MAY - JULY 1960: THE U - 2 AIRPLANE INCIDENT


Source: U.S. Department of State Vol. X, Part 1, FRUS, 1958-60: E. Europe Region; Soviet Union,  Office of the Historian


147. Editorial Note

On May 1, a U.S. U - 2 unarmed reconnaissance plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers who was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency, was shot down by Soviet military authorities 1,200 miles inside the Soviet Union near Sverdlovsk. In the following days, Nikita Khru-shchev exploited the incident to sabotage the summit meeting between the Heads of Government of the United States, Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom, which began in Paris on May 16. Documentation on the relationship between the U - 2 incident and the collapse of the summit is in volume IX.

The President's recollections of his role in authorizing the U - 2 reconnaissance flights and the responses of his administration to the crash of the U - 2 plane and subsequent Soviet recriminations are in Waging Peace, pages 543 - 559. Regarding background on the President's decisions on overflight operations, see Documents 70, 72, and 82.

In a memorandum for the record, April 25, Goodpaster, presumably referring to a proposed U - 2 flight, wrote: "After checking with the President, I informed Mr. Bissell that one additional operation may be undertaken, provided it is carried out prior to May 1. No operation is to be carried out after May 1." (Eisenhower Library, Project Clean Up, Intelligence Matters)

Eisenhower recalled that Goodpaster telephoned him on the afternoon of May 1 to tell him the U - 2 flight was overdue and possibly lost. Early the next morning, Goodpaster told the President that the plane was still missing and certainly down somewhere. (Waging Peace, page 543) No further record of the reports by Goodpaster to the President has been found, but on May 3 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration issued a statement that the airplane was on a joint NASA - U.S. Air Force air weather service mission in Turkey and had apparently gone down in the Lake Van, Turkey area on May 1. For text of this statement, see Department of State Bulletin, May 23, 1960, page 817.

In a long speech to the Supreme Soviet in Moscow on May 5, Khru-shchev referred to an overflight by a U.S. plane on April 9 as an "aggressive act," and then announced that a U.S. spy plane had been shot down deep in Soviet territory on May 1. Soviet authorities, he continued, determined that the plane crossed into the Soviet Union from Turkey, Iran, or Pakistan. For the complete text of Khrushchev's May 5 speech and his account of the U - 2 incident, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, June 1, 1960, pages 4 - 19, 44.

At the meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday morning, May 5, summarized in a memorandum of discussion prepared by Marion W. Boggs, Allen Dulles reported that Khrushchev had just made a long speech to the Supreme Soviet and "the latter part of his speech dealing with foreign relations and with the Summit was still coming in but was reported to contain a very tough line so far as the U.S. and the Summit are concerned." (Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Rec-ords) In his memoirs, Eisenhower remarked that the complete text of Khrushchev's speech, including his claim of the Soviet military shooting down the U - 2, arrived just as the NSC meeting was ending. Eisenhower asked those senior officials concerned with U - 2 operations to remain behind to discuss the situation. The principals then devised a statement that would harmonize with the May 3 "cover story." Eisenhower also instructed his press secretary, James C. Hagerty, to inform the press that the President had ordered a full inquiry, the results of which the Department of State and NASA would release. (Waging Peace, pages 548 - 549) No further record of Eisenhower's conversation with these senior officials has been found, although the President's Appointment Book indicates that he met briefly, from 10:37 to 10:47 a.m., following the NSC meeting with Acting Secretary of State Dillon, Secretary of Defense Gates, Director of Central Intelligence Dulles, the President's National Security Adviser Gordon Gray, and Goodpaster. (Eisenhower Library, President's Appointment Books)

In telegram 2715 from Moscow, May 5 (transmitted at 7 p.m. Moscow time and received in the Department of State at 1:34 p.m. the same day), which Ambassador Thompson labeled "most urgent," Thompson reported that at an Ethiopian reception that evening Deputy Foreign Minister Jacob Malik had said that the Soviets did not yet know under what article of the U.N. Charter they would bring the plane incident before the Security Council because they were still questioning the pilot who had parachuted to safety. (Department of State, Central Files, 761.5411/5 - 560) Despite this warning that the pilot might be alive and subject to Soviet interrogation, the Eisenhower administration had already decided to continue with the earlier statement. For texts of the May 5 NASA statement, a Department of State statement devised at the May 5 NSC meeting, and the May 6 U.S. note to the Soviet Government asking it to provide full facts on the fate of Francis Gary Powers, see Department of State Bulletin, May 23, 1960, pages 817 - 818.

On May 6, Pravda published an account of how the Soviet military shot down the reconnaissance aircraft. For text of the article, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, June 1, 1960, pages 27 - 28.

In another long speech to the Supreme Soviet on the next day, May 7, Khrushchev said, among other things, that the pilot was alive and that Soviet authorities had recovered parts of the airplane. He also displayed samples of the developed film allegedly taken by camera equipment installed on the plane and charged that Powers had flown out of Peshawar airfield in Pakistan, which was correct, and not out of Turkey, and his landing destination was Bodo airfield in Norway. For full text of his speech, see ibid., June 8, 1960, pages 3 - 7.

In response to this speech, the Department of State issued a statement on May 7 admitting that while the inquiry ordered by the President established that "insofar as the authorities in Washington are concerned there was no authorization for any such flight as described by Mr. Khrushchev," such a flight over the Soviet Union to gather information was probably undertaken, and it justified such activities as necessary "given the state of the world today" and the Soviet Government's rejection of the President's "open skies" proposal in 1955. For text of this statement, see Department of State Bulletin, May 23, 1960, pages 818 - 819. For Ambassador Thompson's analysis of Khrushchev's motives in playing up the plane incident, see Document 148. A memorandum of the National Security Council discussion on May 9 of the incident is printed as Document 149. In a statement released to the press on the afternoon of May 9, Secretary Herter conceded that the President had issued directives authorizing the gathering of intelligence information, although specific missions of unarmed civilian aircraft had not been subject to authorization. For text of Herter's statement, see Department of State Bulletin, May 23, 1960, pages 816 - 817. For Thompson's report on his meeting with Khrushchev at a reception at the Czecho-slovak Embassy in Moscow on May 9, see Documents 150 and 151.

On May 10, the Embassy in Moscow delivered a note to the Soviet Union requesting permission to interview Francis Gary Powers. On the same day, the Soviet Foreign Ministry delivered a note to the Embassy replying to the U.S. note of May 6. The Soviet note protested the "aggressive acts of American aviation" and warned that "if similar provocations are repeated, it will be obliged to take retaliatory measures." For texts of the U.S. and Soviet May 10 notes, see Department of State Bulletin, May 30, 1960, pages 852 - 854.

At his news conference on May 11, President Eisenhower read a statement on the U - 2 incident, which supplemented what Herter had revealed in his statement on May 9. For text of the President's statement as well as subsequent questions from the press, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960 - 61, pages 403 - 414.

Eisenhower's decision on May 12 to call off all activities that the Soviets might regard as provocative is summarized in Document 152.

Eisenhower left by plane for the summit conference on May 14. Soon after his arrival in Paris on May 15, he learned that Khrushchev had read to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan a message (a copy was given to President Charles de Gaulle) demanding that Eisenhower denounce the U - 2 flights over the Soviet Union as provocative, renounce further flights, and "pass severe judgment" on those responsible for them as conditions for his participation at the summit conference. He reiterated these demands at the conference opening session the following morning. Eisenhower asserted that overflights of the Soviet Union had been suspended for the duration of his administration, but when he refused to apologize, Khrushchev withdrew his invitation to Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union and also withdrew from the summit. For the record of this session, see volume IX, Document 168.

On May 18, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko asked the U.N. Security Council to consider the question of "aggressive acts by the United States Air Force against the Soviet Union, creating a threat to universal peace." The Security Council took up the Soviet complaint May 23 - 27. For texts of the statements made in the Security Council by Representative Henry Cabot Lodge on May 23, 26, and 27, as well as texts of the Soviet draft resolution and a revised version of a resolution introduced by Argentina, Ceylon, Ecuador, and Tunisia, see Department of State Bulletin, June 13, 1960, pages 955 - 962. The four-power resolution is also printed in Documents on Disarmament, 1960, pages 96 - 98. The Security Council rejected the Soviet draft resolution on May 26 by seven votes to two (Poland and the Soviet Union) with two abstentions (Ceylon and Tunisia) and approved the four-power resolution the following day by a vote of nine to zero, with Poland and the Soviet Union abstaining. The Soviet complaint and debate in the Security Council are summarized in Yearbook of the United Nations, 1960, pages 40 - 41.

On May 24, 4 days after his return to Washington, Eisenhower convened a meeting of the National Security Council; see Document 153. The President held a breakfast meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders on May 26; see Document 154. Documentation on hearings conducted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on events relating to the summit, including the U - 2 incident, is summarized in Document 155.

When the Soviet Union shot down a U.S. Air Force RB - 47 airplane over the Barents Sea on July 1, subsequent discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union on this incident occasionally raised the U - 2 incident as well. See in particular Documents 162 - 165.

Powers was tried and convicted of espionage by the Military Division of the Supreme Court of the U.S.S.R. For the Soviet announcement of criminal proceedings, indictment, composition of the court, a transcript of the trial August 17 - 19, and the verdict that sentenced Powers to 10 years of confinement, see The Trial of the U2, introduction by Harold J. Berman (Chicago: World Publishers, 1960).

In a memorandum to Goodpaster, August 18, Allen W. Dulles listed all U - 2 overflights of Soviet bloc nations, [text not declassified] since the initiation of the U - 2 operations on June 20, 1956. [text not declassified] The last flight mentioned was Francis Gary Powers' mission of May 1. (Eisenhower Library, Project Clean Up, Intelligence Matters)

The role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the U - 2 overflights is recounted in Allen Dulles, The Craft of Intelligence (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) and Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, Jr., The Real CIA (New York: Macmillan, 1968). The pilot gave his own account in Francis Gary Powers with Curt Gentry, Operation Overflight: The U - 2 Spy Pilot Tells His Story for the First Time (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970). Powers' congressional testimony shortly after his return from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in 1962 is in Francis Gary Powers: Hearing Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 87th Congress, 2d Session, March 6, 1962 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962).

A summary and analysis of Soviet public statements on the U - 2 incident are contained in Intelligence Report No. 8285, "Soviet Account of U - 2 Incident," which the Bureau of Intelligence and Research prepared on June 13. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, OSS - INR Reports)

Additional documentation on the U - 2 controversy is in Department of State, Central File 761.5411 and EUR/SOV Files: Lot 71 D 438, Powers, Francis Gary. Documentation on Embassy efforts in Moscow to interview Powers in prison, his trial, and efforts of the Department of State, his family, and legal counsel to secure his release is ibid., Central File 261.1111 - Powers, Francis Gary.


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