The US sent “weather” balloons to spy on China in the 1950s.

Over the past week, A large Chinese balloon floating over the United States has captured the attention of the American media.

Before the balloon was shot down by the United States on Saturday, the Chinese government said it was a “civilian aircraft used for research, mainly meteorological.” For its part, the Pentagon said it had “very high confidence” that the balloon was conducting surveillance.

It’s understandable that the US government would be suspicious, because America sent exactly the same size spy balloons over both the Soviet Union and China in 1956 – and made exactly the same claims China is making today about what we were doing.

The balloons used by the United States were, oddly enough, manufactured by General Mills. The General Mills website describes its mission as “creating foods the world loves,” and it’s probably best known today for products like Cheerios, Chex, and Lucky Charms. But the company boasted in a 2011 blog post that it “hired the ‘father’ of the balloon industry,” thanks to the Aeronautical Research Division, founded in 1946.

General Mills balloons were supplied to the US Air Force for Project Genetics, a secret program to collect electronic and photographic information on communist countries. The Department of Defense’s National Reconnaissance Office published a book in 2012 called “HEXAGON (KH-9) Mapping Camera Program and Evolution” that covers genetics.

According to NRO book,

The cover story for the existence of the large balloon stated that the project was part of a global meteorological survey … to secure important high-altitude scientific data in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year.

The International Geophysical Year was conceived, as Dwight Eisenhower said at the time, as a demonstration of “the power of people of all nations to work together for the common good”. At first, it seems disturbingly cynical. But perhaps this was an expression of Eisenhower’s belief that American espionage was the common good and that everyone was pulling together for their share, spies and espionage.

“Hexagon” records that the first of 512 balloons was launched on January 10, 1956. But the Soviet Union quickly noticed what was happening, and the program was suspended less than a month later on February 6, after protests from the Politburo.

Only 54 of the 512 balloons were recovered. But the NRO book states that these 54 balloons photographed 1.1 million square miles of the “Sino-Soviet area.” It was quite a lot, about one-tenth the area of ​​the Soviet Union and China combined.

The film was analyzed by photo interpreter teams from the US Army and Navy, CIA, Royal Air Force, Strategic Air Command and Far East Air Force. “Hexagon” optimistically states that “there were many benefits derived from this product. New targets were located, and it was possible to confirm intelligence about previously known targets.”

On February 7, 1956, at a press conference, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles engaged in a long, humorous debate about spy balloons. First, there was the outright lie. “The information being sought,” he said, “is not primarily or even all military information.”

So what was the goal of the United States with all these balloons? Why, to help all humanity: “They are gathering an extraordinary amount of new and useful information about this jet stream air current. … [it] It is a part of a project that has global significance.”

Asked if “the United States feels they have the right to send these balloons anywhere in the world to a certain height,” Dulles replied, “Yes, I think we feel that way.” He then generously allowed that the United States would “try” to avoid the territory of other countries it did not like. This leniency apparently did not extend to American- (and British-) operated U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, which began several years later.

David Haight, an archivist at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, wrote a 2009 article on this general issue titled “Ike and His Spies in the Sky.” In it, he wrote, based on records of White House discussions, “Eisenhower authorized an aerial intelligence collection program to better assess the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, China, and other communist bloc countries to launch a surprise attack on the United States.” In other words, the U.S. The United States viewed its balloon and U-2 programs as primarily defensive.

If indeed the Chinese balloon proved to be conducting surveillance, it is plausible that they similarly watched its intrusion into the United States. The domestic historical record shows that nations almost always see their actions, even the most aggressive, as an understandable attempt to defend themselves against a dangerous enemy. But what the US did in 1956 didn’t seem that way to the Soviet Union and China, so China shouldn’t be surprised that it doesn’t mind the US today.

However, the lessons of current ballooning tensions are unclear. It could be that China is 70 years behind the US in weather or spy technology or both. But there are some who believe we’re on the brink of a balloon revolution — and that’s just the first shot at something that sounds like fun but won’t be: a balloon war.