Stamps and Spies: The CIA’s Involvement in Postage Design

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In 1960, many Americans sent mail to Czechoslovakia, wrote the correct addresses, and paid the proper postage, but nevertheless found their envelopes returned undelivered. The envelopes were still sealed, so no one had opened them and decided on the basis of what was written inside to send them back. Instead, the problem was stuck to the front of the envelopes: All the returned envelopes had a postage stamp featuring Tomáš Masaryk, the leader of Czechoslovak independence. The stamp was part of the ‘Champions of Liberty’ series honoring non-Americans who had struggled for political freedom in their homelands.

The stamp’s message was not lost on Communist Czechoslovakia. In a letter to the State Department, the Czechoslovak embassy accused the United States of “not issu[ing] the stamp to honor Masaryk as it had alleged, but to use it as a propaganda means against the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.” In response, the State Department insisted that issuing stamps of “honored personages of various nationalities is an accepted international philatelic practice.”



Missing from this response was a fact about postage stamps that governments have long recognized: Stamps, in addition to carrying mail all over the world, carry designs that reflect the issuing country’s cultural ideals, historical narratives, and even political ideologies. Stamps are government-sponsored art. They are like political posters in their concentrated visual rhetoric, yet they are more like internet ads in their ability to spread that rhetoric across international borders, even if it contravenes the prevailing politics of the countries to which they travel.

Art, literature, and music were all means by which the United States tried to portray itself as more culturally refined than, and therefore superior to, the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While the CIA’s covert funding of cultural front organizations has received a lot of attention, declassified U.S. government documents reveal that the designs of the ‘Champions of Liberty’ series and other Cold War-era stamps were similarly co-opted by the nation’s top intelligence and military officials.

In the United States, proposals for stamp designs are evaluated by members of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee appointed by the postmaster general. The original founding committee in 1957 consisted of seven members: three philatelists (people who study stamps), three artists, and one representative from the U.S. Information Agency, then the lead institution for public diplomacy. This representative, Deputy Director Abbott Washburn, attended monthly meetings of the stamp committee. At the same time, he or his boss attended meetings of the Operations Coordinating Board of the National Security Council. This unique arrangement gave the U.S. government a valuable tool in its communication arsenal.

After the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of Western armed forces from West Berlin, the Operations Coordinating Board recommended issuing a stamp symbolizing the U.S. commitment to the divided city on the front lines of the Cold War. This commitment had been reaffirmed by President Dwight Eisenhower in his televised address of March 16, 1959. According to CIA Director Allen Dulles’ memo of a Board meeting two days later (attended by other high-level officials from the White House and State and Defense Departments):

The Board discussed at considerable length a number of possible choices for individuals to be honored in the “Champions of Liberty” commemorative stamp series. Discussions centered particularly on Ernst Reuter, late mayor of West Berlin. A number of members of the group felt that Reuter would be an admirable choice at any time but that he might be a particularly good one during this period of tension over the Berlin situation.

It was agreed that the USIA representative on the panel considering individuals to be so honored would submit Reuter’s name, but that if there was determined opposition from other sources, he should not insist to the bitter end.

The meeting minutes indicate that the next stamp in the series was originally supposed to feature Sun Yat-sen, the first leader of the Kuomintang, but that the Operations Coordinating Board proposed Reuter instead. (Sun’s turn would come three years later, coinciding with a politically significant anniversary for Taiwan.) The minutes also suggest a broader discussion about the use of stamps as a foreign policy tool through a “discussion of the entire question of the issuance of commemorative stamps and OCB interest therein.”

The designs being contemplated by these U.S. officials, who were normally responsible for coordinating and implementing national security policies, reflected the dual nature of the Cold War as a period of both geopolitical upheaval and scientific and cultural rivalry. In one instance, after the chief of the CIA’s clandestine service learned that the Soviet government was planning celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s death, he wrote an internal CIA memo on Feb. 9, 1959 endorsing the idea of a Leo Tolstoy stamp as part of the ‘Champions of Liberty’ series. After all, Tolstoy’s writings on non-violence as part of his Christian beliefs were reminiscent of how the United States tried to portray itself. (Three Soviet stamps featuring Tolstoy, but no American ones, were issued the following year.)

Similarly, one of the topics discussed during a meeting of the Operations Coordinating Board on Oct. 8, 1958 was the possibility of a stamp commemorating the first U.S. satellite. This idea was proposed by the Army, on whose rocket Explorer 1 was launched into space earlier that year — nearly four months after Sputnik. Hence, according to Dulles’ memo of the meeting, “the majority of the Board felt that it might be unwise to issue such a stamp in view of the obvious disparity which now exists between our accomplishments in the satellite field and those of the USSR.” Ironically, the first country to issue a stamp commemorating Explorer 1 was Soviet-allied Poland! (The global popularity of stamps with space-exploration themes no doubt played a role in the issuance of this 10-stamp set titled ‘Conquest of Space.’)

In addition to having these brainstorming sessions, the Operations Coordinating Board and CIA even got involved in the seemingly bureaucratic task of publicizing new stamps. Minutes of a Board meeting on May 22, 1957 state that “the OCB Working Group on the Philippines would coordinate a draft Presidential announcement in connection with the commemorative stamp” featuring Ramon Magsaysay, the anti-communist fighter and president of the Philippines who had just died in a plane crash, and the first in the ‘Champions of Liberty’ series. Dulles himself accepted a personalized invitation from the postmaster general to attend the release ceremony of a 1955 Atoms for Peace stamp.

Between 1957 and 1961, ten leaders of foreign lands (including South America, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Italy, and India) became rare exceptions to the tradition of primarily featuring Americans on U.S. stamps. Functionally, these stamps represented proof of postage. Symbolically, they portrayed the United States as continuing those leaders’ legacies and political struggles. This aspect of the ‘Champions of Liberty’ series advanced U.S. policy objectives, as Sen. Thomas Dodd explained:

Many millions of people, cut off from the normal free press, nevertheless receive letters from abroad and study the stamps affixed to these letters. They recognize the person pictured on the stamp and remember his role in their national life. The memory of freedom is thus strengthened, and the will to freedom thus encouraged.

Such capacity for visual storytelling has ensured stamps’ continued relevance even in this age of electronic communication. In May, Serbia’s foreign ministry denounced a North Macedonian stamp that displayed an outdated map cutting into present-day Serbia as “a hostile provocative act aimed against the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Serbia.” Two years ago, a set of Pakistani stamps with the caption, “Atrocities in Indian Occupied Kashmir,” led to the cancelation of a high-level meeting between two nuclear-armed countries. On the other hand, India’s foreign ministry once tweeted, using the hashtag #StampOfDiplomacy, about how the United States was the first country after India to issue a stamp honoring Mahatma Gandhi — part of the ‘Champions of Liberty’ series.

As politicians debate the future of the U.S. Postal Service, history shows that the message inside the envelope is not the only one the stamp delivers.



Matin Modarressi’s research on philately and foreign affairs has appeared in the Journal of Cold War Studies and Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy blog. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS. He works in law enforcement in New York.

Image: Photo by Matin Modarressi