The Cold War was a conflict of appearances and propaganda. Each superpower sought to appear unbeatable to the other. That is why the USSR detonated the biggest bomb ever built; to show off their technological prowess, and to show that they were not to be toyed with. However, one thing that is often forgotten about the propaganda war is that most of it was directed at a country’s own citizens, not at rivals. Detonating the big bomb made Soviet citizens feel powerful. Stories of lost cosmonauts made Americans feel justified in their sense of superiority over the Soviets in terms of space technology.
But propaganda was not always meant to make citizens feel positive. More negative propaganda could be useful to a superpower as well, if it spurred hatred toward the enemy. In the end, the results were the same: the citizens felt superior to their rivals, with the added bonus of feeling a healthy dose of fear, which always makes people more pliable. Sometimes though, this fear mongering propaganda could take absurd turns. Take, for example, the Cold War beetle battle, when East Germany tried to convince its citizens that Americans were trying to destroy their potato crops by air dropping Colorado Potato Beetles.
Paranoia and propaganda
East Germany was in sorry shape after the devastation of World War II and the transformation to a Communist style government and economy. Hunger was rampant throughout the country. Potatoes were a key staple that many people depended on for sustenance, so when large numbers of black and yellow beetles showed up in the fields, people took notice. The potato beetles were a scourge that could wipe out whole fields of the valuable crop. It was 1950 and American planes were flying low over parts of East Germany, bringing much needed supplies to West Berliners who were suffering under Stalin’s blockade of their city. The East German government seized on the presence of American planes overhead and claimed that the American Imperialists were air dropping beetles onto East German fields to destabilize the country’s attempts at reconstruction.
Children were employed to fight this supposed American menace. Every day after school, they’d be dispatched to the potato fields to pluck up the beetles by hand. The pests would be dumped into jars or bottles of alcohol and destroyed. This of course did very little to stop the spread of beetles, but it at least made people feel as if they were doing their part in the effort against the Imperialists, which was all that mattered to the authorities anyway.
It is interesting to note that, despite what Westerners thought of citizens of Communist countries at the time, many did not buy the propaganda. There were many in rural areas who did, and to this day still do, believe that the beetles were a CIA plot, but many younger people thought the government explanation was so much bunk. In the climate of paranoia running through the country at the time though, it wouldn’t have been good to say so and be labeled an American sympathizer, so most kept their mouth shut and went about going through the motions.
A simple explanation
While talk of a CIA plan to dust fields with beetles sound absurd, it wouldn’t be the first time someone had the idea to use the pests as weapons. France considered doing just that in World War I, in hopes of harming the German war effort. But they abandoned the plan when smuggling the bugs into Germany proved unfeasible. That, and there was a fear that the plan would backfire and French farmers would find their own fields infested.
Precedent for the weird plan aside, there’s no evidence that the CIA executed a plan to attack East Germany with potato beetles. The pests had plagued European farmers since the 19th century, when they arrived with shipments of potatoes imported from America. Certainly they were invasive species, but their invasion was purely unintentional. The Cold War beetle battle was nothing more than propaganda, an attempt to stir up the masses against the enemy.
Burns, Lucy. “The great Cold War potato beetle battle.” BBC.com. September 2, 2013. BBC News. June 6, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23929124