January 28

This Day in History

Cold War

Jan 28, 1964:

Soviets shoot down U.S. jet

The U.S. State Department angrily accuses the Soviet Union of shooting down an American jet that strayed into East German airspace. Three U.S. officers aboard the plane were killed in the incident. The Soviets responded with charges that the flight was a "gross provocation," and the incident was an ugly reminder of the heightened East-West tensions of the Cold War era.

According to the U.S. military, the jet was on a training flight over West Germany and pilots became disoriented by a violent storm that led the plane to veer nearly 100 miles off course. The Soviet attack on the plane provoked angry protests from the Department of State and various congressional leaders, including Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, who charged that the Soviets had intentionally downed the plane "to gain the offensive" in the aggressive Cold War maneuvering.

For their part, the Soviets refused to accept U.S. protests and responded that they had "all grounds to believe that this was not an error or mistake...It was a clear intrusion." Soviet officials also claimed that the plane was ordered to land but refused the instructions. Shortly after the incident, U.S. officials were allowed to travel to East Germany to recover the bodies and the wreckage.

Like numerous other similar Cold War incidents--including the arrest of suspected "spies" and the seizure of ships--this event resulted in heated verbal exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, but little else. Both nations had bigger issues to contend with: the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Union was dealing with a widening split with communist China. The deaths were, however, another reminder that the heated suspicion, heightened tension, and loaded rhetoric of the Cold War did have the potential to erupt into meaningless death and destruction.

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