National Geographic, Regulus, and the Cold War
Note: some photos, logos and magazine cover ©1959 National Geographic Society.
The National Geographic Society is without question one of America’s most well revered institutions. Its magazine, featuring an abundance of articles accompanied by breathtaking photos about arctic expeditions, endangered species, ancient tomb explorations and the like, remains one of the nation’s most widely-read. Yet while its charter calls for it to act in a seemingly apolitical manner to “increase and diffuse geographic knowledge” while “promoting research and exploration”, it’s clear that during the Cold War the magazine at times had another agenda in mind: promoting the inevitable victory of the United States over its adversary the USSR.
In its propaganda role the Magazine published articles about America’s bold advances into space, the triumphant success of its new generation of nuclear submarines, and its continuous pursuit of technological advance. Some of these articles contained, beneath the text and glorious photos, a great deal of subtext. Perhaps the most well known example was an article that showed stunning satellite images of the Nile Delta in the 1980’s. According to some sources, the photos were more of interest to the Russians than the Egyptians. Ivan was, after all, the intended audience: the clarity of the photos (supposedly supplied by NASA) made it clear that American spy satellites could cover all of the USSR, and with terrific resolution to boot. Eisenhower’s lost dream of “Open Skies” had at last been realized, and true arms control reduction could now begin. The SALT arms limitations talks began a short time later.
Flash back to 1959. Only a year earlier, the Regulus submarines, armed with nuclear cruise missiles, had begun top secret “deterrent patrols” off the Pacific coast of the Soviet Union. How secret were the patrols? Very. The submariners themselves could not say a word about their activities to their wives or children. (For all they knew, the boats were leaving Pearl Harbor and sailing around Hawaii in circles for months on end.) The Commander of Submarines Pacific never commented on their mission or said much about their importance. In fact, according to Regulus-era veterans, no one in command ever officially acknowledged that the Regulus submarines ever ventured anywhere close to the Soviet Union, period. That might explain why the Navy didn’t publicly acknowledge the Regulus crews or award them deterrent patrol pins until the 1990s.
Enter the September 1959 issue of National Geographic, containing not only an article on the sea entitled “Miracle of the Mermaid’s Purse” but two articles which could not have been more well-suited to one another: “A Firsthand Look at the Soviet Union” by Thomas Hammond, and “Goodwill Ambassadors of the U.S. Navy Win Friends in the Far East” by Franc Shor. The article on the Navy alone would ensure the magazine would be on the first mail plane to Moscow; the fact that the issue also contained a piece on the Soviet Union ensured all the more that Nikita Kruschev’s comrades would read it.
Thrillingly, the centerpiece of the Navy article showed the mighty USS Grayback launching a Regulus fleet training missile off the coast of Honolulu. That image, and the caption indicating that Grayback “carries several Regulus missiles and can fire the weapon and dive in seven minutes” must have made quite an impression on the Russians. But what must have really tickled them pink was the map, on page 292, that depicted the Pacific Fleet’s striking forces. A quick glance reveals little if anything out of the ordinary but take another look. There! Over there, center right of the map, all on its own, just off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula near the critical military seaport of Petropavlovsk, is a tiny but discernable Regulus submarine. Suddenly, thanks to NGS, the Regulus boats’ patrol zone was no longer a secret!
So was it all a mistake, a miscommunication, that led to the spilling of the classified beans? Of course not! The image had been intentionally placed, probably after consultation with the Navy that is if the Navy didn’t actually provide the graphic itself. What was the purpose of the leak? The Regulus boats and their nuclear armed missiles might have been on “deterrent patrol”, but a deterrent is worthless unless your opponent knows it exists, and what it could do in the event of war. By tipping the Russians to the fact that America possessed a truly stealthy “second strike” weapon, and that it waited, ever-vigilant, well within range of the USSR’s most valuable Pacific port, National Geographic helped ensure the peace. Thus, the seemingly harmless, utterly ubiquitous magazine played a small but vital part, like a 007 with a yellow framed cover, in the Cold War.
(One interesting side note. In 1959 the Board of Trustees for National Geographic included General George C. Marshall, Curtis LeMay Chief of the Air Force, Hugh Dryden of NASA, and Rear Admiral L.O. Colbert. Nearly 1/5th of the board was connected in some way to the military, and most of the rest had served either in government or defense related industries. No wonder the CIA and the Pentagon found a friend in the NGS!)