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This week in history: Russia leader Nikita Khrushchev reveals the U-2 Incident

Published: Wednesday, May 8 2013 5:06 p.m. MDT

In this March 6, 1962, file photo, U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers sits in the witness chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, during his first public appearance since release by the Russians on Feb. 10, 1962.  He is holding a U-2 model plane.  (The Associated Press) In this March 6, 1962, file photo, U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers sits in the witness chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, during his first public appearance since release by the Russians on Feb. 10, 1962. He is holding a U-2 model plane. (The Associated Press)

On May 7, 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers had survived being shot down by Soviet anti-aircraft weapons. In doing so the Soviets exposed that the United States had been spying on Russia and that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had lied to cover it up.

In the mid 1950s the United States began flying the Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” on reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. The plane operated at very high altitudes, and carried an array of cameras and scientific equipment. The purpose of the flights was to gather intelligence on Soviet military installations, notably nuclear missile silos and other atomic facilities. The Central Intelligence Agency ran the operation.

Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, had assured Eisenhower that the Soviets lacked the ability to shoot down a U-2 plane, so the potential for an international incident was negligible. On the off chance that one did crash inside the Soviet Union, however, the CIA equipped its pilots with cyanide capsules so that they would not be taken alive by the Soviets.

By 1960, however, it was accepted that the U-2 program would soon be phased out. The Soviets had launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, and the United States followed suit soon after. As space technology improved, satellite cameras would soon replace the need for U-2-based intelligence. Additionally, Soviet weaponry was improving, and many felt that soon Soviet air defenses would make U-2 flights untenable in Soviet airspace.

On May 1, 1960, Powers, a former Air Force officer now flying for the U-2 program, took off from a base in Pakistan, with a flight plan that would take him northwest, where he would land in Norway. Assuming all went according to plan the flight would take nine hours, covering nearly 4,000 miles. It was the last U-2 flight Eisenhower had authorized to fly reconnaissance over the USSR.

Despite the CIA belief that the Soviets lacked the missile technology to bring down a U-2, Soviet scientists had been hard at work, and advancements had been made. A Soviet surface-to-air missile brought down Powers' plane, and when Washington learned that the plane was lost it was assumed Powers would not survive the crash. If he did he would most likely swallow his suicide pill.

On May 5, Khrushchev publicly stated that Soviet air defenses had shot down an American plane in a speech to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow. He blamed militarists in Washington for taking such a provocative action, and was careful to not criticize Eisenhower directly. He also didn't mention that Powers had been taken alive. NASA had a cover story ready, stating that one of its research planes collecting meteorological data over Turkey had most likely veered off course and unintentionally violated Soviet airspace.

In his book, “Khrushchev: The Man and His Era,” biographer William Taubman wrote, “Washington's handling of the U-2 crisis made a bad situation worse. Instead of remaining silent or settling on a story and sticking with it, the Eisenhower administration started with a clumsy lie and then damagingly dribbled out the truth. ... Although the (cover) story was a transparent lie, Eisenhower thought it would allow Khrushchev to continue to ignore U-2 incursions. Even if the plane had been shot down, the president assumed its pilot had perished.”

Khrushchev was baiting the Americans, forcing them to either lie or admit they had been illegally violating Soviet airspace and spying on them. The Eisenhower administration chose to lie, and Khrushchev then had the Americans right where he wanted them.

In his book “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” biographer Jean Edward Smith wrote, “Two days later (on May 7) Khrushchev sprang the trap. Speaking once again to the Supreme Soviet, the chairman announced that they not only had the wreckage of the plane, but the pilot and the film. 'The pilot's name is Francis Gary Powers. He is 30 years old and works for the CIA.' Khrushchev then displayed some of the photos showing Soviet air bases with fighters lined up on the runway. 'The whole world knows that Allen Dulles is no weatherman,' said Khrushchev.”

Eisenhower now had no alternative but to admit the truth. He soon notified the press that indeed U-2 reconnaissance flights had been going on for four years, under his authority. “We will now just have to endure the storm,” Eisenhower said.

Smith writes, “Eisenhower's decision to accept personal responsibility for the U-2 flights may have been the finest hour of his presidency. Rather than force Dulles and (CIA official) Richard Bissell to walk the plank for reasons of state, Eisenhower acknowledged his own culpability.”

Eisenhower's belated confession would cost him dear. Only a few days later Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle of France, and Harold Macmillan of Great Britain met in Paris for a long-planned four-power summit. The recent crisis and Eisenhower's handling of it meant the summit was bound to fail. Khrushchev used the summit to play the aggrieved party, as though the Soviets hadn't been sending spies into the United States for years, and demanded an apology. When none was forthcoming the Soviet premier stormed out of the conference. An offer to have Eisenhower visit the USSR was also rescinded. “How can I invite as a dear guest the leader of a country which has committed an aggressive act against us?”

In the end the political fallout from the U-2 incident dampened the final months of Eisenhower's presidency, but did not diminish his accomplishments. Soon Eisenhower was out and John F. Kennedy was in, a much younger man who would make his own set of foreign policy missteps the following year.

Powers was initially sentenced in a Soviet court to 10 years imprisonment for espionage, though less than two years later he was exchanged for a Soviet spy.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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