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Were the Soviets targeting a Pentagon snack spot?

It’s no surprise that the Soviets trained their nukes at the Pentagon during the Cold War, but were they really targeting the courtyard cafe?

That’s what people continue to hear when they visit the Pentagon.

Rumor has it that the bull’s-eye was a structure in the center of the courtyard. Russian satellites caught images of people going in and out of the mysterious building all day, so they assumed it was a command-and-control center.

In reality, the building was a cafe, a place to grab a hot dog or a cup of coffee. Could Soviet intelligence have really been that bad? The Rumor Doctor decided to investigate.

First, a quick history lesson for all you kids born in the 1990s: The Cold War lasted from just after World War II until 1985, when Rocky Balboa knocked out Ivan Drago, ushering in a period known as “Glasnost” that culminated with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

During the 1950s, the Pentagon’s courtyard cafe was nicknamed “Ground Zero Cafe” because workers assumed it was the bull’s-eye for Soviet nuclear missiles, said Steve Vogel, a reporter with The Washington Post who wrote a history of the Pentagon.

“After the Cold War ended, there were [press] reports of Soviet visitors to the Pentagon remarking that the Soviets believed the cafe was actually the entrance to a command and control bunker because of the number of people seen going in and out,” Vogel said in an e-mail. “Now whether the claims were true and Soviet intelligence truly believed that has not been established as far as I know. But in any event it’s certainly true that the Soviets had nuclear weapons trained on the center of the Pentagon.”

But one national security expert doubts that the Soviets actually mistook the courtyard café for something more important.

“I’m sure that there were Soviets – at least during various points in the Cold War, maybe in later stages – in the Pentagon,” said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va. “Somebody got taken through the quad [and would have noticed the cafe].  It’s a total myth.”

Since the Soviet Union no longer exists, The Rumor Doctor turned to the Russian Embassy in Washington for clarity.

Unfortunately, there was nobody at the embassy who was stationed in Washington during the Cold War who could say for sure whether  the Soviets mistook the cafe as a headquarters, said embassy spokesman Yevgeniy Khorishko.

“I think it’s a story because it’s of no difference where the warhead will touch the earth – in the center of the building near the cafeteria or somewhere 30 meters to the left or to the right,” he said. “It’s a nuclear warhead.”

THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: It’s pretty certain that the Soviets aimed their nukes at the center of the Pentagon, no matter what they thought they were targeting. But the Ground Zero Cafe story will live on, defying logic and rationality, just like Justin Bieber’s attempt at rap.

E-mail The Rumor Doctor at: jeffrey.schogol@stripes.osd.mil

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