Map Courtesy Library of Congress
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Areas marked in red were off limits to Soviet visitors as of November 11, 1957.

Map Courtesy Library of Congress

Russians Were Once Banned From a Third of the U.S.

A 1957 map shows that Soviet visitors were barred from most of New York’s Long Island—and the entire state of Washington.

From election interference to alleged nerve poison attacks, Russian meddling has flung the world into a haze of paranoia. At the height of the Cold War, similar mistrust of the Soviet Union led the U.S. to make an extraordinary map showing places where Russian visitors could not legally go.

During the Cold War, fears of Russian meddling prompted the United States government to block Soviet visitors from accessing entire swaths of the country. As of November 11, 1957, when the above map was made, anyone traveling to the United States on a Soviet passport was forbidden from visiting Long Island, much of Northern California, and nearly the entire east coast of Florida. In all, about a third of the country was off limits to citizens of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries.

Red patches on the map indicate areas that were inaccessible to Soviet travelers. Green circles within the red areas mark cities they were allowed to visit (most major cities were fair game). In some cases, specific roads were designated for travel through otherwise closed areas. Conversely, red circles indicate banned sites within otherwise open areas, mostly in the Southern states and the Midwest.

The map raises interesting questions: Why was Memphis banned but Nashville not? Why was the entire state of Washington off limits? It’s possible there was a rationale for some of the banned areas, but others were probably chosen more arbitrarily in the attempt to keep a significant portion of the country inaccessible to Soviet visitors, just as they did for travelers from the U.S., says Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. “We simply did not trust one another,” he says.

Military bases and factories were probably areas of special concern. A State Department memo published in 1955 lists objects that Soviet visitors were forbidden to sketch or photograph; it includes military installations, fuel storage depots, seaports, power plants, factories, and communications facilities. They were also forbidden from taking photos from airplanes on flights over the U.S.

There were likely other considerations, too. “I think we wished to minimize them seeing Jim Crow conditions and other parts of our society that they could exploit for propaganda,” Moore says. “After all, the Cold War was [an] ideological war between East and West. Any shortcoming on one side was seized upon by the other.”

The restrictions shown on this 1957 map are actually looser than those that had been in place just a few years earlier. A 1952 immigration law essentially barred visitors from communist countries from entering the United States at all unless they received a special exemption from the Attorney General. Only 33 Soviet citizens received this exemption in 1953 and ‘54.

The Soviets, however, was much more permissive of American visitors, allowing them to visit most of the USSR., The Soviets saw this as an example of American hypocrisy arguing that the supposedly more liberal U.S. had far more restrictive policies in place than they did. As a 1955 National Security Council report puts it, "the U.S. is being accused of maintaining an ‘Iron Curtain.’”

The report weighs the pros and cons of loosening the blanket restrictions. Among the advantages:, the possibility that some Soviet visitors might defect while Stateside, and an assumption that a Soviet visitor could not help but be “impressed by the American scene and American technological accomplishments.”

The disadvantages to loosening the ban ranged from the possibility of Soviet intelligence agents entering the U.S. to a general concern that relaxed travel restrictions might loosen U.S. vigilance towards the “Soviet peril.”

Ultimately President Eisenhower decided to mimic the Soviet policy for U.S. visitors and allow access to roughly 70% of the country, including most cities with populations over 100,000, Moore wrote in a post about the map for the Library’s blog. The restrictions for ordinary Soviet citizens were lifted by President Kennedy in 1962, but travel restrictions remained in place for Soviet reporters and government officials until the end of the Cold War.

If you’re interested in Cold War era maps, check out our posts on the Soviet military’s secret mapping program, and mapmaking at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.