The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal - Vol 8 No 5


by N C Smith, BA, M Ed

After World War II two superpowers emerged - the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union subjugated Eastern Europe and forged the nations of Eastern Europe into Soviet satellites. China fell to Communism in 1949. The US sought to contain Communism and to expand its influence in the world. It was a period of 'cold war', a period of nuclear tension, propaganda, superpower rivalry, and spy-counter-spy. Sometimes the Cold War erupted into a shooting war such as Korea from 1950-1953. Spying on each other's military capability was an integral component of this period.

To spy on the Soviet Union and its allies the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) authorized Lockheed to build a plane according to CIA specifications. In August 1955 the Utility-2 or U-2 spy plane made its first flight. It was a strange-looking plane. Its fuselage was 40 feet (12,2 metres) long while its wingspan was 80 feet (24,4 metres). It had a single turbojet engine. There was a single pilot cockpit. As the U-2 carried no weapons its only protection was the altitude it could reach - over 68 000 feet (21 000 metres).

American military experts believed this was out of range of Russian weaponry. The unique aircraft could not be kept completely secret. In late April 1956 the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was the forerunner of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released a press statement announcing that 'a new type of airplane, the Lockheed U-2, had been developed, which, with the logistical and technical assistance of the Air Weather Service of the United States Air Force (USAF), would be used to study turbulence and meteorological conditions.'(1) Obviously the press release failed to mention the sophisticated infra-red cameras aimed through seven portholes under the fuselage. 'They could photograph a strip of earth 125 miles (200 km) wide and 3 000 miles (4 800 km) long, producing prints in 4 000 paired frames. The detail was almost unbelievable. Photo interpreters studying huge enlargements could actually read a newspaper headline that had been nine or ten miles below the aircraft.'(2) The plane also carried equipment that could detect Russian radar (which could only be read when the U-2 was back on the ground). Furthermore the U-2 carried equipment that collected air samples which provided information about Soviet atomic tests.

After the Soviets had rejected President Dwight Eisenhower's 1955 'Open Skies' proposal to allow Soviet and Russian planes to photograph each other's territory, the US instituted Operation Overflight, the U-2 spying on the Soviet Union. The US needed intelligence on Russian military capability - missile sites, airfields, nuclear testing sites and submarine pens. The CIA organized Operation Overflight and hired civilian pilots to fly the missions (the USAF provided logistics).(3) Most of the missions were flown on the periphery of the Soviet Union; however, some penetrated far into Soviet airspace. Eisenhower personally approved or disapproved of the flights. 'Sometimes he even took out a pencil and altered a flight path himself.'(4)

By the late 1950s American intelligence knew that Russian weaponry was growing more sophisticated and more accurate. It was only a matter of time before the Russians solved the control problem in their surface-to-air missiles' (SAM) guidance system. Eisenhower was aware of this and accordingly reduced the number of flights. In the spring of 1960, however, the US was worried about a possible first strike by Russian inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The CIA asked Eisenhower to authorise a U-2 overflight to photograph the ICBM sites. Eisenhower was in a quandary. In mid-May he was to meet Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, French President Charles de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Paris. 'In June Khrushchev was to escort him around the Soviet Union; it would be the first such visit by an American President.'(5) Earlier Eisenhower had stated, 'If one of these planes is shot down this thing is going to be on my head. I'm going to catch hell. The world will be in a mess.'(6) Eisenhower reluctantly authorized the flight; however, he stipulated that May 1 be the last day on which to fly the mission as he did not want to endanger the Paris Summit.

The mission was to be the first of its kind - a U-2 was to fly completely across the Soviet Union. Taking off from Peshawar, Pakistan, the nine hour 3 800 miles (2 900 miles within the Soviet Union) flight was to end in Bodö, Norway. The pilot was to be Francis Gary Powers, a 30 year old ex-USAF fighter pilot. He had been working in the CIA's U-2 programme since May 1956.

Powers was to be flying aircraft number 360. 'It was a "dog", never having flown exactly right. Something was always going wrong. No sooner was one malfunction corrected than another appeared.'(7) The U-2, however, took off at 06:26 a.m. local time on its spy mission. About 1 300 miles (2 080 km) inside the Soviet Union Powers had to switch off the autopilot due to a malfunction. He thought about aborting the mission, but decided against it. He would have to fly the plane manually for the rest of the mission.

Powers's flight path would take him over Sverdlovsk, a major industrial centre, then northwest to Kirov, then north to Archangel, Murmansk and finally to Bodö, Norway. About four hours into the flight Powers made a 90 degree left turn in order to fly over the south-western edge of Sverdlovsk. After the turn, and while Powers was recording instrument readings, 'there was a dull "thump", the aircraft jerked forward, and a tremendous orange flash lit the cockpit and sky.'(8) Powers was knocked back in the seat and shouted 'My god, I've had it now!'(9) Powers managed to free himself from the doomed aircraft; however, he did not activate the destruct mechanism nor did he use the poison needle hidden inside a fake silver dollar. Most probably the U-2 had been damaged by a near hit of a SAM (questions still remain over what actually brought down the U-2). In April 1990 the Soviet army newspaper Red Star reported that Soviet SAM batteries also shot down a Soviet MiG-19 which was in pursuit of the U-2. Khrushchev was atop Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square watching the May Day parade when he was informed about the downing of the U-2. Marshal Sergei Biryuzov, the commander of the Soviet air defence forces, climbed the mausoleum 'carrying happy news, that the plane had been hit by the first rocket. . . and Khrushchev, standing right there on the tribune, congratulated the marshal.(10) Later Biryuzov became Chief of Staff.(11)

On Sunday afternoon 1 May General Andrew Goodpaster, Eisenhower's staff secretary, informed the President about the possible loss of a reconnaissance plane. On 2 May the US issued a statement saying that a 'weather plane' had strayed inside Soviet territory. Allen Dulles, Director of the CIA, repeatedly assured the President that a pilot could not survive a U-2 crash. Khrushchev, however, kept baiting the trap. On 5 May in a speech to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow Khrushchev stated, '. . . an American plane crossed our frontier and continued its flight deep into Soviet territory ... The plane was shot down.. ."(12) The US still denied that it was a spy plane stating that a U-2 weather research plane had been having trouble with its oxygen equipment and was missing. Khrushchev let the Americans get ensnared in their own lies.

On 7 May Khrushchev returned to the Supreme Soviet: 'I must let you in on a secret . . . I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the pilot, who is quite alive and kicking... The people behind this pirate flight could not think up anything better than the stupid story that this was a weather plane and that when the pilot lost consciousness, his plane . . . dragged him against his will into Soviet territory. . . I am quite willing to grant that the President knew nothing about the fact that such a plane was sent into the Soviet Union.. . But this should put us even more on guard. When the military starts bossing the show, the results can be disastrous.'(13)

Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (Democrat-Texas), a Presidential hopeful, issued a statement supporting the President. He said:

'There is no doubt that a serious international crisis may be in the making ... Premier Khrushchev seems determined to inflame the Communist world. Communist leadership never acts without clear-cut purpose.

We do not know just how far Premier Khrushchev intends to push his sabre rattling, but we do know just how far Americans intend to go to preserve their freedoms - right to the limit.

We may wear partisan labels at the polling places but our partisanship does not mean that either party will permit our country to be terrorized . . . Premier Khrushchev is trying to seize upon this incident for some ulterior purpose. If he wants to discuss it clearly and rationally, I am sure this country will reply in kind.

But if he seeks to use it to split our unity, he will be sadly mistaken.'(14)

Eisenhower had two unpleasant options. He could allow blame for the overflight to be borne by his subordinates or he could accept responsibility himself. If he chose the first option he would be telling the world that he was not in charge of his own administration. Subordinates could authorize acts that could lead to war. If he chose the second option he would admit to the world that the US had been lying, and that the US had been involved in this type of espionage since 1956.

Khrushchev continued his diatribe. At an informal news conference at the exhibition of the downed aircraft on 11 May he stated:

'... We assisted the pilot when he flew into our territory and gave him due welcome. If there are other such uninvited guests, we shall receive them just as "hospitably" as this one. We shall try him, try him severely as a spy.

... I consider myself to be an incorrigible optimist. I regard the provocative flight of the American intelligence plane over our country not as a preparation for war, but as a probing. They have not "probed" us, and we boxed the nose of the "probers".

Some United States officials are making a big noise now. Let them! The Soviet Union is not Guatemala. They cannot send troops here. We have the means to cool down bandits, should they wish to use their brazen methods against us. If they behave in this way, they will get this calmative.'(15)

Following a conference with congressional leaders on the same day, Eisenhower issued a statement to the press and answered several questions. He said:

'No one wants another Pearl Harbor. This means that we must have knowledge of military forces and preparations around the world, especially those capable to massive surprise attacks.

... ever since the beginning of my administration I have issued directives to gather, in every feasible way, the information required to protect the United States and the free world against surprise attack and to enable them to make effective preparations for defence.

We prefer and work for a different kind of world - and a different way of obtaining the information essential to confidence and effective deterrents. Open societies, in the day of present weapons, are the only answer.'(16)

In the same press conference Eisenhower said he still intended to visit Russia. In response to a question about a statement made by Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that the United States had committed provocative acts that balanced on the brink of war, Eisenhower said, 'I wonder how many of you people have read the full text of the record of the trial of Mr Abel (KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel). Well, I think he was sentenced to 30 years. Now, this business of saying that you're doing things that are provocative, why, they had better look at their own record.'(17)

Eisenhower decided to go ahead with the summit in Paris. When the President landed at Orly Airport in Paris on 15 May, he soon learned that Khrushchev had placed preconditions in the paths of the meetings. Khrushchev demanded that Eisenhower publically apologise, punish those responsible for the overflight, and promise not to violate Soviet airspace again. Eisenhower suspended the overflights - hardly a concession since the Russians were now able to shoot the U-2 down. Eisenhower, however, refused to apologise or to punish anyone.

Eisenhower arranged to answer Khrushchev as the first order of business. On the morning of 16 May the meeting began with de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and Macmillan. Before de Gaulle could convene the convention and recognize Eisenhower, Khrushchev launched a tirade 'employing the vulgar, uncouth profanity for which he is well known.'(18) Khrushchev withdrew the invitation to Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union. The President, however, was finally able to make a brief reply defending United States actions, but at this point the meeting broke up before it ever formally began. The President later issued a statement concerning the events of the day in Paris. He said:

' ... I concluded that in the circumstances it was best to see if at today's private meeting any possibility existed through the exercise of reason and restraint to dispose of this matter of the overflights, which would have permitted the conference to go forward.

We pointed out that these activities had no aggressive intent, but rather were to assure the safety of the United States and the free world against surprise attack by a power which boasts of its ability to devastate the United States and other countries by missiles armed with atomic warheads.

... these flights were suspended after the recent incident and are not to be resumed.

I have come to Paris to seek agreements with the Soviet Union which would eliminate the necessity for all forms of espionage, including overflights. I see no reason to use this incident to disrupt the conference.

It was thus made apparent that he (Khrushchev) was determined to wreck the Paris conference.

In fact, the only conclusion that can be drawn from his behaviour this morning was that he came all the way from Moscow to Paris with the sole intention of sabotaging this meeting on which so much of the hopes of the world have rested.'(19)

Eisenhower came in for criticism at home. On 21 May James Reston, writing in the New York Times said, 'Mr Eisenhower was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the greatest series of humiliating blunders suffered by the United States in a decade.'(20)

Senator J. William Fulbright (Democrat-Arkansas) said that 'we forced Khrushchev to wreck the conference by our in ineptness.'(21) He went on to say, 'It is difficult to see how anyone could have been expected to act substantially different from the way Chairman Khrushchev acted under the circumstances which confronted him in Paris.'(22)

Adlai Stevenson, who had been Eisenhower's Democratic opponent in the 1952 and 1956 Presidential elections, admitted that Khrushchev had wrecked the summit but that 'we handed him the crowbar and the sledgehammer.'(23) He went on to say, 'We sent an espionage plane deep into the Soviet Union just before the Summit meeting. Then we denied it. Then we admitted it. And then when Mr Khrushchev gave the President an "out" by suggesting that he was not responsible for ordering the flight, the President proudly asserted that he was responsible.'(24)

Senator John F Kennedy (Democrat-Massachusetts) also criticized Eisenhower's handling of the incident. He said, 'The Administration first issued a lie; then a set of contradictory statements; third, an over-frank confession of our guilt; and finally and belatedly an announcement of the suspension of the flights.'(25) Kennedy was also quoted as saying, 'I certainly would express regret at the timing and give assurances that it would not happen again. I would express regret that the flight did take place.'(26) Two years later as President, Kennedy would use the U-2 to overfly Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A U-2 was downed over Cuba by a Russian-built SAM.

In contrast to the above criticism Senator Barry Goldwater (Republican-Arizona), who would be the Republican Party's unsuccessful candidate for President in 1964, had no apologies for the U-2 incident. He was happy about the collapse of the Paris Summit. To him the summit was successful since 'the only summit meeting that can succeed is one that does not take place.'(27) Communists only used summits to gain concessions from the West. Goldwater was proud of the U-2 and its achievements; he stated, 'We should all be proud that American ingenuity and industry produced an aircraft capable of penetrating Russia's vaunted defences.'(28)

American public opinion was solidly behind Eisenhower. In a Gallup Poll released on 8 June 1960, 58 per cent said Eisenhower had handled the U-2 incident well; 29 per cent said he had handled it badly, and 13 per cent had no opinion.(29) In another Gallup Poll released on the same day 68 per cent of Americans approved of the way Eisenhower was handling his job as President.(30)

Many historians, political scientists, government officials and military men believed Khrushchev torpedoed the Paris Conference intentionally. In Khrushchev's official report to the Soviet Union he said:

'After the Soviet disclosure of the U-2 flights, we resolved to do nothing that would present the United States President from getting out of this embarrassing predicament. We even declared that the United State President hardly knew about and certainly did not approve such actions and that evidently the hotheads from the Pentagon and Allen Dulles were to blame. But Eisenhower did not take advantage of the opportunity granted him. He declared that the spy flight had been approved by him and made for his knowledge... This is when it became obvious that the purpose of the aggressive actions by the United States was to torpedo the summit meeting.'(31)

Furthermore, Khrushchev and the Kremlin knew of American overflights of both China and Russia that had been going on for four years. The Communists did not have the weapons to threaten these flights. Khrushchev did not make a public issue of these flights because it would blow a hole in Soviet 'superiority'.

Khrushchev blew up the U-2 incident to strengthen his hand diplomatically. He wanted to use the U-2 incident to force concessions from the West on Berlin. When the West stood firm, Khrushchev wanted to avoid or to conceal defeat so he scuttled the conference. Khrushchev was also under pressure from China. After his visit to Washington in September 1959, Mao Tse-Tung acted decidedly coolly towards him. Khrushchev used the U-2 incident to strengthen his hand with China and with hardliners in the Kremlin.

In the 1960 Presidential election Senator John F Kennedy defeated Eisenhower's Vice-President, Richard Nixon. Eisenhower stated that Kennedy's victory was 'the biggest defeat of my life, a repudiation of everything I've done for eight years.'(32) Shortly before he died in 1969 while reflecting the failed Paris Summit Eisenhower stated, 'I had longed to give the United States and the world a lasting peace. I was able only to contribute to a stalemate.'(33)

In his memoirs Khrushchev called the U-2 incident 'a landmark event in the history of our struggle against the American imperialists who were waging the Cold War'(34) In June 1961 Khrushchev met President Kennedy in Vienna to discuss Berlin. Reflecting on this meeting Khrushchev said, 'I joked with him that we had cast the deciding ballot in his election to the Presidency over that son-of-a-bitch Richard Nixon. When he asked me what I meant, I explained that by waiting to release the U-2 pilot Gary Powers until after the American election, we kept Nixon from being able to claim that he could deal with the Russians; our play made a difference of at least half a million votes, which gave Kennedy the edge he needed.'(35) Khrushchev was deposed as premier of the Soviet Union in 1964. He died in 1971.

Powers had been captured on a collective farm and handed over to the KGB. He was interrogated by the KGB for 61 days; however, he was not tortured. He was put on a show trial from 17 to 19 August 1960 in Moscow's Hall of Columns. He was sentenced for 10 years imprisonment. Powers was confined from 1 May to 8 September 1960 in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, the headquarters of the KGB. From 9 September 1960 to 8 February 1962 he was confined in Vladimir Prison about 150 miles (240 km) east of Moscow. On 10 February 1962 Powers was exchanged for Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel in West Berlin.

On his return to the US Powers was criticized in some quarters for his behaviour after the U-2 was doomed. A New York Sunday Herald Tribune headline read 'A HERO OR A MAN WHO FAILED HIS MISSION'. In the article the paper asked some biting questions.

'Why, knowing that neither he nor the U-2 should fall into unfriendly hands, didn't he blow himself up, and the plane? Why didn't Powers use the poison needle he had on hand? Or the pistol he had with him?'(36)

Newsday magazine stated that Powers should not receive back pay for the time he spent in Russian captivity. In an editorial the magazine stated:

'Our recommendation would be no. He was hired to do a job, and he flopped at that job. He left his U-2 behind, substantially undamaged, so the Reds could copy or improve upon it. Under the circumstances, back pay would be laughable. He is lucky to be home again. Anything he can contribute about the Russians will be willingly received. But he is no hero, and he should not be regarded as one. The White House is eminently right in not bringing him in for a meeting with the President (Kennedy) ..(37)

Powers, unfortunately, could not reply to his critics. The poison needle was optional. In fact the first time he had ever carried poison was on the ill-fated overflight.(38) Furthermore, the destruct device would not have destroyed the U-2. It was designed only to destroy some of the equipment.(39) Moreover, Powers withheld sensitive information from the Russians. He did not reveal the true operating altitude of the U-2, the name of his CIA superior nor the names of other U-2 pilots. He did not tell the Russians about the 'special' missions he had flown; these missions were US spying on its own allies. Powers also withheld information about other missions he had flown over Russia. Fortunately for the British Powers withheld information about British involvement in the U-2 overflights. From early 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had the authority to order U-2 over-flights of Russia independent of Eisenhower. British pilots had been trained by the CIA for such ventures. Macmillan had ordered several such missions using American U-2s flown by British pilots.(40) Such disclosures to the Soviets would have been political dynamite.

Powers was exonerated by the CIA. The CIA, however, delayed giving Powers the Intelligence Star Medal, the CIA's highest award. He was scheduled to receive it in 1963 but only received it in 1965. The delay was for political reasons. (President Kennedy had been assassinated in November 1963. He was succeeded to the Presidency by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson). Powers felt slighted when he read that the medal had been awarded for 'courageous action' and 'valour' prior to 1960.(41)

Powers was also exonerated by the Senate Armed Services Committee. When Powers appeared before the committee a Senate page slipped Powers an envelope. Later in the hearing Powers opened the envelope to find a Senate memorandum written in pencil; it read, 'You did a good job for your country. Thanks. Barry Goldwater.'(42)

Powers worked briefly for the CIA training agents on how to cope with captivity. On 15 October 1962 he went to work for Lockheed as a test pilot. On May Day Powers's book, Operational Overflight, was published. Soon afterwards Powers was informed that he no longer had a job at Lockheed and that the CIA, not Lockheed, had been paying his salary.(43) In 1977 Powers was killed in a helicopter crash while workin for a Los Angeles television station. President Jimmy Carter allowed him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which was once part of the estate of Confederate General Robert E Lee's wife, Mary Curtis Lee.

The U-2 and its successor the SR-71 Blackbird have been superseded by spy satellites. The U-2 programme, however, will go down in history as one of the world's most successful espionage operations.



Beschloss, Michael R Mayday: The U-2 Affair. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986.
Beschloss, Michael R 'The U-2 Affair'. Memories. April/May 1990.
Blight, James G and Welch, David A. On the Brink: Americans and Soviets Re-examine the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.
Branyan, Robert L and Larsen, Lawrence H, editors. The Eisenhower Administration 1953-1961: A Documentary History. 2 Vols. New York: Random House, Inc., 1971.
Gallup, Dr George H. The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935-1971, 3 Vols. New York: Random House, 1972.
Goldwater, Barry M. Why Not Victory? New York: MacFadden-Bartell Corporation, 1962.
Gunther, John. Inside Europe Today. New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1961.
Khrushchev, Nikita. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company,. 1970.
'Kremlin Admits Own Jet Downed in U-2 Incident.' Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, 30 April 1990, sec. A.
Lasky, Victor. JFK The Man and the Myth. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.
Manchester, William. The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.
Powers, Francis Gary and Gentry, Curt. Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Whitney, Thomas P., editor. Khruschev Speaks. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /