U-2 Incident Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The capture of a U.S. spy plane over Soviet territory, on the eve of a planned summit between the two powers, disrupted the attitude of peaceful coexistence that their leaders had cultivated and resulted in the cancellation of the summit.

Summary of Event

In the spring of 1960, the world was basking in a feeling known as “the spirit of Camp David,” named after the presidential retreat in Camp David Camp David summit meeting (1959) Cold War;summit meetings , Maryland, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower had met in September, 1959, with the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita S. Khrushchev. For the first time since the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth had talked face-to-face. While nothing substantive was accomplished in these conversations, they provided an optimistic ending for Khrushchev’s goodwill tour of the United States, and people began to think that the Cold War, which had lasted for more than a decade, was coming to an end. All hopes were placed on the Paris summit conference to be held on May 16, 1960, between Khrushchev, Eisenhower, British foreign minister Harold Macmillan, and French president Charles de Gaulle. U-2 incident[U two incident] U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];U-2 incident[U two incident] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];U-2 incident[U two incident] Espionage Cold War;U-2 incident[U two incident] [kw]U-2 Incident (May 1, 1960)[U two incident] U-2 incident[U two incident] U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];U-2 incident[U two incident] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];U-2 incident[U two incident] Espionage Cold War;U-2 incident[U two incident] [g]Europe;May 1, 1960: U-2 Incident[06500] [g]Soviet Union;May 1, 1960: U-2 Incident[06500] [c]Cold War;May 1, 1960: U-2 Incident[06500] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 1, 1960: U-2 Incident[06500] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;Cold War Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;Cold War Powers, Francis Gary

Such a Big Four summit was long overdue. The problem of a divided Germany, and especially the status of West Berlin, had reemerged to plague the world’s leaders. Germany had been divided into four zones of occupation, each administered by a different member of the Big Four. Berlin, the capital and largest city of Germany, lay deep within the Soviet zone. It, too, was divided into four administrative sectors. The original partition had been intended as a temporary measure, a compromise between Soviet fears of a united, prosperous, and armed German nation and U.S. concerns to build a strong bulwark against communism in Central Europe.

Neither Soviet fears nor U.S. plans had greatly changed in the postwar years, so the uneasy temporary compromise had simply remained. Between 1947 and 1949, the three Western zones began to merge economically and politically, and on May 8, 1949, they formed themselves into the Federal Republic of Germany, with Bonn as the capital. On October 7, 1949, the Soviet (Eastern) zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The situation in Germany was a frequent point of friction between the Soviet Union and the United States.

In late 1958, the situation had flared up again. The continued U.S. rearming of West Germany West Germany Cold War;Germany excited Soviet fears, especially when some of the more recent supplies included artillery and bombers capable of handling nuclear weapons. The Soviets also considered the proposed integration of West Germany into a close economic union with France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (the European Economic Community, or Common Market) to be a threat to their interests. Between November 10 and 27, 1958, therefore, the Soviets made a series of proposals and demands concerning the divided city of Berlin, which essentially gave a six-month deadline to the Western powers to end their occupation of Berlin.

The Soviets said that they would turn over administration of their sector to the GDR; that nation would also control the access routes to Berlin. The Western powers would have to leave by that time or turn administration over to a United Nations peacekeeping force. The Western powers, especially the United States, found these terms unacceptable because they did not recognize the GDR as a legal government. They would ignore or force any GDR checkpoints, they said. An attack on the GDR would be considered an attack on the Soviet Union, the Soviets replied. Later, Khrushchev removed the six-month deadline so that the subject could be discussed at Paris.

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Ever since his victory over his rivals G. M. Malenkov, N. A. Bulganin, and Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov in July of 1957, Khrushchev Soviet leadership;Nikita S. Khrushchev[Khrushchev] had been the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union. As first secretary of the Communist Party and premier of the Soviet Union, he occupied the most powerful positions in the party and state executive hierarchies. Since 1957, he had become one of the strongest advocates of the increased production of consumer goods, opposing the traditional Soviet emphasis on heavy industry and defense spending. One of the most important corollaries of this program was a policy of peaceful coexistence with the West; lowered tensions, he hoped, could allow for a smaller defense budget.

Khrushchev’s attitude was highly controversial in the communist world and within the Soviet Union itself. The Chinese communists were especially concerned about the implications of the doctrine of peaceful coexistence. While the Sino-Soviet Chinese-Soviet relations[Chinese Soviet relations] Soviet-Chinese relations[Soviet Chinese relations] split was not to emerge into the open until 1962, the issue of rapprochement with the West had already soured relations between the two states. A similar point of view could be heard within the highest circles of the Soviet Communist Party, from the military leaders, who did not trust the West, as well as the advocates of heavy industry, who were unenthusiastic about the whole thrust of Khrushchev’s policies. Khrushchev’s Camp David initiative, therefore, had been undertaken against heavy internal opposition, but his power was such that he did not have to worry about this opposition—as long as his policy was showing visible results. He needed a clear victory at the summit to ensure his domestic political position.

At 8:55 a.m. on May 1, 1960, a U.S. U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane was shot down by a Soviet ground-to-air missile near Sverdlovsk, three hundred miles inside Soviet territory. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, did not succeed in destroying the plane, and both he and it fell into Soviet hands. On May 5, Khrushchev reported the incident to the Soviet Union’s Supreme Soviet, without mentioning that both the pilot and the plane had been recovered. Later that day, the United States released a story maintaining that the plane was collecting scientific data on the Turkish-Soviet border and had probably strayed across.

Two days later, Khrushchev disclosed Powers’s capture and confession, exploding the cover story issued by the United States. Khrushchev’s statement embarrassed the United States but did not close the door to the summit, as Khrushchev added that he was willing to believe that President Eisenhower had not known of the flight. The United States at first seemed willing to take advantage of this loophole but later vacillated. On May 11, President Eisenhower took responsibility for the U-2 flights, which had been going on since 1956, calling them a “distasteful . . . necessity.” Although a moratorium was called on future flights, the United States would not say that it was going to cancel them altogether.

Inside the Soviet Union, the U.S. acknowledgment of responsibility and apparent determination to continue the overflights came as a decisive blow to Khrushchev’s policy of peaceful coexistence. On May 10 or 11, Khrushchev apparently was outvoted in a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and a hard-line stand at the summit was mandated. At the first meeting of the conference later that month, Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would not participate unless the United States repudiated the U-2 program and punished those responsible for instituting it. Eisenhower refused, and the much-vaunted summit never took place.

Significance

The diplomatic consequences of the collapse of the summit were less than expected. On his way back to the Soviet Union, Khrushchev withdrew his plan to turn over administration to Berlin and its approaches to East Germany. Thus, the Berlin question did not explode—but neither was it settled. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, would find this issue to be one of the first diplomatic problems with which he had to deal.

The affair, particularly the failed cover story, somewhat weakened the United States’ carefully defined image as a benign force in the Cold War. The Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba in the following year further tarnished Washington’s international reputation. Moscow had its own embarrassments in the early 1960’s, particularly during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which prevented the United States from monopolizing international opprobrium at the height of the Cold War. Although Khrushchev made a point of linking the collapse of the Paris conference to the U.S. violation of Soviet airspace, it is unlikely that any significant resolution of the issues that divided Washington and Moscow could have been achieved in the environment of the early 1960’s.

For Khrushchev, the consequences were somewhat more severe. His reverse in the foreign policy arena strengthened his domestic critics. This opposition was expressed in a shake-up in the top leadership of the party, in which some of Khrushchev’s most loyal supporters were demoted. Khrushchev’s own position was not in danger, but after 1960 he was forced to share more and more power with the other party leaders. For some analysts, the U-2 incident marked the beginning of Khrushchev’s decline, which ended in his ouster in 1964. U-2 incident[U two incident] U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];U-2 incident[U two incident] Soviet-Western relations[Soviet Western relations];U-2 incident[U two incident] Espionage Cold War;U-2 incident[U two incident]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beschloss, Michael R. MAYDAY: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair. New York: Harper & Row, 1986. A widely drawn narrative, including details of the principals’ personal lives and other tangential details. Especially useful are the appendix, historiographical note, and list of sources. Photographs and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eisenhower, Dwight D. The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965. The second volume of Eisenhower’s memoirs, which includes his defense of the United States’ handling of the U-2 incident.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2002. Updated 9th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. An update of LaFeber’s classic study of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Chapter 9 covers the years from 1957 to 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pocock, Chris. “Mayday.” In Dragon Lady: The History of the U-2 Spyplane. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1989. One chapter discusses the primary facts of the U-2 incident, although it views the entire affair with a focus upon the plane itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powers, Francis Gary, and Curt Gentry. Operation Overflight: The U-2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. A somewhat bitter and self-exonerating first person narrative of Powers’s mission, capture, and trial. Highly critical of the reconnaissance program and the United States’ handling of the crisis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanglin, Douglas, and Sergei Kuznetsov. “A New Look at the U-2 Spy Case.” U.S. News and World Report 114, no. 10 (March 15, 1993): 54-55. Summarizes an interview with the Soviet citizens who first found Powers. Not politically significant, but provides additional color to the story of Powers’s capture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wise, David, and Thomas B. Ross. The U-2 Affair. New York: Random House, 1962. Based on interviews with government officials involved in the incident. Written in a breezy, narrative style.

Potsdam Conference

Germany Splits into Two Republics

Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

Eisenhower Doctrine

Kennedy Is Elected President

Bay of Pigs Invasion

Cuban Missile Crisis

Khrushchev Falls from Power

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