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 An invitation to the President to visit the Soviet Union was abruptly withdrawn, and Eisenhower finished his presidency with his dreams of ending the Cold War unfulfilled.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.

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