During the Cold War contest, perhaps one threat served as the major underpinning of the mutual suspicions and reactionary foreign policy of the United States and the Soviet Union—each had acquired the technology to build nuclear weapons. The United States, was first to obtain the "ultimate weapon of mass destruction", and displayed its capabilities as atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, to "end" World War II. The Soviets followed suit with the test of their own atomic bomb in 1949, as well as a hydrogen bomb in 1955. Both of these Soviet achievements were far sooner than experts in Washington had projected, much to the dismay of the U.S. government and panic-stricken American people.
Thenceforth, both nations became involved in a nuclear arms race. The launching of the Soviet Sputnik and the fateful U-2 "incident" were both products of this Soviet- U.S. arms race. Both served to intensify the rivalry between the two nations—each having dramatic effect on the course of the Cold War. In order to understand the profound affect of each on the Cold War, one must be familiar with how each fit into the context of the arms race—the development of the U-2 spy plane project, the "Open Skies" proposal, the "Bomber Gap", the origins of artificial satellite programs and the International Geophysical Year, the "Missile Gap", and finally the fateful flight of Pilot Francis Gary Powers. During this arms race, any new technology could be seen as a threat—and this is were the story of Sputnik and the U-2 incident begins.
During the arms race, the U.S. government felt it necessary monitor the nuclear capabilities of the Soviets, especially during the height of anti-Communist paranoia in the early 1950s. Since the use of the U.S. military to spy on the Soviets could have provoked a full-scale confrontation, President Eisenhower felt that the Central Intelligence Agency was best suited to assume this role. Prior to the CIA, the Strategic Air Command and USAF began covert operations as early as 1950, flying intelligence-collecting missions while invading Soviet airspace with unarmed military aircraft. These missions continued, with many being fired upon by Soviet anti-aircraft defenses. Any of these incidents could have lead to a full-scale conflict, and if the CIA was going make additional overflights into Soviet airspace, it became evident that a new spy plane technology was needed. This would be realized with the U-2 spy plane project at Watertown Strip, in remote Nevada.
The CIA’s U-2 project was put into the hands of the CIA’s own, Richard Bissell. The plane itself was masterminded by Kelly Johnson, a Lockheed Corporation engineer known for his expertise in aircraft design and development. His main objective was to create an ultra-light, single engine aircraft that was capable of flying at record altitudes in order to avoid Soviet radar, fighter jets, and missiles. The result was his aircraft, dubbed the "Utility 2" so it could be used under the guise of a civilian weather plane. . It was an lightweight, unusual-looking plane with an eighty feet wide wingspan that resembled a glider
Among other equipment, it was armed with two telescopic-lens cameras with extraordinary capabilities—with its high-resolution lens, the camera could plainly focus a newspaper headline over the shoulder of a person on the ground, as it flew at altitudes of almost fifteen miles. The potential of Johnson’s aircraft for espionage was unprecedented, and eventually became vital in investigating the "bomber" and "missile" gaps that were a threat to the US national security. The CIA worked out an early agreement with NASA (and its predecessor NACA), to provide a cover for the existence of the U-2—when it was even mentioned to the public, the U-2 was reported only as a civilian weather reconnaissance plane used by NASA for research. With its actual purpose kept under utmost secrecy, the U-2 program began to take shape.
With his aircraft complete in February of 1955 at a cost of $19 million dollars, the CIA began to recruit US Air Force pilots to man their overflight missions. Three groups of these pilots—twenty-nine total men—resigned from the Air Force and began their special-mission pilot careers in the CIA base at Watertown Strip. Beginning with August of 1955, many successful test runs within the United States, the CIA realized the potential of this new aircraft as a tool for monitoring the Soviets’ nuclear position.
Francis Gary Powers—pilot during the fateful "U-2 incident"—was part of the second group of men to pass through training at Watertown. After a fairly successful service in the as a pilot at Turner Air Force Base in Georgia, Powers—and many of his colleagues—was approached by the CIA with a job that he was reluctant to refuse. With "the agency", he would take part in reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, collecting information about their defense and military installations. When Powers accepted the job offer, he resigned from the Air Force—this was important, so the CIA could claim the U-2 program was civilian run. He went through extensive training at Watertown Strip, learning the particulars of flying the U-2 and how to operate the equipment aboard the craft. Once his training was complete in August of 1956, Powers was sent to Incirlik Air Force Base in Adana, Turkey. His unit—"Detachment 10-10"— flew several series of reconnaissance missions, with Powers flying his first in September of 1956. Each mission was approved by Washington, each having a special purpose for yielding intelligence needed to close the "gaps" between Soviet and American defense capabilities.
Eisenhower was aware of the U-2 spy plane, and was able to use this knowledge to his advantage in the summer of 1955 at Geneva where he met with the Soviets and other major world powers. Knowing fully of the implications of the U-2, Eisenhower proposed that the United States and Soviet Union enter into an "Open Skies" policy. This was an open invitation to the Soviets to make surveillance flights over U.S. military and nuclear installations, so long as the Soviets would allow the United States to do the same. Eisenhower reasoned—at least publicly—that a policy such as this would encourage disarmament and improve diplomatic relations between the nations. The Soviets whole-heartedly rejected this proposal; because information on U.S. nuclear defense installations was already widely available, while information about the location and nature of their bases was largely secret. Therefore, the U.S. had nothing to lose, and everything to gain from such a proposal.
It is now widely believed that Eisenhower undoubtedly knew that the "Open Skies" proposal would fail. It was simply a diplomatic ploy; a piece of propaganda that could be used against the Soviets, showing how the U.S. was willing to make strides towards peace and disarmament, while the Soviets demanded to keep their national secrecy at the risk of such peace. This came as no loss to Ike—he now had the U-2 wildcard in his hand, and was prepared to authorize its use at the moment that the Soviets rejected his proposals.
Eisenhower soon had his chance to utilize the U-2 spy capabilities, as the fear of a Soviet "Bomber Gap" arose in late 1955. The Soviets developed a new, nuclear bomber—the "Bison" TU-95. Khruschev, as well as many other Soviet leaders, bragged that their fleet of Bison bombers would become twice the size of the U.S. fleet by the end of the decade. This caused many U.S. defense planners to believe in the "Bomber Gap"—a fear that the Soviets far outnumbered the U.S. in its nuclear bomber fleet. This fear was perpetuated as the Soviets flew fleet after fleet of these bombers over the American embassy in Moscow during an air show in 1955. Though this display of a seemingly limitless fleet of bombers was later proven as a hoax, the U.S. took notice as panic began to take hold of the government and defense communities.
Eisenhower did not panic, however—in fact, he was skeptical of the "bomber gap", feeling that making too many assumptions about Soviet capabilities would be detrimental. He desired hard facts and figures about the Soviet bomber fleet, before escalating American military spending on its own B-52 bomber fleet. The biggest "threat" was to be frightened into a military escalation that would eat up the defense budget and provide the Soviets with further reason to increase their fleet. Several successful U-2 overflights of Soviet bomber bases, during early 1956, provided the intelligence needed to challenge the Soviet bluff. There was no evidence that a buildup of the Soviet bomber fleet was taking place.
This eased the mind of Eisenhower, and the U-2 program had provided him its first major success. This triumphant mission had not been without a price, however—the Soviets had detected the plane on their radar, and became aware and outraged at the U.S. blatant violation of their airspace. This is not something that the CIA had foreseen—Kelley had designed the plane to be nearly invisible to radar, but failed to estimate the strength and range of the Soviet radar. Khruschev openly denounce these early overflights, but the U.S. took an early policy of denial.
With the tensions of the "Bomber Gap" relieved, the U.S. enjoyed a brief period of confidence and security. The U-2 flights had proven that the Soviets were not in fact militarily "superior" to the U.S.. Until the stir of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in May of 1957, the U.S. returned to its flawed belief that the Soviets were no match technologically for the United States. This belief would be completely shattered by the launching of the first artificial earth satellite, Sputnik. It would not only initiate the "space race", but have profound affects on the U-2 program as well—causing the "missile gap" scare that eventually lead to Pilot Power’s fateful mission. Still viewed as one of the most important events of the 20th century, Sputnik also became a symbol of the United States lagging behind the Soviets in their defense and space technology, something that the U.S. public was not willing to accept.
With Sputnik came the realization of a new national paranoia—the "Missile Gap"—and a U-2 was needed once again to gather the intelligence needed determine whether or not a gap existed. The "Missile Gap" concept was the inference that the Soviets missile technology was far superior to that of the U.S., simply because they had managed to produce the first successful satellite launch. This was a major concern for many Americans, because the missile rocketry used to propel Sputnik into space could also be used to deploy Soviet nuclear arms to strategic locations around the globe.
To further the anxiety about Sputnik, an American attempt in November of 1957 to launch a much simpler satellite, through Project Vanguard, failed miserably. The rocket that was intended to propel the satellite into orbit malfunctioned, and burst into flames only feet above its launch pad. This attempt was labeled by the international press as "Kaputnik", "Flopnik" and "Stayputnik"—adding to the humiliation of the early American space program. The Soviet success, coupled with U.S. failure, eroded respect for American capabilities in technology and defense—both within the U.S. and abroad. Chinese officials were quick to comment on the "military and scientific supremacy" that the Soviets had displayed.It came as a national embarrassment to many Americans, and a source of panic and hysteria to others.
Eisenhower did not lose face in light of the Soviet achievement. Instead, he worked through his public discourse to undermine the achievements of the Soviets—he provided reasonable explanations why the U.S. space program had not yet arrived at the same goal. The U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program had always been independent of its space satellite program, while the Soviets combined their respective programs. Since the U.S. had devoted most of its time to researching ICBMs, Eisenhower proclaimed, the satellite program had not been top priority, and was never conducted as a "race" with anyone. This was not "an outer space basketball game", as Eisenhower’s White House Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, said of Sputnik.
The origins of space satellite programs, however, seemed to be contrary to Eisenhower’s non-competitive stance. In 1953, the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1, 1957 through December 31, 1958 as the International Geophysical Year (IGY), and began to institute goals for research in the field of space exploration during that time. By 1954, the International Council of Scientific Unions called for its participating nations to work towards the creation of an artificial satellite, a challenge that both the U.S. and the Soviets accepted. Project Vanguard was adopted by the U.S. in 1955 to create a satellite in time for the IGY, but it was to remain independent of their ICBM program. At the same time, the Soviets implemented their Sputnik program into their ICBM initiatives. By September 30th, 1957, Soviet representatives at a CSAGI conference were already alluding to their near-completion of a satellite—much to the dismay of John P. Hagen who headed the American satellite program for the IGY who was attending this conference. It was known at the time that the American program was still months away from completion, and could only sit back and watch as the Soviet Sputnik undermined their efforts.
The first manmade artificial satellite, Sputnik or "fellow traveler", was blasted into space on October 4, 1957 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (in what is now present day Kazakhstan) at 11:56 p.m. local time. Once in orbit, the 183 pound antenna-clad sphere circled the earth at a rate of one revolution per ninety minutes at 900 kilometers above the earth’s surface. In fact, it passed over the U.S. at least twice before anyone realized it was there. One of the few pieces of equipment that it carried was a beacon radio that transmitted a signal "beep, beep, beep". This sound became known as "the beep heard round the world", because of the response it invoked from the global community, as well as its implications for the course of the Cold War and the beginning of a new technological age. "It came from beyond the stratosphere", Life magazine editors exclaimed, "and signaled the epochal breakthrough into the new age of space exploration".
Regardless of Eisenhower’s optimism in the shadow of the Soviets great achievement, the scientific community, as well as the general public, felt extremely let down by the U.S. space and defense programs. In a public opinion study after the launch of Sputnik, psychologist Donald N. Michael found that while most Americans felt that the U.S. would eventually surpass the Soviets technologically, immediately following Sputnik there were major concerns for national security, defense, and education programs of the U.S. government. In fact, thirty-seven percent of persons polled felt that the defense budget should be dramatically increased in order to meet the demands of the new technological race. This "space race", as well as the "missile gap", provided Eisenhower with the challenge of harnessing the fears of the American people.
With the new threat of a "missile gap" looming, and sharp decreases in popularity polls and declining public confidence, Eisenhower sought to improve relations with the Soviets and work with them towards peaceful reduction of arms. This he did as a last-ditch effort to leave the White House with a legacy as a Cold War peace-maker. He also wished to help his party’s presidential candidate, Richard Nixon,respond to the increasing accusations that the Republican administration had "gone soft" on standards for American military and defense technology, as well as the space program. Michigan’s Democratic governor, G. Mennen Williams, wrote a poem that illustrated his party’s view of their President following the launch of Sputnik, clearly exuding their views that Eisenhower was a complacent, incapable leader in the new technological age:
"Oh little Sputnik, flying high with made-in-Moscow beep,
You tell the world it’s a Commie sky and Uncle Sam’s asleep.
You say on the fairway and on the rough the Kremlin knows it all,
we hope our golfer knows enough to get us on the ball."
During his campaign, the Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy also referred to the "missile gap" as a means of pointing to the inadequacies of the Republican administration in dealing with the new technological age, particularly in relation to the Soviets. While Eisenhower had already collected enough intelligence information from U-2 overflights that he could have used to discredit much of the "missile gap", this political gain was not worth risking the secrecy of his instrument of espionage. To expose the overflights to the public would have jeopardized his chances to make strides for peace with Khruschev and the Soviets.
Eisenhower hoped his first step towards détente would be Khruschev’s visit to the United states in September of 1959. He was so optimistic that he was reluctant authorize the CIA to make overflights during the next year—cutting the program back dramatically. Powers recalled that on several occasions, months passed without any pilots flying missions. "We were never told the reason for the severe cutback", he recalled in his memoirs, "we presumed it was because of the political climate’’. Even though he came under pressure of his advisors and top CIA officials, he did not want to risk the improved relationship he was building with the Soviets.
During their visit at Camp David, Eisenhower and Khruschev discussed several issues—the topic of U-2 overflights was not one of them. Ike assumed that the since the Premier had not stated any objections to the flights, it would not be wrong to make further flights. In fact, Ike believed that all nations spied—if the Soviets objected, Khruschev would have surely said so during their discussion. They spoke about disarmament, the test-ban treaty, and the upcoming East-West Paris summit instead.
When Bissell and John F. Dulles (U.S. Secretary of State) approached Eisenhower in late 1959 about resuming overflights, Ike was reluctant—yet more willing than he had been before his visit with Khruschev at Camp David. Despite the successes of previous overflights, they wished to collect more concrete information about Soviet ICBM bases—in particular at Tyuratam, Sverdlovsk, and most importantly Plesetsk. Eisenhower approved a flight to investigate these supposed- ICBM sites, set for April 9th, 1960 from Peshawar.
This flight was dangerously close to the Paris peace summit, scheduled for May of 1960. Nevertheless, the CIA went forward with Eisenhower’s approval, but was unsatisfied with the information it had collected. In addition, Khruschev and the Soviets had discovered the flight, and tried unsuccessfully to shoot down the U-2. The Soviet Premier was extremely disappointed, as he had already asked the U.S. to "take no action that would worsen the atmosphere or sow seeds of suspicion" before the Paris summit was to take place. Though he did not openly express this disappointment, Khruschev tried to reason why the Americans continued to take action that was seemingly contradictory to their cries for East-West peace.
There would be one final blow to détente, as the CIA pressured Eisenhower to authorize yet another Soviet overflight. This mission—the U-2 program’s riskiest ever—would involve flying over suspected ICBM sites, Soviet industrial strongholds, and other military bases. This mission was unprecedented, as the pilot was to fly completely across the Soviet Union—from Pakistan to Norway. All previous flights had been made as a circular flight pattern—partly for the risk involved, and partly for the logistics of ground crews and airstrips. This mission, the CIA believed, would allow the United States to finally gain a clear picture of Soviet ICBM bases under construction—something the April 9th mission had failed to capture.
The pilot chosen to fly this mission was Francis Powers, who had proven himself as a successful pilot in the U-2 program. He was to fly a mission very similar to the April 9th mission, capturing pictures of Tyunatam, Sverlovsk, Plesetsk, and other strategic locations. Originally scheduled to fly on April 29th, his mission was delayed twice for unfavorable weather. May 1st was his final chance to complete his mission—in fact, Andrew Goodpaster (Ike’s staff secretary) warned Bissell that "one additional operation my be undertaken, provided it is carried out prior to May 1. No operation is to be carried out after May 1." This reflected Eisenhower’s growing concern for the approaching peace summit.
May 1st, 1960 arrived, and Powers began his fateful flight. He succeeded in flying over Tyunatam, but was shot down as he approached Sverdlovsk. Finally the Soviets had succeeded in bringing down a U-2 plane—their advancements in anti-aircraft missiles finally made this possible. Powers survived the ordeal, and was taken captive after landing on a state farm nearly 1,300 miles into the Soviet Union. Khruschev, seizing the opportunity to make the U.S. pay for their invasion, announced to the world that a U.S. spy plane had been shot down over Soviet territory. The U-2 invasion had taken place on a Soviet national holiday, May Day, which made Khruschev even more angry about the ordeal. In a note to U.S. about the incident, negative Soviet views were relayed: "Military intelligence activities of one nation by means of intrusion of its aircraft into the area of another country can hardly be called a method for improving relations and strengthening trust." Clearly, this mission had violated Khruschev’s early warnings regarding the atmosphere before the peace summit.
Khruschev’s condemnation prompted U.S. government officials, both in the CIA and the White House, to release a cover story—all the while assuming that Powers had not survived the crash. They claimed that an unarmed U.S. civilian weather plane had flown off course and possibly landed beyond Soviet borders—a story they were forced to change when Khruschev revealed that spy camera film and the pilot had survived the crash. These two pieces of evidence so strong that US had to retract their original story of a weather plane, and admit the flight had been carried out for purposes of spying. The U.S. admitted having developed "programs…put into operation which have included extensive aerial surveillance by unarmed civilian aircraft". This revelation spelled the end for the Paris peace summit—Khruschev arrived only to denounce the U.S. for their espionage, refusing to discuss the nuclear test-ban treaty that had been both nation’s hope for the conference.
Powers was brought to trial thirteen months later for espionage. He was fully aware of the sentence that could have awaited him—espionage was punishable by death in the Soviet Union at this time. He was questioned about all aspects of the mission, his involvement in the U.S. government, as well as other personal matters. He was sentenced to serve ten years in Soviet prison, but was eventually traded for a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, seventeen months later. This brought an end to Power’s personal ordeal with the Soviets, yet the legacy of his encounter remained—with a lasting affect on the course of the Cold War.
Had it not been for the U-2 incident, the entire course of the Cold War may have been different. Since it seemed as the Soviets and United States were on the verge of better relations, this blatant violation of trust was a felt as a devastating blow. Had Eisenhower rejected the final overflight, the Paris peace summit could have proven a tremendous success in the reduction of nuclear arms. This also would have served as a victory for the Republican party—for Ike to be hailed a Cold War peacemaker would have renewed faith in the party—thus allowing his successor, Nixon, to cruise into the White House in the 1960 elections. Instead, détente was shattered, and the U.S. was villainized by Khruschev before the rest of the world. The U.S. recognized this, in a telegram from the U.S. Soviet Union embassy to the Department of State: "There is no doubt we have suffered a loss in Soviet public opinion, and probably throughout the world".
The U-2 program was exposed—rendering it useless for any further overflights of the Soviet Union, especially since the CIA was now aware that their invincible aircraft was vulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft defenses. While it would become an important spy tool for the CIA in other regions of the world (most notably in Cuba during the missile crisis), the U-2 was never again used to make another over-flight of the Soviet Union.
Sputnik, called by historian Robert Divine "one of the most enduring landmarks" of the Cold War, initiated the clamor of the "Missile Gap", had long lasting affects on U.S. defense and education policy as well.. The space race—a technological contest that eventually lead to further space exploration—added a new dimension to the Cold War. What started as a IGY program to create a simple artificial satellite, led to a successful touchdown by an American spacecraft on the moon. Sputnik created the concept that "space" was an international realm, opening it to the explorations of the Soviets and U.S. alike.
In order to meet the demands of the space race, Lyndon B. Johnson (then Senate majority leader) opened hearings by a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Nov 25, 1957 to review American defense and space programs in the wake of Sputnik. This committee found U.S. space programs to be seriously under-funded. The solution to this problem was realized with the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on July 29, 1958, as an updated version of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Its mission was to "plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities". It can be argued that, while the space program cost Americans billions in tax dollars, the "space race" eventually became a healthy competition that diverted some attention away from the more harmful tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Also, technology that was developed from these efforts—especially communication satellites—was later adopted by the private sector, and has become instrumental in connecting corporations in global business, as well as the creation of an information age.
Sputnik also had dramatic effects on how Americans viewed their public schools and educational system. In the midst of panic, many Americans charged that their own schools were inferior to the Soviets, and that American students had grown lazy and lax. Underachievement in science and math, Americans felt, was the reason that the Soviets had advanced beyond the U.S. in their technological capabilities. Under great pressure from the American public, Congress responded with the National Defense Education Act of 1958.
This billion-dollar plan, aimed at eliminating the perceived education gap in American schools, had three major provisions. This included provided loans for college students, especially those specializing in math, science, or foreign languages. It also provided money for equipment and supplies for math and science in public and private schools. Finally, money for guidance and career counseling programs in schools, to help guide students into the high-tech jobs in which they were needed most. This plan provided the basis for future federal laws regarding education, as well as some of the first substantial loans available to college students at the time.
While tracing the events of the Cold War, the U-2 affair and the launch of Sputnik may seem trivial—especially when compared to the implications of a major Cold War event like the Vietnam War. In reality, both played a pivotal part in determining the course of the Cold War. The launch of Sputnik created a race for technology that engulfed the efforts of Soviets and Americans alike. The U-2 incident reversed favorable relations between Soviets and American leaders, and historians can only speculate the advancements that may have come if the Paris peace summit had gone on uninterrupted. It also changed the political career of both Eisenhower and Khruschev: Ike did not achieve his "crowning glory" for his presidency of a U.S.-Soviet peace agreement. Khruschev was politically humiliated, facing accusations that his relaxed attitude towards the West had allowed his nation to be caught off guard by such an invader. Since Khruschev had been one of the most willing Soviet leaders to negotiate terms with the U.S., Americans gained nothing by having Khruschev’s position ruined among his own people.
Instead of détente, bitter rivalries were renewed, setting the stage for the rest of arms race during the Cold War.