Publish date:
Updated on
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1960

American U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet Union

An American U-2 spy plane is shot down while conducting espionage over the Soviet Union. The incident derailed an important summit meeting between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that was scheduled for later that month.

The U-2 spy plane was the brainchild of the Central Intelligence Agency, and it was a sophisticated technological marvel. Traveling at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, the aircraft was equipped with state-of-the-art photography equipment that could, the CIA boasted, take high-resolution pictures of headlines in Russian newspapers as it flew overhead. Flights over the Soviet Union began in mid-1956. The CIA assured President Eisenhower that the Soviets did not possess anti-aircraft weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down the high-altitude planes.

On May 1, 1960, a U-2 flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers disappeared while on a flight over Russia. The CIA reassured the president that, even if the plane had been shot down, it was equipped with self-destruct mechanisms that would render any wreckage unrecognizable and the pilot was instructed to kill himself in such a situation. Based on this information, the U.S. government issued a cover statement indicating that a weather plane had veered off course and supposedly crashed somewhere in the Soviet Union. With no small degree of pleasure, Khrushchev pulled off one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War by producing not only the mostly-intact wreckage of the U-2, but also the captured pilot-very much alive. A chagrined Eisenhower had to publicly admit that it was indeed a U.S. spy plane.

On May 16, a major summit between the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France began in Paris. Issues to be discussed included the status of Berlin and nuclear arms control. As the meeting opened, Khrushchev launched into a tirade against the United States and Eisenhower and then stormed out of the summit. The meeting collapsed immediately and the summit was called off. Eisenhower considered the “stupid U-2 mess” one of the worst debacles of his presidency. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was released in 1962 in exchange for a captured Soviet spy.

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