50. Editorial Note

In early July 1958, Secretary of State Dulles approved a plan for a limited high-altitude balloon reconnaissance program of the Soviet Union. For background on the planning of this operation, see Document 46.

The operational plan, outlined in a July 2 memorandum from Cumming to Dulles, called for about eight balloons to be released from a carrier in the Pacific to fly over the United States. “At the same time, two or three balloons equipped with cameras will be aimed specifically to pass westward over the USSR, the explanation, if they are detected, to be that they are apparently strays from the launchings previously announced.” Dulles’ approval of this plan is noted on this memorandum. (Department of State, INR Files: Lot 58 D 776, Balloons)

Attached to Cumming’s July 2 memorandum to Dulles is a draft memorandum from Deputy Secretary of Defense Quarles to the President, July 2, outlining the cover plan and operational plan. No record of the President’s final approval of this plan has been found, but three balloons were released to fly over the Soviet Union, as planned, respectively on July 12, 14, and 15.

According to undated notes on a meeting among State, CIA, and Defense officials, attached to a July 25 memorandum from Cumming to Under Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, the press release preceding this operation as part of the cover plan indicated that several balloons would be released to fly over the United States, and publicity on these flights was carried in west coast papers on July 17. These notes also indicate that the Air Force officer responsible for setting the mechanism governing the length of the flight of the balloons decided on his own to have the balloons cut themselves down after 400 hours when he estimated they would be over the Atlantic Ocean, but his error in judgment meant that they might possibly descend in the Soviet Union, Poland, or Denmark. (Ibid.)

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A copy of the press release, prepared by the Department of Defense and issued by the Cambridge Research Center in Bedford, Massachusetts, on July 25, which explained that 5 of the 35 balloons released during the first half of 1958 had been lost, is in telegram 274 to Moscow, August 8. (Department of State, Central Files, 761.5411/8–858)

For the reactions of Eisenhower administration officials to the first balloons coming down in Poland on July 28, see Documents 51 and 52.