June 4, 2017

Operation Atlantis: The First Libertarian Seastead

Preston Martin

Preston Martin

Operation Atlantis: The First Libertarian Seastead

The Startup Societies Foundation uncovered primary source documents about the first libertarian seastead attempt.

In 1968, entrepreneur Werner Stiefel set out to form an independent libertarian nation in the Caribbean: Operation Atlantis.

The roots of Stiefel’s libertarian outlook stemmed from his experience around the rise of Nazism in Germany during the 1930s. Fortunately, he and his family were spared the horrors of war when they migrated to the United States. However, in the years after the Second World War, Stiefel feared the rise of different national socialists, this time in America. He quickly came to the realization that the free men and women of the United States ultimately lacked a true safe haven to which they could flee. [2] If there was to be a libertarian future for anyone, it would have to be built by those most able to do so.

Stiefel was firm in his belief that a human’s desire for freedom of choice immediately comes from their nature as a thinking, rational being. His attempt to form a free country is testament to what he called “the philosophic struggle for liberty.” [1] The idea for an exit from the framework of the US government was heavily inspired by Galt’s Gulch. Made up of individuals who went “on strike”, or off-grid in the world of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Galt’s Gulch was a hidden refuge for discontented entrepreneurs. Its inhabitants were witnessing the growing collectivization of American society and simply decided to separate from it. Not a rigid objectivist himself, Stiefel aimed instead to create the first explicitly libertarian country in the spirit of Rand’s idea.

Sawyekil Motel

Based in Saugerties, New York, Stiefel formed the Atlantis Development Company, and bought the Sawyerkill Motel near one of his soap-making factories. [2][3] It would serve as a home base and a proxy community for Operation Atlantis, which he was planning to found on the high seas. [4] This community was to be formed with a three step plan in mind:

1) Gather Libertarians in a single location where they can work together to build an integrated community (Motel = Atlantis I).

2) Acquire an ocean vessel and declare it to be an independent craft sailing under the flag of this new country while in international waters (Ship = Atlantis II).

3) Using this vessel and possibly an island, create a sovereign country as close to US shores as possible. (Ship + Island = Atlantis III)

Under the pseudonym Werner K. Stevens, Stiefel wrote the book The Story of Operation Atlantis, in which he outlined his overall plan for liberty and called out for a new generation of libertarians to join him. [5]  He also started The Atlantis News, a newsletter platform designed to describe and report on Atlantis’ activities. In March of 1969, a number of young libertarians were beginning to join Stiefel’s community at the motel. Meanwhile, Stiefel himself was able to fly down to the Caribbean in search of a possible island to settle.Given a 1967 court ruling, which barred a Floridian company from building atop coral reefs on the shores of Florida, [6] Stiefel feared the federal government would interfere if Atlantis was founded too close to the United States.

Minted Atlantean coins

He would go on to report in The Atlantis News about the promise of the Prickly Pear Cays. These seamounts, located six miles northwest of Anguilla in the British West Indies, would serve as a possible site for Atlantis. [7] Stiefel was also able to meet with the Anguillan authorities, who were at least open to leasing the territory at that time. Nevertheless, by November 1969, the Anguillan bureaucrats in charge of issuing the necessary purchase permit were actively stalling Stiefel’s attempts to purchase the relatively small strips of land. Despite the Atlantis Development Corporation’s agreement with the five local village elders to pay $100,000 for ownership of the Prickly Pear Cays, the Anguillan government under Ronald Webster was at that time more focused on its secession from Saint Kitts and Nevis.[8]

Geodesic Dome

Unfazed, Stiefel and his growing libertarian community at the motel proceeded to search for new real estate. Specifically, they sought a location where they would be able to begin the construction of a shoal landfill and, eventually, a habitable floating platform. By February 1970, Operation Atlantis had identified a couple of suitable shallow areas for the building of a platform. In May of that same year, Stiefel made a survey trip to take aerial photographs of this area, the Silver Shoals Cays. Satisfied with the location, he hired a local charter captain capable enough to navigate the treacherous waters which surrounded them. [9] As they reached the end of summer in 1970, Stiefel and the members of Operation Atlantis had identified a realistic setting for Atlantis III and were comfortable enough to begin the second phase of the plan. The Atlantis Development Corporation received the proper license from Buckminster Fuller to build a geodesic dome at the motel. [10] This dome, fifty feet in diameter and twenty-three feet high, would be used to house the construction site of a 38-foot ferrocement boat. [10] This boat carried the designation “Atlantis II” and would become the main focus of Operation Atlantis over the course of the next year.

For the duration of 1971, the members of Operation Atlantis continued their work onAtlantis II. Stiefel meanwhile continued to make plans for their eventual voyage to the Caribbean and minted Atlantis’ first silver coins. According to Erwin Strauss, who visited the motel in September 1971, it was clear to the community at Atlantis I that professional help was needed to complete the ferrocement ship before the seasonal freezing of the Hudson River. [11] Once the craft was completed in December, preparations were finally made for its launch. The members of Operation Atlantis readied themselves for dawn of a new libertarian nation.  Unfortunately, from this stage onward, Operation Atlantis would face nothing but catastrophe.

In December 1971, Atlantis II was launched at high tide into the Hudson River, but as the tide began to recede, the boat soon capsized. Its first launch ended with the ship lying sideways in the mud, partially aflame from a kerosene lamp which had broken inside. Thankful for the inflammability of cement and steel, the Atlanteans were able to right the boat and begin their voyage south to the Caribbean. [12] After a few more close-calls, the Atlanteans were forced to make a series of jury-rigged optimizations which were meant to prevent the boat from sinking.  Still, they could not stop the overall degradation of Atlantis II, which broke a propeller shaft off the coast of South Carolina. Nearly incapacitated, Atlantis II succeeded in making its way to the Bahamas, but was unable to survive a subsequent hurricane, after which it sank. [13]

After losing the boat, Stiefel and his team refused to give up their plans. Stiefel was quickly able to purchase a new ship to replace Atlantis II. He also managed to acquire land on Tortuga Island, a territory of Haiti off its north coast. From there, Operation Atlantis would be able to prepare its landfill operations on the Silver Shoals. Stiefel’s troubles would not end, however. The Haitian government eventually learned of the Operation’s libertarian designs and then forced the Atlanteans off of Tortuga. [14] In doing so, Duvalier’s government was accelerating Operation Atlantis’ planned migration to Silver Shoals, where they had already begun the actual construction of Atlantis III. Four sea walls were built and they were already dredging sand for the creation of a new island. [15] They were even able to retrieve some silver coins from a nearby shipwreck. After years of planning and work, Operation Atlantis was approaching the point of actual realization.

Unfortunately for Stiefel, the Silver Shoals area was considered contested territory by both the Bahamas and Haiti. Given the treasure-laden shipwrecks which give the Silver Shoals it its name, there were a number interested groups operating in the area. One private excavation team was able to organize a deal with the Haitian navy for protection from pirates. Once the Haitian navy began patrolling those waters, it did not take long for a Haitian gunboat to happen upon Operation Atlantis. The naval captain in charge had no idea what Stiefel and the Atlanteans were doing with the landfill, and, taking them for a pirate crew, forced the entire operation off the Silver Shoals. With safety of his community at risk, Stiefel had no choice but to evacuate.[16] At this point, Operation Atlantis’ situation appeared less than hopeful.

Atlantis had been troubled since the start of phase II, and the Haitians’ show of force was just a tightening of the metaphorical noose. In a final attempt to revive the Operation, Stiefel bought a towable oil rig, which he attempted to deposit on the Misteriosa Banks between Cuba and Honduras. Regrettably, the oil rig was blown into the open sea by a hurricane and destroyed before it could be properly entrenched. [17] Thus, the final nail was hammered in Operation Atlantis’ coffin.

Operation Atlantis was an unfortunate failure. At each turn, Stiefel and the Atlanteans faced direct opposition, whether it was natural disaster or the barrel of a gun. This opposition proved to be too great for Atlantis, and its existence soon faded into obscurity. Undoubtedly, its story serves as a historical example of the hardships in store for any new country project. Beyond this failure, however, Operation Atlantis succeeded in showing that a group of libertarians could form and stand as a model for future free societies. These individuals were sadly only able to create something which survived for a few years. However, the idea they sought to embody in their struggle for liberty is age-old. By the time Operation Atlantis was underway, the United States was in the middle of the Vietnam conflict, and many of the Atlanteans were draft-eligible. Simply by sailing to the Caribbean, they were refusing to comply with the status quo of their day. From their perspective, it was completely unrealistic to wait for millions of Americans to shift their political views. They wanted liberty now, not somewhere in the shrouded future. Such pursuits will never be simple, but in an age where private entities are disrupting previously government-dominated industries, they are becoming more and more feasible. As new organizations should arise to grasp for the fruits of that liberty, they will be following in the footsteps of Werner Stiefel and Operation Atlantis.  

References

1. Stevens, Werner K. “The Story of Operation Atlantis” 1968. p. 1

2. MacCallum, Spencer Heath. “Werner L. Stiefel’s Pursuit of a Practicum of Freedom”2006

3. NYS Dept. of State Division of Corporations “Stiefel Laboratories, Inc.”

4. Halliday, Roy. “Operation Atlantis and the Radical Libertarian Alliance: Observations of a Fly on the Wall”

5. Stevens, Werner K. “The Story of Operation Atlantis” p. 1

6. Halliday, Roy. “Operation Atlantis and the Radical Libertarian Alliance: Observations of a Fly on the Wall”

7. Halliday, Roy. “Operation Atlantis and the Radical Libertarian Alliance: Observations of a Fly on the Wall”

8. Strauss, Erwin S. “How to Start Your Own Country” 1979. p. 72

9. Halliday, Roy. “Operation Atlantis and the Radical Libertarian Alliance: Observations of a Fly on the Wall”

10. Strauss, Erwin S. “How to Start Your Own Country” 1979. p. 68

11. Strauss, Erwin S. “How to Start Your Own Country” 1979. p. 71

12. Strauss, Erwin S. “How to Start Your Own Country” 1979. p. 71

13. MacCallum, Spencer Heath. “Werner L. Stiefel’s Pursuit of a Practicum of Freedom” 2006

14. Strauss, Erwin S. “How to Start Your Own Country” 1979. p. 74

15. MacCallum, Spencer Heath. “Werner L. Stiefel’s Pursuit of a Practicum of Freedom” 2006

16. MacCallum, Spencer Heath. “Werner L. Stiefel’s Pursuit of a Practicum of Freedom” 2006

17. MacCallum, Spencer Heath. “Werner L. Stiefel’s Pursuit of a Practicum of Freedom” 2006

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