Operation Footloose: The Cold War dance-off for Inuit loyalty

When the CIA and KGB began their decades-long espionage war in the latter half of the 1940s, the Bearing Strait between Alaska and Siberia became a key strategic battleground. Realizing Anchorage was closer in distance to Berlin than it was to Seattle, intelligence analysts predicted that the far north could become the main front in a future ground war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

When unrecognizable aircraft resembling the UFOs of science fiction were sighted in Alaskan skies, American officials scrambled to uncover the nature of Soviet operations in the polar region, but U.S. initiatives were stymied by unusual obstacles. American planes in the area occasionally vanished, never to return, and Western fishermen from neutral countries — sometimes willing to trade intel for cash — frequently aroused suspicion from Soviet authorities.

In one instance, a whaler aboard a Norwegian vessel, which was permitted to sail in Soviet waters, attempted to recon Russian military fortifications and escape to the Diomede Islands — a small archipelago in the Bearing Strait. Hoping to hide amongst the Inuit who inhabited the isles, the whaler unwittingly revealed himself to Soviet authorities after smoking a type of tobacco unused by the local population and was executed.

Soviet influence on the islands had been growing, and American officials knew members of the seal-hunting Inuit tribes would be ideal Cold War allies. With less than four miles of Arctic seawater separating Alaska’s westernmost island from the nearest island in Russian territory, it was only a two-hour kayak trip across the iron curtain for Inuit hunters hoping to trade with their neighboring relatives. But American intelligence officers could offer little when compared to their Russian counterparts, who granted the Inuit full citizenship rights, encouraged intermarriage with closely stationed Soviet soldiers, orchestrated medical and educational outreach programs, and facilitated Inuit participation in Soviet soccer associations.

Unlike American mainlanders, who turned up their nose at the smell of cooked seal meat, the Soviets adopted an egalitarian strategy to ingratiate themselves with the Arctic villagers. According to Austrian American author and former anti-Nazi spy, Kurt Singer, the Soviet strategy proved successful. Singer describes how one Inuit boy refused to reveal details regarding the Russians’ activities because, unlike the American missionaries who frequented the islands, the Russians “allow us to dance!”

Although the USSR won the early information war of the Bearing Strait, their victory was short lived. With the advent of the U-2 spy plane in 1955, human-gathered intelligence would soon take a backseat to technological surveillance.