Today, we are delighted to once again welcome author and engineer Nigel Blackwell, student of history and fan of all things that move. His intelligent, thoroughly researched blogs cover everything from futuristic cars to the history of supersonic flight. So when Nigel offered to help us out with a few guest blogs while we are both away, Holmes and I could not have been more honored.

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Overflights and Posturing: U2 Incident and the Cold War Dance


In December 1959, the USA, Britain, and France simultaneously proposed to Nikita Khrushchev, the Chairman of the USSR, a meeting to “consider international questions of mutual concern.” Khrushchev agreed, and a summit was arranged for May 16, 1960 in Paris.

Among the topics “of mutual concern” was the Berlin situation, where the USSR was furious that its citizens were escaping to the west, and a Test Ban Treaty, which would have slowed nuclear weapons development and perhaps prevented further proliferation.

Eisenhower, leery the USSR would under- or over-exaggerate its weapon stockpiles in any negotiations, approved the use of the U-2 spy plane to obtain photographic evidence of Soviet nuclear capabilities. The U-2 was born in the Cold War and designed to carry cameras at 70,000 ft., a height where the US believed its pilot would be safe from the enemy fighters and missiles of the day.

So, on April 9, 1960, Bob Ericson flew a U-2 from northern Pakistan across the southern half of the USSR, and landed in Iran. The Soviet Air Defense Force made several attempts to intercept him, but they were unable to reach his altitude. The photographs were valuable, and the CIA declared the mission a success. A second mission was planned.

On May 1, 1960, a second CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers, departed from the same northern Pakistan base with a planned zigzag route north, overflying ICBM sites and plutonium production facilities, and landing at Bodo, Norway. Obviously, the route was planned to avoid known SAM sites since altitude was the U-2’s only means of defense.

After Ericson’s flight, the Soviet Air Defense Forces had been on red alert and scrambled to intercept Powers with an array of aircraft and ground launched missiles. Some 1200 miles inside the USSR, near Yekateringburg, they did.

At the time the US only knew that Powers had appeared to descend rapidly from 65,000 ft. to around 34,000 ft. and disappeared from their radar.

The USSR, on the other hand, knew that the aircraft had been brought down and the pilot picked up by a group of puzzled locals, disarmed and driven to the authorities.

In Powers’s book, Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident, he relays that he didn’t even have a cover story planned, and as he was captured by a car load of locals, he realized practically everything he carried was carefully labeled “made in the USA.” He even carried a US flag.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced that a US plane had crashed within the USSR, and the US immediately generated a cover story.

NASA announced that it had lost a weather plane when its pilot reported he was having oxygen problems. They even painted a U-2 in NASA colors and distributed leaflets describing the “weather aircraft” to prove it was operating the U-2. Statements were issued to the effect that “there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been.”

Unfortunately, Nikita Khrushchev had a public relations ace up his sleeve when, a week later, he reported the following:

“I must tell you a secret. 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 they (the Americans) have said.”

In the remaining week before the Paris Summit, Khrushchev kept public pressure on the US by staging the presentation of Gary Powers and the wreckage of the U-2.

The US back pedaled on the NASA weather aircraft story, juggled to defuse the situation, and tried to establish access to Powers, all while preparing for the Four Powers summit in Paris.

The USSR was expected to use the U-2 incident to their advantage at the meeting, but no one knew how. Anticipation grew when Khrushchev arrived two days prior to the meeting.

But when Eisenhower arrived the following day, Khrushchev ignored him and visited French president, Charles de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Macmillan. Khrushchev would later claim this was because Eisenhower hadn’t indicated an interest in meeting, but neither de Gaulle nor Macmillan had done so either.

In his own meeting with de Gaulle, Khrushchev handed over a document outlining the USSR’s displeasure over the U-2 incident, along with three specific conditions for his participation in the Paris Summit, namely that Eisenhower should:

1) Condemn the USAF’s provocative act (which must have made someone in the CIA smile, because it was a CIA operation).

2) Guarantee that the US would refrain from such acts in the future.

3) Punish the individuals responsible for the U-2 operation.

Eisenhower, de Gaulle, and Macmillan knew that should the contents of Khrushchev document be leaked to the public, he would have no way to back down without losing face. In fact, by presenting his demands to the British and French, it may have been Khrushchev’s intention that they were leaked to the press.

Either way, at the opening of the summit, where the four powers were to discuss the agenda items for the meeting proper, Khrushchev made public his demands. Eisenhower stated that overflights had been suspended and would not be resumed, but on the other points he was silent.

Khrushchev postured and berated the US for some time and eventually ended by withdrawing a long-standing invitation for Eisenhower to visit the USSR. It was a public slap in the face for Eisenhower.

The meeting collapsed at this point. Khrushchev departed Paris. The Test Ban Treaty was stalled for a further three years, and even then it was very limited in scope. The situation in Berlin persisted until the Soviets constructed the Berlin Wall (which symbolized their failure just as much as the flow of the citizens through Berlin).

The Soviets played the part of the grievously wounded for all they could and sentenced Powers to ten years in prison, only to release him within two years in exchange for a Soviet spy caught in the US. The USSR did no posturing then; perhaps they found it hard to justify the difference between a spy at 70,000 ft. and one on the ground.

The failure of the summit disappointed many around the world. Some say that Eisenhower could have handled the situation better, or that the US should not have put so much at risk with the overflights. Or that Khrushchev had already decided to walk away from the conference, and the downing of Gary Powers gave him the perfect excuse.

What do you think?


Nigel Blackwell