Off the Press

June 28, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah, unlikely Cold War hotspot, thaws history

Berlin or Prague call to mind Cold War intrigue — dead drops in darkened alleyways, encrypted cables sent between continents, double-crossing double agents.

Warren Kagarise Press Reporter

But, Issaquah? The city conjures up, if not Cold War intrigue, then at least intriguing episodes from the bygone era.

Issaquah hosted anti-aircraft missiles designed to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union. Townsfolk served as test subjects — scientist-speak for guinea pigs — in a Cold War psychological operations study. The oddest episode, perhaps, surrounds a decision to import a hulking Vladimir Lenin statue from behind the crumpled Iron Curtain to Issaquah.

For a piece in the summertime Issaquah Living magazine, I set out to recount the statue’s long and meandering journey from the Poprad, Slovakia, scrap heap to suburban Issaquah and, at last, to a Seattle street corner. (Readers can find the magazine tucked amid the sales circulars in the B section.)

The plot is as tangled as a John le Carré espionage novel. Late Issaquah resident Lewis Carpenter chanced upon the discarded statue in a Poprad storage yard.

Czechoslovakia cast off communism some years earlier in the Velvet Revolution, so named because protesters toppled the government in a nonviolent takeover. The nation then split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Czechs and Slovaks set about casting off communist symbols, including the statues of Lenin, a forefather of the Soviet Union, on just about every city square. The independent Slovaks hoped to melt down the Poprad statue for benches.

The stern figure, bound for the smelter, caught Carpenter’s eye. Carpenter surely understood the irony inherent in Lenin’s rescue coming courtesy of a capitalist from the United States.

Tragically, Carpenter died not long after Lenin journeyed from the former Eastern Bloc to the Eastside. Seattle sculptor Peter Bevis later secured a temporary site for the statue along a street in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. The site is temporary because, ironically, the statue is for sale.

The statue’s sojourn is a lighthearted coda in Issaquah’s otherwise-serious Cold War history.

Soldiers perched anti-aircraft missiles atop Cougar Mountain not long after the atomic age dawned. The program, called Project Nike for the Greek winged goddess of victory, represented a technological masterpiece in the “Leave It to Beaver” era — the inaugural operational, surface-to-air guided missile system used by U.S. forces.

The cutting edge soon dulled, however. Project Nike faded into obsolescence long before Germans wielded sledgehammers against the Berlin Wall. The military started transferring the land to King County for a park — the modern-day Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park — in the mid-1960s.

(I chronicled the Cougar Mountain Nike site in last summer’s magazine.)

In another memorable moment, Issaquah residents participated in a Cold War experiment, as academia and the military teamed up for Project Revere in July 1951.

Named for the colonial sentry on horseback, project teams in airplanes dropped 30,000 golden-hued leaflets on then-tiny Issaquah to study how information spread through a community.

The leaflets, rather than containing information about a Soviet attack, instead bore a slogan for a coffee-roasting company. Still, information collected from the experiment proved invaluable in Cold War hotspots, including Korea and Vietnam.

Nowadays, such conflicts seem distant, confined to history textbooks and public-television documentaries. But the Cold War continues to resonate in matters both large — as the United States confronts a resurgent Russia on the global stage — and not so large — including the Sputnik-era spoof “Iron Curtain” at Village Theatre.

Meanwhile, Lenin stands amid bustling Seattle storefronts as a monument to a departed era. In another indignity — and capitalist irony — Bevis is considering installing a greenback-dispensing ATM in the statue’s backside, as if to erase all doubt about the victors in the Cold War.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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