THE DAY WE SHOT DOWN THE U-2
Nikita Khrushchev’s son remembers a great turning point of the Cold War, as seen from behind the Iron Curtain
On May 1, 1960, a Soviet V-750 surface-to-air missile (known in America as the SA-Z “Guideline”) shot down a U-2, one of the “invulnerable” American spy planes. The plane was a phantom—of all the secret projects of those years, perhaps the most secret. Even now, when it seems there are no secrets left, not everything connected with the U-2’s last mission can be explained from the standpoint of normal human logic.
In the 1950s, years of deep freeze in the Cold War, politicians and ordinary people on both sides were gripped by the same fear: that the opposing side, whether Moscow or Washington, would seize the opportunity to deal the first, and possibly last, nuclear strike. At the 1955 Geneva meeting of the four powers—the U.S.S.R., the United States, Great Britain, and France—President Eisenhower presented his Open Skies proposal, which called for planes of the opposing blocs to fly over the territories of probable adversaries in order to monitor their nuclear arms.
Father, by then the dominant figure in the Soviet leadership, immediately rejected the idea. This made his negotiating partners intensely suspicious. They reasoned that the Soviet Union must be hiding something very dangerous. In fact, Father had the opposite motivation. The Soviets’ secret was that they had nothing to hide. Father feared that the West might be tempted to launch a nuclear strike if it learned how weak its opponent really was.
Father brought home an attractive yellow brochure advertising Open Skies, which Eisenhower had given him in Geneva. Handing it to me to look over, he praised the achievements of modern technology. The photographs were indeed impressive. Taken from an altitude of six miles, the first showed the overall plan of a city; in the next you could distinguish houses, and in the next, cars. Finally in the last you could make out the murky figure of a man reclining on a lounge chair in the courtyard of his home reading a newspaper. The capabilities of American photo technology firmly convinced Father that we must not allow American planes in our skies.
His rejection had little effect on plans in Washington. The U-2, the most advanced and high-level spy plane, which flew high enough to render it well nigh invulnerable to other aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and surface-to-air missiles, was waiting for the go-ahead to make its first flight over Soviet territory.
The U-2 was a masterpiece of aviation technology, the pride of the Lock- heed Company, and it brought deserved worldwide fame to Kelly Johnson, its designer. Its first mission was to be a prolonged flight over western regions of Soviet territory. If the Soviets ventured something similar with respect to the United States, it would be considered an attack, Eisenhower realized. Yet he approved the flight, for CIA officials had insisted that it could not yet cause a confrontation, because the plane would pass almost invisibly over Soviet territory, like a phantom. They believed the Russians weren’t capable of making a breakthrough in radar and at best could only slightly improve on the American and British units they’d been supplied with during the war, which couldn’t detect targets higher than nine miles. In addition, the plane would fly so high that Soviet missiles and fighter planes couldn’t reach it.
The CIA timed the U-2’s inaugural flight to coincide with America’s national holiday, July 4, 1956. Charles Bohlen, the American ambassador in Moscow, had some general knowledge of the project, but he didn’t suspect that the first flight would happen right when Khrushchev, as the embassy’s guest at a holiday reception, was proposing a toast to the health of President Dwight Eisenhower.
The plane had actually crossed the Soviet border early in the morning. Father was immediately informed but didn’t hurry to do anything. First we had to investigate, to consider the consequences before taking any action. He, like Bohlen, revealed nothing at the reception and joked and chatted, even though he was fuming inside.
The Geneva conference had appeared to give hope for a gradual (Father didn’t nourish any illusions) transition from armed confrontation to, if not co-operation, at least peaceful coexistence. Therefore, such a demonstrative violation of international rules of propriety stunned Father. And the U-2 flights, especially that first one, produced more than just shock in the Soviet leadership; they profoundly influenced the policies of subsequent years.
What I remember most vividly in connection with that U-2 flight and the ones that followed later in the week was Father’s reluctance to complain to the U.S. government. He felt the Americans must be chortling over our impotence and that diplomatic protest would only add to their pleasure. Nevertheless, a protest note was sent to Washington, to show that the U-2 had failed to be invisible. Eisenhower, concerned, summoned the CIA’s director, Alien Dulles, and forbade further flights over Soviet territory without the President’s personal permission. Still, Eisenhower did not rule them out altogether.
Meanwhile Father summoned everybody who might be able to do something: Artyom Mikoyan, Pyotr Grushin, Andrey Tupolev, Pavel Sukhoi, and other designers of interceptors and anti-aircraft missiles. What most worried Father was the possibility that the intruder could carry an atomic bomb. The specialists categorically rejected the idea. Tupolev explained that we could be certain we were dealing with a structure built at the very edge of what was possible. In such a case, weight was calculated in grams, and the plane could not carry any substantial payload. In technology everything is interrelated and there are no miracles, so the American plane must resemble a dragonfly: a very narrow fuselage and long, thin wings. The maximum weight it could lift would be a camera, and not a big one at that. When we saw a real U-2 four years later, it turned out to be exactly like the picture drawn by the great designer.
The entire Soviet air defense system was geared to shooting down mass-produced bombers flying at about the speed of sound and at an altitude of six to eight miles. But Mikoyan and Sukhoi, both designers of interceptors, were optimistic that the new challenge could be met. Still, it would take time: three or four years of intensive work.
That didn’t satisfy Father; he asked for a faster solution. Several weeks later Mikoyan came back proposing an acrobatic trick: Planes would fly to their top speeds and then use their accumulated energy to launch themselves upward. This maneuver was called, in Russian, “exit onto a dynamic ceiling” and was not considered especially difficult, but no one had ever tried it in combat. Luck would be more important than skill, since a fighter plane is almost uncontrollable in the stratosphere. Two grains of sand would have to meet in the infinite skies.
Father grasped at this straw, and the best pilots began to train. They tried the maneuver several times, but the U-2 pilots apparently never even noticed, although the method did set altitude records that were widely publicized in hopes of frightening off the Americans.
U-2s flew over the Soviet Union in 1957, 1958, and 1959—not often, but they flew. In 1959 anti-aircraft defense units began to receive new fighter planes—Sukhoi Su-9 interceptors—and missile defense forces were given new V-750 anti-aircraft missiles. Spy flights became dangerous for American pilots, but the CIA insisted they be continued.
At Camp David during Father’s 1959 visit, the President expected him to bring up the subject of the U-2 flights and protest them. But Father didn’t want to give his hosts the satisfaction of hearing him beg them not to peer into his bedroom.
The President may have interpreted Father’s silence as a sign that he had made his peace with the situation. At any rate we will probably never understand why Eisenhower gave permission for the U-2 flight on the threshold of a crucial four-power meeting that was to be held in Paris the next May—a meeting that would be important to him, to his place in history, and to the cause of peace.
The first flight in that fatal series occurred on April 9. The plane came in from the direction of Pakistan. It was detected at 4:47 A.M., when it was 150 miles from the Afghan border and already deep inside Soviet territory. It flew unhindered to Semipalatinsk, where it photographed a nuclear testing ground, and then went toward Lake Balkhash to investigate an air defense missile site. Strenuous efforts were made to intercept it—one of which cost Capt. Vladimir Karachevsky his life when his MiG-19 lost altitude and crashed into a forest—but the target escaped, and the Soviet side said nothing.
The next flight was planned for May 1, one of the most important holidays in the Soviet Union. It would be the twenty-fourth U-2 spy mission over Soviet territory and follow a route already tested in May of 1957. From Peshawar, Francis Gary Powers would head toward Tyura-Tam and then on to Sverdlovsk or, more precisely, to Chelyabinsk-40, a center of nuclear industry, photographing military airfields along the way. Then he was to proceed to Plesetsk, where launch sites for intercontinental missiles were being built. From Plesetsk it would be a stone’s throw to Norway and the airfield at Bodo.
That morning Father appeared in the dining room right after eight o’clock. He looked gloomy, obviously not in a holiday mood. He sat at the table in silence. There was only the sound of his spoon clinking against the sides of his glass of tea, which he drank hurriedly, anxious to leave for the Kremlin, where the other members of the Central Committee Presidium were already gathered. Apparently something serious had happened.
I got up to accompany him to the car. Music could he heard beyond the high stone fence of the residence. Loudspeakers on Vorobyovskoye Highway were turned on full blast. Father usually drove us all to the Kremlin on holidays, but this time we had to get there on our own.
At the gate he finally shared the news. “They flew over again. The same place.”
“How many?” I asked.
“As before, just one. It’s flying at a very high altitude. This time it was detected while it was still on the other side of the border. [Defense Minister] Malinovsky called me at dawn, around six o’clock.”
That was all Father knew.
I reached Red Square at about nine-thirty and began searching the VIP stands for Ivan Dmitriyevich Serbin, head of the Central Committee’s Defense Industry Department. He told me the following: The intruder had reached Tyura-Tam without interference, maneuvered to obtain the best camera angles to shoot the ICBM test site there, and then flown on to the north. He was apparently heading toward Sverdlovsk.
“But why wasn’t he shot down over Tyura-Tam?” I asked.
Serbin just waved his hand. “Something always happens in our Air Defense Command. Now they’ll write explanations. The holiday …”
“So he might escape,” I lamented.
“Yes, he might,” responded Ivan Dmitriyevich.
“But how will we know?”
“Biryuzov is at his command center. After Sverdlovsk he’ll come and let us know what has happened.”
The country’s Air Defense command center, located near the Kremlin, had been tracking the intruder from the border. Sergei Biryuzov, the Air Defense commander, sat behind a large table, facing a map of the whole country. The plane was being moved across the map in short hops by a sergeant sitting behind the screen. Every few minutes he was given new data on the intruder’s coordinates, speed, and altitude.
To the left of the commander in chief sat Marshal Yevgeny Savitsky, Air Defense aviation commander. To Biryuzov’s right was Col.-Gen. Pavel Kuleshov, in charge of anti-aircraft artillery and missiles. Staff officers milled around behind them.
The plane drew away from TyuraTam and turned north and slightly west. Anti-aircraft missile batteries around Sverdlovsk were alerted to wait for their target, but aircraft would initiate the operation.
Savitsky had not managed to find out from his subordinates what was going on with those aircraft. He knew that MiG-19s flown from Perm were being quickly refueled, but Su-9 pilots had not yet been found. Finally he was told that one of the Su-9 pilots, Capt. Igor Mentyukov, had been caught at the last moment at a Perm bus stop. He had been brought to headquarters on the double and was stunned to receive an order to take off at once. The adversary’s plane was approaching at a high altitude, and their only hope rested on the Su-9 and on him.
Mentyukov tried to explain that the plane was not armed, that he was not ready to fly, and that the target would pass the city before he was suited up. The general reported this to Moscow. A categorical order came back from Savitsky: Take off immediately in whatever you’re wearing and ram the intruder.
This meant certain death. “Take care of my wife and mother!” Mentyukov exclaimed. His wife was expecting a baby.
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything,” someone said.
Mentyukov flung himself toward the plane.
The American was already in the intercept zone. Mentyukov, following orders from ground control, began to maneuver, reaching the same altitude as the U-2 and approaching it from the rear.
The pilot engaged his radar, but there was so much interference on the screen that he couldn’t see the target. The interceptor was racing forward on its afterburner at 1,200 miles an hour when a shout came from ground control: “The target is ahead! Look! Look!” But how can you spot a target when it is approaching at nearly a third of a mile a second? And when you can see it, how can you have time to maneuver and ram it? The Su-9 overflew the U-2, and neither pilot even saw the other. Mentyukov must have sighed with relief. He didn’t have enough fuel for a second attack. He was ordered to turn off the afterburner and come home.
Radar operators saw on their screens that the Su-9 interceptor had disappeared and the target was again alone but still out of range. The missile battalion’s chief of staff, Maj. Mikhail Voronov, counted off the seconds to himself: “Just a little farther and the intruder will be within firing range.”
Powers, with no inkling of the drama unfolding around him, turned toward Kyshtym. He still had to photograph Chelyabinsk-40.
“The target is moving away,” reported the operator.
As if he had known where the missiles were based, the U-2 pilot was avoiding dangerous places. Kuleshov suggested that perhaps he was equipped with a special receiver that reacted to signals from the Air Defense radar detection system. The situation was becoming catastrophic. They couldn’t even dream of sending up another Su-9. Savitsky ordered a formation of four MiG-19s to take off. Biryuzov didn’t believe the interceptors could catch the U-2, but he had to do something.
At that moment Voronov was informed that the target was returning and would be within range in a few seconds. Regulations called for two missiles to be fired, but it was decided to launch three, just to be on the safe side. Everything proceeded automatically, as if it were a training exercise. But after the button had been pushed, only one missile fired. The other two didn’t move.
Voronov felt a chill; fate really seemed to be protecting Powers. The lone missile approaching the target was now the only hope.
A fiery point blossomed in the sky. Several seconds later came the faint sound of an explosion. Ir was 8:53 A.M., Moscow time.
The target disappeared from the radar screens, replaced by greenish flakes of “snow.” This was what would show if a plane had ejected chaff to confuse radar operators—or if it was breaking into pieces. Neither Voronov in the battalion nor people in the regiment could believe they had been so lucky. Meanwhile, Voronov’s neighboring battery, under the command of Capt. Nikolai Sheludko, fired its three missiles at the disintegrating plane.
As explained later by experts, Voronov’s missile did not hit the U-2 but exploded a little behind it. Powers’s plane shook. Its long wings folded, tore off, and fluttered slowly down to earth. Of course, the pilot could not see that. He saw only the sky, the boundless sky, revolving before his eyes. He also felt that he had been shoved forward from the g forces. It was impossible for him to eject without the metal canopy rails above him severing his legs. He realized he could climb out, so he threw himself awkwardly over the side of the fuselage. After he disentangled himself from his oxygen hoses, his parachute worked perfectly.
On the ground, they still couldn’t believe that the target was destroyed. They reported to Moscow that military actions were continuing. Missile radar operators, scouring the sky, kept finding and then losing the target. Sometimes there even seemed to be several targets, but no one asked himself where the others had come from. Everyone was gripped in nervous and feverish activity.
Now the MiG-19s took off. The first to rise was piloted by Capt. Boris Ayva/yan, followed by Sr. Lt. Sergei Safronov, ready to perform Mikoyan’s acrobatie attack. Once in the air, the pilots couldn’t locate the intruder. Ayvazyan and Safronov were alone at an altitude of eight miles.
Voronov was the first in the missile units to realize what was happening. The radar screen lit up as fragments of the U-2 floated down from the sky. What other proof did they need? But the generals in Sverdlovsk insisted on continuing the search. At that point, the radars of the neighboring battery detected two objects. At first the commander there, a Major Shugayev, was doubtful: “Why two? And at a low altitude?” He called staff headquarters. Air Defense Commander General F. K. Solodovnikov snapped: “None of our planes are in the air.”
There was no time to think. Ayvazyan’s plane disappeared from the radar screen—the pilot, low on fuel, had put it into a steep dive toward the airfield—but the missiles found Safronov. Another parachute opened up in the air, this time ours.
When Voronov first saw the American parachute, he ordered one of his officers, named Captain Kazantsev, to take his men and race to the spot where the pilot landed. The meeting between two civilizations was surprisingly calm and pedestrian. It was only after the fact that newspapers wrote about the anger and indignation of Soviet citizens. What actually happened was that the driver of a car taking friends to a neighboring village for the holiday heard an explosion somewhere high above. They stopped, got out, looked up, and saw some glittering dots, with a parachute visible among them. A few minutes later the friends were helping the pilot to his feet and disentangling him from the parachute’s shroud lines. They had no idea who he was, but they marveled at his equipment. They were totally confused when they asked the pilot how he felt and he remained mute.
“Are you Bulgarian?” asked the car’s owner. The whole district knew that pilots from Warsaw Pact countries trained at the neighboring airfield. The parachutist shook his head. His rescuers were haffled. They clapped him on the shoulder, confiscated his pistol, and pointed to the front seat of the Moskvich. Then one of the smarter ones, noticing the stamp on Powers’s pistol, wrote “USA” in the dust on the car’s dashboard. Powers nodded. They decided to take the captured spy—they had no doubt that was what he was—to the office of a nearby state farm. There Powers was received quite calmly. His captors searched his flight suit, sat him down at a table, and barely refrained from offering him a glass of vodka in honor of the holiday. This was the affable scene that greeted the group sent by Major Voronov and the local KGB men who appeared on their heels. Powers was taken away to Sverdlovsk.
The MiG-19 fell near the village of Degtyarka, west of Sverdlovsk. Local inhabitants noticed Safronov’s parachute. When they ran up to him, the pilot had stopped breathing, and blood was flowing from a deep wound in his side. The missile forces initially reported to Marshal Biryuzov that the intruder plane had been shot down. Sergei Semyonovich was relieved. But then came new information. The local fighter aircraft commander, Major General Vovk, from Sverdlovsk: “One pilot has been captured and we are looking for the second.…” Biryuzov decided to wait for confirmation of the second spy’s capture before reporting to Father personally.
The marshal was debating whether to go home to change his clothes or go straight to Red Square when another call came from Sverdlovsk on the special phone. The general haltingly reported that the second parachutist had been found and that unfortunately he was one of ours, Senior Lieutenant Safronov.
“What do you mean, one of ours?” The marshal barely kept from shouting. “How many planes did you shoot down? Can’t you tell the difference between ours and theirs?”
“His transponder wasn’t working,” lied the general. That lie was repeated many times later, until Igor Mentyukov cleared up the matter: The transponders were operating, but on the code for April, not May. In the preholiday flurry of activities, service personnel had not yet changed it. So not surprisingly, the radars perceived friendly as foe.
“How many missiles did you fire?” asked Biryuzov, gradually calming down.
“One, three, and then two more.” The general in Sverdlovsk began counting. “Fourteen in all,” he said, sounding depressed.
“And which one brought down the plane?”
“Why the hell.…” The usually calm Biryuzov emitted nothing but unprintable expressions for the next few minutes and then slammed down the phone. The joy of victory had evaporated in a moment. “Find out which plane they shot down, an Su-9 or a MiG,” he ordered Savitsky.
Savitsky called Sverdlovsk again. “A MiG-19,” he reported succinctly after a few minutes of animated conversation. “First I sent up the Su-9 and ordered it to ram, but the pilot missed and flew above the target. Then they sent up MiG-19s, since the target seemed to be at a lower altitude.”
“Good.” Biryuzov stopped listening. He was impressed by the fact that the interceptor had flown over the high-altitude spy plane. That was an achievement in itself. But how should he report it? He had an idea.
The marshal summoned his deputies. “This is what happened,” he began in a calm and confident voice. “The intruder only brushed the edge of the missile range. We expected that and sent an Su-9 to intercept it. No, better—a pair of Su-9s. There were two planes available. They had already reached the target when it entered missile range. At the extreme limit. It was decided to launch. The interceptors were ordered to leave the firing area, but one pilot only shouted in reply: ‘I am attacking.’ Two missiles were launched, as called for. The planes were so close together that they could not be distinguished from the ground. The radar images merged. One missile therefore hit the spy plane, while the other went after our plane. Unfortunately, it also hit its target. What was the lieutenant’s name?”
“Senior Lieutenant Safronov,” replied Savitsky.
“Yes, the lieutenant died a hero. And that’s the end of the story! There were never any other missiles.” The marshal looked searchingly at his deputies. He read agreement in their faces. This version suited everyone, especially Central Command.
The marshal’s version was the one reported to Father. What really happened when Powers was shot down was completely “forgotten” by the participants for a long time. It was only with the coming of Mikhaïl Gorbachev’s glasnost that those who have retired and who were in lower ranks—Voronov, Ayvazyan, and a few others—began to reveal the truth.
In Red Square the columns of troops had already marched through, and the civilian parade was in progress. The appearance of Marshal Biryuzov striding purposefully from the edge of the grandstand toward the mausoleum did not go unnoticed. Foreigners wondered what was up. Officials in the know immediately drew the right conclusion: They shot it down! The marshal’s field uniform made the right impression; everyone remembers it. Biryuzov mounted the mausoleum, leaned down toward Father’s ear, whispered the news of the victory, accepted the well-deserved congratulations, and joined the military officers on the right side of the tribunal.
A few minutes later the news traveled from the mausoleum down to the stands. Grushin and Aleksandr Alekseyevich Raspletin, the designers of the V-750 missile, broke out in smiles and were besieged by people wanting to shake their hands.
Father was elated when he returned home after the celebration. I found out from him that the pilot was alive and being interrogated and that he was talking freely about everything. I remember Father repeating with relish Powers’s account of how American specialists had assured him that it was impossible to shoot down the U-2. He said the espionage equipment had been captured almost intact and that film found in the camera was now being developed.
Father told me right away of his plan. He would not report the pilot’s capture immediately but would wait until the Americans concocted a story, and only then would he pay them hack for all those years of humiliation. Sure enough, NASA’s report, subsequently added to and elaborated on by the State Department, stated that “a NASA U-2 research airplane, being flown in Turkey on a joint NASA-USAH Air Weather Service mission, apparently went down in the Lake Van, Turkey, area at about 9:00 a.m. (3:00 a.m. e.d.t.) Sunday, May 1. During the flight in southeast Turkey, the pilot reported over the emergency frequency that he was experiencing oxygen difficulties.…” Some details followed.
Enjoying the game, Father waited to see what would happen next, but fate soon took the matter out of his hands. When, at a reception, the Swedish ambassador, Rolf Sulman, casually asked our deputy foreign minister, Jacob Malik, under which article of the U.N. charter the Soviets would raise the incident, Malik (possibly having had too much cognac) replied artlessly: “I don’t know exactly. The pilot’s still being questioned.” The American ambassador overheard this and hurried to his embassy to inform Washington.
An hour later the chairman of the KCiB called Father and reported the content of the conversation between the two diplomats. Father was angry and upset. The next day the unfortunate official was summoned to the Central Committee, given a dressing down, sacked as deputy foreign minister, and even expelled from the party (but a few days later he was forgiven).
There was no longer any point in keeping Powers’s capture secret. At a session of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet, Father gave a detailed account of the American version of the U-2’s flight and then disproved it point by point. He read excerpts from Powers’s interrogations, described the plane’s route, and enumerated with relish all the espionage equipment found in the wreckage. His report culminated in a display of what he said was the developed film, which showed airfields, nuclear storage sites, and factories. He triumphantly presented the packet of photographs to the session chairman. Father brought copies of the pictures to the dacha too, and I looked at them closely. They were of outstanding quality. You could see fighter planes spread in a line along a landing strip, with fuel tanks and headquarters buildings visible.
Revelations were all very well, but some kind of mutual accommodation would have to be found before the start of the four-power conference in Paris. There were only a few days left, and Father’s plans definitely did not call for disrupting the conference. He had to establish contact with Eisenhower and look for a fitting escape from that trap.
He tried to clarify the situation by making extraordinarily conciliatory remarks at a reception in the Czechoslovak Embassy on that country’s May 9 national holiday. He emphasized that the door remained open despite the U-2 incident and that he was prepared to search together for a way out of the situation that had been created. He appealed directly to Americans and to the President of the United States, stating, “Today I say again that we want to live not only in peace but also in friendship with the American people.… I regard the U.S. Ambassador with respect, and I am sure that he had nothing to do with this encroachment.… I am convinced of the moral qualities of this man.… I believe that he is incapable of such a deed.”
Unfortunately, in Washington the State Department had already admitted that Kisenhower had personally approved the program. In that, the fifth American statement issued on the U-2 incident, the State Department had implied that the United States reserved the right to fly over Soviet territory until such time as the U.S.S.R. opened its borders to inspection. After reading this pronouncement, Father flew into a rage. If its authors’ purpose was to infuriate him, they succeeded.
Two days later, on May 11, Father and I went to visit the wreckage of the plane, which Father had ordered to be exhibited in Corky Park, at the same place where captured German military equipment had been displayed during the war. Foreign correspondents milled around Father at this unusual show. Upon leaving the pavilion that held the exhibit, he answered their questions willingly and delivered a lively speech, making the point that from now on anyone who violated our borders would be dealt with in similar fashion. The Americans should take note, unless they wanted to start a world war. But even now the door to reconciliation didn’t slam shut. Of course, the situation had become more complicated, yet if both parties wished it, there was still the chance to accomplish something.
Eisenhower didn’t rule out such a possibility either. In the Oval Office he told Secretary of State Christian Herter that it would make sense to meet with Khrushchev in Paris before the sessions began and try to clear the air. Herter objected, saying that Khrushchev might take that as “a gesture of weakness,” and Father never received this invitation. (These details from the American side come from the book Mayday by Michael R. Beschloss.)
Nevertheless, Father left for Paris early in hopes of meeting ahead of schedule with the President. I remember a conversation I had with him just before he left. We were taking our evening stroll at the dacha, and he suddenly started talking about Eisenhower’s farm and said it would be a good idea to invite him to the dacha, to show him the crops and take a boat ride on the Moskva River. Their personal meeting in Paris failed to happen, and Father changed his tune.
“On the first day of the conference,” he later recalled, “I read a declaration. There was some confusion. Especially after the phrase which stated that we were withdrawing our invitation if there were no apology on the part of the United States of America, that the President could not be our guest after what he had allowed with respect to our country.… Our declaration was like a bomb that swept everything away.… The round table, which should have united us, was shattered.” Father had burned his last bridge.
The U-2 flight caused much harm and spoiled a great deal. Most important, it cast doubt on any hope for early and effective negotiations over disarmament and gravely undermined Russia’s incipient trust in America as a partner. The deception by his “friend” General Eisenhower, who had gone on walks with him at Camp David and agreed that nothing was more terrible than war, struck Father to the heart. He forgave neither Eisenhower the President nor Eisenhower the man for the U-2 incident. He had learned the English words my friend at Camp David, and that was how he had addressed Eisenhower. Now Father bitterly told an aide, “I don’t need such a friend.”
In August 1960, the American Discoverer spy satellites, equipped with space photo equipment developed in the supersecret CORONA project, began to fly. The need for the U-2 disappeared; Powers’s was the last flight over Soviet territory.
Still, Father decided to take political revenge for both the U-2 and Paris. He invited the heads of the world’s governments to discuss the problem of decolonization at the next session of the United Nations, in September and October 1960 in the United States, and he went to the United States without an invitation and took guests with him. At the U.N. session Father did not leave a single “machination of the imperialists” unanswered.
In response to a speech by one of the Philippine delegates, an “American lackey,” that exasperated him, he even allowed himself to bang on his desk—not with his fist, as he had done numerous times before, but with a shoe. That incident, unfortunately, became famous.
The U-2’s pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was tried in Moscow and sentenced to three years in prison and another seven years in a corrective labor colony. In 1962 he was exchanged for a Soviet spy, Col. Rudolf Abel (a pseudonym; his real name was William Fischer). That was how, 40 years ago, one of the most dangerous—and fascinating—episodes of the Cold War came to an end.
Sergei Khrushchev is a senior fellow at the Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies, at Brown University. These and many other episodes in the Cold “War are described as they appeared from the Kremlin in his new book Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower, being published this year by Penn State Press.
A Few Words in Defense of Francis Gary Powers
Setting the record straight about my father.
By Francis Gary Powers, Jr.
On May 1, 1960, my father was shot down while flying a U-2 over the Soviet Union. After the SAM-2 missile exploded near the fragile tail section of his aircraft, everything appeared to be in order until the plane nosed down and didn’t respond to the controls. A few seconds passed before my father realized that the plane had been severely damaged and he was at the mercy of the Lord. He thought about activating the destruct mechanism but first had to prepare himself to use the ejection seat.
However, when my dad was ready to eject, he realized he had been thrown forward in his seat in such a way that if he used the ejection mechanism, both his legs would be severed. He decided to release the canopy enclosing the cockpit and attempt to crawl out. When the canopy was clear, he undid his seat belt and was immediately propelled up over the front of the cockpit. Before he could reach the destruct mechanism, he was thrown clear of the plane.
I’ve read numerous accounts of what “allegedly” happened to my father. Some say that he landed the plane and was seen drinking Russian vodka in a bar near the airport. Still others indicate sabotage. The most recent account indicates that a Russian fighter pilot brought down the U-2. All these stories have been proved false.
When my father returned home in February 1962, he was extensively debriefed and appeared in an open hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee exonerated him of any wrongdoing, but the CIA wouldn’t permit him to write his account of the incident until many years later. There were many gaps between what the government knew and what it told the public.
Some Americans questioned my father’s conduct and loyalty. They especially criticized him for not “following orders” and killing himself. In fact, there had never been any such orders. To the contrary, the CIA’s instructions on capture were as follows: “If capture appears imminent, pilots should surrender without resistance and adopt a cooperative attitude toward their captors.”
Others claimed he had given out vital information concerning the aircraft. The opposite was true. My father gave no vital information, nor did he ever reveal the names of any pilots. Again, the CIA instructions were, and I quote: “Pilots are perfectly free to tell the full truth about their mission with the exception of certain spécifications about the aircraft.”
Despite the Senate committee’s clearance, despite the fact that he was awarded the CIA’s highest honor—its Intelligence Star for valor—and the Air Force’s Distinguished Flying Cross, my father, to borrow from John Le Carré, was still a spy left out in the cold, until May 1, 2000. On that day he was posthumously awarded the POW Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the CIA’s Director’s Medal for “extraordinary fidelity and essential service.” These were presented to the Powers family during a formal U.S. Air Force and CIA ceremony. Which just goes to show that it is never too late to set the record straight.
But on the Other Hand…
The view from the American side.
By T. A. Heppenheimer
Sergei Khrushchev repeatedly insists that Soviet leaders were stunned and scandalized by America’s behavior, from the first U-2 flight in 1956 to Elsenhower’s lack of apology or conciliation in 1960. However, U-2 is pronounced “you too,” and such a riposte is appropriate.
Within the United States, Soviet espionage predated World War II. Stalin began by setting up a trading organization, Amtorg, that acted as a front for theft of industrial secrets. During the war, Soviet agents penetrated the heart of the Manhattan Project and made off with some 10,000 pages of technical material, all of which reached Moscow safely. Igor Kurchatov, who headed the Soviet atomic-bomb effort, made good use of these secrets. His first nuclear reactor closely followed an American design, except for being larger to compensate for the lesser purity of his uranium. The first Soviet atomic bomb, detonated in 1949, amounted to a copy of the Fat Man plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki four years earlier.
The U-2 was not the first American spy plane to overfly the Soviet Union. Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command, had started by using B-45 and B-47 bombers. He later recalled a time when “we flew all of the reconnaissance aircraft that SAC possessed over Vladivostok at high noon.” This was Moscow’s principal Pacific naval base. However, those bombers were vulnerable; the U-2 flew much higher, which is why it took years before the Russians could knock it out of the sky.
Following an initial flurry of U-2 flights, during July 1956, Soviet diplomatic protests forced a stand-down. The next four years brought fewer than twenty subsequent overflights, each requiring personal authorization from President Eisenhower. Even so, their photography proved highly significant.
In 1956 there was considerable concern over a “bomber gap,” with which Moscow might take the lead in producing long-range jet aircraft. One of the first U-2 missions produced photos that showed far fewer heavy bombers than expected. The “bomber gap” vanished.
The 1960 U-2 incident brought an end to overflights of the Soviet heartland, but from the outset the CIA had regarded the U-2 merely as an interim craft, ultimately to be superseded by spacecraft. The Soviets had similar thoughts. They never built highflying aircraft to rival the U-2, but they actively pursued reconnaissance satellites.
The standard Soviet spacecraft of this type was Zenit (“zenith”). A variant, Vostok (“east”), carried the first cosmonauts into space, in 1961. The CIA’s Discoverer spacecraft, supplanting its U-2s, also entered operational service during 1960.
Through the subsequent decades of the Cold War, both superpowers continued to build and fly reconnaissance satellites. Significantly, although they might have deployed anti-satellite weapons, they declined to do this. In both Moscow and Washington national leaders decided that they had more to gain from free mutual observation, avoiding destabilizing surprises. In this fashion, without formal diplomatic agreement, both superpowers accepted Eisenhower’s Open Skies proposal as a basis for their ongoing rivalry.
T. A. Heppenheimer’s books include Countdown: A History of Space Flight (Wiley 1997).