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The Most Important Cold War Project You’ve Never Heard Of: The Inter-American Geodetic Survey

Todd DePastino

The Inter-American Geodetic Survey (IAGS) was the most important Cold War project you’ve never heard of. Its mission was to map the vast uncharted regions of Latin American . . . and collect on-the-ground intelligence in the process.

Army Helicopter for Cold War Project Inter-American Geodetic Survey

Bad maps lose wars. Napoleon might have triumphed at Waterloo if he’d had a better map.

The Union Army was badly hampered in the Civil War by geographic ignorance of the South. Large swaths of Virginia, for example, hadn’t been mapped since George Washington’s surveys of the 1750s.

Washington’s career trajectory itself speaks to the intimate relationship between map-making and war-making. He began as a surveyor and then became an Army officer.

Maps and war go hand-in-hand. If you don’t know a region’s geography, topography, and social boundaries, you can’t fight well there.

By the late 1940s, after two catastrophic World Wars and with the specter of a third on the horizon, the United States launched a massive effort to map the world in unprecedented detail. The most ambitious part of this initiative was the War Department’s Inter-American Geodetic Survey (IAGS), established in April 1946.

Despite Latin America’s proximity to the United States and our country’s long-standing guardianship of the Western Hemisphere against European meddling–the famous Monroe Doctrine–huge parts of Central and South Americas remained uncharted and unknown to US defense officials. Even Latin American governments themselves lacked adequate maps of their own territories.

The IAGS sent teams of experts, tons of equipment, and plenty of administrative staff to Fort Clayton in the Panama Canal Zone, which had been owned by the United States since 1903. There, the agency set up shop and established a cartographic school to train citizens of Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Army officers, in astronomy, triangulation, field surveying, drafting, and a host of other specialized skills needed for modern map-making.

Fort Clayton, Panama – Fort Clayton Historical Photo

“Attendance at the IAGS school at Fort Clayton was seen as right of passage for many up and coming officers in Latin American militaries,” recalls former Army Engineering officer Brian Haren. Many of the school’s graduates, such as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, went on to become high-ranking military leaders.

Classroom at the IAGS School at Fort Clayton

IAGS personnel–including thousands of US Army and Air Force pilots, engineers, surveyors, cartographers, and others–waded rivers, climbed mountains, and hacked through jungles to map the terrain of remote Central and South American regions. Thirty-four men died supporting the IAGS mission. It was dangerous work but highly valued by both the people who lived in these countries and US strategists back in Washington, DC.

Surveyors for Cold War Project Inter-American Geodetic Survey

Latin America, after all, was a key battleground of the Cold War. The Soviet Union exploited local poverty and political instability in the Western Hemisphere to advance its Communist influence, including guerrilla insurgencies against US-backed regimes.

Some of those regimes were democratic. Some were authoritarian. The IAGS benefitted both kinds, while feeding intelligence about local conditions in Latin America back home.

Several thousand US  civilians and military personnel served with the Inter-American Geodetic Survey between 1946 and 1989. On our VBC Happy Hour, October 19, 2022, we’ll hear from several of them, including Air Force veteran Paul Hauser, who served with the IAGS from 1968-1970 and whose book, I’m Always Going Somewhere, is the best ground-level history we have of this key Cold War project.

In addition to joining our VBC Happy Hour, you can also learn more about the IAGS mission and operations by watching the 30-minute “Mapping Adventure” episode of the Army series The Big Picture. The episode aired in 1964:

This issue of THE BIG PICTURE tells the exciting story of several Inter-American Geodetic Survey teams and their adventures in mapping the jungles, deserts, plateaus and the towering Andes of Latin America. The recently discovered ruins of the ancient Incan city of Machu Pichu and the mapping of the tragic town of Ranrahirca buried in the avalanche of January 1962 from before and after aerial photographs play an important part in the story. The IAGS program begun in 1946, involves the U.S. and 17 Latin American countries. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays a key role in the training of the teams and assisting in the actual “Mapping Adventure.”

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