The Vietnam War roots to U.S. police militarization: Bringing the Electronic Battlefield Home

This post is part of an ongoing book project, The Predator Empire, due to be published by the University of Minnesota Press. Archival material from the late 1960s and early 1970s was kindly donated to me by U.S. writer Paul Dickson, author of The Electronic Battlefield.

Bringing The Electronic Battlefield Home

Visions of the next warThe 1970s saw Vietnam’s “electronic battlefield” come home: sensor technology used as part of Igloo White–the U.S. military’s blanketing of the forest with sophisticated audio sensors–was soon used for domestic law enforcement. As one defense chief stated at the time, “sensors might well become the best single technological achievement of the Vietnam war.”[i] The symbiotic bond between war and law, soldier and police, foreign insurgency and “domestic insurgency,” would only repeat itself throughout the twentieth century.

Spike buoys, VietnamBattlefield technology was repeatedly repackaged and resold at home. Under Operation Intercept, the anti-narcotics search and seizure operations that ignited President Nixon’s “war on drugs,” the U.S.-Mexico border would become a testing ground for the electronic battlefield. As the Washington Post wrote in 1970, using language that is offensive today, “Electronic sensors, used with varying degrees of success in tracing enemy troop movements in Vietnam, are being tested along the Mexican border to detect wetbacks and narcotics smugglers.”[ii]

Operation InterceptOne key figure in this intimate alliance between the Department of Defense and the Justice Department was Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who stated that: “We are piggybacking their R&D to a greater and greater degree.”[iii] Buried seismic sensors were to detect footsteps along the border and send a signal to a manned listening post. The Ho Chi Minh trail had come to Texas. For many, the prospect of countering “domestic insurgency” with an electronic battlefield in their own backyard was terrifying. Writing in 1971, Dickson and Rothchild wrote that a planned extension of the “lethal pinball machine” to the entire battlefield, “if wired right, could become a great maze of circuitry and weaponry, a jungle from which those who walk off the straight line from home to office to store would be eliminated.”[iv]

Sensors were deployed by Border Patrol in the summer of 1970, following a proposal for a surveillance system by Sylvania Electronic Systems. The same company would sell its sensors to homeowners and even the White House. Border Patrol also began flying Air Force Pave Eagle unmanned remotely piloted aircraft—the same type of planes that were used in Igloo White. The irony wasn’t lost on everyone. As Robert Barkan wrote at the time, “While the ground War over there “Vietnamizes,” the Nixon administration is quietly “Americanizing” the war’s technology, and the war on the home front escalates. The result: Americans, from marijuana smugglers to political dissidents to shopping housewives, are looking—though they may not know it—into the wrong end of the same surveillance devices that are spying on the Vietnamese”[v]

Pave EagleThe mushrooming security market was big business. At one 1969 law enforcement conference, Sylvania engineers concluded, “Only time will tell if citizens will object to a ‘Big Brother’ type atmosphere.”[vi] At another international conference in 1972, the convener stated that: “There was a time when the public was very much upset about Big Brother. Now the public is beginning to accept this as a fact of life. They recognize, realize, appreciate and accept the fact that Big Brother is not really some alien being, but that he’s their friend.” [vii]

big brotherNot everyone agreed. Back in 1967, a noted Rand Corporation engineer believed that giving law enforcement advanced technology was a mistake, and may end up leading to “the most effective, oppressive, police states ever created.” While noting that new police techniques can sometimes be desirable, he added: “caution is needed lest we create a Frankensteinian monster.” The engineer believed that the greatest long-term threat was “the excessive accumulation of power by mere access to information, and the self intoxicating nature of such power upon mere mortals.”[viii] As Barkan wrote, “During the 1960’s Yankee ingenuity, fueled by federal funding, transformed Jules Verne’s fantasy—a man on the moon—into reality. All indications are that during the 1970’s, the same thing will happen to George Orwell’s fantasy—Big Brother.”[ix]

There were of course more innocuous uses. Infrared cameras were used by the EPA to trap polluters dumping waste in the Delaware River. As one newspaper reported, “The sophisticated equipment that spies on Communist troops moving along the Ho Chi Minh trail is doing some ecological snooping in the Delaware Valley.”[x]

Nonetheless, Big Brother was certainly upgraded. A range of night-vision devices, and low-light and infrared cameras, were rolled out by police forces. As one Army magazine put it, “Night-vision technology developed by the U.S. Army to meet an urgent need of combat forces in Southeast Asia is … being applied increasingly to the peacetime “service of man.””[xi] The very first aircraft used by the FBI in the mid-1970s came from the Vietnam War: Lockheed’s near-silent “Quiet Star” airplane.

Quiet Star planeSensor technology was also used to create an “electronic prison.” The Federal Youth Center, in Ashland, Kentucky, was the first correctional institution to utilize an electronic detection system—“PERIGUARD—developed by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. The surveillance system involved ringing the prison with buried sensor “hoses” that detected any change in pressure. This was an early example of using sensors to create and police an “inside” and an “outside.” But the limit of such a system lay only in the imagination.

electric prisonTake the Crime Deterrent Transponder System. Crime control is essentially “information collection and processing,” and instead of prison, criminals can be housed inside “an electronic surveillance and command-control system to make crime pointless.”[xii] This was the brainchild of Joseph Meyer, an engineer who worked for the NSA.[xiii] In 1971 Meyer proposed fitting millions of American parolees, recidivists, and bailees with radio transponders. These would broadcast their location to nearby receivers and enable constant surveillance by the police. The city would be converted into a gigantic sensor prison: “For urban areas, a mesh of transceivers would scan the streets, communicating with central computers to provide a public surveillance network.”[xiv] On the inside, a network of alarms, floodlights, and cameras would keep “subscribers” away from places like banks. “The optimum topology or network will probably partition a city into enclaves, with densely placed transceivers at the borders of the enclaves, and small enclaves in high crime areas.”[xv] This artificial prison wraps “the criminal with a kind of externalized conscience—an electronic substitute for the social conditioning, group pressures, and inner motivation which most of the society lives with.”[xvi] If successful, subscribers would become “law abiding citizens” that exhibit a passivity and routine that makes prediction of their movements inevitable: go to work, stay at home at night.

But like the electronic battlefield that was placed over Vietnam, there’s always a way of evading the system. Like the NVA, the subscriber could dig their way out of the sensor prison: “To evade the street surveillance system, tunnels could be dug under the streets, or movement through the sewer system could be tried, but sonars can detect tunnels, and other alarm systems can monitor sewers.”[xvii]

Now, of course, police regularly use tracking devices on criminals, sealing them inside an “externalized conscience.” In a few decades science-fiction would become good science, and the electronic battlefield a general condition of human being.


  • [ii] Clawson, U.S. Testing Sensors Along Mexican Border.
  • [iii] Quoted in Clawson, 1970
  • [iv] Dickson and Rothchild, 1971, The electronic battlefield: wiring down the war.
  • [v] Robert Barkan, Bringing the Toys Home, Pacific Research and World Empire Telegram, November-December, 1971, 0
  • [vi] Quoted in Barkan, 1971.
  • [vii] Quoted in Raul Remirez, Washable Bullet-Proof Vest Comes in Light Blue for $99, The Washington Post, 3 October 1972
  • [viii] Police Advances Bring a Warning; Engineer Fears Technology Could Lead to Oppression, The New York Times, 11 November 1967
  • [ix] Barkan, 1971
  • [x] Mike Clark, Electronics Moves from War in Vietnam, Philadelphia Inquirer, 20th February 1972
  • [xi] Night Vision Devices, Army Research and Development News Magazine, July 1972, p. 10
  • [xii] Joseph A. Meyer, 1971, Crime Deterent Transponder System, IEEE Transactions of Aerospace and Electronic Systems, 7(1): 2-22, p. 2
  • [xiii] Robert Barkan, Science Fiction—or tomorrow’s U.S.? Guardian, October 27, 1971
  • [xiv] Meyer, 1971, p (5)[i] Quoted in Ken. W. Clawson, U.S. Testing Sensors Along Mexican Border, The Washington Post, 18 July, 1970
  • [xv] Meyer, 1971, p.9
  • [xvi] Meyer, 1971, p. 17
  • [xvii] Meyer, 1971, p.11
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