Today in 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded an apology from US President Dwight Eisenhower for an incident in which a CIA U-2 aircraft was shot down over the Urals region of the Soviet Union. It was the latest shot in a battle of wills between two nations who had been at direct odds for most of the previous 15 years and would continue to fight the Cold War for another 30.
In early 1945, American and Soviet forces met at the Elbe River in Germany, each force having fought their was across Europe, but from opposite directions. These two nations had been, along with the other Allied powers, united in their goal of destroying the Nazi war machine. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged that day, but the euphoria of an Allied victory in Europe soon turned to distrust. Two years later, East and West would face off over the fate of West Berlin, an island of democracy in the middle of the Soviet-controlled eastern half of Germany. A shooting war was avoided, but a new type of conflict, soon to be called the Cold War, had begun. It would shape the world for the rest of the 20th century and beyond.
By 1960, 15 years after the end of the Second World War, most of the world was divided into two camps: one dominated by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union. Both nations had extensive stockpiles of nuclear weapons ready for use. It was a deadly stalemate, with neither side willing to force the ultimate issue for fear of bringing an end to civilization. Both sides spent billions of dollars on different war-fighting technologies, but in the United States the general assumption was that at least technologically, superiority lay on the side of democracy.
That assumption was shaken to its core on October 4th, 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik-1, the world's first artificial satellite. It was crude compared to what would come just a few years later, but to the Western imagination it was a giant leap forward in technology. The 185 pound sphere transmitted a regular pattern of signals at frequencies easily picked up by amateur radio enthusiasts all over the world. For 22 days, until Sputnik's batteries failed, the world could plainly hear the sound of Soviet achievement.
Today, we remember the launch of Sputnik-1 as the beginning of the Space Race. It also lent credibility to those in the US government who believed that a “missile gap” existed between the United States and the Soviet Union, with Moscow having a larger missile arsenal than Washington. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, never one to let a good panic go to waste, played on Americans' fears by claiming that Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (or ICBMs) were numerous and advanced. This was not the case, but the launch of Sputnik on top of an ICBM argued otherwise. The order from the Eisenhower White House was clear: more had to be known about the USSR's missile program and other advanced military weaponry.
Enter the Lockheed U-2, nicknamed the Dragon Lady. This incredible spy plane was the brainchild of Kelly Johnson, who headed Lockheed's secret Skunk Works facility in Burbank, California. It was an ungainly creature with the adapted fuselage of a fighter married to the giant wings of a glider. Johnson guided the creation of the U-2 from paper to flying prototype in less than a year; it first flew from Groom Lake (now called Area 51) in August 1955. By summer, 1956, U-2s flown by CIA pilots were taking pictures of the Soviet Union from 70,000 feet, an altitude too high for the Red Air Force's fighters or, it was thought, their surface-to-air missiles.
Soviet officials were made aware of the U-2 flights conducted in 1956 from the surprised reports of their nation's radar operators. Official complaints were made to Washington and Eisenhower put a stop to flights over the nation, although flights over other Eastern Bloc countries were still allowed. The President's rationale was two-fold: first, he did not want Khrushchev to believe the flights were being used to create target lists for a preemptive nuclear strike, although the Air Force certainly gleaned much targeting date from them. Second, he feared the loss of a U-2 to a missile or mechanical problem while on a mission. Such a loss would be highly embarrassing to the United States and could increase already-high Cold War tensions.
Concerns over the missile gap caused Eisenhower to reconsider his ban. In early April, 1960, the first deep penetration flight over the Soviet Union in almost four years began in Pakistan and ended in Iran, both nations having consented to allow the U-2 flights to begin and/or end at air bases within their borders. The second flight, originally scheduled for April 29th but delayed due to bad weather over the flight path, took off from Pakistan on May 1st, 1960. The pilot was CIA employee and former Air Force Captain Francis Gary Powers. His flight was supposed to be a lengthy one that flew over several sites of interest before landing in Norway.
What no one in the United States or Pakistan knew was that the Soviet Air Defense Forces were on high alert and waiting. The April flight had been tracked and intercepts attempted with fighter aircraft to no avail. The word had been passed from Moscow to the commanders of the various air defense commands in the Soviet Union: the next flight would not be allowed to leave the USSR's airspace once it entered. Every fighter within range of the plane's course was to attempt an intercept and ram the U-2 if necessary.
What made the difference on that May 1st were not the fighters that zoomed underneath the U-2 as it flew on its mission, but a surface-to-air missile known to Western observers as the SA-2 Guideline. The SA-2 was first deployed in 1957 in the Soviet Union but it was not believed it could reach the 70,000 foot altitude at which Powers' plane flew. At least three of the missiles were fired at the U-2, although this number varies to as high as 14 depending on the source. What is known for certain is that Francis Gary Powers' aircraft was shot down, along with a MiG-19 trailing him, by an SA-2 over Degtyarsk, a small town east of the Ural Mountains in Russia.
Within hours, President Eisenhower knew he had a problem on his hands. Over the next four days, a cover story was conceived. NASA released a press memo stating that one of the organization's aircraft was missing somewhere north of Turkey and that the pilot had reported problems with his oxygen equipment before losing contact with ground controllers. The American press was then shown a U-2 sporting the NASA agency logo and colors.
The next day, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that a spyplane had been shot down over his country, but gave no further details. The White House took this to mean that the pilot of the craft was dead and the plane heavily damaged. With these assumptions in mind, the Eisenhower Administration released a reiteration of its cover story stating that the spyplane in question was actually a weather research aircraft that must have strayed into Soviet airspace after the pilot lost consciousness due to the problem with his oxygen system. The story claimed there was never any intention to violate the airspace of the USSR.
On May 7th, 1960, Khrushchev played his trump card when he said: “When I made my first report I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well… and now just look how many silly things [the Americans] have said.” Gary Powers, along with a CIA-issued suicide pin to be used in case of imminent capture, was in Soviet custody. His plane was recovered almost intact, its self-destruct charge never having been armed. The United States government had been caught in a gigantic lie.
According to several of his biographers, Khrushchev believed he had developed a strong personal relationship with President Eisenhower. When word of the U-2 shoot-down reached him, the Soviet Premier assumed the overflights must have been resumed by the CIA without Eisenhower's knowledge. However, the President was quick to admit he had ordered the flights, lest the American public and US allies fear that rogue elements in the intelligence establishment were acting on their own. The flights were, he said, “a distasteful necessity.”
The shoot-down of Gary Powers and the ensuing exchange of words between Washington and Moscow all occurred during the first two weeks of May, 1960. As it happened, there was a scheduled meeting, called the Four Powers Paris Summit, scheduled to begin on May 16th. In attendance would be President Eisenhower, Premier Khrushchev, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and French President Charles DeGaulle. It was an important summit and one that Khrushchev was not quick to abandon. He did, however, believe that he needed to confront the American President. The two men had not spoken directly since the May 1st incident, so neither knew what to expect from the other in Paris. Upon his arrival on May 16th, Khrushchev gave a statement in which he demanded an apology for the overflights and a promise they would be halted. President Eisenhower released his own statement which contained no apology but offered to begin negotiations for what would become the Open Skies initiative, by which both nations would have monitored and scheduled use of each others' airspace for basic monitoring purposes.
Khrushchev had already decided to leave the summit, which he did on the same day. His statement was released to the public shortly thereafter and before Eisenhower's statement had been read, an act seized upon by the three other nations present as a sign that the Soviet Premier intended to wreck the summit regardless of Eisenhower's actions. Whether this was poor timing or a deliberate act of subterfuge remains unknown.
Eisenhower, who had scheduled a visit to the Soviet Union for later in 1960 but had his plans cancelled by the Kremlin, never met with Khrushchev again. His two terms in office ended in January, 1961 with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, who would have his own showdowns with Khrushchev over the Bay of Pigs invasion, the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Soviet Premier remained in power until 1964, when he was removed by a group of younger leaders who accused Khrushchev of numerous policy failures and erratic leadership. He was allowed to retire and received a pension, something that had never happened to a former Soviet leader. He had led his nation after years of terror imposed by Josef Stalin; even though he was in Stalin's inner circle for years, he was considered a reformer by his contemporaries.
Francis Gary Powers languished in a Soviet prison for almost two years until he was exchanged for spy Rudolf Abel in February, 1962. He did not receive a hero's welcome and his dismissal from CIA service was almost a given. He flew as a test pilot for Lockheed from 1963 to 1970, but was terminated from the position when he wrote a book about the U-2 Incident which received a great deal of negative publicity. He died in 1977 while flying a news helicopter for Los Angeles TV station KNBC. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The remains of the U-2 aircraft Powers flew can be viewed today at the Central Museum of Armed Forces in Moscow. The display also includes his survival pack and other related items. A small piece of the plane was returned to the United States and is on display at the National Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade, Maryland.
The US Air Force continues to fly the U-2, although the equipment it carries has changed dramatically. It has been used extensively in Afghanistan for consistent real-time monitoring of enemy forces, a service that satellites can only provide for brief periods of time.