Soviet “Interplanetary Bacteria” & “Ghost Ships”: A Case Study in U.S. Psychological Warfare

Jeffrey Kaye
18 min readMay 1, 2023
“World map with WMD hazard symbols superimposed on it.” Wikimedia Commons, User:Andux, User:Vardion, and Simon Eugster (CC BY-SA 3.0) (link)

Today we are being bombarded relentlessly every day with “the planned use of propaganda and other psychological operations,” such as deception and misinformation, “to influence [our] opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior.” The Rand Corporation correctly describes the totality of this policy as “psychological warfare.”

One aspect of this psywar is to believe that it is something new, or something particularly utilized only by the “enemies” of the United States. But there is much to learn from the history of U.S. psychological warfare. This essay describes a particularly serious, if inadvertently humorous, example from the early days of the Cold War. Its claims about “biolabs” resonates with headlines today.

As incredible as the story is about how the U.S. used biological weapons in the Korean War, including the intricate tale of its sometimes violent cover-up, it is still startling to learn about a related psychological warfare campaign unleashed by the U.S. in June 1952. The fantastical operation appears to have been in response to radio broadcasts by U.S. airmen a month earlier accusing the U.S. Air Force of bombing North Korea and China with “bacterial” or “germ weapons.”