Loss of Spy Plane Sabotaged 1960 Summit

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev examines items retrieved from the downed U-2 spy plane.

At an exhibit in Moscow, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev examines items retrieved from the downed U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. National Archives hide caption

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Former CBS anchor and commentator Walter Cronkite recalls the tension of spring 1960 when an American spy plane helped to plunge East-West relations into one of the deepest chills of the Cold War. A U-2 was shot down over Russia and its pilot paraded for the world to see. It ruined a planned summit meeting.

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When President Bush and Vladimir Putin met earlier this month, it was an apparently cordial affair. Despite lingering tensions between the US and Russia, the two leaders went out of their way to project an image of a working friendship between presumed allies. It was all a far cry from the great drama of the 1960 summit that brought Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev together in Paris. That summit collapsed in chaos and crisis 45 years ago today. It's why when millions of Americans of a certain age hear the letter U followed by the number 2, they don't think of a rock group; they think of an American spy plane. Former CBS TV anchor and commentator Walter Cronkite recalls the high tension of that spring in 1960.

WALTER CRONKITE:

It had all begun with a brief news story on May the 5th.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

Unidentified Reporter #1: Nikita Khrushchev announced that a US plane had been shot down over Russian territory last Sunday. Officials in Washington said the plane was an unarmed weather research plane...

CRONKITE: It was, indeed, a research plane, but the weather was scarcely its concern. It had been built to research Soviet military strength. Beginning late in 1954, as the F-104 fighter, the plane emerged within three months as something completely new: a reconnaissance aircraft. It carried no guns, no military markings or identification; just a camera that pilots said could photograph a golf ball from 55,000 feet. To camouflage its secret function, it was designated a utility plane, the U2.

Starting in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower approved each flight personally. He was well rewarded for his risks.

(Soundbite of Sputnik)

CRONKITE: After Russia launched its first satellite in 1957, there was a hysterical anxiety in America over what was called a missile gap. Even a presidential panel concluded the Russians were surpassing us militarily. But the president knew something the rest of us didn't know, not even his own panel. With U2 photos in hand, he knew that fears of Soviet power were exaggerated. It was knowledge that would save America billions in a needless arms race.

But President Eisenhower had a predicament. He knew that the missile gap was a myth, but in the Catch-22 of deep espionage, he could not produce the evidence. If he did, he would lose the greatest hidden American intelligence tool since decryption of enemy ciphers in the Second World War. He chose to take the political heat of the missile gap for the greater good. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev knew about the flights and might have exposed them, but he faced his own dilemma. He could not publicly acknowledge enemy planes over his country that his own military was unable to shoot down. Each man, for his own reasons, needed to protect the secrecy of the missions.

By the spring of 1960, East-West relations seemed to be warming. As the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France prepared for the first summit conference in five years, there was an atmosphere of optimism in the air. But it was not an optimism shared by the CIA. The agency insisted on one more U2 flight over Soviet territory. Against his better judgment, President Eisenhower authorized it. On May 1st, it took off from a US base, but the plane never reached its planned landing site in Norway. Five days later, Khrushchev announced to the world that he had caught a United States spy plane in Soviet airspace. He demanded answers.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

Unidentified Reporter #2: And in a scathing verbal attack on the United States, Khrushchev told the Soviet parliament that it appeared that aggressive forces in the United States are taking action to interfere with the summit and...

CRONKITE: Khrushchev carefully withheld one important fact. He made no mention of the pilot. Just as he expected, the US State Department dug itself deeper into its own false cover story.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

Unidentified Reporter #3: State Department spokesman Lincoln White issued this statement.

Mr. LINCOLN WHITE (State Department Spokesperson): It is entirely possible the plane continued on automatic pilot for a considerable distance and accidentally violated Soviet airspace.

CRONKITE: Two days later Khrushchev played his secret card: U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

Unidentified Reporter #4: Nikita Khrushchev identified the pilot of a US plane shot down over Russia as Francis G. Powers, civilian test pilot employed by Lockheed and assigned to duty with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, our chief missile agency.

CRONKITE: Like a chess master, the Soviet leader had lured his opponent into position and then sprung his trap. With Powers alive in Moscow, Khrushchev had caught the United States in an untenable lie to its own people and the world. Ten days later he intended to make the most of it at the summit.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

CRONKITE: Good evening. I'm Walter Cronkite. And this is a Sunday news special, where tonight the summit stage is set as Eisenhower arrives in Paris. Soviet satellite already has made its Monday-morning pass over Paris, only a few hours before the formal opening of the big four summit talk. Report now from Paris on the day's 11th-hour activities. CBS News correspondent David Schoenbrun reporting.

Mr. DAVID SCHOENBRUN (CBS Reporter): The eyes of the world are on Paris this Sunday morning, for the big four are all here, although the formal summit conference only begins tomorrow morning.

CRONKITE: What the eyes of the world would see the next morning was Premier Khrushchev storming out of the first ceremonial session. He and Eisenhower never even exchanged greetings. You cannot understand how ominous this seemed in 1960. Summit meetings today lack the drama of confrontation. For all the pomp and circumstance that still follows such events, the pomp has grown increasingly routine. Perhaps summit meetings have joined our own party conventions as colorful relics of another time.

But in May of 1960, it was very different as two powerful and hostile worlds sought to share the same planet. That was why millions pinned so much hope on the promise of world leaders coming together at the summit. Hope and anticipation were never higher as President Eisenhower arrived at Orly Field, near Paris.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: Mankind expects the participants in this summit meeting to work honestly and intelligently for measures toward genuine peace. The hopes of humanity call on the four of us to purge our minds of prejudice. Far too much is at stake to indulge in profitless bickering.

(Soundbite of band playing)

CRONKITE: It was to be the last great gathering of the generation that had first met and bonded during World War II. The president had come to know British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and France's Charles de Gaulle in North Africa in 1942. They came to this summit now as heads of state with deep and historic ties. But there was no sentiment on view as Khrushchev arrived playing the outraged and demanding victim. Months of diplomatic preparations quickly disintegrated as the world gasped in disbelief. By the end of a day that began in hope, the news was all bad.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

CRONKITE: Good evening. This is Walter Cronkite, at CBS News headquarters in New York, with a special report on the summit crisis. And this is the summit situation as it stands right now. The only scheduled meeting takes place a few hours from now to discuss the impasse. One unconfirmed report has it that Premier Khrushchev has ordered his plane ready for a possible return to Moscow tomorrow if Prime Minister Macmillan's peacemaking efforts fail.

But Macmillan's efforts would fail because Khrushchev already had something far more valuable than anything he could have won in negotiations at the summit. The meeting lasted just over three hours...

(Soundbite of vintage report)

CRONKITE: The meeting lasted just over three hours. The first one out was Nikita Khrushchev, looking flushed and he knew it. The next one out was President Eisenhower. Observers in the meeting say he and Khrushchev never shook hands when they met inside the Elysee Palace. The two men simply rose from their chairs and left, again, without a greeting. Premier Khrushchev demands that jet reconnaissance flights be stopped; that President Eisenhower publicly apologize for such flights and that those responsible be punished. Premier Khrushchev also withdrew his invitation for Eisenhower to visit Russia. Reporters were almost incredulous. They rushed to the...

The world was equally incredulous as the long-awaited summit collapsed before it began. But if the U2 gave Khrushchev a strong hand to play in Paris, he overplayed it badly. The question was: Why? There are several questions crying for answers tonight...

(Soundbite of vintage report)

CRONKITE: There are several questions crying for answers tonight, and in the old World War cliche, the lights are burning late in the chancellories of the world. The all-enveloping question, of course, is: What are the Russians up to? The world has learned that the land where chess is the national game seldom does anything with a single objective and an obvious motive.

What the Russians were up to had less to do with Eisenhower, the summit or even world opinion. The principal audience for Khrushchev's stormy performance was in Moscow, where his own party hard-liners were demanding an end to his cozy policy toward the West. It was Kremlin intrigue, not global politics, that would ultimately subvert the 1960 summit.

At the first meeting on Monday, Khrushchev dropped an interesting clue that was not lost on Daniel Schorr, now the NPR senior news analyst who was then CBS' chief Kremlin correspondent.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

DANIEL SCHORR: Khrushchev's action today indicates that pressure on him from Communist China and other top elements in his own camp was greater than previously realized. These elements, say Moscow observers, have been questioning his policy of wooing the West, which they noted had not paid off with any Communist gain in the past two years. Therefore, this explosive way of breaking off on an issue, at least popular among his own clients, headed off that opposition before it could become too troublesome for him.

CRONKITE: In the short run, the U2 flight and the summit breakup were a major blow to President Eisenhower's prestige, but that repaired itself soon enough. The consequences to Nikita Khrushchev's prestige were more serious. He would later say that the decline of his power as party chairman began with the U2 affair and the May summit.

In the longer run, the whole affair effectively ended summit diplomacy as we had known it. The big four of the postwar era would never again meet in a formal East-West conference.

(Soundbite of vintage report)

CRONKITE: So tonight the Western world, at least, while expecting no hot war moves, sees a new intensification of the Cold War with the principal emphasis on closing the avenues of cultural exchange, which had opened the Iron Curtain at least a crack. And, more important, a severe political pressure will be put now on the West's allies along the Soviet borders. This is Walter Cronkite reporting from the CBS newsroom in New York. Good night.

The U2 stabilized the arms race. It continued to fly for another decade and would catch the Russians red-handed in Cuba in 1962. But the Cold War would persist. If peace was not so wild a dream, in Norman Corwin's famous phrase, it was still to be postponed another 30 years. For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

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