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The Day We Shot Down The U-2
Nikita Khrushchev’s son remembers a great turning point of the Cold War, as seen from behind the Iron Curtain
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
On May 1, 1960, a Soviet V-750 surface-to-air missile (known in America as the SA-Z “Guideline”) shot down a U-2, one of the “invulnerable” American spy planes. The plane was a phantom—of all the secret projects of those years, perhaps the most secret. Even now, when it seems there are no secrets left, not everything connected with the U-2’s last mission can be explained from the standpoint of normal human logic.
In the 1950s, years of deep freeze in the Cold War, politicians and ordinary people on both sides were gripped by the same fear: that the opposing side, whether Moscow or Washington, would seize the opportunity to deal the first, and possibly last, nuclear strike. At the 1955 Geneva meeting of the four powers—the U.S.S.R., the United States, Great Britain, and France—President Eisenhower presented his Open Skies proposal, which called for planes of the opposing blocs to fly over the territories of probable adversaries in order to monitor their nuclear arms.
Father, by then the dominant figure in the Soviet leadership, immediately rejected the idea. This made his negotiating partners intensely suspicious. They reasoned that the Soviet Union must be hiding something very dangerous. In fact, Father had the opposite motivation. The Soviets’ secret was that they had nothing to hide. Father feared that the West might be tempted to launch a nuclear strike if it learned how weak its opponent really was.
After the first U-2 flight, Father felt the Americans must be chortling over our impotence.
Father brought home an attractive yellow brochure advertising Open Skies, which Eisenhower had given him in Geneva. Handing it to me to look over, he praised the achievements of modern technology. The photographs were indeed impressive. Taken from an altitude of six miles, the first showed the overall plan of a city; in the next you could distinguish houses, and in the next, cars. Finally in the last you could make out the murky figure of a man reclining on a lounge chair in the courtyard of his home reading a newspaper. The capabilities of American photo technology firmly convinced Father that we must not allow American planes in our skies.
His rejection had little effect on plans in Washington. The U-2, the most advanced and high-level spy plane, which flew high enough to render it well nigh invulnerable to other aircraft, anti-aircraft guns, and surface-to-air missiles, was waiting for the go-ahead to make its first flight over Soviet territory.
The U-2 was a masterpiece of aviation technology, the pride of the Lock- heed Company, and it brought deserved worldwide fame to Kelly Johnson, its designer. Its first mission was to be a prolonged flight over western regions of Soviet territory. If the Soviets ventured something similar with respect to the United States, it would be considered an attack, Eisenhower realized. Yet he approved the flight, for CIA officials had insisted that it could not yet cause a confrontation, because the plane would pass almost invisibly over Soviet territory, like a phantom. They believed the Russians weren’t capable of making a breakthrough in radar and at best could only slightly improve on the American and British units they’d been supplied with during the war, which couldn’t detect targets higher than nine miles. In addition, the plane would fly so high that Soviet missiles and fighter planes couldn’t reach it.
The CIA timed the U-2’s inaugural flight to coincide with America’s national holiday, July 4, 1956. Charles Bohlen, the American ambassador in Moscow, had some general knowledge of the project, but he didn’t suspect that the first flight would happen right when Khrushchev, as the embassy’s guest at a holiday reception, was proposing a toast to the health of President Dwight Eisenhower.
The plane had actually crossed the Soviet border early in the morning. Father was immediately informed but didn’t hurry to do anything. First we had to investigate, to consider the consequences before taking any action. He, like Bohlen, revealed nothing at the reception and joked and chatted, even though he was fuming inside.
The Geneva conference had appeared to give hope for a gradual (Father didn’t nourish any illusions) transition from armed confrontation to, if not co-operation, at least peaceful coexistence. Therefore, such a demonstrative violation of international rules of propriety stunned Father. And the U-2 flights, especially that first one, produced more than just shock in the Soviet leadership; they profoundly influenced the policies of subsequent years.
What I remember most vividly in connection with that U-2 flight and the ones that followed later in the week was Father’s reluctance to complain to the U.S. government. He felt the Americans must be chortling over our impotence and that diplomatic protest would only add to their pleasure. Nevertheless, a protest note was sent to Washington, to show that the U-2 had failed to be invisible. Eisenhower, concerned, summoned the CIA’s director, Alien Dulles, and forbade further flights over Soviet territory without the President’s personal permission. Still, Eisenhower did not rule them out altogether.