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Restricting Soviet Travel in the U.S. During the Cold War

The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division.

The rise of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in substantial limitations on where travelers could visit in the opposite nation. When Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR, died in 1953, the succeeding Soviet government eased restrictions for Americans wishing to travel there under the auspices of “coexistence.”

The United States, however, continued to restrict Soviet travelers. A 1955 National Security Report described the American position:

[T]he U.S. is placed in a paradoxical position, which is being exploited by Communist propaganda. Despite its traditional policy favoring freedom of travel and its record of having favored a liberal exchange of persons with the USSR in the post-war period, the U.S. is being accused of maintaining an “Iron Curtain”; and these accusations are being made not only by representatives of international Communism but also by otherwise friendly persons in the free world. This situation is causing damage, and may cause further damage, to U.S. prestige and the U.S. reputation for liberal world leadership.

The restrictions were not without merit. The United States feared that a liberal travel policy would allow Soviet intelligence agents to gain entry and to observe strategic assets. It was also feared that everyday Soviet citizens, if permitted to travel freely, would return home and be interviewed by communist press agencies that would publish the travelers’ criticisms of the American way of life.

The American leadership understood the importance of propaganda in the Cold War world and knew something must be done. President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided the best course of action was to mirror the new Soviet policy. Soviet citizens were permitted to visit some 70 percent of American territory, including most cities with populations greater than 100,000. Americans, likewise, had similar rights when visiting the Soviet Union.

Map of municipalities closed or open to travel by soviet citizens as of November 11, 1957.

“U.S. Areas and Municipalities Closed or Open to Travel by Certain Soviet Citizens As of November 11, 1957.” US State Department, 1957. Wallace R. Brode Map Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The map, U.S. Areas and Municipalities Closed or Open to Travel by Certain Soviet Citizens As of November 11, 1957, produced by the U.S. State Department, shows where Soviet citizens were excluded from visiting during their time in the United States. Entry was generally barred from military installations, ports, coastlines, and industrial centers. Areas shaded in red were closed off entirely to Soviet citizens, with some unshaded roadways indicating “specified routes of automotive transit” through areas otherwise closed to travelers. Dark red circles indicate cities in “otherwise open areas” that were closed to travelers, green-outlined circles indicated open areas in otherwise closed areas, and green-outlined circles with anchor symbols indicate cities open to travel except within port areas.

Detail of northeastern U.S. from map of municipalities closed or open to travel by soviet citizens as of November 11, 1957.

Detail of Northeastern U.S. from “U.S. Areas and Municipalities Closed or Open to Travel by Certain Soviet Citizens As of November 11, 1957.” US State Department, 1957. Wallace R. Brode Map Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Detail of upper midwest U.S. from map of municipalities closed or open to travel by soviet citizens as of November 11, 1957.

Detail of Upper Midwest U.S. from “U.S. Areas and Municipalities Closed or Open to Travel by Certain Soviet Citizens As of November 11, 1957.” US State Department, 1957. Wallace R. Brode Map Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

In 1962, the Kennedy administration lifted travel restrictions for ordinary Soviet citizens. However, Soviet reporters and government officials were closely monitored, and the U.S. government limited where they could visit until the end of the Cold War.

The map is part of the Wallace R. Brode map collection held by the Geography and Map Division. Brode (1900-1974) was a chemist and one-time president of the American Chemical Society.

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