Soviet Satellites and Mapping

John Davies’ website has announced that his and Alexander Kent’s book The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World will be released by University of Chicago Press. Details for the book on the press website show 272 pages and 282 (!) colour plates and a publication month of October 2017. Having read what the authors have written elsewhere about Soviet maps, I’m really looking forward to the book. In particular, I’m hoping it will offer not just more information on how the Soviet military prepared their maps but also some insight into why and for who.

The technical military challenges that drove both American and Soviet cartographic projects during the Cold War were very similar, which leaves the differences in practice between them begging for explanation. Take, for example, the apparent difference in exploiting satellite geodesy. Both countries very swiftly exploited the fact that perturbations in satellite orbits revealed new details on gravity and, by extension, the shape of the earth. They also must have recognized that satellites made better targets for intercontinental triangulation than rockets, stars, or the sun and moon, all conventional targets at the time.

As a result, Sputnik effectively sidelined an American-led terrestrial program of geodetic measurements for the International Geophysical Year that had been under development since 1954. Led by William Markowitz of the US Naval Observatory, using dual-rate cameras of his own design, the program distributed cameras to observatories around the world to make simultaneous moon observations during 1957. Using an approach to triangulation similar to that used during eclipses, the promised precision was to within about 90 feet at each observatory. Uncertainties in the position of the moon meant the 1957 observations never delivered geodetic results, but more substantially the entire concept had been rendered obsolete.

Consequently, in addition to measurement projects that were added to other scientific satellites, the US launched its first dedicated geodetic satellite in 1962. ANNA-1B was a joint Department of Defense-NASA project that carried instruments to enable both triangulation and trilateration. Its launch came only two years after the US lofted its first photo-reconnaissance satellite, which makes sense because both satellites were part of the effort to find and target Soviet strategic missiles.

Intriguingly, then, it was six more years before the Soviet Union launched its own dedicated geodetic satellite. The first of the Sfera series (Russian for “Geoid”) satellites (11F621) flew in 1968, launched from the rocket base at Pleketsk. Built by design bureau OKB-10 on the popular KAUR satellite bus, the Sfera satellites were equipped with lights and radio transmitters similar to those on ANNA-1B. Operational flights ran from 1973 to 1980.

A similar difference was apparent in the case of satellites equipped with cameras for mapping, as opposed to high-resolution reconnaissance photography. A dedicated mapping satellite was among the planned elements of the first US reconnaissance satellite system, the Air Force’s SAMOS (or Satellite and Missile Observation System). That camera, the E-4, never flew, but the Army’s very similar project ARGON was grafted onto the CIA Corona program. ARGON was rendered obsolete by the inclusion of small mapping cameras on subsequent satellite systems but after ARGON’s first launch in 1961 – only one year after the very first US reconnaissance satellite – the US was never without a mapping capacity in orbit.

In the USSR, on the other hand, the first dedicated mapping satellite came quite late. The Zenit-4MT, program name Orion (11F629), was a variant of the main Soviet series of photo-reconnaissance satellites. First launched in 1971 and accepted into operational service in 1976, Orion began flying nine years after the first Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite was launched. Unlike the Americans, who integrated mapping cameras into other photo-reconnaissance satellites, the Soviets seem to have continued to fly dedicated cartographic systems for the remainder of the Cold War (this is early 2000s information, so it may be obsolete now). Zenit-4MT (Orion) was followed in the early 1980s by the Yantar-1KFT, program name Siluet/Kometa (11F660), a system which combined the propulsion and instrument modules of the latest Soviet photo-reconnaissance satellite with the descent canister from the Zenit-4MT. Flying alongside Kometa was an upgraded Zenit, the Zenit-8, program name Oblik, an interim design introduced because of delays in the former.

I hope The Red Atlas or someone else can explain more about what was happening here, because it certainly looks like the Soviet Union was making very different decisions from the Americans when it came to satellite geodesy and cartography.

Source Notes: Information on Soviet satellites comes from a range of sources, much of it in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. For the Orion series, Philip S. Clark, “Orion: The First Soviet Cartographic Satellites,” JBIS vol. 54 (2001), pp. 417–23. For Siluet/Kometa, Philip S. Clark, “Classes of Soviet/Russian Photoreconnaissance Satellites,”JBIS vol. 54 (2001), pp. 344–650. On the launch of Sfera from Pleketsk, Bart Hendrickx,”Building a Rocket Base in the Taiga: The Early Years of the Plesetsk Launch Site (1955-1969) (Part 2),” JBIS vol. 66, Supplement 2 (2013), pp. 220 (and online). For the Markowitz moon camera, Steven J.  Dick, “Geodesy, Time, and the Markowitz Moon Camera Program: An Interwoven International Geophysical Year Story,” in Globalizing Polar Science: Reconsidering the International Polar and Geophysical Years, edited by Roger D. Launius, James Roger Fleming, and David H. DeVorkin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

A Tale of Two Keystone States

An auxiliary crane ship, the SS Cornhusker State, in 2009. US Navy by Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Goy. DIVIDS Photo ID 185724.

In the later years of the Cold War, the US Navy recognized the need to revitalize its seagoing transport capacity. During the Second World War, the military had built a massive fleet to support transatlantic and transpacific campaigns. Mothballed after the war, much of it had rotted away by the time reconstruction began under presidents Nixon and Carter and accelerated under President Reagan. One necessity for the new fleet was equipment to move cargo – especially containers – from ship to shore. After experiments with lifting by helicopter or balloon, the Navy settled on fitting a series of cargo ships with heavy cranes to unload cargo in ports that lacked the necessary infrastructure. The first ship to be converted was the SS President Harrison, previously operated by American President Lines, which was renamed the SS Keystone State (T-ACS-1) upon completion of its refit in 1984.

The Barge Derrick Keystone State (BD-6801) being towed by two Army Small Tugs during an exercise at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Aug 6, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Cal Turner/Released) DIVIDS ID 990511.

Confusingly, the T-ACS-1 is not the only US military crane watercraft named the Keystone State. In 1998, the US Army launched a engine-less crane barge BD-6801 with the same name, chosen to honor the 28 soldiers from Pennsylvania’s 14th Quartermaster Detachment killed in a SCUD attack during the first Gulf War (in this instance, BD stands for Barge Derrick). Operated by the Transportation Corps, the BD-6801 was built to help unload military cargo in any of the many ports around the world unequipped to handle the cargo. It carries a single crane with a reach of 175 feet and a lift capacity of 115 long tons which, unlike the cranes on previous army barges, is able to lift a 60 ton M1 tank off of a cargo ship.

Between 1985 to 2005, at least one Army floating crane like the Keystone State was always aboard the MV American Cormorant, a float-on/float-on (FLO/FLO) heavy lift ship at Diego Garcia that carried a package of Army watercraft for operating a damaged or unequipped port. The American Cormorant and its cargo deployed to many major crises as part of the army response, including the first Gulf War and Operation RESTORE HOPE in Somalia. Until the launch of the Keystone State, the crane barge carried aboard the American Cormorant was one from the BD-89T class, with an 100 foot reach and an 89 long ton (100 short ton) capacity.

The American Cormorant en route to the Gulf. Note the two BD-89T cranes on-board, only one of which was used in operations. From Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm: The Logistics Perspective (Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare, 1991), p.12. Courtesy of the AUSA website.

It was a BD-89T barge, the Algiers (BD-6072), which was deployed to be used by the Army 10th Transportation Battalion (Terminal) during the Gulf War. In addition to performing more than 1,500 lifts in Saudi ports, the Algiers was used to help clear damaged Kuwaiti ports of obstructions – harbor clearance being a mission shared between the US Army and Navy. After having built-up an extensive salvage force after the Second World War, changes to salvage doctrine meant the US Navy only sent one salvage ship and no heavy-lift gear to the Gulf. Commercial salvors being paid by the Dutch government took up much of the slack, but there were limits to what the contractors could do. With rental fees for barges and cranes running as much as $150,000 a day for a 600 ton Ringer crane barge, the Americans ended up mostly going without the heaviest equipment. The biggest harbor clearing lift involving the Algiers was a sunken Iraqi Osa II missile boat in the Kuwaiti port of Ash Shuaybah. Though small by seagoing standards, the Osa II was 127 feet long and displaced almost 200 tons in standard load. Even in combination with a quayside 140 ton crane, the crane barge couldn’t lift the ship whole. Only after army divers cut off the still-life missile launchers could the boat be raised. Looking back at the operation in the navy after-action report, perhaps with a little bit of envy, one of the navy salvage engineers called the army crane “very workable.” Other sunken craft the divers lifted at Ash Shuaybah, with or without the help of the crane, included a 90 foot sludge barge and two other boats.

The deployment of the Algiers during the first Gulf War is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the military roles played by American floating cranes, which since the conversion of the battleship Kearsage into Crane Ship No. 1 have worked to construct warships, salvage sunken submarines, and clear wrecks from the Suez Canal.

Source Notes: Much of the information for this post came from various sources around the internet, and in particular the website for the US Army Transportation Corps’ history office. The Corps’ 1994 official history, Spearhead of Logistics, was also useful. Details on the salvage operations during the Gulf War came mostly from the two-volume US Navy Salvage Report: Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, printed in 1992 and available online at the Government Attic (volumes one and two); the report’s chronology was the only place I was able to find which US Army crane barge was actually operated during the war.

Trawling for Spies

A new article in Intelligence and National Security by Stephen G. Craft reveals how the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ran a counterintelligence program using fishermen along the southern Atlantic seaboard during the Second World War. Expecting that the Axis would land agents on US shores (something that happened, but only rarely) and use German and Italian-American fishermen to support U-boat operations (which seems to have happened not at all), ONI created Selected Masters & Informants (SMI) sections under naval district intelligence officers to recruit fishermen as confidential informants. Their operations caught no spies but offered some comfort that subversion was never rampant along the coast.

For fifty years from 1916 to 1966, the district intelligence officers were ONI’s contribution to local counterintelligence, security, and information-gathering in US coastal areas. The official responsibilities of the district intelligence officer were numerous. According to Wyman Packard’s A Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence they included:

maintenance of press relations for district headquarters; liaison with the investigating units of federal, state, and city agencies within the naval district; liaison with public and private research agencies and with business interests having information in intelligence fields; liaison with ONI and the intelligence services of the other naval districts, and with forces afloat within the district; counterespionage, security, and investigations; collection, evaluation, and recording of information regarding persons or organizations of value (or opposed) to the Navy; preparation and maintenance of intelligence plans for war; and administrative supervision over the recruiting, training, and activities of the appropriate personnel of the Naval Reserve within the district.

The position was only eliminated in 1966, when its investigative and counterintelligence duties passed to the Naval Investigative Service, its intelligence-collection duties to local Naval Field Operational Support Groups, and its other sundry tasks to the district staff intelligence officer.

Admiral Ingersoll, Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, and Rear Admiral James at Charleston, South Carolina during an inspection of the Sixth Naval District, 23 November 1943. Courtesy of Mrs. Arthur C. Nagle. Collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, NH 90955.

In October 1942, the creation of SMI sections added recruiting fishermen as counterintelligence agents to the long list of task mentioned above. By January 1943, the SMI sections had recruited 586 agents, 200 of them in the Sixth Naval District (headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina). Ship owners were paid $50 to cover installation of a radiotelephone, which were provided to about 50 craft. Otherwise masters were to report by carrier pigeon (the Navy operated lofts in Mayport, Florida and St Simon’s Island, Georgia) or by collect call once ashore. Some masters also received nautical charts that were overprinted with a confidential Navy grid for reporting purposes.

Shrimp fleet in harbor, St. Augustine, St. Johns County, Florida, 1936 or 1937. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed April 20, 2017.)

The absence of winter shrimp fishing, a tendency to cluster in good fishing spots, and the total absence of enemy covert activity all combined to limit the program’s impact. Further south in the Seventh District (headquartered in Jacksonville and Miami, Florida), most fishing was done so close to shore that the district did not bother to implement the program. In a few cases fishing boats were attacked by U-boat and two confidential observers were reportedly killed in submarine attacks. Though the program operated until V-J Day, few reports of interest were ever received. Similar operations took place elsewhere in the US as well, with scattered references in Packard’s Century of U.S. Naval Intelligence to fishing vessels as observers in other naval districts too.

Shrimp boats were the basis for both overt and covert surveillance. Navy patrol craft like the YP-487 were known as “Shrimpers” because of their origins as commercial fishing boats. Collection of the Navy History and Heritage Command, NH 106994.

How successful you consider the program will depend on how plausible you consider the Navy’s fear of subversion and agent landings. However, the idea of using commercial seafarers as observers and informants clearly proved itself enough to resurface from time to time after the war. In 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations issued a letter authorizing the placing of informants on US merchant ships to detect any crew members involved in subversive activities (this was known as the Special Observer–Merchant Marine Plan). In 1955, merchant ships and fishing vessels were included in plans to collect “merchant intelligence” (MERINT) on sightings of ships, submarines, and aircraft (both efforts referenced in Packard). Did the use of fishermen for counterintelligence continue into the 1960s or beyond? If so, there might have been agents on the boats involved in joint US–Soviet fishing enterprises of the 1980s, carefully watching the Soviets carefully watch the Americans.

Tides of War, Part One

The best-known story about environmental science and D-Day has to be that of the last-minute forecast that let the invasion go ahead. That prediction, though, was only one of many contributions by Allied environmental scientists to the success of the invasion. Another was the secretive preparation of mundane but vital preparations for the assault: calculating the tides for D-Day.

The theoretical basis for tide prediction was the work of Newton, Daniel Bernoulli, and Pierre Simon Laplace, the third of whom was the first to outline the equations that describe the rise and fall of the tides. Laplace’s equations were too complex to use in practice, but in the mid-nineteenth century the British scientist William Thomson (later ennobled as Lord Kelvin) demonstrated that, given enough tidal measurements, one could use harmonic analysis to divide the tide-generating forces for a particular shoreline into a series of waves of known frequencies and amplitudes (the tidal constituents). That same process, carried out in reverse, would let one predict the tides along that shore. Unfortunately, making those calculations was was time-consuming the point of impracticality. However, Thomson also demonstrated that it was possible to construct an analog machine that would do the necessary work automatically.

Thomson’s machine drew a curve representing the height of the tide with a pen that was attached to the end of a long wire. The wire ran over top of a series of pulleys, which were raised and lowered by gears which reflected the the frequency and amplitude of the tidal constituents. As each pulley rose or fell, it affected the length of the wire’s path and thus the position of the pen. Altogether, they reflected the combined effect of the tidal constituents being simulated.

Thomson's design sketch for the third tide-predicting machine, 1879. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Thomson’s design sketch for the third tide-predicting machine, 1879. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

The first machine, built in 1872, had gears for only ten constituents, but later machines could represent many more. Machines of his design, many of them built in Great Britain, were also used in other countries to create the necessary tide tables for their ports. In the United States, a different mechanical approach developed by William Ferrel was used to build similar machines. Altogether, though, tide-predicting were specialized, expensive, and rare. According to a modern inventory, only thirty-three were ever built – twenty-five of them in London, Glasgow, or Liverpool.

During the Second World War, the Admiralty Hydrographic Office relied on two tide-predicting machines operated by Arthur Thomas Doodson at the Liverpool Tidal Institute to do all their tidal calculations. One was Thomson’s original machine, refitted to handle twenty-six constituents. The other was a machine designed by Edward Roberts in 1906 and equipped for forty constituents.

Both Doodson and the Tidal Institute had their own unique histories of military collaboration. Doodson, despite being a conscientious objector, had worked on anti-aircraft ballistics for the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War. The Institute, established in 1919 with corporate and philanthropic support, had an important connection with the Admiralty’s own Hydrographic Department. Though the Hydrographic Department did not provide any direct funding until 1923, after that it made the Institute the Admiralty’s exclusive supplier of tide calculations. At the same time, the Hydrographic Department began appointing a representative to the Institute’s governing board.

Though they were the basis for only some of the Institute’s Admiralty work during the war, the tide-predicting machines in Liverpool were busy creating tide tables for Allied ports. According to historian Anna Carlsson-Hyslop’s research, the number of tidal predictions being performed doubled from 77 for 1938, the last pre-war year, to 154 for 1945. (Carlsson-Hyslop’s research is focused on areas of the Institute’s work other than the creation of tide tables, but much of it sheds light on its relationship with the Royal Navy and state patronage.)

In 1943 the Admiralty Hydrographic Office requested calculations to create tide tables for the invasion beaches to be used on D-Day in Normandy. Since the landing zone remained top secret, Commander William Ian Farquharson was responsible for establishing the constituents and providing them (anonymized under the codename “Point Z”) to Doodson in Liverpool. Unfortunately, there were no existing calculations for the area of the beaches. Nor, because tidal constituents were sensitive to local conditions, could he just extrapolate from the data for the ports to the east and west at Le Havre and Cherbourg. Instead, Farquharson combined fragmentary data from some local measurement points near the beaches, clandestine on-the-spot measurements made by Allied beach reconnaissance teams, and guesswork to come up with eleven tidal constituents. Oceanographer Bruce Parker suspects that he began with the Le Havre constituents and then adjusted them to approximate the data he had. The calculations, despite the roughness of the information on which they were based, proved sufficiently accurate for the invasion planner.

In the Pacific, tide tables for amphibious operations were generated by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey’s Tide Predicting Machine No. 2. In both theaters, as well as the Mediterranean, oceanographers supplemented the tide tables for beaches with wind, wave, and surf forecasts. The story of wave forecasting is, if anything, even more cloak and dagger than that of the D-Day tide forecasts, since one of the scientists involved was actively suspected (incorrectly) of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Dr. E. Lester Jones, Chief, U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, with the Tide Predicting Machine he built. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1915. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

A US tide predicting machine, probably No.2. The caption from the Library of Congress attributes the machine’s construction to E. Lester Jones, Chief of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Harris & Ewing, photographer, 1915. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Beyond their civilian and military wartime work, tide-predicting machines had an oblique impact on Second World War cryptanalysis. Those developments would eventually put the machines out of work after the war, but not before the machines would have their final strategic significance.

Forward to Part Two, including Source Notes

Aerospace History on the Web

In a very exciting move, Aviation Week and Space Technology has put its entire magazine archive from 1916 to 2016 online (h/t the latest NASA history newsletter). It’s free for now, courtesy of Boeing, although you do have to register. The interface is pretty slick, considerably more so than Flight magazine’s archive, but unlike Flight none of the pages can be downloaded and the content doesn’t come with an encouragement to “link to, copy and paste from, and contribute to the development of this unique record of aerospace and aviation history.” Still, it’s a very cool resource while it lasts.

In the meantime, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast has a nice two-part interview about the Women Airforce Service Pilots during the Second World War.

The Space Review has a review of Rise of the Rocket Girls, which looks like a fascinating book about the women who worked as human “computers,” doing repetitive calculations for NASA in its early years. The story of computers,” one of very few opportunities for women with educations in mathematics at the time isn’t a new one: David Alan Grier’s When Computers Were Human is about a decade old, but this looks like a valuable addition to the story. It looks like we’re also going to get both a book, Hidden Figures, and a movie about the first African-American women who worked as NASA computers.

The New World War One Memorial in Washington, DC

Earlier this year, the US World War One Centennial Commission announced the selection of its design for the new World War One memorial in Washington, DC. The plan, entitled “The Weight of Sacrifice,” consists of a low 137 foot wall covered in soldier’s quotations and relief sculptures, as well as a free-standing bronze (the “Wheels of Humanity”) and the pre-existing statue of General John Pershing that already stood on the site, the current Pershing Square.


It’s got to be tough to be a memorial designer in today’s world. Be grand without being too grandiose (the World War Two memorial went a little overboard on that one). Be solemn without being mournful (that might suggest that somewhere in the past, mistakes were made, and this is a memorial not a history lesson). Be inclusive (Sandra Pershing on the memory of her grandfather-in-law: “He valued the service of all: African-Americans, women, countless immigrants who wore our country’s uniform, the volunteer ambulance drivers, the support staffs, the nurses”) without being so inclusive as to suggest the existence of dissenting voices.

“The Weight of Sacrifice,” by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard, sits in the somewhat-benighted middle ground between all those demands. There’s the low wall that seems de rigeur post-Maya Lin, but also both free-standing and relief figurative sculpture. There’s nothing to unsettle the visitor, but also nothing too overtly celebratory.

Needless to say, there are a lot of people it’s not going to impress. Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott lambasted all the finalists in a column right before the selection was announced:

Something has clearly gone wrong not just in the design competition, but also more fundamentally in the language of memorialization prevalent today. It is, in a word, exhausted. The same cliches keep recurring, including the weird numerological connection between the number of dead and some architectural or landscape element; the confusion of virtues to be honored (honor, heroism, diversity, national pride, family, sacrifice); and a tendency to the extremes of clutter on the one hand and barrenness on the other.

He’s a little softer on the final design talking to PBS NewsHour after the announcement (“The best thing about this design is the simplicity of it and the fact the designer has been sensitive to the existing parks’ sense of an oasis in the city”), but not by much.

Honestly, it seems like a hard row to hoe. In the US, at least, there’s no way back after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Memorials are supposed to emote in their very structure now. On the other hand, just what to emote, and how, is never very clear. Needless to say, there are those insisting that the formal language of the turn of the century is all we have ever needed for this, thank-you-very-much. It’s worth remembering, though, that the first round of memorials for World War One broke with that tradition in many ways too. The Cenotaph in Whitehall was wildly unusual, a temporary plinth with none of the appropriate symbolism for a war memorial. Lutyen’s Thiepval Memorial broke new ground too. So did the idea of stadiums and halls as war memorials in their own right.

In the meantime, I suppose everyone will keep muddling through. More than thirty years and far too many wars after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the time might be ripe for a new language of commemoration

Atomic Ephemera

The blog Paleofuture has a wonderful selection of ephemera from the United States’ nuclear age. They’ve picked out an interesting selection of certificates of participation in nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and elsewhere (though one or two didn’t involve nuclear explosions) from a Flickr album created by Kelly Michals (whose Flickr page includes a lot of other atomic ephemera and nuclear technology). There’s quite a lot of variation in the style, though a large number of the Nevada ceriticates share a common layout and illustration style (two-color unitl 1968, and four-color thereafter). It’s no surprise that slightly kitchy ephemera exists from the early years of nuclear testing. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when detonations at the Nevada Test Site were a tourist attraction for Las Vegas and postcards featuring atomic explosions and the infrastructure of nuclear war were dime a dozen.

The 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty ended to above-ground tests, putting an end to Vegas mushroom cloud-watching, while an increasing understanding of the scope of the nuclear threat put an end to a lot of the tourist postcards, but the certificates clearly kept coming. They feature illustrations which allude to the mostly nonsense code-names of the tests, as well as what I can only assume are in-jokes about the research involved or the events of the test. The certificate for HYBLA FAIR features a surveyor saying “Align it again Sam!,” HUSKY PUP a ranger’s hat labelled “Careless Pushing / Speeding / Unauthorized Parking,” and HYBLA GOLD has an outhouse with “The King Is In” carved on the door and a word bubble saying “Your Secret Is Safe With Us.”

The combination is reminiscent of the jokey unit and mission patches associated with classified operations, which artist Trevor Paglen has collected in his book I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me – Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World. Like those patches, which assiduous secret-seekers can parse for at information about the projects behind them (as in these two articles by Roger Guiillemette and Dwayne A. Day over at The Space Review), I’m sure the certificates reveal more to the experienced eye.

For the rest of us, what you get is doubly black humor, the laughs of those involved in the deadly serious work of nuclear deterrence peeking out from beneath the the curtain of secrecy to joke about the presumably absurd conditions on which that deterrence was built. Which, now that I think about it, may make the certificates triply black humor.

The Bombproof Institute after Bombproofing

Continued from Building a Bombproof Institute.

When the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) moved from the National Mall to Walter Reed army medical center in the 1950s, its new building was a windowless, bombproof monster. The first and last building in the DC area to be built to resist an atomic blast, Building 54 is a striking example of a Brutalist building whose brutal features are shaped almost completely by functional demands. Though the new facilities were far more advanced than those in the AFIP’s previous home, space constraints meant that the Army Medical Museum, the core from which the AFIP had developed, could not be accommodated in Building 54 until the construction of an expansion in the late 1960s.

While the original building had been designed by the firm of Faulkner, Kingsbury, and Stenhouse, the extension was the work of a notable architect with a string of major government commissions: Edward Durrell Stone. Before the Second World War, Stone had made his name as a modernist, the architect of numerous stylish homes as well as the International Style façade of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the war he designed homes for workers in planned communities near Pittsburgh and Cherry Point air base. But in the years after 1945 he truly hit his stride as a proponent of a softer, more aesthetic and even – shockingly – ornamented approach to using modern materials such as concrete, steel, and glass. As Mary Anne Hunting explains in her study of his architecture, Edward Durell Stone: Modernism’s Popular Architect, Stone’s work has been judged as populist or even kitsch, but at the time he was one of America’s best-known architects.

Stone’s reputation as an architect for the federal government stood on two major projects completed in the 1950s, the US embassy in New Delhi and the US pavilion at the 1958 world’s fair in Brussels. Following guidelines that encouraged embassy architects to integrate local architectural styles while also creating striking, modern buildings, Stone screened the embassy’s glass walls from the sun by wrapping them in a concrete and marble grill and shielding them from above with a flat, overhanging roof.


The US Embassy in New Delhi

In Brussels, it was US Information Agency exhibits office Paul Child, Julia Child’s husband and former OSS Presentation Branch officer, who encouraged his superiors to commission work from a star architect such as Stone. The US was engaged at the time in a veritable openness offensive against the USSR, overly and covertly funding literature and the arts to counterpoint Soviet totalitarianism with Western pluralism – it was for Brussels that the CIA printed thousands of bootleg copies of Boris Zhivago’s banned novel Dr Zhivago in order to bombard Soviet visitors.

For the fair, Stone designed an open, circular two-story pavilion whose walls were composed of plastic laminated sheets held together by a light steel latticework. Like his embassy, the pavilion attracted public and critical acclaim for combining a transparency emblematic of America with elegance and ornament. The Soviet pavilion, in contrast was vast and cavernous. Hunting describes it as more like a factory or hangar, and while that may be overstating things, the building certainly looked more towards the assembly line than the Space Age.

Though Stone would massively overuse his signature grillwork on dormitories, factories, and even his New York City townhouse, New Delhi and Brussels cemented his reputation. He was a finalist for the design of the US embassy in London (which he lost to Eero Saarinen) and the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and the architect for the Kennedy Center too.

None of which really explains why he became the architect for a modest expansion to a military facility isolated from public view on the lands of Walter Reed. Though his design was not required to be bombproof, Stone did try to ensure that the extension harmonized with the mountain to which it was attached. Though it matched the massing of the original building, it did not share either its “brutal” roughness or its windowless monumentality. Instead, Stone’s design consisted of a broad base, extending out of the downslope of the hill on which Building 54 had been built, on top of which sat a smaller cube with square, deeply inset windows, closer to government Brutalism than Stone’ usual, more expressionistic concrete designs.

The results, at least to my eye, aren’t very impressive. The extension is not as blatantly brutal as the bombproof structure to which it is attached, but neither does it do much to soften the overall effect. Still, it consolidated the Institute under one broad concrete roof. Ground was broken for the expansion on March 22, 1968, and on May 21, 1971, the Army Medical Museum had its grand opening. The museum’s old home on the National Mall, known as “Old Red Brick,” was demolished to make way for the Hirshhorn Museum, which holds the Smithsonian’s modern art collection.

Images: New Delhi Embassy and 1958 Worlds Fair photographs courtesy Wikimedia; Building 54 expansion, Legacy of Excellence: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, 1862-2011, p. 146.

Building a Bombproof Institute

The detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945 inaugurated an era of intense fear of aerial attack across the United States. Expectations of Soviet nuclear bombardment drove a wide range of architectural and planning decisions. Dispersal and suburbanization was one response, fallout shelters for every home another. The threat of nuclear attack drove the creation of an electronic infrastructure for early warning and defense, combining some of the first computers (SAGE), long distance telecommunications (including tropospheric scatter radios), and a swath of radars across the northern hemisphere. Evacuation programs for key government workers to early continuity of government sites like Raven Rock and Mount Weather were another effort to preserve the US government, if not the population, against the nuclear threat. There were even, albeit briefly, plans to put a nuclear bomb-proof bunker 3,000 feet beneath the White House. The proposed Deep Underground Command Center would be proof against multi-megaton weapons, although any hit on the White House would leave anyone in such a bunker pretty much unable to have any influence on events.

Though a lot of locations in the Washington, DC, area were hardened to some extent or another, only one building was actually designed from the ground up to withstand a nuclear blast. It’s not one you’d think.


The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) traces its origins back to the establishment of the Army Medical Museum in 1862. Created to collect morbid anatomy specimens for the education of military doctors, the museum became a storehouse of pathology knowledge. Two of the museum’s pathologists were responsible for Abraham Lincoln’s autopsy. In 1888, it moved into a large Romanesque Revival building, which would be its home for more than sixty years. During the First World War, the museum provided staff to perform post mortem autopsies and created instructional photographs, films, and wax models for training both officers and troops. During the Second World War, it added support for scientific research and diagnostic assistance.


By the time the war was over, army medical programs had seriously outgrown their space in the 1888 museum. The museum had almost gotten an impressive building in the then-popular stripped classical style in 1941, but the war intervened. Now parts of the museum moved out into a former temporary Coast Guard barracks, Chase Hall, and started looking for a larger permanent home.

After a series of bureaucratic and legislative contortions far too complicated and dull to recount here, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center became the new home for what had now become the inter-service Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. The Walter Reed hospital complex was an architectural gem, with more than a hundred rose-brick Georgian Revival buildings. As originally planned, the AFIP’s new home – Building 54 – would try to harmonize with the site in a very substantial six-floor, multi-wing building. The design was prepared by the Washington-area firm of Faulkner, Kingsbury, and Stenhouse, whose style has been described as “streamlined and Modern,” but using “traditional materials such as brick and grand, symmetrical landscaping and site planning to fit into the Beaux Arts context of Washington, D.C.” (See this report, page 118.)


At this point, the nuclear threat intervened. A 1951 presidential directive required that the new building be built to bomb-resistant standards. The results were somewhere on the thin line between genius and monstrosity. The blastproofing requirements meant the new building was massive, a vast rectangular slab with broad, thick walls of pre-cast concrete. There were no exterior windows in the main block, and every opening to the outside or the two small projecting wings (which did have windows) was closed by heavy, blast-resistant doors. The wooden forms in which the concrete was cast gave the walls a ridged, textured look. Standing aloof from the rest of the elegant Walter Reed campus, Building 54 was, to borrow (and maybe misuse) Vincent Scully’s term, a “sacred mountain” inspired by the Soviet threat.


Though its architecture was driven by functional concerns, Building 54 was also – at least in retrospect – an exemplar of the Brutalist architectural style that was just coming into vogue. Between the groundbreaking in July 1951 and the dedication in 1955 Le Corubsier completed the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp and the administrative center at Chandrigarh, both examples of the style. Brutalism would become a common style for US federal office buildings, and would be the basis for Walter Reed’s new main hospital in the 1970s, but there would never be something like Building 54 again.


In at least a mild irony for a medical center built to resist an atomic blast, since 1948 the AFIP had been the US custodian for all the samples and case histories acquired by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Committee in Japan. The Atomic Bomb Research Unit became a center for collecting medical information on radiation exposure. If the Washington, DC area fell victim to a third nuclear bomb, at least the evidence of the first two would survive.

Building 54 still stands at Walter Reed, a perverse but impressive monument to the challenges of building for a world in which atomic attack seemed possible and yet still survivable.

Sources: The design and construction of Building 54 are well covered in The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology: Its First Century by Robert S. Henry (GPO, 1962; available at More information, and the images above, came from more recent histories of the AFIP and of the Walter Reed medical center published by the US Army’s medical historians at the Borden Institute.

Images: (top) Legacy of Excellence: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, 1862-2011, p. 37 (upper middle) Legacy of Excellence, p. 112 (lower middle) Legacy of Excellence, p. 119 (bottom) Walter Reed Army Medical Center Centennial: A Pictorial History, 1909-2009, p. 107

Tourism’s Cold War, Part Two

Conrad Hilton’s international aspirations came at just the right time, when American planners saw international travel as ways of connecting with allies overseas and allies overseas were eager to have those connections. Though the design and placement of the London Hilton proved controversial, in general the early international Hiltons were popular. It was, after all, the era of “empire by invitation.”

(It wouldn’t last. 1958, the year the Berlin Hilton opened, was also the year that William Lederer and Eugene Burdick published The Ugly American and gave the rest of the world the ultimate epithet for for any kind of crass, unthinking, American presence.)

The opportunity was greater, and more challenging, because Western Europe was moving from an austerity economy into a more affluent, consumer era. In 1953, consumer spending in Western Europe had grown sharply, and Europeans looked like eager consumers of American-style lifestyles.

That shift in consumption patterns, as Victoria di Grazia explains in her book Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, came in fits and starts. Take, for example, the supermarket chain Italiani, a subsidiary of the Rockefeller-owned International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC). While introducing American-style self-serve food shopping in Italy, IBEC’s managers discovered a multitude of little problems. No bakery in Milan could supply the quantities of bread the company needed for its supermarkets in that city – so the chain consolidated bakery operations in Florence under the former chief baker of the US forces in Europe. Shoppers were suspicious of pre-labeled weights and wanted to weigh things themselves. Pre-packaged foods came in quantities too large and expensive for the average shopper. Even the shopping carts, imported from the US, were too large: managing direct Richard W. Boogart said “we asked the Italians to push a Cadillac when they are unable to even buy a Fiat.” Only with a million-dollar loan from the US Export-Import Bank did Italiani survive for long enough to thrive.

Despite those very real challenges, America’s image could hardly have been better in the 1950s. And exporting that image, along with a suitable leavening of Americans, was considered worth spending government money. This was also the decade when the State Department commissioned a series of innovative, visually striking, modern embassies and consulates from renowned architects including Gordon Bunshaft, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, and Edward Durrell Stone. That program, its successes, and its failures is a story of its own, ably told by Jane Loeffler in her book The Architecture of Diplomacy (an early, briefer version appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, and can be seen here.)

American international air travel’s ability to pump money into allied economies was desirable, and Pan Am Airlines operated as the State Department’s “chosen instrument” in this area. When Pan Am expanded into the hotel business by creating InterContinental Hotels in 1946, it did so at the behest of the State Department. Like Hilton International, InterContinental managed hotels overseas. In keeping with PanAm’s focus, it began by building them in Latin America.

This phase of America’s tourism offensive drew to a close at the start of the 1960s, with the stereotype of the Ugly American well entrenched and a growing US trade deficit leading the government to encourage American tourists to stay home. Eisenhower declared 1960 to be “Visit U.S.A. Year,” and Kennedy created the US Travel Service to encourage foreign and domestic visitors to see American luxury in America, not in Istanbul or Berlin.

But what about the Soviets?

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