David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
It skirted into Canadian territory, traversed the United States and then was destroyed over the Atlantic. Its path from Montana to South Carolina sent thousands casting their eyes into the wintry skies. It caused the U.S. Secretary of State to cancel his diplomatic mission to China, prompted the President to send warplanes flying, gave conservative critics of Joe Biden an opening to accuse him of weakness and set in motion the sort of ocean recovery search that was a staple of the Project Mercury space-capsule flights of the early 1960s.
The story of the flight of the Chinese balloon created a near-hysteria in political circles if not on the ground and, in breathless cable coverage, suggested a frightening new frontier in international spycraft. But in truth, balloon surveillance dates to the late 18th century, the United States fired on German balloons in the First World War and in this century employed balloons to conduct surveillance in Afghanistan. China has been sending balloons aloft for years.
Indeed, the U.S. and China shared an almost mirror image of the 2023 episode in 1952, when in the chilliest days of the Cold War, an American spy plane travelling into Chinese airspace on an evening with a full moon was shot down and its two CIA operatives were captured. Thus began a two-decade-long ordeal of imprisonment, torture and meals such as a dead sparrow that had been boiled in water without having been cleaned first.
Airborne surveillance always has been fraught with risk. Though China argued its balloon, the size of three city buses, was examining weather patterns in the atmosphere, not missile-launching sites in the American northern plains, U.S. intelligence officials this week concluded that it was part of a massive surveillance program.
Much of the 1952 CIA mission over China and its aftermath was conducted in Cold War secrecy, but the most famous episode of airborne surveillance occurred in 1960 and was played out in public, much to the embarrassment of the Dwight Eisenhower administration.
It began with a U-2 overflight into Soviet airspace and ended with the cancellation of a summit meeting between Mr. Eisenhower and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev. When Francis Gary Powers was shot down near the city of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains, the administration concocted a story that the pilot, on a 4,700-kilometre, high-altitude pass over the Soviet Union, had drifted off his flight plan after blacking out when an oxygen-delivery system malfunctioned.
That cover story lasted until Mr. Khrushchev announced that Mr. Powers had not, as American intelligence leaders expected, perished and that the Soviets recovered the plane and determined it wasn’t designed to measure meteorological phenomena. A mortified Mr. Eisenhower then acknowledged what had been apparent for days.
In the current episode, American intelligence officials argued the Chinese balloon posed no danger to the country and allowed it to traverse the country so as to observe its functions. They said that, in an age when satellite surveillance was commonplace and sophisticated, balloons could travel closer to the ground and thus offered advantages over other surveillance techniques.
”They must have known such a huge thing would be detected,” Iain Boyd, a professor of aerospace engineering science who is director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, said in an interview. “It likely was a provocative move, a counter to the spying Americans do in China, showing they can cause a stir thousands of miles from home. It seems like a political jab at the United States.”
But the question remains why, just before an important meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese President Xi Jinping would mount a surveillance offensive sure to be discovered even by Montana ranchers and Kentucky farmhands. The dispatch of the balloon seemed out of character for a Chinese leader who, facing domestic challenges, has moderated his approach to the West.
The 1952 CIA mission over China had far greater intelligence potential – and presented far greater peril.
“This story is important as a part of U.S. intelligence history because it demonstrates the risks of operations (and the consequences of operational error), the qualities of character necessary to endure hardship, and the potential damage to reputations through the persistence of false stories about past events,” a former deputy CIA historian, Nicholas Dujmovic, wrote in an agency-commissioned assessment.
Initially the CIA denied its two operatives were intelligence operatives, arguing instead they were on a routine cargo flight between Korea and Japan that had gone awry. Instead, they were part of a CIA effort to use American-trained Chinese agents to work with dissident generals to foment upheaval, if not actual counter-revolution, against China’s young Communist regime.
When the Americans’ engine cut out, their aircraft crashed amid a copse of trees. The pilots were killed but the CIA operatives survived and were captured. “Your future is very dark,” a Chinese security officer told Richard Fecteau, one of the CIA prisoners.
The fate of the two survivors – who underwent brutal interrogations, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and taunts that no one at home would ever learn of their whereabouts – was unknown for two years.
The two eventually were released after Richard Nixon’s trip to China. Mr. Fecteau, now 96, lives in Lynn, Mass.
John Downey, the second CIA operative captured by China, was the longest-held military prisoner in American history. Mr. Fecteau was released before Mr. Downey because the Chinese regarded him as a rookie spy compared with Mr. Downey, who was recruited into the CIA in his last year at Yale and whom the Chinese regarded as the “arch-criminal of all American prisoners.” After his release, Mr. Downey became a Connecticut Superior Court justice and died eight years ago.
While Mr. Fecteau and Mr. Downey were in Chinese confinement, Albert Lamorisse produced a short film and illustrated book titled The Red Balloon, the story of a lonely Parisian boy who finds companionship in a red balloon – until the older boys of the neighbourhood bring down the balloon with stones.
The contemporary episode involving a Red balloon – thought to be outfitted with cameras and imaging technology, whose continent-wide drift startled Americans – faced the same fate last week, destroyed by a heat-seeking missile fired from a F-22 fighter jet. Mr. Lamorisse is remembered for this much beloved story – but also for inventing a board game. It is called Risk.