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'Nuking The Moon' Looks At Intelligence And Military Schemes That Didn't Make It


A few weeks ago, fishermen off the coast of Norway encountered a beluga whale - not just any beluga. This one was wearing a harness. And stamped onto that harness were the words, equipment of St. Petersburg. That's prompted all kinds of questions, including whether the beluga was a Russian spy.

Animal spies may sound wild to casual news consumers, but for Vince Houghton, that idea was not so crazy. Houghton writes about animals that have endured the unimaginable in the name of national security and all kinds of other intelligence and military schemes that never made it off the drawing board.

His new book is "Nuking The Moon," and he opens with a chapter on house cats. Back in the 1960s, the CIA tried to turn them into covert listening devices.

VINCE HOUGHTON: And that doesn't mean giving it a collar with a bug on it. It means literally opening it up and putting the electronics inside the cat to wire it up to be a robokitty, essentially, to listen in into conversations.

KELLY: And the plan theoretically was what? They would deploy these acoustic kitties in the Soviet Union or...

HOUGHTON: Or wherever there were embassies. What better way of infiltrating Soviet compounds around the world than things that they just don't even notice that are there?

KELLY: (Laughter) OK. This is prompting some questions. Cats don't, in my experience, go where you want them to go. They go wherever they feel like going.

HOUGHTON: And likely, that's the reason the program was canceled in the end. I think everyone's laughing out there, thinking about training cats who's ever been around a cat for 10 seconds.

KELLY: (Laughter).

HOUGHTON: But they made it work. And, in fact, the acoustic part of Acoustic Kitty reportedly had no problems. The cat was a very effective bug, a listening device.

KELLY: So the electronics worked.

HOUGHTON: Right. The electronics worked. The ears were used, essentially, to funnel the noise into the microphone. The tail was the antenna. So part of it worked out pretty well. The problem was, like we mentioned, how do you get it to do what you want it to do?

KELLY: One more animal story to ask you about - Project X-Ray, which I will summarize as strapping bombs onto bats. And the bats would then swoop down onto Japanese cities during World War II. And it sounds like the problem with this one was they actually field-tested it, and it worked too well.

HOUGHTON: Right, too well. And this is something that was field-tested. And it didn't just burn down the mock Japanese city that was built for the test, but it burned down...

KELLY: This was in the desert...

HOUGHTON: Right, in the desert...

KELLY: ...In the Southwest U.S. somewhere.

HOUGHTON: ...In Southwest United States.


HOUGHTON: And it burned down the mock city, but it also burned down the working U.S. Army airfield - its control tower and barracks and hangars and everything else.

KELLY: (Laughter) I hate to laugh, but...

HOUGHTON: Yeah, of course. I mean...

KELLY: ...You couldn't make it up.

HOUGHTON: And adding insult to injury is the commander of the airfield was not read into the program. He didn't have the need to know. So when he showed up with a firetruck to put out the fire of his airfield, he was told he couldn't go in there and do anything about it because he wasn't cleared for this top-secret program.

KELLY: Were bat bombs ever deployed actually in the battlefield that we know of?

HOUGHTON: Well, the interesting thing about this is a lot of this research was happening in New Mexico. And eventually, the money needed to come in to make this production line - bat bombs.

And so the chief of naval operations was asked for this money. And in the summer of 1945, asking him for millions of dollars for bat bombs made him scratch his head and said, well, this is not the project in New Mexico that I think is going to help win the war. There's this thing called the atomic bomb that we're building, so we don't need bat bombs.

KELLY: Speaking of atomic bombs, I have to ask about the incident that lent its name to the title of your book, "Nuking The Moon," an idea seriously considered by the U.S. Air Force back in the '50s.

HOUGHTON: Absolutely. This is right after Sputnik.

KELLY: Nuking the - blowing up the moon with a nuclear warhead was seriously considered?

HOUGHTON: Well, not blowing up the moon, but detonating a thermonuclear weapon on the moon so that everyone on Earth could watch and ooh and ah as the mushroom cloud popped up on the moon.

KELLY: Why was this thought to be a good idea?

HOUGHTON: Well, because America was terrified after Sputnik. In 1957, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite. It looked as though they were now the world's leader in science and technology. They'd beat us at our own game. So we needed something big. We needed a big show of force to convince the world that we actually were the scientific powerhouse.

And so this idea wasn't so crazy that it was a bunch of wacky scientists you'd find in the bowels of the Pentagon. No, these were people who would - the head of the program would later go on to be the deputy director of the Apollo program.

KELLY: So why didn't we do it?

HOUGHTON: There are about 10 different answers, and they all come from all the different participants. Some people say what you would think, like, you know, we're going to want to walk people on the moon one day. Let's not leave radioactive craters there. Some people were saying it didn't make a lot of economic sense. It'd cost a lot of money to do this. Others were saying, look; we can win the war of minds in science in other ways, without kind of destroying the natural beauty of the moon.

I'm not convinced by any of them. They all kind of come after the fact, so kind of people looking back and saying, well, you know, we wanted to make sure we weren't doing a bad thing to the moon. I think at the time, they just said, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

KELLY: Some of the plans you document are really not funny to read about. I'm thinking in particular of Operation Northwoods...


KELLY: ...Which was a U.S. military plan involving Cuba. It came right after the Bay of Pigs. And one iteration involved targeting Cuban exiles living in the U.S., like violently targeting Cuban exiles, blaming the violence on Fidel Castro and then using that as a pretext for U.S. use of force against Castro's regime. How close did anybody come to acting on that?

HOUGHTON: Pretty close. This was a bunch of plans that included everything from dressing up Cuban exiles as Cuban soldiers, having them attack Guantanamo, to blowing up a ship in Havana Harbor. But what makes me bristle about this was where they literally talked about doing terrorist acts. They use that word. This is a U.S. military document saying terrorist acts in Miami...

KELLY: Have you seen this document?

HOUGHTON: Yeah, absolutely.

KELLY: Really? Yeah?

HOUGHTON: Yeah. In Miami, in the Cuban exile community, where they would blow up pipe bombs and other things like that to kill, wound, injure - it didn't really care at the time - Cuban exiles and anyone else who kind of got in the way to try to blame it on Fidel Castro to give a justification for an invasion. This is indicative more than any other of the chapters in this book about how desperate we truly were at the time.

KELLY: In the case of this operation, you document that it made it all the way to the president and that it was John F. Kennedy who said, I don't think that's a really good idea.

HOUGHTON: Well, and that's the crazy thing is that this didn't die a horrible death at, like, some captain in the Pentagon. This went to the chiefs of all the different Army and Navy and Air Force, went to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to the White House staff, who all said, this is a great idea, finally made it to the White House, finally made it to John F. Kennedy, who finally is the one who said, no, we're not going to do this. Like, we're not these guys.

KELLY: I mean, it's prompting the question for me which must have been going through your head throughout the writing of this book, what were they thinking?

HOUGHTON: Well, that's what I want people to ask. You're going to have a knee-jerk reaction to go, what were these guys thinking? This is so stupid. I want you to ask the same question in a different way. I want you to go, what were they thinking?

KELLY: What were they thinking?

HOUGHTON: Yeah. Like, what was the motivation behind these plots and plans? Because as historians, we learn very little about the past by applying 20/20 hindsight to the outcomes. We know we won World War II. We know we ended the Cold War without firing a shot. That's unfair for us to look at these and evaluate these stories based on our knowledge in 2019.

The best way to do it is to put ourselves in the shoes of the people making the decision at the time and say, OK, what were they afraid of? What were they thinking? What were they trying to do here? Even in that case, we might go, they're still crazy, but it at least allows us to evaluate them much more fairly than we would if we were applying our 2019 knowledge to these programs.

KELLY: Vince Houghton - he is curator of the International Spy Museum and author of the new book "Nuking The Moon." Vince Houghton, thanks.

HOUGHTON: Thanks for having me.


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