Fifty years ago, on May 1, 1960, a Soviet missile brought down a CIA U-2 near the city of Sverdlovsk deep in Russia. The shoot-down had serious consequences. Apart from heightening Cold War tensions, it marked the end of a remarkably successful collection program against the Soviet Union, and was certainly a life-changing event for Francis Gary Powers, the civilian pilot who miraculously survived the crash.
Building the U-2
- An early U-2 in flight.
The story began in the early 1950s when the United States realized that it knew dangerously little about the Soviet Union. Over the strenuous objections of then-Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles, who insisted that CIA’s focus should remain human intelligence, President Dwight Eisenhower decided that the CIA, and not the military, should develop an overhead collection program.
The result was that the brilliant and extremely energetic Richard Bissell, operating as Special Assistant to the DCI, became the Agency’s project manager for the development of a photo reconnaissance plane that would fly far above Soviet air defenses. Bissell in turn worked with Kelly Johnson, of Lockheed’s famous “Skunkworks,” and the only slightly less famous Edwin Land, the developer of the Polaroid camera. Together, in the space of 18 months, they created, tested, and fielded the U-2, a power glider that:
- Could fly at 70,000 feet
- Had a range of 2,950 miles and
- Carried the finest camera lenses in the world.
In the Hands of the Soviets
- Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev viewing paraphernalia from Powers’s U-2. Photo: Courtesy of National Archives.
The U-2 was ready to leave the nest in the summer of 1956. Concerned by the potential for international incidents, and even war, that overflights of the Soviet Bloc could cause, Eisenhower reserved the right to approve missions himself. Eisenhower limited the number of missions to what he considered the minimum to close vital intelligence gaps, which the photographs from the U-2 did with great success.
Between 1956 and 1960, there followed an arms race within an arms race. Soviet radars tracked most, if not all, U-2 flights over Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but their missiles and fighters could not reach high enough to shoot the U-2 down. All the Soviets could do was to deliver protest notes to the United States, and push their developers for technological or tactical breakthroughs, while American developers tried in vain to make the U-2 invisible to radar. After many failures, the Soviets were able to get a missile close enough to a U-2 for a kill on May 1, 1960.
American pilot, spy film, and wreckage in hand, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev played the situation for all it was worth, scoring propaganda victories while the United States countered with the weak cover story that the lost U-2 had been a weather plane that had wandered off course. At the previously scheduled Four Power Summit in mid-May, Khrushchev demanded an apology from Eisenhower. When Eisenhower refused, the talks collapsed.
- The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, using a model of the U-2 to brief American listeners on his ordeal after being released from Soviet prison.
After a show trial, Powers received a 10-year sentence. He served 18 months of that sentence before being exchanged for the Soviet “illegal” Rudolf Abel, who had been in a federal prison after years of coordinating a spy ring from his apartment in New York City.
Upon return to the United States, Powers faced numerous inquiries, including a formal board convened by CIA. Despite pressure from DCI John McCone to find fault with Powers, the CIA board of inquiry exonerated him, and he eventually received an Intelligence Star for his services.
He went on to work as a test pilot at Lockheed, write a book, and, sadly, die in 1977 while piloting a helicopter for a TV station.
Paving the Way for the Future
In retrospect, was the U-2 program against the Soviets worthwhile? Arguably, yes. Though the program was exposed by Powers’ crash in 1960, before that time it produced intelligence that allowed the United States to moderate its responses in the arms race with the Soviets, and thereby helped to keep the peace.
Moreover, the United States now had an airframe that it or its allies could use against other targets, and which both the (Nationalist) Chinese and U.S. Air Forces went on to fly. It proved to be a useful complement to the reconnaissance satellites that began to produce imagery a few months after Powers was shot down.
The CIA Museum contains various pieces from the history of the U-2, among them a piece of the wreckage of Powers’s plane, a pressure suit worn by early U-2 pilots, and the model that Powers used when giving testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee following his release from the Soviet Union in 1962.
Related Stories and Links: