In 1950, Cold War tensions ran high and government officials were terrified that Soviets would invade Alaska. Recently-declassified documents reveal the details of "Operation Washtub"—a joint FBI-Air Force plan to recruit Alaskans as "stay-behind" agents to gather military intelligence.
Sounds like the plot to a movie called White Dawn, but it was real.
The event that prompted the secret operation was the invasion of South Korea by Soviet-backed North Korean forces. Some U.S. officials believed Korea was intended to be a distraction from a pending Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Military planners considered the territory of Alaska to be a likely target for opening a second front in this diversion tactic, given its proximity to Russia. "The military believes that it would be an airborne invasion involving bombing and the dropping of paratroopers," one FBI memo said
That memo is just one of 704 pages of documents obtained by a FOIA request. The plan, described in the mountain of papers, called for the recruitment and training of "ordinary" Alaskans—such as "businessmen, farmers, trappers and fishermen"—who would form a small, covert network transmitting information on enemy movements. They would be provided not only with equipment but secret, buried caches of food and other survival gear.
U.S. officials believed that civilians were a better choice than military or intelligence personnel because they were more familiar with navigating Alaska's rugged terrain—making them better qualified to covertly observe Soviet activities or plan an escape if they aroused suspicion.
An example of a typical person to be one of the principals is a professional photographer in Anchorage; he has only one arm and it is felt that he would not benefit the enemy in any labor battalion; he is an amateur radio operator; he is a professional photographer; he is licensed as a hunting or fishing guide, and well versed in the art of survival; he is a pilot of a small aircraft; he is reasonably intelligent, particularly crafty, and possessed of sufficient physical courage as is indicated by his offer to guide a party which was to have hunted Kodiak bear armed only with bow and arrow. If such an individual were chosen it is believed that he would be eminently satisfactory as a principal.
Moreover, it was believed that civilians would be more successful at blending in, since they were already longtime residents with cover stories. And, they would be organized in small cells, which would be given the minimal amount of information necessary to complete their assigned tasks. Several of the declassified documents expressed concern that larger numbers of agents—with military or intelligence backgrounds—would be vulnerable targets, since Soviet doctrine espoused the "elimination" of all suspected sources of opposition in occupied territory. And, intelligence officials worried about the efficiency with which the Soviets could extract information:
It is to be expected that, in any future war, prisoners taken by the Soviet Army, or by any other Army trained in Soviet methods will be ruthlessly exploited. They will be interrogated in detail, and the methods used will be designed to extract the last bit of information from them. It must be anticipated that knowledgeable prisoners particularly will be subjected to vigorous inducements to disclose such information as they possess.
As such, Operation Washtub outlined the criteria for selecting agents:
- Agents selected should be permanent residents of Alaska and have established means of livelihood and logical reasons for being placed where they intend to operate.
- Agents should not have been members of the armed forces of the United States nor employees of the United States Government.
- Agents should be chosen from those persons who will not be logical internees or victims of the enemy.
Still, despite such heroic candidates as the aforementioned one-armed, Kodiak bear tracker, U.S. intelligence didn't think highly of Alaskans, since "most of them who settled there are interested primarily in making money." That meant they would have to be carefully screened, and promised generous financial compensation.
One group, however, was regarded as completely off-limits for recruitment—the indigenous Alaskan peoples:
The selection of agents from the Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut groups in the Territory should be avoided in view of their propensities to drink to excess and their fundamental indifference to constituted governments and political philosophies. It is pointed out that their prime concern is with survival and their allegiance would easily shift to any power in control.
Similarly, another memo noted:
The Eskimo would probably not resist an invasion and would readily accept foreign rule if the Eskimo is provided the necessities for sustaining life. The Eskimo has been living so long in a land where his primary interests are tangible things that will keep him alive that he just cannot comprehend the feeling of loyalty to the Government.
Deborah Kidwell, official historian of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, or OSI, said that the "Washtub" plans were in place from 1951 to 1959, the year that Alaska became a U.S. state.
"While war with the Soviet Union did not come to Alaska, OSI trained 89 SBA (stay-behind agents), and the survival caches served peacetime purposes for many years to come," she wrote in an OSI magazine.
And, in later years, the indigenous Alaskans who were once so disdained by U.S. officials, would become frontline observers during the Cold War.
As a 1988 New York Times article reported:
Tensions between East and West may have been reduced in the wake of successful negotiations to reduce nuclear arms in Europe. But for the Eskimo scouts of Alaska's National Guard the Cold War persists with a frigidity to match an Alaskan winter.
The Eskimos are suspicious of their Soviet neighbors in nearby Siberia and say they are the first line of defense against the Russians.
''You must realize the Russians are only a few short miles from our homes,'' said Sgt. 1st Class Mike Apatiki of the First Scout Battalion. ''We can see them across the Bering Strait and watch their planes fly overhead.''
Senior military officers in Alaska say they are grateful for the alertness of the scouts and depend upon them to patrol the vast and sparsely populated areas of western and northern Alaska.
The area contains many strategic installations vulnerable to commando raids. These include radar sites that are part of a network of similar sites situated across Alaska and Canada to warn of a Soviet missile attack over the polar icecap. Northern Alaska also has a number of key air bases and electronic intelligence facilities important to hemispheric security.
Carrying out the scouts' mission is considered a responsibility of all Eskimos. Even those with no military links report to the nearest scout when they discover something out of the ordinary while hunting or fishing.
''In this way the scouts increase their eyes and ears a thousandfold,'' said Maj. Gen. John W. Schaeffer, adjutant general of the Alaska National Guard, an Eskimo who started out as a private in the scouts in 1957. Few American soldiers could survive the conditions under which the scouts train.