Shot down just two months before while flying a secret mission over Moscow, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers is charged with espionage by the Soviet Union on July 8, 1960. Although he would not be found guilty until August 17 of the same year, Powers’ indictment signaled a massive setback in the peace process between the United States and the Soviet Union.
By 1960, the 31-year-old Powers was already a veteran of several covert aerial reconnaissance missions. The CIA recruited him in 1956 to fly the Lockheed U-2, a spy plane that could reach altitudes of 80,000 feet, essentially making it invulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft weapons. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to snap high-resolution photos from the edge of the atmosphere.
The Soviets had been well aware of U-2 missions since 1956, but did not have the technology to launch counter-measures until 1960. On what turned out to be Powers’ last flight for the CIA on May 1, the Soviets shadowed his U-2 at a lower altitude, then took him down as he crossed over Sverdlosk, deep in enemy territory. To make matters worse, Powers was unable to activate the plane’s self-destruct mechanism, as instructed, before he parachuted safely to the ground, right into the hands of the KGB.
When the U.S. government learned of Powers’ disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming that a “weather plane” had crashed down after its pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment.” What U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower did not realize was that the plane landed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its photography equipment, as well as Powers, whom they interrogated extensively for months before he made a “voluntary confession” and public apology for his part in U.S. espionage.
The timing couldn’t have been worse for the United States. A major summit–with the theme of detente and progress toward peace–between the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France was to begin that month. Instead, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev launched into a tirade against the United States, openly accusing the Americans of being “militarist” and “unable to call a halt to their war effort.” Khrushchev then stormed out, effectively ending the conference and setting back the peace process a considerable number of years.
On August 17, 1960, Powers was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was released after two, in exchange for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. Though Powers claimed he had not divulged details of the U-2 program, he received a cold reception upon his return to the United States. Not until May 1, 2000, the 40th anniversary of the U-2 incident and 23 years after Powers’ death in a helicopter crash, did the United States award him the medals of distinction he was denied during his lifetime.