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.”

According to a series of well-promoted articles in the Hearst press, written by a former chief of U.S. Naval intelligence, the Soviet Union had developed the “world’s most powerful potent bacteria” and was threatening to use it during the Korean War.

Undated photo of psychological warfare expert Ellis Mark Zacharias, who retired as a Rear Admiral in 1946 (photo is by U.S. Army and in the public domain)

As described in an almost surrealistic article by then-retired Rear Admiral Ellis M. Zacharias in June 1952, the Soviet Union had “a vast and active network” of biological weapons research sites, including one in Pyongyang, “in the very heart of the Korean theater of war.” Moreover, Zacharias claimed, there was a Soviet “corvette” sailing the Arctic Ocean like a “ghost ship,” which held a laboratory conducting “special research with a mysterious interplanetary bacteria” that could resist cold down to “absolute zero.”