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The Soviet Threat and American Espionage
From his first few days in office in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was troubled with the lack of intelligence about Soviet military capabilities. Since the end of World War II, the USSR had been flexing its political and military muscles, seeking to become a dominant world power on par with the United States.
At a conference in Geneva in 1955, President Eisenhower proposed an “Open Skies” plan, which would allow a reciprocal agreement between the US and USSR to over-fly each other’s countries for the purpose of surveillance of nuclear facilities and launch pads. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev rejected the idea of international inspections of any kind. The Americans feared that the Soviets were developing numerous intercontinental missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States.
To solve the problem of Eisenhower’s lack of covert intelligence, James Killian, the president's science advisor, along with Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, proposed the development of a high-altitude photoreconnaissance aircraft to take detailed photographs of ground targets. Eisenhower liked the idea, but with one stipulation: the pilots would have to be from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) rather than Air Force pilots.
The reason for Eisenhower’s decision was to give the United States the ability to definitely state that the U-2 missions were not associated with the military; rather, they were to gather information. The president knew that the Soviets could easily take the planned overflights of their territory as an act of war and wanted to divorce the espionage from the military. Since maintaining a cohort of spies in Russia’s closed society was virtually impossible, the Americans chose to monitor the Soviets from 14 miles above.
The U-2 Spy Plane
The Lockheed Corporation began development of the secret spy aircraft at their Skunkworks facility in Burbank, California, in 1955. Heading the design effort was the talented aerospace engineer Kelly Johnson. The U-2, as it was designated, was built on an F-104 airframe but was lighter, with an expanded wingspan of a total of 80 feet.
The large wingspan and the light weight made the aircraft effectively a glider, allowing it a range of nearly 5,000 miles and a maximum altitude of 72,000 feet (nearly 14 miles). The state-of-the-art camera system could photograph the smallest of objects on the ground from 14 miles up. When the U-2 reached its maximum altitude, it was safe from Soviet fighter jets and missiles, which had a maximum altitude of around 50,000 feet.
The first flights of the U-2 into Soviet airspace occurred in early July 1956. For this first mission, the plane took off in West Germany, crossed Eastern Europe, captured images over Russian air force bases in the Ukraine, flew northeast to Leningrad, and then returned to its base in West Germany. After a few days, the photos from these first two flights were ready for inspection. Eisenhower was amazed at the detail of the photos, showing objects below with great clarity.
After an analysis of the photos, it was determined that there was no feared missile gap, and the Soviets were yet to complete a launch of an intercontinental missile. The lack of intelligence about military equipment, particularly the number of bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, caused many in Congress and the military to fear that the Soviets were further ahead than the Americans in their development of long-range weapons.
The Soviets were very much aware of the two overflights of their territory, filing a formal diplomatic protest with the US State Department, which denied the overflights ever occurred. To avoid international embarrassment, the Russians did not disclose the overflights publicly.
Due to the high international stakes—overflights could be considered an act of war—Eisenhower approved each flight of the U-2 personally. The president was told the risk of a plane being shot down was extremely low, and if one were shot down, the pilot would surely die in the ensuing crash. The US would fly several more spy missions over the USSR in the years leading up to May 1960.
May Day 1960
Just a month before the planned May 16, 1960, Four Powers Summit in Paris, where Eisenhower, Khrushchev, British prime minister Harold Macmillan, and French president Charles de Gaulle were scheduled to discuss the rising risk that the large number of nuclear weapons presented to the world, Eisenhower was asked to approve a series of U-2 flights over Russia. Cautiously, with his top adviser’s assurances, the president approved the additional flights.
The U-2 was growing rapidly obsolete due to advances in surface-to-air missiles (SAM), the development of improved spy planes, and the anticipated launch of the spy satellite named Corona. The last flight, scheduled for May 1, 1960, happened to be on the most festive day on the Russian calendar. It was their annual celebration of the labor movement.
The entire Kremlin leadership had assembled atop the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square to review a massive parade. After the tanks, artillery, and missile launchers passed before the leaders, thousands of citizens in festive spring attire walked across the square carrying banners proclaiming peace and communism. On that fateful morning, the veteran U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers, took off from Peshawar, Pakistan, bound for an airbase in Norway.
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Powers had flown the U-2 more than two dozen times over Russia, but he was apprehensive about this mission since it was nine hours long, an exceedingly long mission without food or a bathroom break. The planned nine-hour flight would cover nearly 4,000 miles and take Powers and the U-2 over suspected Russian missile sites
Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 Shot Down Over Russia
After nearly an hour delay waiting for the official confirmation code from Washington to approve the flight, around 6:20 a.m. Powers taxied the U-2 down the runway and guided the craft into the air. About 90 minutes into the flight, he encountered heavy cloud cover, making it more difficult to stay on course. Once he crossed into Russia, he began to see contrails of jet aircraft below him, making him very aware of the fact that he was being tracked by the Russians.
Around four hours into the flight, just south of Sverdlovsk, he heard a thump, then quickly the plane began to shake violently and the sky around the cockpit lit up with a bright orange glow. He thought to himself, “My God, I’ve had it now.” The volley of surface-to-air missiles that exploded around the U-2 caused violent shockwaves that caused the U-2 to break apart. The aircraft had been built as light as possible to allow it to gain such high altitudes; however, the weight reductions came at the cost of structural integrity, thus making the craft more fragile than a typical fighter jet.
With the dying aircraft spinning and violently pitching, the g-forces were tremendous on his body. His first thought was to hit the self-destruct switch in the cockpit, which would have given him 70 seconds to get free of the plane. As the cockpit began to lose pressure, his suit began to expand, putting him in an awkward position for ejection. He knew if he were not in the proper position for the use of the ejection seat, he would be severely injured or killed in the process.
Rather, at 35,000 feet, he jettisoned the canopy and decided to climb out of what was left of the U-2. As soon as he released the straps on his harness, he was immediately yanked from his seat, only tethered to the plane by his oxygen tube. Dangling like a yo-yo on the end of a string, he struggled against the tremendous forces acting upon him. He attempted climbing back into the cockpit to activate the self-destruct mechanism but was not able to reach the switch.
To complicate matters further, as he was exposed to the extremely cold air in the upper atmosphere, his face shield iced over from the moisture in his breath; now he couldn’t see what he was doing! The oxygen tube tethering him to the craft broke, freeing him from the wreckage as it was being pulled downward by the unceasing pull of earth’s gravity.
From here until he hit the ground all he could do was absorb the silent vistas of the Russian countryside as he drifted downward. He later recalled his thoughts during those harrowing minutes: “I knew I was as good as dead, and I also knew in my mind that my death would not be a fast one but one of slow torture….”
As soon as he hit the ground, workers on a collective farm helped him disentangle from the parachute. Shortly afterward, armed men arrived by car and hauled the dazed pilot off for interrogation.
Citadel of Moscow and seat of government of Russia and the former USSR.
The American Coverup Begins
Word of the lost aircraft reached Washington later in the day, but it raised no alarms as it was assumed that the plane was destroyed due to the impact and the pilot was dead. Eisenhower initially decided to ignore the incident, hoping Khrushchev would do the same for the sake of international harmony.
On May 5, Khrushchev addressed the Supreme Soviet, announcing they had shot down an American spy plane deep inside their territory. Khrushchev, a master of the propaganda game, only released partial information about the incident, not revealing the pilot was alive and in custody.
Now the US coverup began. NASA promptly issued a press release that one of its U-2 meteorological research planes was presumed lost on a mission that occurred on May 1 “when its pilot reported having oxygen difficulties over the Lake Van, Turkey, area.” The State Department issued a similar story: “It is entirely possible that having failure in the oxygen equipment, which could result in the pilot losing consciousness, the plane continued on automatic pilot for a considerable distance and accidentally violated Soviet airspace.”
Khrushchev played his hand masterfully when two days later he addressed the Supreme Soviet announcing that they had wreckage of the plane, the pilot, and the film from the plane’s elaborate camera system. The premier announced to the audience, “The pilot’s name is Francis Gary Powers. He is thirty years old and works for the CIA.” In addition, the premier showed photos of Soviet air bases taken from the plane.
In Washington, the president, known for his quick temper, was livid. The worst had happened; now Khrushchev had irrefutable proof that the United States had systematically violated Soviet sovereignty. Washington continued to deny the story in a State Department press release: “It has been established that insofar as the authorities in Washington are concerned, there was no such authorization for such a flight as described by Mr. Khrushchev.”
The following Sunday, after attending a church service in Gettysburg, President Eisenhower issued a statement acknowledging that for the past four years U-2s had regularly been sent into the Soviet Union under direct orders from the president to obtain knowledge of the military-industrial complex. Khrushchev had assumed that Eisenhower wasn’t directly responsible for the espionage, blaming the incursions on a rogue element in the military or CIA.
Khrushchev was personally insulted when he learned Eisenhower had approved of the U-2 flights. The premier and the president, according to Khrushchev, were “friends” that didn’t lie to each other. As a result of Khrushchev’s weeklong visit to America in 1959, he believed he could trust what Eisenhower was telling him.
The highest legislative body of government in the USSR, nominally the Soviet Parliament.
The Four Powers Summit in Paris
Eisenhower’s decision to take direct responsibility for the U-2 overflights had serious implications: it doomed the planned Paris summit, greatly dimmed the chance for a nuclear test ban treaty, and thus eliminated the anticipated reductions in military expenditures.
President de Gaulle of France was the host of the summit and presided over the meeting. Khrushchev demanded to give an opening speech where he spent 45 minutes lambasting the United States and the U-2 overflights. Eisenhower gave a brief reply, pointing out that the U-2 flights were non-hostile, for information gathering purposes only, and anyway were being put on hold.
At this point, the Soviet delegation abruptly rose and left the conference room. The other delegates just looked at each other in disbelief. De Gaulle said he would stay in touch with the Russians and dismissed the meeting. The collapse of the summit had significant and lasting consequences in souring the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Prior to the U-2 incident, the two countries had been working toward a lasting “peaceful coexistence” and placing limits on nuclear proliferation. The debacle scuttled a planned visit by Eisenhower to the Soviet Union to discuss nuclear arms reduction and the growing tension between the East and West in Berlin. Eisenhower later stated, “I had longed to give the United States and the world a lasting peace. I was able only to contribute to a stalemate.”
The Fate of Gary Powers
Once in custody, Powers was flown to the KGB headquarters in Moscow. There he was thrown into a small cell by himself and questioned for 19 days consecutively by a team of investigators, with some sessions lasting 11 hours. The CIA and Air Force had given Powers virtually no instructions on how to handle interrogations if he were captured.
Not knowing exactly how to proceed, he vowed to himself not to give up any secret military information to the Soviets. Rather than torture him to death, the Soviets put Powers on a public trial for espionage, which began on August 17, 1960. His parents, his wife, and her mother were allowed to attend the trial. His father brought along an attorney and the CIA provided two additional attorneys.
Two days later, Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to ten years of confinement, three of which were to be in prison, with the remainder spent at a labor camp. After nearly two years of prison, Powers was part of a prisoner exchange for a Russian spy known as “Rudolf Abel.”
When Powers returned to the United States, he received a cool reception. He was criticized for not activating the self-destruct mechanism in the U-2 and for not using the “suicide pill” he was given to kill himself. He later appeared before a Senate hearing and was exonerated.
Timeline of the U-2 Incident
July 21, 1955 - Eisenhower presents his "Open Skies" proposal.
July 1956 – U-2 overflights begin over the Soviet Union.
May 1, 1960 - The unarmed reconnaissance airplane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, is shot down over the USSR near Sverdlovsk.
May 3, 1960 - NASA issues a statement that an aircraft on a joint NASA - US Air Force weather service mission in Turkey had apparently gone down in the Lake Van, Turkey, region.
May 5, 1960 - Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivers a long speech to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow announcing a US spy plane has been shot down deep in Soviet territory.
May 6, 1960 - Pravda publishes an article detailing how the U-2 was shot down.
May 7, 1960 - Khrushchev gives a speech to the Supreme Soviet announcing the pilot is alive and parts of the aircraft have been recovered, including the cameras. He displays samples of the developed film showing Soviet military installations.
May 8, 1960 – Eisenhower issues a press release acknowledging the U-2 flights over Soviet territory.
May 16, 1960 – The Four Powers Summit in Paris ends in failure. The Soviets storm out of the meeting.
August 19, 1960 – The U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is convicted of espionage in a Soviet Court.
June 20, 1961 – John F. Kennedy is inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States.
- Powers, Francis Gary Jr. and Keith Dunnavant. Spy Pilot, Francis Gary Powers, The U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy. Connecticut: Prometheus Books, 2019.
- Smith, Jean Edward. Eisenhower: In War and Peace. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012.
- Taubman, William. Khrushchev, The Man and His Era. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005.
- West, Doug. Dwight D. Eisenhower: A Short Biography: 34th President of the United States. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2021.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 15, 2021:
Thank you very much for this article on the 1960s spy incident involving the CIA pilot Powers. I think he got 10 years in prison and exchanged for the Russian spy Col Abel.. Thank you for sharing an interesting episode.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 15, 2021:
Doug, how well I remember this incident! You see, my maiden name was Frances Powers and I was constantly harassed and criticized. I felt Powers never got a fair shake. Your articles are always impressive and memorable.