Historian Vince Houghton is curator of the International Spy Museum, which opens its expansive new digs on May 12. It turns out he has another project due this month: the book Nuking the Moon, which traces a series of strange but true intelligence operations that never made it past the planning stage. We asked him to walk us through a few of them.
1. Oh, Crap
During WWII, the US came up with a cockamamie biological-warfare scheme to be used against the German army in North Africa. The plan was to infect synthetic goat feces with biotoxins, airdrop the poop, and wait for flies to transfer poison from excrement to enemy. “This is the theme of the book,” says Houghton. “[It’s people saying,] ‘Look, we can’t do this the old-fashioned way. Go be my mad scientist. Go come up with the craziest crap you can come up with. It’s the only way we can win this war.’ ”
2. Seriously Batty
The wartime government also contemplated attacking Japan with incendiaries strapped to bats, which could swoop down onto Japanese cities. The advent of the A-bomb made the plan obsolete, but the man behind it “swore to his death that we would have killed less Japanese civilians with his plan—and still won the war—than with the atomic bombs,” says Houghton.
3. A True Moon Shot
The project for which the book is named, hatched by the Cold War–era Air Force, would have involved detonating a hydrogen bomb on the moon, apparently to scare rival governments. “It’s basically ‘We’re the tougher kid on the block,’ ” Houghton says. “There was no practical purpose behind it.” The scheme was eventually deemed too risky, for obvious reasons.
4. The Purr-fect Plan?
In the 1960s, the CIA attempted to snoop on the Soviets using a live cat with a transmitter embedded in its skull and an antenna attached to its back or tail. “This is probably not something they came up with in the middle of the afternoon on Tuesday,” Houghton says. “It is so outlandish and far out there, it probably happened at 2 am at a bar somewhere.” It’s unclear why the plan never came off. Some accounts claim—unsurprisingly to anyone who has actually lived with a feline—that the animal agent was uncooperative. Others suggest the cat was hit by a taxi during field testing.
This article appears in the May 2019 issue of Washingtonian.