Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense

Khalid Elhassan - September 30, 2021

Cold War tensions brought humanity to the brink of extinction more than once. For decades, two superpowers with enough nuclear weapons between them to end life on Earth many times overeyed each other with suspicion, their fingers over the button that would unleash Armageddon. Yet, for a conflict so serious, it had no shortage of absurd moments. Take the time when the DEA’s predecessor supplied America’s leading anti-communist demagogue with drugs. Or the inebriated secret agent whose drunk driving triggered the era’s biggest mass expulsion of spies. Following are thirty things about those and other odd Cold War stories.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Joseph McCarthy. Library of Congress

30. That Time During the Cold War When the DEA’s Predecessor Supplied Senator Joseph McCarthy With Drugs

“McCarthyism”, the hurling of baseless accusations of subversion and treason, especially as it relates to communism and socialism, is named after Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, an unscrupulous and unethical demagogue. In the early 1950s, as Cold War tensions rose, he alleged that he had discovered that Soviet spies had infiltrated the US government, universities, the film industry, and other vital sectors of the American economy. At first, he claimed that the communist agents numbered in the dozens, a figure that gradually grew until it reached the hundreds. He claimed to know their identities, and that he had their names in lists that he waved about wherever he went.

In reality, the “lists” were often random sheets of paper and sometimes even blank ones, and the spies were figments of McCarthy’s imagination. He simply made the whole thing up, but because a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is still tying its shoe laces, it worked. McCarthy whipped up and rode a wave of anti-communist hysteria known as the Second Red Scare (the first one occurred in 1918 – 1920) to national prominence before he was finally censured by the US Senate and his career cratered. Among many things that were later uncovered about the seedy Senator is that he was a drug addict. Less known, as seen below, is that his drugs were supplied by the DEA’s predecessor.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Joseph McCarthy had a serious morphine addiction. Selectron

29. McCarthy’s Friendship With America’s Drug Czar

Senator Joseph McCarthy was a severe alcoholic who by the early 1950s poured more than a quart of liquor down his throat each and every day. His staffers often worried about what he might say, especially after his highly liquid lunches. The heavy intake of booze explained many of his reckless speeches and assertions made before gathered reporters about an America overrun with communist spies, and that he possessed lists with the names of hundreds of Soviet agents. The wild allegations were often simply the rantings and ravings of a loaded drunk.

The junior Senator from Wisconsin was also addicted to morphine. The fact that he used illegal drugs was well known to Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the predecessor of today’s Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA). Anslinger hated drug addicts, and he went on a crusade to destroy blues singer Billie Holiday for her morphine addiction. As such, one might think that he would have felt duty bound to arrest McCarthy. Luckily for the Senator, America’s drug czar was his personal friend. Instead of placing him in handcuffs, he supplied him with drugs.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Harry J. Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Timeline

28. Joseph McCarthy’s Horrible Friend

Harry J. Anslinger, who led the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for 32 years as Commissioner and spearheaded the criminalization of drugs, was a horrible human being. An extreme racist and bigot even by the standards of his day, he demonized racial minorities and immigrants. He also hated jazz, mongrel music of African, Caribbean, and European origins mating on American soil. It was the opposite of everything Anslinger believed in. He thought it was musical anarchy, and proof of primitive impulses in black people, just waiting to erupt. As he described it in internal memos: “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of night”.

He became friends with Senator Joseph McCarthy, as the two bonded over their anti-communism. When he learned about the Senator’s addiction to opium, Anslinger’s first concern was not with his duty to enforce the law. Instead, he grew worried that his friend might be vulnerable to blackmail if his addiction was discovered by enemies. Especially communist enemies, who would use it to further their Cold War ends. Not only did Anslinger cover-up for McCarthy and shield him from arrest, he went further and saw to it that he was safely supplied with drugs.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Senator Joseph McCarthy waving one of the documents he falsely claimed contained information about lists of communist agents. Aventuras na Historia

27. During the Cold War, America’s Drug Czar Supplied America’s Most Prominent Communist Witch Hunter With Drugs

Harry J. Anslinger arranged for Senator Joseph McCarthy to pick up as much high-quality morphine as he wanted from a Capitol Hill pharmacy controlled by agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. As America’s first drug czar described it in a thinly disguised autobiographical novel he wrote after his retirement: “One of the most influential members of Congress at the time and one of my most dependable supporters was a confirmed morphine addict. He was an amiable man but would do nothing to help himself to get rid of his addiction …

“He refused medical advice and insisted that no-one would ever be permitted to interfere with him or with whatever habit he wished to indulge in … He was also a heavy drinker but it was his addiction to morphine which was the greatest threat to himself and his country even though, in the national interest, his uninterrupted supply of the drug was guaranteed by my Bureau. On the day he died I mourned him deeply as a friend but also thanked God for relieving me of a great burden and a certain danger”.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
KGB emblem. PNG Egg

26. That Time During the Cold War When A Drunk KGB Agent Got Over a Hundred of His Fellow Spies Expelled From Britain

In the early morning hours of August 31st, 1971, London bobby Charles Shearer saw a car swerving all over the road, and pulled it over. Soon as it stopped, a blond woman opened the passenger door, exited the vehicle, and bolted off into the dark of night. Behind the wheel was a heavily inebriated driver with a thick foreign accent, who staggered out of the car with a bad attitude, and an inability to walk straight. So officer Shearer put him in cuffs and placed him in the back of his squad car to take him to the station.

En route, the arrested driver stretched out his legs and placed them on the back of Shearer’s shoulders. The bobby turned around and said: “What are you playing at? Take your feet off the back of my seat!” The drunk replied: “You cannot talk to me. You cannot beat me. I am a KGB officer”. Drunks say all kinds of things, and this wasn’t the strangest thing that officer Shearer had heard, so he did not put much credence in it. As seen below, however, this particular drunk was not lying.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Oleg Lyalin. Spies and Vespers

25. A Lucky Cold War Arrest

Once he arrived at the police station, the drunk driver refused to take a breathalyzer, give a urine or blood sample, or otherwise cooperate. His name was Oleg Lyalin, a trade representative employed at the Soviet embassy. He lacked diplomatic immunity, so he was charged with drunk driving, placed in a cell to sleep it off, and taken before a magistrate for a hearing the following morning. Representatives of the Soviet Trade Delegation showed up and paid his bail of £50, but officer Shearer had the distinct impression that Mr. Lyalin did not want to leave the court with them.

Instead, MI5, Britain’s domestic counterintelligence and security service – the equivalent of the FBI’s spy catchers – showed up and took him into their custody. As it turned out, Lyalin had already been on the radar of British intelligence. They had tried to blackmail him to switch sides by threatening to expose an affair he was having with his secretary – most likely the blond who had bolted out of his car. The arrest gave them an opportunity to whisk him to a safe house, where they had all the time in the world to try and convince him to defect. They succeeded.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Officer Charles Shearer in later years. BBC

24. A Decision to Drink and Drive Led to The Cold War’s Biggest Mass Expulsion of Spies

Oleg Lyalin agreed to defect to Britain, seek political asylum, and disclose information about KGB activities. In exchange, he wanted a new life for him and his Soviet secretary Irina Teplyakova, with whom he had been having an affair. Once the deal was struck, Lyalin admitted that he was a KGB agent sent to London in the 1960s under the guise of an official with Soviet embassy’s Trade Delegation. His real mission was to carry out espionage missions focused on the Midlands, under the guise of a textiles purchaser.

Among other things, Lyalin also blew the lid on a KGB plan to sneak agents disguised as official messengers into Whitehall – the center of Britain’s government – to release poison gas from capsules. He gave MI5 a list of 105 KGB spies in Britain posing as Soviet diplomats and trade officials. All of them were promptly expelled, in the biggest such action taken against the USSR by a western government throughout the entire Cold War. Lyalin was given a new identity, married his secretary, settled in northern England, and worked for MI5 as a paid employee until his death in 1995.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Charles Maultsby, the U-2 pilot whose screwup almost triggered WWIII. Anchorage Daily News

23. The Lost Pilot Who Almost Turned the Cold War Hot

The closest the world ever came to a nuclear holocaust was probably the 1962 Cuban Missile, as the American and Soviet governments stared each other down, with fingers on nuclear hair triggers. It was bad, but most folk who lived through the crisis did not know just how bad. As was revealed years later, billions around the world might have perished because of a screwup: an American spy plane that accidentally blundered deep into Soviet airspace at the height of the crisis. The near-catastrophe began at 1:45 PM on October 27th, 1962, when President John F. Kennedy was informed that a U-2 spy plane, that flew from a base in Alaska, had gone missing inside Soviet airspace.

The plane was supposed to fly just outside the Soviet border, where it was to test clouds drifting from the USSR for radioactive particles. However, its hapless pilot, a certain Charles Maultsby, ended up blundering deep into the USSR, and the Soviets scrambled fighters to shoot him down. It was the worst possible moment for such a mishap, as the Soviets might have viewed the incursion as a deliberate provocation. Luckily, the U-2 made it back to base, but Kennedy, who called its pilot a “son of a bitch”, made sure that he never flew a U-2 again.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Monk getting doused in gasoline before he set fire to himself. Imgur

22. The Burning Monk

In 1963, South Vietnam was seething with discontent, fueled by widespread government corruption and a steadily intensifying insurgency. To make matters worse, the country’s Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had implemented discriminatory policies that favored Catholics at the expense of Buddhists, who made up 90% of the population. Protests erupted in May when Diem’s government banned the flying of Buddhist flags – only days after it had encouraged Catholics to fly Vatican flags at an event. When protesters defied the ban and flew Buddhist flags, government troops opened fire and killed and wounded dozens.

On June 10th, 1963, American correspondents were tipped that “something important” would happen the following day near the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Photographer Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press showed up on the 11th, and as his camera clicked, two monks doused a serene elderly colleague with gasoline, as he sat lotus style. The monk, Thich Quang Duc, then struck a match, dropped it on himself, and maintained his serenity while flames engulfed him. At the time, few Americans knew about Vietnam. After the photo of the Burning Buddhist appeared in newspapers across the country, few Americans could forget that war-torn country. As President Kennedy commented: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
A US Marine with an M1 Garand during WWII. Pinterest

21. The Introduction of the Iconic Cold War Rifle of American Forces

American soldiers in World War II had the world’s best rifle, the M1 Garand – a highly reliable .30 caliber semi-automatic firearm, at a time when the rest of the world’s armies relied on bolt action rifles. The M1 performed with distinction, and General George S. Patton called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised”. By war’s end, military establishments around the world had begun the process of furnishing their forces with semiautomatic and automatic small arms. Progress was so rapid that within five years, the once-revolutionary M1 had become outdated. The Korean War demonstrated that the Garand, cutting edge just a few years earlier, was now obsolescent. Its chief drawbacks were excessive weight, limited ammunition capacity, and lack of automatic fire.

It was replaced with the M14 rifle – a souped-up M1 upgrade, with a 20 round magazine and automatic fire capability. While a vast improvement over the Garand, another Cold War conflict in Asia, this one in Vietnam, revealed that the M14 had some serious drawbacks. So it was replaced with a new, cutting-edge rifle, the M16. The M16 would eventually become one of the world’s greatest standard-issue military rifles, and its progeny are still standard issues for American troops more than half a century later. However, as seen below, the new rifle had some serious teething problems that gave it a poor reputation and made it highly unpopular, until its kinks were finally worked out.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
GIs with M14 rifles in Vietnam. Warfare Blog

20. The Stopgap M14 Rifle

When the M14 first saw action in Vietnam, significant drawbacks emerged. For one, while the rifle was a stable and accurate platform when it fired single rounds in semiautomatic mode, it was virtually uncontrollable when it was fired in full auto mode. For another, while its 7.62mm NATO rounds were more powerful and could reach farther than the rounds of the AK-47 wielded by the American GIs’ opponents, the M14’s cartridges were heavier. That weight meant that M14 users could carry fewer bullets, pound for pound, than did adversaries who wielded AK-47.

Worse, the disadvantages caused by the heavier weight were not balanced out by practical advantages. In most encounters in Vietnam, the M-14 rifle’s longer-range was seldom needed. There were relatively few wide open fields of fire, and the rugged terrain and vegetation meant that most engagements took place at short to medium distances. Being able to shoot somebody at 500 yards, which the M-14 could reliably do with iron sights (and at 900 yards or more with a scope), was little help to American troops who seldom saw an enemy beyond 100 or 200 yards.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Viet Cong with an AK-47. Enemy Militaria

19. Greater Stopping Power vs More Bullets

The M14’s shortcomings led military commanders to consider an older rifle, the M2 Carbine, which offered a higher rate of fire than the M14. However, the M2’s bullets were underpowered. An alternative was needed, and the AK-47, with its intermediate cartridge, pointed the way forward. To stand on an equal footing with the communists during the Cold War, American soldiers needed a rifle that could fire a round that was more powerful than a carbine or submachine gun. However, it also had been lighter than a high-velocity rifle round, whose long-range was seldom needed in most engagements.

The choice was between greater killing or stopping power with a more accurate and longer range powerful weapon, or more bullets to keep an enemy’s head down at shorter range, with a higher chance of hitting and at least slowing him down. The debate led military authorities to rethink a rifle they had rejected in the 1950s: the Armalite AR-15. Developed in response to a US Army request, the AR-15 weighed 6 pounds with a 20-round magazine. It fired .223 inch caliber (5.56 mm) rounds that could penetrate an American helmet at 500 yards and matched or exceeded the wounding capacity of a .30 round.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
An original M16 without the forward assist, in action in Vietnam. Edumuch

18. Initial Rejection of the AR-15 Rifle, Followed by Its Speedy Adoption

The US Army turned down the AR-15 rifle and decided to stick with the M14. However, the war in Vietnam forced a reconsideration. Early in 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided that the AR-15 was the superior rifle, and ordered a halt to M14 production. After minor modifications, the AR-15 entered US military service as the Rifle, Caliber 5.56 mm, M16. Composed of hard-anodized aluminum alloys, fiberglass, and steel, the new rifle was significantly lighter than the M14, and the lighter weight of M16 and of its cartridges allowed soldiers to carry more ammunition.

However, although superior on paper and during the tests that led to its adoption, the new rifle demonstrated some serious drawbacks when it first went into combat. The M16 was ordered into production in March of 1964, and by the end of that year, the first models had been shipped to Vietnam and distributed to front-line troops. The new rifles were widely panned. The M16’s lighter weight when compared to its predecessor was a huge advantage. However, many troops reported that it jammed a lot, especially at the most inopportune moment, when firing at the enemy – as inopportune a moment as it gets.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Gas piston vs direct impingement. Quora

17. The Harrowing Tales of the M16

Before long, dramatic tales about the new M16 rifle began to make the rounds among US forces in Vietnam. Entire patrols were said to have been wiped out, their bodies discovered next to their jammed rifles. To heighten the drama, the dead GIs or Marines’ hands were clutching cleaning rods, testimony to the fact that their last harrowing moments on Earth had been spent in feverish but futile attempts to clear stuck cartridges. Whether such tales were actually true or were greatly exaggerated over dramatizations, it was clear that the new rifles had some problems. Chief among them was a tendency to jam – far more often than did its predecessors.

M16s were – and their progeny to this day still are – meant to be well maintained and cared for. Unlike their Cold War opposites, the AK-47s which use a piston to extract empty rounds and chamber new ones, M16s run on a direct gas impingement system. When an M16 is fired, some of the expanding gas from the exploding cartridge goes into a small hole drilled into the barrel. From there, the gas is redirected via a tube back to the firing chamber. There, it hits (impinges) the bolt, forces it back, extracts the now empty cartridge, and chambers a new round. That required new rifle maintenance measures that American soldiers had not known before.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
An original M16, top, without the forward assist which first appeared in the M16A1, bottom. Gun Digest

16. A Perfect Storm of Screwups

A key drawback of the M16’s direct gas impingement system which blows the fired cartridges’ gas directly into the firing chamber, is that it also blows those cartridges’ residue in there as well. That residue fouls the chamber, which means that it has to be cleaned frequently. More so than earlier US military rifles. To make things worse, the M16 was designed to fire a cartridge that used a specific powder to minimize that problem. In 1964, however, the US Army discovered that the special powder could not be readily mass-produced, so it replaced it with an alternate that produced significantly more fouling.

To make matters worse, the Army billed the M16 as a self-cleaning rifle, when no such weapon has ever existed, nor likely ever will. The military then further exacerbated the problem with its failure to supply the troops with cleaning kits, or to instruct them on how to clean their new rifles. On top of that, the firing chambers lacked chrome plating, which made them corrode easily. When the inevitable jams resulted, the original M16s lacked a forward assist – a device to manually push the bolt fully forward if it failed to do so on its own. It was a perfect storm of screwups.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Comic issued to US troops in Vietnam, with instructions on what to do if their M16 jammed. Pew Pew Tactical

15. Remedial Measures and a Redesign Were Needed to Address the US Military’s Main Cold War Rifle

The growing intensity of the war in Vietnam was accompanied by a growth in the notoriety of the M16 as an unreliable weapon. The first step to address the problem was to walk back the claims that the new rifle did not have to be cleaned, let alone the bonkers notion that it was a self-cleaning firearm. Along with cleaning kits, which were belatedly issued to the troops, the Pentagon saw to it that manuals were hurriedly printed and distributed.

They instructed the rifle’s users on how to clean, maintain, and when necessary, troubleshoot common problems that cropped up with their M16s. Design defects with the rifle and its ammunition were also addressed. Cartridges that used cleaner firing powder – for which the M16 had been designed in the first place – replaced the dirtier ones that had been initially issued to the troops. The rifle itself was redesigned, and an improved model, the M16A1, addressed some of the original mode’s shortcomings.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
An improved M16A1 with forward assist in Vietnam. Encyclopedia Britannica

14. The Improved M16 Rifle

The improved M16A1 rifle featured a firing chamber that was coated with chrome. That drastically cut down on the corrosion problems that had plagued the original version. The redesigned rifle also featured a forward assist, that allowed troops to manually tap the bolt forward when necessary. Between the new emphasis on training and instructing the troops on the proper cleaning and maintenance of their rifles, the cleaner firing cartridges, and the redesigned M16A1, the problems that had plagued the original M16 were largely gone by 1968.

For many front-line combat troops, the very fact that they were in Vietnam might have still sucked. However, being stuck in a war with an unreliable rifle was no longer among the reasons that made Vietnam an especially unpleasant experience. As it is, the M16 is a great rifle in the hands of professionals who are trained to maintain and get the most out of it. It is not as forgiving a weapon as the AK-47, but it is a great one for those who know how to take care of it.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Progression of M16 improvements, from top: M16A1, M16A2, M4, and M16A4. Wikimedia

13. A Rifle For Professionals

When well taken care of, the M16 rifle was a significantly better and higher performing firearm than its Soviet Cold War counterpart. Unlike the AK-47, the M16 is not well suited for irregulars, peasant insurgents, and poorly trained guerrillas. It can not be buried in a swamp, then taken out and be expected to fire without mishap. M16 users are expected to maintain their weapon by cleaning and inspecting it on a daily basis, which makes it a, literally, higher maintenance weapon than the AK.

However, that higher maintenance is counterbalanced by higher performance. Professional soldiers – and the American military establishment is as highly professional a military organization as exists anywhere – are trained to maintain and clean their weapons as a matter of daily routine. It is not an onerous chore, but simply part of the job. In exchange, they can expect – and have gotten for decades now – higher performance from their M16 rifle family than their opponents who wield the AK-47 and its derivatives.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
President John F. Kennedy and General Curtis LeMay.

12. The US Plan to Invade Cuba

In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Pentagon urged President Kennedy to invade Cuba in order to remove Soviet nuclear missiles from the island. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed that a full-scale invasion was the only solution. They presented JFK with two versions: Oplan 316 for a full invasion, and Oplan 312 for aerial strikes to take out the missiles, followed by an invasion if necessary. The hawks, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had a clear preference for Oplan 316, as they contended that there was no guarantee that air strikes alone would take out all the missiles, or that one or more of the missiles would not be fired at the US.

Planners expected 18,500 US casualties in the first ten days of the invasion, provided that there were no nuclear explosions. However, unbeknownst to Pentagon planners, Soviet forces in Cuba had tactical nuclear weapons, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had authorized the Soviet commander in the island to use them at his discretion if he deemed it necessary. The planned invasion of Cuba thus threatened to turn the Cold War very hot, indeed. As the crisis intensified, Khrushchev withdrew release authority and forbade the use of tactical nukes use without his express permission. However, as seen below, whether the modified orders would have been followed, is debatable.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Khrushchev and Castro. Defense Media Network

11. JFK’s Refusal to Let His Military Advisers Jam Him Into an Invasion of Cuba Might Have Saved the World

Tactical nukes were dispersed throughout Cuba to various Soviet units, under the physical control of officers as low down the chain of command as captains. Soviet forces had trained to use those weapons as part of their defensive plan, and in the heat of battle weapons custodians would have been under intense pressure as they were subjected to overwhelming US aerial strikes, naval bombardment, and ground attacks. The Red Army in 1962, with victory in WWII only 17 years in its past, did not lack military pride or an ethos of defiance unto death.

It is thus not difficult to envision a desperate local commander, perhaps cut off from communications with higher authority, using the tactical nukes at hand to save his command, or at least ensure that its demise did not come cheap. If the Soviets had used nukes in Cuba, US plans called for a massive nuclear response. Things could easily have escalated from there to turn the Cold War hot with a full-blown nuclear exchange that would have devastated both countries and Europe, irradiated the Northern Hemisphere, and set humanity back centuries. Luckily, President Kennedy resisted the pressure from his generals and admirals, relied on diplomacy, back channels, and blockade, and successfully diffused the crisis without triggering WWIII.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
General Douglas MacArthur observing the Inchon landings. Encyclopedia Britannica

10. Douglas MacArthur Wanted to Nuke China

Early in the Cold War, the forces of communist North Korea triggered the Korean War when it invaded South Korea, overran that US ally and client state, and threatened to seize the entire Korean Peninsula. General Douglas MacArthur turned the tide in September 1950, with a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, in the North Koreans’ rear. The result was a swift collapse of the communist invasion, after which MacArthur vigorously pursued the routed enemy northward up the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, he then grew overconfident.

MacArthur blithely dismissed warnings that China would directly intervene in the war if his forces approached the Sino-Korean border, and insisted that the Chinese would do nothing. He turned out to be disastrously wrong. Soon after his forces reached the Yalu River, which marked the border with China, hundreds of thousands of Chinese began to pour into Korea. They evaded detection, suddenly struck in November, 1950, and caught a surprised MacArthur completely off guard. Within weeks, the US general and his forces had been defeated, and pushed out of North Korea back across the border into South Korea.

Also Read: The First American Fatality in the Korean War Is Reported (1950)

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur. Life Magazine

9. Rather Than Let MacArthur Turn the Cold War Hot, President Truman Fired Him

Douglas MacArthur’s judgment and estimate of Chinese reaction were proven catastrophically wrong. His forces were chased back down the Korean Peninsula by the Chinese even faster than they had raced up in pursuit of the North Koreans. A humiliated MacArthur reacted with histrionics and insisted that atomic bombs be dropped on China. His plan was to drop up to 50 atomic bombs in Manchuria on Chinese cities, military concentrations, and communication centers. His ultimate aim was to seal off the Korean Peninsula from China with a radioactive belt that stretched across Manchuria from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea.

President Truman, whom MacArthur had confidently assured only weeks earlier that China would do nothing if his forces marched up to the Chinese border, balked. He declined to trust MacArthur’s further confident assurances that the Soviets would do nothing if the US dropped dozens of atomic bombs on their Chinese ally. When MacArthur publicly contradicted Truman’s position, he was ordered to clear any further statements on the subject with the State Department first. MacArthur violated those orders, and again challenged Truman publicly on the use of atomic weapons in the Korean war,. So in an early Cold War assertion of civilian control of the military, Truman fired the difficult general.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
A North Vietnamese convoy wending its way along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to South Vietnam. Thing Link

8. The Planned Invasion of North Vietnam

Another Cold War invasion contemplated by the US military but not carried out was of North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, plans were drawn to end North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam and support for the insurgency there by taking out North Vietnam with a direct invasion. The plan, as described in On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Harry G. Summers, was reminiscent of the Normandy invasion. It called for landing an airborne division to the north and west of Hanoi to block off the approaches to the Hanoi-Haiphong region. It was to be accompanied by a seaborne invasion, with three amphibious divisions landed on beaches in the Haiphong area.

The Haiphong force would then advance to Hanoi and linkup up with the airborne troops there. With the Hanoi-Haiphong area secured, outside support would be drastically curtailed. Two major railroads from China would be severed, the country’s main seaport would be in American hands, and the lines of communications to the south would be interdicted. Starved of Chinese and Soviet arms, munitions, and supplies, and cut off from a steady infusion of North Vietnamese manpower, planners expected that organized armed resistance in South Vietnam would soon wane and collapse.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
North Vietnamese Army (NVA) engineers erecting a bridge on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Pintrest

7. The Risk of Chinese Intervention Led to the Shelving of the Plan to Invade North Vietnam

The plan to invade the Haiphong-Hanoi area stood a high chance of success against the North Vietnamese. However, it was deemed too dangerous because there was no guarantee that the invaders would only have to deal with North Vietnamese forces: the odds that China would join the fray were high. At the time, only 15 years had gone by since the Korean War. In that war, US and allied forces had pursued the routed North Koreans all the way to the Chinese border, based on the mistaken belief that China would do nothing. That led to an unpleasant surprise when the Chinese jumped in and pushed American forces all the way back to South Korea.

If China directly joined the Vietnam War in response to a US invasion of North Vietnam, things could easily escalate from there into WWIII, and drag in the Soviets. Unlike the situation during the Korean conflict and in the early days of the Cold War, the US no longer held an overwhelming nuclear superiority. By the second half of the 1960s, the Soviets possessed thousands of nuclear warheads, as well as the means to deliver them to targets in the US. American interests in Vietnam were simply not worth the risk, and the so the planned invasion of Hanoi-Haiphong was never carried out.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
American soldier in Vietnam, 1971, lined up to give urine samples at a heroin detection center before they could return to the US. National Public Radio

6. A Fifth of US Military Personnel in Vietnam Got Hooked on Heroin

Until 1969, the only drug widely available to American troops in Vietnam was marijuana. But starting in 1969, heroin became widely available. It was cheap, and so pure that servicemen could get high smoking heroin mixed with tobacco. That made it more appealing to those who would have been reluctant to inject the drug in their veins with a needle and syringe. By 1971, almost half of US Army enlistees in Vietnam had tried heroin, and of those, about half exhibited signs of addiction. The addiction epidemic spread from Vietnam to other US military installations around the world, and the American garrison in West Germany was especially hard hit.

In response, President Nixon created the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. He also ordered further research on military personnel addiction, which revealed that 20% of American servicemen in Vietnam self-identified as heroin addicts. At the time, the US was drawing down its presence in Vietnam, and about 1000 troops were sent back home each day, where most were discharged soon thereafter. It meant that hundreds of active heroin addicts were being released into the US each week. The result was a toxic medley of social problems that rocked 1970s America.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
The US military explored the possibility of stopping the Earth’s rotation. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

5. The Cold War Plan to Stop the Earth’s Rotation

Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, and fear often triggers the necessity to stop whatever had caused it. The Cold War was one of the most fear-inducing stretches of human history – as in pants-soiling scary at times, with two jittery superpowers glaring at each other while armed with enough nukes to wipe out humanity many times over. So the era saw its fair share – and more – of inventions to address, combat, and foil the causes of that fear.

Thing though is that fear sometimes drives the fearful to not just think outside the box, but to get carried away with their outside-the-box thinking. As in way, way, away in the “creative” ideas department. As with most ideas, some of them turn out to be brilliant brainstorms, but many more turn out to be brain farts. Of the latter, few ideas were crazier than that hatched up to foil Soviet nukes by stopping the Earth’s rotation.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Soviet nuclear missiles. Russia Beyond the Horizon

4. A Method to the Madness

Stopping the Earth’s rotation sounds crazy – and it was. However, there was actually a method to the madness and a kernel of logic involved. To launch an ICBM and get its warhead to accurately nuke a target thousands of miles away involves intricate calculations, not least among them planetary rotation. If one could tinker with Earth’s rotation, one could screw up those intricate calculations, and cause ballistic missiles to miss their targets. Thus was born PROJECT RETRO, an early 1960s research effort into what it would take to pause the planet’s spinning.

The project was worthy of Wile E. Coyote in that, like many of his schemes, the science actually works in theory. Once launched, the Cold War’s early ballistic missiles could not be redirected. Because of Earth’s rotation, to hit something with a ballistic missile is like shooting an arrow at a mobile target. In both cases, the shooter has to aim not at where the target is, but at where the target will be in the time it takes the missile or arrow to get there. PROJECT RETRO hoped to ensure that the ICBMs’ targets would not be there when their warheads detonated.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
What if instead of using 1 rocket to catch a bird, we used many rocket engines to stop the Earth from spinning? Imgur

3. A Cold War Plan Worthy of Looney Tunes

To illustrate the logic of PROJECT RETRO, picture an ICBM that takes 30 minutes to fly from the Soviet Union to New York City. The Soviets would their missile not at where NYC is at the time of launch, but at where the Big Apple will be, because of the Earth’s rotation, in 30 minutes. However, if a moving target ceases to move after a projectile such as a missile is launched, the result will be a miss. So the United States Air Force floated the idea of using rocket engines to stop the Earth from moving.

Specifically, planners contemplated the use of a “a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines” to stop the Earth from moving. In theory, such a crazy Looney Tunes plan could foil Soviet ICBMs. Accordingly, the Air Force set out to test the theory’s feasibility. In 1960, the RAND Corporation with asked to evaluate whether giant stationary rocket engines might be used to pause Earth’s rotation in case of nuclear attack. As seen below, while there was something to the theory, going from theory to practice was… problematic.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
How many rocket engines like these would it take to counteract the Earth’s rotation? A whole lot. NASA

2. Sound in Theory, Impossible in Practice

The US Air Force’s spitball guesstimate that a thousand rocket engines could pause the Earth’s rotation turned out to be too low. As Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation planner who crunched the numbers concluded, it required not a thousand Atlas rockets, but “one million billion” of them. The rocket fuel necessary would have been “500 times the mass of Earth’s atmosphere”. That was beyond even the Pentagon’s budget. And even if Pentagon could afford it, to pause the planet’s spin would have produced results far worse than if all the Soviet nukes had hit their targets.

Assume a 30 minute ICBM flight time from Russia to New York City, and a 20 minute warning. For the missile to miss by 10 miles, Earth’s rotation would have to be slowed by about 30 miles for 20 minutes. If that happened, every structure, grain of sand, drop of water, and living thing on the planet would experience that deceleration. The result would be shattering earthquakes, massive tsunamis, and super hurricanes – all beyond anything ever recorded in human history – wreaking havoc across the planet. A nuclear Armageddon would actually be mild compared to that.

Absurd Cold War Stories That Just Don’t Make Sense
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Medium

1. An Extra-Terrestrial Attack Could Have Stopped the Cold War

President Ronald Reagan was the Happy Cold Warrior. A staunch conservative and anticommunist, he went about with a sunny disposition and demeanor that did little to mask his implacable detestation of communism and opposition of the Soviet Union. His single-minded focus on challenging what he termed “The Evil Empire”, and dragging the USSR into an arms buildup competition that its rickety economy could not sustain, contributed greatly to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. However, there was one field where he was more than happy to cooperate with the Soviets.

As Mikhail Gorbachev recounted, he was strolling around a garden with Reagan during the 1985 Geneva Summit, when the POTUS blurted out of the blue: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Gorbachev replied that the Soviets would help us out against ET. That greatly pleased the American president – apparently, the threat of alien attack had been gnawing at Reagan, a lifelong sci-fi nerd, for years. So turns out that extraterrestrials might have united humanity to stop the Cold War in order to face a common enemy.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

American Rifleman – US M16: A Half Century of America’s Combat Rifle

Associated Press – Newspaper Reports Ex-Soviet KGB Defector Oleg Lyalin Dead

BBC – On This Day: 1971, I Arrested a KGB Super Spy

Boing Boing – US Air Force Proposal: Pause the Earth’s Rotation So Nukes Would Miss Targets

Cracked – 5 Cold War Stories That Reveal It Was a Total Clown Show

Defense Media Network – The Cuban Missile Crisis: Castro, Oplan 314/316, and Khrushchev’s Decision

Dormandy, Thomas – Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream (2012)

Ellsberg, Daniel – The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (2017)

Gaddis, John Lewis – The Cold War: A New History (2005)

Gunivore – History of the M16 Rifle

Halberstam, David – The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2008)

Hari, Johann – Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2016)

History Collection – FRACTURE JAW: The Plan to Nuke North Vietnam

Los Angeles Times, November 7th, 1999 – The Rise and Fall of Joseph McCarthy

NPR, January 2nd, 2012 – What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits

Pew Pew Tactical – A (Not So) Brief History of the M16

Small Arms Review – The M16 in Vietnam

Summers, Harry G. – On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1995)

Time Magazine, August 28th, 2012 – Malcolm Browne: The Story Behind the Burning Monk

Vanity Fair, June 1st, 2008 – Lost in Enemy Airspace

We Are the Mighty – America Wanted to Stop Earth’s Rotation During Cold War

Wikipedia – M16 Rifle