sputnik. Yet, in the initial aftermath of the launch in 1957, opinion polls suggested that Americans were evenly split about whether the satellite represented a grave threat or not.

That all changed thanks to the media — which had far more unity. After all, doom and gloom sold papers.

Periodicals left, right and center framed the Soviet triumph as a clear defeat for the United States. It was a message that resonated even more after the U.S. Navy rushed to hurl its own satellite into orbit. Its ill-fated Vanguard rocket exploded in a fiery fury before the television cameras, an ignominious flop that the media presented as a tragic comedy. Video coverage added a cartoonish soundtrack of sad music, and newspapers called it a “Flopnik,” “Dudnik,” “Kaputnik” and “Stayputnik,” doubling down on the narrative of national humiliation.

Despite this one-two punch, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to reassure the country that the nation’s defenses were strong, and its lead on science and technology remained solid. Factually, he was right. The U.S. nuclear arsenal and capabilities for delivering it exceeded those of the Soviet Union by many orders of magnitude.

But in politics, being right rarely matters, and the environment tempted politicians to exploit the mayhem. Democrats smelled blood. Sputnik and the “Flopnik” offered an opportunity to attack the GOP as weak on defense.

Senate Majority Leader Johnson and a younger colleague, John F. Kennedy — both considering presidential runs in 1960 — fueled allegations that Eisenhower had allowed the Soviets to get ahead of the United States in ballistic missile technology. There was a “missile gap,” Democrats charged with dreams of electoral victory in mind. These charges came despite U.S. intelligence discovering that, if there was a missile gap, it favored the United States. But Congress held hearings to prove the opposite, that the nation was wholly unprepared to meet their adversary’s challenge.

In 2023, Republicans are resurrecting this tactic — right down to promised congressional hearings. They are doing so despite the long history of balloon espionage being a sign of weakness, not strength, and the fact that unlike Sputnik, the balloon doesn’t represent a major technological breakthrough that might signal a scientific deficit.

But as in 1957, facts don’t matter. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a good barometer of what sells on the right, trolled President Biden by carrying a large white balloon through the Capitol. Other GOP leaders previewed 2024 attack ads by posing for pictures pointing guns into the air as if they could shoot down a balloon some 60,000 feet above Earth. Setting aside the limited grasp of ballistics, the attack line comes straight from 1957: We will defend you since your president cannot.

Some Republican pronouncements lack any sense of proportion. After a briefing on the situation, Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) claimed that China was the “greatest threat we’ve ever faced, more severe than Soviet Russia.” The U.S.S.R. pointed thousands of nuclear warheads at the United States, invaded Afghanistan and supported insurgencies around the world, and Vladimir Putin’s successor regime in Moscow has thrice invaded sovereign countries in the past 15 years, but in Cotton’s hawkish calculus, a handful of balloons represents a worse threat.

Media sensationalism and political opportunism, therefore, are driving the freakout over the balloon. It’s Sputnik all over again — with even less grounding in fact. The reality is that while much remains unknown about the spy balloons China has sent adrift around the world, the low-tech effort has more in common with balloon programs from the past than Sputnik. History indicates that China is probably trying to compensate for a disadvantage in an asymmetrical climate, not launching some new and dangerous weapon to exploit an American vulnerability worthy of the Great Spy Balloon Panic of 2023.