Spies like US: The Cold War and Santa Claus

This Christmas Eve you can see satellite images on the web tracking Santa’s progress across the globe.  How do we get this amazing information?  The good folks at NORAD (noradsanta.org), the North American Aerospace Defense Command, have provided the information, and have been offering the public “satellite information” on Santa for decades. It’s become a tradition at NORAD to track those flying reindeer as they dart across the sky from rooftop to rooftop.  Any, hey, they’ve got do something with their time.  There is something deeply telling, though, about the lengths our culture will to in order to indulge in reassuring make believe.

NORAD tracking Santa

NORAD is a communications and monitoring station with bases built in the mountains near Colorado Springs and Cheyenne Wyoming. The first NORAD command centers were built in 1961 in the mountainous center of the country, an ideal location for strategic purposes in Cold War defense.

NORAD has been through many changes over the years, adapting to new technologies, computer, satellite, and ICBM defensive technologies. They have also had technological and intelligence failures, and came close to accidentally triggering nuclear war due to false alarms on three occasions. After the Cold War, NORAD had a crisis of mission and meaning. The “war on terror” gave them new life as they shifted attention to monitoring all aircraft in the United States.


NORAD, more than its technological prowess, serves an ideological function for the public. It provides a reassurance of safety while at the same time, reassuring us danger. They are the eyes in the sky watching over us.  In addition, NORAD commander General Chuck Jacoby assures us that Santa is coming to bring joy to our tots. NORAD reassures us about our national security interests through repeating this story as a deliberate annual tradition. They do more than monitor the skies, they help spin the mythic tradition of moral goodness of Frosty, apple pie, grandma, Christmas trees and good ole Saint Nick.

Underground NORAD base in Wyoming

Our actor President Ronald Reagan was also the first hyper-real president. A former pitch man for GE and big tobacco.  He was a dramatist, but for us, a bearer of the glad tidings of American capitalism and freedom, and ran the country spinning the myths of American exceptionalism, espousing its blustery cowboy hokum with its”city on the hill” moral rectitude against the threat of the pinkos and yippies.  In short, to sell us on the idea of America that felt good, America as a brand, and it’s a force that was success for America’s original post-truth president.  Mad Men‘s Don Draper would have approved; from Madison Avenue to your home, freedom served fresh daily.

Reagan selling Chesterfield cigarettes

In October (of 2011) it came out that Reagan did not like reading his typed intelligence briefings from the CIA. He preferred to have the CIA make him movies. They did. And now you can watch the CIA movies online – movies on the space race and the USSR’s war in Afganistan, for instance.  The movies portray a very simplistic vision of world politics, a struggle between good and evil.  It confirms that Reagan did not just spin this vision to America, but the CIA, as his yes-men, fed him the simplistic Manichean narrative that he himself understood.

For an intelligence agency, the CIA offered little intelligence. In his book, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner writes that this is a theme that reoccurs through the life of the CIA. While its mission was intelligence gathering, it actually busied itself more with regime changes in foreign republics, often siding with fascist and despotic governments in order to forcefully spread the free market.  They set up propaganda machines throughout the world, manufacturing consent and dictators.  Basically this – instead of gathering intelligence, the CIA’s effect was creating misinformation, change truth as they saw fit, spinning the myth of American goodness and exceptionalism while at the same time undermining foreign democracies and sabotaging opposition.

NORAD Headquaters

Central Intelligence, however, didn’t only work as a propaganda machine.  They were also were a key player in the White House’s post truth echo chamber, like the elves of Santa’s post-truth workshop.

It’s a testament to the supreme excesses of empire that it’s power has the ability to distort reality.  An anonymous Bush 43 official would later tell a journalist, “(Reporters are in what we in the administration call) the reality-based community (which) believes that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality.  That’s not the way the world works any more.  We’re an empire now, we create our own reality.  And while you’re studying reality – judiciously as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out.  We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Post-truth politics, like advertising, like propaganda, is indeed a powerful force.  We can invent the red scare, invent WMDs, invent Santa Claus.  As General Jacoby said, “he (Santa) comes to those who believe in him.”  It is a testament to how ideology functions today. We have to engage actively in the production of the narrative in its full theatricality.  We spend a great deal of time and money in an elaborate game of make believe.  With NORAD spinning yarn about Santa Claus coming to town, we can see in microcosm how active the state ideological apparatus is at play is in today’s global politics, making myths for adults as well as children.

Ronald Reagan dressing up as Santa, with Nancy

Updated from my archive at Green Fissures in an Otherwise Pristine Robot, 2011.