Science, People & Politics, issue 2 (Apr. - Jun.), IV (2013) Page 7 (Page 1 of issue 2)
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Antarctica and the South Atlantic, 1945 to 1957:
a British view from before the Antarctic Treaty System.
by Helen Gavaghan.
MEMORY OF WAR AND FEAR OF WAR1
On 29th October, 1948 the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) changed their communication practices2. Nearly all signal intelligence, which means information gained when one country spies on the activity of another country, was lost. The operation significantly affected was known as Venona (or Bride). Venona intercepted ciphered Soviet wireless communications.
"All radio nets, including military systems, moved over to one-time pads, which henceforth were not re-used. Much of the procedural material that had been sent 'in clear' between operators running medium-grade Army, Navy, Air Force and police systems in the Soviet bloc was now encrypted for the first time. Operator chatter was banned. Over a period of twenty-four hours, almost every Soviet system from which the East sic was deriving intelligence was lost. .... In 1955 when the CIA and SIS began their famous operation to tunnel under East Berlin to tap into Soviet telephone communications, one of the motives was to try and claw back some of the ground lost. The CIA remarked that this new operation 'provided the United States and British with a unique source of intelligence on the Soviet orbit of a kind and quality which had not been available since 1948'.
p250. GCHQ: Signals Intelligence Looks East in the hidden hand, by Richard J. Aldrich (2001). John Murray (London).
It is possible this loss of intelligence at the end of October 1948 changed the nature of the ongoing spat over Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic between Britain and Argentina and Chile. What was a conundrum on 28th October 1948, on the 29th looks like a severe headache. One day Britain was trading with two friendly South American nations and reconstructing its economy after six brutal years of World War3, whilst exploring diplomatic solutions to governance of Antarctica and the Falkland Island Dependencies. The next day Sterling balances are outgunned on Britain's foreign policy agenda by uncertainty about Soviet nuclear intentions and global hegemonical aspirations. Only eight days earlier at a meeting in the Foreign Office4 Prime Minister Fraser from New Zealand had aired his disquiet about potential Soviet involvement in Antarctica.
The loss of signals intelligence had wider implications also in the context of nuclear weapons, a topic covered by the Antarctic Treaty, which solved the Antarctic problem of the 1950s. In 1949 the West was caught by surprise, writes Richard Aldrich, when the USSR tested a nuclear bomb. Such testing on Antarctica was, to all intents and immediate purposes, precluded by the Antarctic Treaty, when it was eventually signed.
Interestingly the science project which played a part in removing Antarctica from what it was about to become, namely, an elephant in the struggle between communism and liberal democracy, also collected the kind of information needed for effective wireless communications, like those the Soviets moved on 29th October 1948 to protect from Western interception.
That science project, the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958, is woven into the text of the Antarctic Treaty. Ionospheric investigation was an integral part of the IGY. The questions scientists then asked were,
"Does the F2 region [a particular part of the upper atmosphere which reflects radio waves] persist during the long polar night? Does the F2 region exhibit any significant diurnal variations at sites where the solar zenith angle changes negligably through the day? How does the south polar ionosphere compare with corresponding zones in the North? How does the anomalous displacement of the dip pole, for which there is no northern counterpart, affect F-region morphology?"5
Article continued on page 9.
This article is based on research I undertook at the University of Manchester in 2003, when I was a part time, post graduate research student, working on a transfer report from M.Phil to Ph.D at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM). I could have written this article (parts one and two) in the spring of 2004, and was interested in doing so. It is a pleasure to at last begin publishing some of my work from 2003.
Thanks are gladly given to my research supervisor (thesis advisor, in US teminology), Dr Jeff Hughes, who drew Professor Aldrich's work on Spies and Cold War intelligence to my attention. I also thank my personal tutor, Dr Sam Alberti, an expert on museums, and my fellow research students, a very international group, who were a pleasure to work with. Thank you also to Dr Cynan Ellis-Evans, for acting as a sounding board for the article. Deputy editor, Martin Redfern, sadly had a clash of commitments, and was unable to read the work prepublication.
My books include,
Something new Under the Sun, Satellites and the Beginning of the Space Age (1997). Copernicus/Springer-Verlag (New York).
History of EUMETSAT (2001). Eumetsat (Darmstadt). This book is the first official history of the organisation responsible for Europe's weather satellites.