“Powers was a man who, for adequate pay, would do it and as he passed over Minsk, would calmly reach for a salami sandwich.”
– C.I.A. Lawyer James Donovan on U2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers
Francis Gary Powers. Now there’s a name that is a blast from the past. His look is that of any man from the period… a Korean War veteran, a man with a wife and children, and hopes for the future. Yet this relatively unassuming looking man was at the center of one of the most notorious incidents of “the Cold War”, and in spite of the many people who thought he was just a C.I.A. patsy, he was a man who actually did very well under the circumstances. His release on today’s date in 1962 in a trade for a Russian spy, one Rudolf Ivanovich Abel marked the end of Power’s incarceration by the Soviet government, but many questions which lead to that incarceration remain un-anwered to this day.
The U2 Spyplane – the Ultimate Espionage Weapon
By the early 1950’s Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were on the rise. In these days before the advent of precise Satellite imagery such as we commonly have now, planes – aircraft with a living human pilot (unlike the unmanned drones that we have now) – had to do the work of sneaking over the territory of nations on whom we wished to have a little unauthorized peak, and taking photographs of military installations, and the like. Previously, this sort of thing had been done by bombers converted for the purpose. But these could only fly so high, and were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire from the ground. So a plane was developed which combined the long sleek fuselage of the Lockheed Starfighter with very long, light glider-like wings (pictured below). This produced a plane which could easily fly at the then unheard of altitude of 70,000
feet, which was well outside of the maximum range of Soviet anti-aircraft missiles, or so it was thought. Unfortunately, those very features which made the “U2”, as the plane was designated, a high-flying marvel also made it unstable and difficult to control at times.
Cold War Realities, and Eisenhower’s Wish for Detente
Occupying the White House at this time was, in my view the sharpest man to hold the office in my lifetime, former General Dwyght David Eisenhower. “Ike” (below) as he was known, had lead the nation through some of her most perilous times, as the
Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the recently concluded Second World War, and during the later half of the Korean War. He was a much beloved and greatly trusted leader of the nation. Now nearing the end of his two terms in office, he was deeply worried that the U.S. and the Soviets were moving inexorably towards a costly and destabilizing arms race. He was determined to head that off by establishing a less-contentious relationship with the feisty and pugnacious Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev. Towards that end he had invited the Soviet leader to make a tour of the United States, complete with stops in Hollywood and Disneyland. It was planned for Eisenhower to make a return visit to the Soviet Union, and talks were planned for Paris later in 1960.
Unfortunately for Ike’s grand vision of a Detente between the Soviets and the U.S. there was still the need to keep track of what the Soviets were up to militarily. The U2 overflights provided what was needed to assure Ike that the U.S. had a significant advantage over the Soviets in Missiles. This was important because the presidential campaign of 1960 was under way and the democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was saying that the U.S. was falling into a disadvantage to the Soviets in numbers of missiles, a “missile gap”. Ike knew very well that no such thing was the truth, because he had the U2 photos to prove it. But at this point in time, it was not known to the general public that the two superpowers were spying on each other. Further, it was embarrassing for the Soviets to admit that the U.S. was engaged in regular overflights of their territory, because the U.S. had a plane in the U2 that the Soviets were unable to shoot down because it flew so high.
A U2 Piloted by Powers is Shot Down.
Ike had been assured by his C.I.A. Director, Allen Dulles that the U2 flights were safe because the Soviets could not reach them with their anti-aircraft missiles, and even if by some chance they did, the plane would be destroyed on it’s crash and the pilot would certainly be killed. Dulles proved to be quite wrong about this when on May 1, 1960 a U2 Spyplane piloted by Franics Gary Powers was in fact shot down, or crashed because of some malfunction. To this day the real reason Powers’ plane tumbled to the earth remains a mystery. Clearly the Soviets fired at it although whether or not they hit it is unclear. Powers remembered a “flash of light” so they may have scored near miss which caused the unstable U2 to go out of control. In any event the plane did crash near the town of Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. And worse yet, the pilot, Francis Gary Powers had actually survived the wreck.
This was a HUGE problem. First reaction from the White House to the reports were that the plane had simply been a peaceful weather observation craft. Ike knew very well that this was not true, but care was taken to see to it that Ike himself did not ever make this claim (it was taken for granted in this more innocent time that the President would NOT lie). Of course, Kruschev (below) was caught between his hardliners wanting a more hostile stance with the U.S. He wanted to preserve the hope of a Detente with the U.S., so he was willing to go with the belief (publicly anyway) that Eisenhower had been ill-served by his own hardliners, who had probably ordered this without his knowledge. “The American militarists have placed me in a very difficult position.” he said. Privately, he was complaining that his position had been undercut, and he was desperately hoping that the Americans would give him a break, telling our Ambassador to the Soviets, Tommy Thompson ‘This U2 thing has put me in a terrible spot. You have to get me off it!” But this suggestion that Ike didn’t know was more than the President was willing to bear. He was not about to let it be thought that something so important was going on in his administration without his knowing about it. In a Press Conference on Wednesday, May 11, 1960 he asserted:
“I’ll tell you this: the United States and all of its Allies that I know of have engaged in nothing that could be considered honestly provocative. We are looking to our own security and our defense and we have no idea of promoting any kind of conflict and war. This is just — it’s absolutely ridiculous and they know it is.”
Powers is Given a Public Show Trial
After this, Kruschev felt as if Eisenhower had cut the rug from under him. So the Soviets went ahead with a public show trial of Powers. The fact is that Powers during his imprisonment by the Soviets had kept a lot of important information from them, for example fudging the numbers on how high he had been flying, saying that it had been 68,000 miles or lower when it had in fact been at least 70,000. Nevertheless, pundits and commentators around the world lined up in camps both pro- and anti – Powers. Some said that he had been a sort of ignorant boob who had gotten into flying the U2 as a way of paying off his debts, and didn’t know that he was spying. This was in fact the line taken by Soviet propagandists. But Powers knew very well what he was doing and did a remarkably good job of keeping a lot of important information out of the hands of the Soviets during their nearly two year imprisonment of him.
The Plans for Detente All Come Crashing Down
The U2 incident wound up breaking any hopes that Ike had for a Detente between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. At the Four Power Summit in Paris on May 16, 1960 between Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle, Kruschev walked out, in large part because Eisenhower refused to accede to
Khrushchev’s demands that he apologize for the incident. On May 20’th on returning to the U.S., Ike blinked back tears as he strode down the ramp of Air Force One. Wrote Newsweek: “This had been the biggest disappointment of his life and he made no attempt to hide it.”
The Soviets convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on May 23 to tell the world their own side of the events. The meetings droned on for four days with other charges of spying being exchanged, along with recriminations over the Paris Summit, and a US offer of an “Open Skies” proposal to allow reciprocal flights over each other’s air space. In the end of the Soviets overwhelmingly lost a vote on a concise resolution which would have condemned the incursions and demanded the U.S. pledge that they would not happen again.
Powers is Sentenced and Later Released in a Spy-Swap
Meanwhile, Powers pleaded guilty and was convicted of espionage on August 19. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment and seven years of hard labor. He served one year and nine months of the sentence before being exchanged for Rudolf Abel on February 10, 1962. The exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge connecting Potsdam, East Germany, to West Berlin. Powers had been told by his Russian handlers that if anything went wrong, he was to return to the Russian side of the bridge. But he had silently resolved that if anything went wrong, he was going to make a run for the west, even if it meant dodging bullets. Happily for Powers
this did not prove to be necessary. On the way back he was given the first of what would prove to be numerous debriefings. The C.I.A. lawyer quoted at the beginning of this posting, James Donovan, had been one of those who had criticized Powers for what appeared to be his cooperation with the Soviets. But now, as a member of the debriefing team he concluded differently. Powers was just the sort of man that our government would want to have flying a none-too stable glider over the heart of Soviet air space. Powers was returned to the United States wherein he was grilled over and over again by the C.I.A. on his Soviet captivity. He was eventually granted his back-pay for that period, but went un-employed for years. Finally he found work as a helicopter broadcast pilot for station KNBC in Los Angeles (above). He was killed in August, 1977 when his helicopter crashed.
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Powers on the cover of “Time” =
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