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Let’s Learn about the Cold War: Part 12 – The 1960 U-2 Incident

MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- The Lockheed U-2 is a high-altitude reconnaissance plane introduced in 1957. The U-2 is still in service today with the U.S. Air Force, but during the Cold War it was an important spying tool under the control of the CIA. It was used to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam and China.

The U-2 can provide surveillance in any weather, and its high operational altitude makes it difficult to intercept with fighters. Photographs taken from U-2 aircraft provided the West with key intelligence during the Cold War.

In May, 1960, a U-2 spy plane on a mission to photograph top-secret Soviet sites was shot down over the Soviet Union.

This was a potential disaster. The reason for the emphasis on espionage during the Cold War was to avoid open acts that could be perceived as aggressive between the United States and the USSR. When Powers failed to complete his mission, the United States assumed he had been killed and his plane destroyed.

The Eisenhower administration scrambled to fabricate a cover story for the incident, creating news of an innocent weather plane lost over Turkey. Unknown to America, the U-2's CIA pilot, Francis Gary Powers, survived the crash and had been captured by the Soviet Union. Much of his plane, including secret equipment, was intact. The Soviets knew they had captured a spy, and they knew America was lying about it.

To make things worse, the U-2 incident occurred just before the Four Powers Summit, a meeting to be attended by American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, French President Charles de Gaulle, and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Before the U-2 incident, Eisenhower and Khrushchev had been getting along well. This would have been the first meeting between American and Soviet leaders in five years, and might have been instrumental in bringing the Cold War to an early end.

Khrushchev waited to reveal that Powers was alive to maximize America's humiliation, though he pulled his punches by placing most of the blame for the incident on the CIA rather than the Eisenhower administration.

Even so, because of the friction caused by the U-2 incident, the Four Powers Summit fell apart. Tension remained between the United States and the USSR, and the Cold War went on.

Powers was convicted of espionage in the USSR and sentenced to three years of prison and seven years of hard labor. He served less than two years of his sentence before he was returned to the United States in exchange for a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel.

Next time:  The Bay of Pigs
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