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If the Cold War turned hot, it wasn’t entirely going to be fought with tanks and nuclear weapons. If it got to Alaska, it would be fought by lumberjacks, bush pilots, and yes, secret agents. That was the point of Operation Washtub, the secret CIA plan to defend America’s frozen north against communist invasion.

In 1951, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer wrote the CIA warning them of the potential for an uprising in Alaska and the Yukon if the Soviets ever invaded. The letter, which foresaw communist guerillas attacking highways and airports is a window into Cold War hysteria along the only shared border between the United States and the Soviet Union.

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The letter was written by U.S. Army Reserve Major Arthur Carpenter and unearthed recently, 70 years later, by Muckrock, a government transparency web site. Carpenter had been a wartime director of security and intelligence at Whitehorse, Canada between 1943 and 1946, and warned that large numbers of “socialists or communists” living near Whitehorse’s military base could pose a threat.

The alleged band of communist Canadian agitators could harass any defense effort, according to Carpenter, with their knowledge of the Alaska Highway, the main overland supply route from the Lower 48 to Alaska, and local airports. Carpenter also warned that the large number of lakes that freeze in the winter could provide ready-made airfields for invading Soviet air force fighters, bombers, and troop transports.

Little did the letter writer know—whose missive reached the desk of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself—U.S. government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and the U.S. Air Force were already beginning to organize a stay-behind network of trained guerrillas to harass a potential Soviet invasion of Alaska.

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During the early days of the Cold War, military and intelligence officials felt that the Soviets would stage a diversionary attack on Alaska to siphon off U.S. troops from the main theaters of war.

US troops rooting out Japanese defenders on the island of Attu, 1943.
Image: AP

This wasn’t exactly without precedent: during World War II, Imperial Japan briefly occupied the uninhabited Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska to divert American attention from the Central Pacific. As a result, the U.S. government created Operation Washtub in 1951, a project to organize anti-Soviet resistance forces in Alaska. Washtub was known by a variety of nicknames, including “Corpuscle”, “Stigmatic” and the amazing “Catboat,” according to Politico.

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Washtub was organized with two objectives in mind. The first was to assemble a volunteer force of civilian hunters, outdoorsmen and bush pilots meant to serve as anti-Soviet partisans, backed up by secret caches of weapons, ammunition and gold. The force would be augmented by a pool of agents who would parachute into Alaska to bolster the resistance. The second objective was to organize a pilot rescue force designed to help U.S. military pilots shot down opposing the invasion make their way back to freedom.

The whole effort was modelled on U.S. and U.K. partisan support programs in occupied Europe in World War II, but with American lumberjacks and backwoodsmen instead of Europeans. The program did have problems—personnel costs were expensive, as the the volunteers were each paid a retainer of $30,000 a year in today’s dollars, and the supply caches were occasionally raided by people who happened upon them in the underbrush.

U.S. concerns about a Soviet invasion of Alaska lessened over time as a more realistic view of the Red Army prevailed, and Washtub was canceled in 1959. Invading the U.S.A. across the Bering Sea would be incredibly hard, and the Soviets didn’t have the air and naval forces to support an invasion force—particularly against U.S. forces operating in their own backyard. The U.S. based air and ground forces in Alaska up until the end of the Cold War but never seriously thought the Soviets would invade.

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Logistical challenges didn’t stop Hollywood from releasing the Cold War invasion classic “Red Dawn” in 1984. In the film, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tanner, United States Air Force, explains how Soviet Forces invaded the United States through Alaska and Mexico, sending “three whole army groups” (about thirty combat divisions) through the Bering Strait, aided by infiltrators. It’s virtually impossible but the actor, the late Powers Boothe, makes it sound so good you want it to happen.

Ironically, thirty years later there were some indication Soviet troops really did operate around—and possibly in—Alaska. In the late 1980s, Alaska Eskimo Scouts, an elite arm of the Alaska National Guard responsible for patrolling the Alaskan frontier, reported unusual activity on St. Lawrence island.

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St. Lawrence island is geographically closer to Russia than the rest of Alaska.
Screenshot: Google Maps

The activity included finding rubber rafts and other military equipment, sightings of mysterious frogmen, and random, distant gunfire of unknown origin. The Scouts believed the sightings were proof Soviet special forces—the famous Spetsnaz—were using the island training, but their presence was never confirmed. Others chalked the incidents up to walrus poachers trading ivory for cocaine.