The U-2 Incident

On May Day, 1960, Francis Gary Powers left the US base in Peshawar on a mission to photograph ICBM sites inside the Soviet Union. It would be the twenty-fourth U-2 spy mission over Soviet territory. Although it was a Soviet holiday, all units of the Soviet Air Defence Forces were on red alert as they suspected a U-2 flight and Powers was subsequently shot down.

The United States used NASA to issue a statement saying the plane was a research vessel, but soon Moscow was full of rumors of a downed American spy plane. THe American story was made up using the assumptions that the plane was fully destroyed and that Powers was dead. However, Nikita Khrushchev gave a detailed account of the American version of the U-2’s flight and then disproved it point by point to the Supreme Soviet. It was an international humiliation for Eisenhower administration.

On May 11, the Soviet government suddenly convened journalists and diplomats to the Chess Pavilion in Gorky Park. Khrushchev surveyed the big room filled with aircraft debris. LIFE photographer Carl Mydans was among those invited over, and he began taking photos as much as he could. After some time, two Soviet officers hustled me out the door for the Soviets suspected that he was a spy for he was “taking pictures too systematically.” However, they did not confiscate his film. Although Mydans was not employed by the U.S. government, it didn’t stop the Pentagon from perusing his photos. The designers of U-2 spy plane was able to learn what happened and what sort of missile hit the plane based on their analysis of Mydans’ photographs of the wreckage.

The U-2 incident marked the birthpangs of another era of Soviet-American confrontations after a few years of calm following Stalin’s death. Coming just over two weeks before the scheduled opening of an East–West summit in Paris, it poisoned the atmosphere around the meeting. An invitation to the President to visit the Soviet Union was abruptly withdrawn, and Eisenhower finished his presidency with his dreams of ending the Cold War unfulfilled. In August 1960, the need for the U2 disappeared with the use of US Discoverer spy satellites; Powers’s was the last U2 flight over Soviet territory.

21 thoughts on “The U-2 Incident”

  1. Certainly a major event, but I consider the photo of Khrushchev inspecting the wreckage to be the iconic image coming out of it.

  2. The atmosphere was poisoned by existence of intercontinental missiles stationed on SU territory – missiles capable to reach United States, let alone NATO countries. Not by US intelligence-gathering measures, like U-2 flights.

    It is rather funny, how Nikitka was hoisted by his own petard, isn’t it? Calling on publicity press & diplomat event with intention of propagandist effect he unintentionally supplied Pentagon with intelligence they craved – and for free! I have a feeling he’s got an earful from his External Intelligence advisers afterward.

  3. Hey Etat, you “genius” – what the hell is SU territory? How old are you, 100? You seem to poise yourself as some all knowing expert on every single photo and foreign policy issue since the dawn of man. Your need to impress everyone is exceeded only by your obvious massive ego and conspiracy theory attitude. Do us all a favor and SHUT UP.

  4. I don’t remember these photos so much as the stuff from Power’s trial. I was 14 at the time and a good little republican. I was outraged that they would dare shoot down our plane and then try the pilot for spying on them.

    Since we had nukes in places other than our own territory, I’d suggest that the numbers both sides had and the fact that the USSR could read an electorial calander had more to do with destroying any peace process at that time, than just nukes in the “SU.”

    1. SU means Soviet Union; it is not such an unusual usage as to merit ironic quotes, *lawguy.

      US (no quotes, even though a formal way is to write USA)
      had its system ICBM installed as a response to Soviet Danger. America never ceased to be considered as Potential Strategic Enemy (official nomination) in Soviet doctrine, ever since Stalin. Certainly, there were periods of more or less open belligerence, and propagandists with ready cliches of “american imperialism and its lackeys” were always at the ready, in coordination with Party directives. The military and even H.S.-taught Civil Defence (also known as “War Preparedness” courses) pointed at USA as adversary in an upcoming military conflict.

      The words “peace process” reminded me of an old Soviet bon mot:
      “there will be such Struggle for World Peace that stones will be blown to smithereens”.

      The only proven way to end Cold War was found by Reagan – despite vocal opposition that sounded just like you, *lawguy.

      Certainly, the incident with U-2 was not a reason for cooling of US-SU relationship. Maybe only as a pretext.

  5. I do not know how to tell you this, but the USA was the first to develop the A-bomb and the first to develop the H-bomb and the only nation to ever use them in war. Russian spys were very active in both the USA and Britian trying to get the secrets of the bombs. See Rosenbergs, among others.

    If I remember my history correctly (and I do), the SU claimed that they needed these weapons to protect themselves from us (or US, if you prefer). We then, of course, needed more to protect ourselves from them. Bombers first, of course.

    One last point, every single American president from Truman on gladly lead us in the Cold War, right up through Reagan.

    1. Of course SU claimed that – but only useful idiots in American universities believed it.

      Since you don’t seem to dispute Soviet spy network, unlike many others (who still proclaim McCarty a liar, among other things) why not go make the next step: SU could have stopped the race before it begin by simply allowing USA to have the bomb(s). There would be no escalation of conflict, no contest, no fear, no untold amounts of resources wasted, on both sides – if only one country who could not afford it (and it’s not the US) didn’t get itself engaged. Inferiority complex, you know.

      It might be difficult for you to admit, but US was not the villain in this story (as it is customarily painted by NYTimes media) – Soviets were.

      1. Villon in what story? The Soviets could trust us? Hmm? Well nothing can stop you from believing what ever you want. More power to you.

        The Soviets believed what? That we were the only country that had used nuclear weapons in war? They didn’t trust us. Not a totally unusual point of view from one great power about another. Particularly given the guy who ran that country at the time. And we had professional anti-communists at the highest levels of power.

  6. *lawguy – I can’t say it plainer than I already did – and you still managed to write a paragraph consisting of questions.
    It’s not a matter of “beliefs”. Try reading my comments several times if you lose the thread so easily. Maybe that’ll help. Otherwise – sorry, can’t help you.

    1. Well I guess it is just my trial training. If you answer the questions honestly you either will clearly show yourself to be blinkered by prejudices or that you have a totally unrealistic world view. I just wondered which that was all.

      1. *shrug*

        What a noodnik.

        Once again: read my comments. What is it in my arguments or examples you don’t understand? Limit yourself to specifics. Please restrain your urge for empty oratory and cheap courtroom tricks.

        On a second thought – no, don’t. Your mind is covered in rust. There is nothing left to salvage. You don’t answer to argument, just throw insults – and think yourself clever.

  7. All U.S. Haters – you can shrivel up now and go away. There are many of us that offered our lives in service to our country so that you could spout your anti-American free-speech drivel. Enjoy it. BTW, You are welcome.

    1. Sorry honey, I “offered up [my] li[f]e” such as it was in our previous colonial enterprise in Southeast Asia (as opposed to our current colonial enterprises in other parts of Asia).

      Where do you think I started to learn the truth about it all? (Oops there I go again with another question.)

    2. I’m confused…you “offered [your life] in service” so that people would have the right to free speech, yet you want them to shut up. Wouldn’t that render your heroic service moot?

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