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The U-2 Spy Plane Incident

On May 1, 1960, an America U-2 spy plane was shot down in Soviet airspace, causing great embarrassment to the United States, which had tried to conceal its surveillance efforts from the USSR. In 1957, the U.S. had established a secret intelligence facility in Pakistan in order to send U-2 spy planes into Soviet airspace and secretly sent the spy plane into Soviet territory.

Upon release of the news, the United States initially covered up the story by claiming the U-2 was a NASA aircraft that had gone missing north of Turkey. However, President Eisenhower had to eventually admit the mistake after the Soviets produced the missing U-2, the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, and pictures of Soviet bases that the spy plane had captured.

The relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union rapidly deteriorated as a result of this misstep, and subsequently ruined the Four Powers Summit between the United States, Soviet Union, France and the United Kingdom. Nikita Khrushchev blasted the U.S. actions, condemning the spying as an act of mistrust and aggression. He then rescinded his previous invitation for President Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union later that year. Powers was put on trial in the USSR and eventually swapped for KGB agent Rudolf Abel, who had been arrested in Brooklyn by the FBI in 1957, as depicted in the 2015 Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies.

The following excerpts describe the shock and dismay upon hearing of the U-2 incident and the actions taken immediately afterwards to cover up the incident. C. Douglas Dillon served as the Deputy Undersecretary for Economic Affairs from 1957-1961. He describes the details leading up to the incident and the response given by President Eisenhower.  He was interviewed by Robert D. Shulzinger beginning  April 1987.

William Rountree served as the Ambassador to Pakistan from 1959-1962. He describes the U-2 incident from his position in Pakistan, which was where the plane took off from. He was interviewed by Arthur L. Lowrie beginning December 1989. John D. Scanlan served as a General Services Officer in Moscow from 1958-1960 and describes the awkwardness in dealing with the gift intended for Khrushchev.  He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning April 1996.

Read how the U.S. convinced Pakistan to allow U-2 flights by telling the government they were for weather observation. See other Moments dealing with Nikita Khrushchev.


“We didn’t know what to do”

Douglas Dillon, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Affairs, 1957-1961.

DILLON: The one great exciting time that came up while I was Acting Secretary, which was nothing to cover us or the United States government with glory, was the U-2 incident. That’s very interesting — I just learned some additional information about it the other day, which deals with the element that we had never understood. Secretary [Christian] Herter was off in Turkey at the time at a NATO meeting. (Photo: Bettmann Corbis)

This U-2 mission has been approved, as always, by the President. Approvals went through a very restricted group, which included those at the Under Secretary level and the Secretary of State, so I was aware of the timing of this thing. They’d wanted to fly in early April. They felt it was important to try and find out where the Russians were putting their ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], which they were beginning to have. We thought they had more than they actually did have.

In winter, with the cloud cover, you couldn’t fly these missions. You couldn’t see anything, so it was getting to be, hopefully, better weather. The CIA felt if they could get one more mission done, it would fly over where they thought these missiles were. The weather kept getting bad and the mission kept being postponed.

Finally, it was the very last day the President had set. “We can’t go beyond this. If we can’t fly by this day, that’s the end.” That’s the day it flew. Herter was gone to NATO meeting in Turkey. We were having a drill, on a Thursday morning, I guess. That’s when the NSC meetings usually were. We were having a drill in some place they called “the mountain,” I think it was, which was a protected place where the President and various people could go if there was an atomic attack. [Apparently Raven Rock ]

In those days it was still thought you could get away from it. It was somewhere out in the Blue Ridge there, in Virginia. We all were flown out by helicopter, and had the meeting of the NSC out there.

On the phone we got news there, that the plane was missing and presumed downed. We had been following the plane by radar. We knew where it was, and knew that it had gone down. It had just started to circle and lose altitude, and finally disappeared. So we didn’t know what to do.

The President told me to work with [CIA Director] Allen Dulles. We were to get together after the NSC meeting. We had to put out some sort of announcement. We didn’t get back until 11:30 or so to our offices. The President had said that nobody but the State Department was to speak on this issue.

I was working on developing a statement with Allen Dulles on the telephone when suddenly Linc White, the press relations man at the State Department, came into my room and handed me a piece of paper, which was a ticker tape which said NASA had just announced that some plane had been lost, down off Turkey — a plane which had gotten lost and had apparently gone down.

We didn’t like this at all because it was a cover story that had been “canned” way ahead, and it was obviously way wrong, because we knew the damn thing had gone down near Smolensk in Central Russia, 1000 miles or more from the area mentioned by NASA. We couldn’t understand how this had happened, but we had to get ourselves out of it.

We just put out a very difficult sort of statement. I don’t recall all the details. But you couldn’t say it was some mistake by the White House, because you never say the “White House” makes a mistake.

“Dulles offered to resign and say it was his responsibility”

I always thought it was [White House Press Secretary James] Hagerty who was responsible. Because, when the President left “the mountain” he had told [Staff Secretary and Defense Liaison Officer to President Eisenhower] Andy Goodpaster, who was with him that day and who was going back to the White House to tell everyone that State and only State would handle all publicity on this!

I thought Hagerty has just overridden Goodpaster, which he was capable of doing.

I happened to see Goodpaster just the other day and asked him. I said this was something I had never understood about the U-2 reporting and should have asked him what happened at that time. He said “It was terrible.”

He said, “I got back to the White House and told Hagerty what the President had said, and he said we had to follow the cover story and send the reporters over to NASA– send all inquiries over to NASA.” Of course, the second they got to NASA, they’d be given this phony canned cover story.

Goodpaster went to see the President with Hagerty, and for some reason, the President changed his mind and agreed with Hagerty. Hagerty explained why it had been or something, and the President said “Okay. Go ahead.” And neither I nor Allen Dulles was ever told of this decision. So that’s what happened. We got our legs sawed off and it made us look very foolish. I’m sure the President didn’t realize what problems the cover story would make but that’s apparently what happened.

So we had to go on from there, and Herter came back, and we were still trying to persuade the President not to take responsibility for the U-2. Dulles offered to resign and say it was his responsibility. That’s usually the way spy things were done in the world, and there was a summit meeting coming up in Paris.

Hagerty persuaded the President that he couldn’t allow Allen Dulles to take all the blame, because it would look like the President didn’t know what was going on in the government.

There had been a lot of attacks about that time saying he didn’t know what was going on but, of course, that was wrong, because he did know and did get involved. So he was convinced by the Hagerty argument that he should accept the blame, contrary to the advice of the State Department and everybody else. So finally that’s what blew up the Paris conference.

The Russians couldn’t accept this — they apparently had been prepared to forget about this, agreeing to go on, if the President had said, “It’s terrible, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

We didn’t assume [Francis Gary Powers, the pilot, had killed himself] at all, but we knew he was supposed to. He had some sort of things — a pill or pin, something to stick yourself with — that would end you quickly and peacefully.

 Q: It was also assumed that the plane could be destroyed.

DILLON: Demolished! Yes, that’s the other thing — we had to believe both those things. We didn’t assume it. We probably thought the chances were less than even that he was alive, and if he was alive, he wouldn’t be in good enough shape to so much talking.

Q: Do you think there was anything that Eisenhower could or should have done differently to preserve the summit in Paris?

DILLON: Well, if he hadn’t accepted the blame himself, personally, it might have made quite a difference. How much, I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. There were those, and they were numerous, who said that [Secretary of State from 1953-59] Foster Dulles had always run foreign affairs. That’s not true. I have many personal experiences on that.

Eisenhower was always in full charge. In this case he probably didn’t realize that it would blow the summit when he accepted responsibility although that was the advice he’d gotten from the State Department.

“Of course, when it did come it came in a spectacular fashion”

William Rountree, Ambassador to Pakistan, 1959-1962

ROUNTREE: These flights had taken place for some time under extremely special and secret arrangements with Ayub Khan. In each case before such a flight took place, I had to get his specific approval. And the Gary Powers flight did, in fact, take place from Pakistan.

I was asked in mid-April to get permission for this flight and I flew from Karachi to Rawalpindi to talk with the President about it. I communicated his concurrence to Washington.

The flight was delayed for several days because of weather and other problems, and actually took place toward the end of April. Before the flight actually took place, Ayub was slated to go for a Commonwealth meeting in London. At the same time, I returned to Washington on consultation. I left Washington, I believe it was the last day of April.

When I arrived at the airport in London, I was told that the CIA Station Chief wanted urgently to see me. It was early in the morning, as I recall about 7 o’clock, and I went straight to the Embassy to see him.

He told me that the U-2 plane was down, there had been nothing said about it by the Russians, and they had no word of the fate of the pilot, Gary Powers. I was fully briefed on the situation as it was known, and then went to Ayub’s hotel where I filled him in over breakfast.

He took the news very calmly, but expressed the strong hope that we would adhere to the cover story that had been agreed in advance. He asked me to inform President Eisenhower of that, which I did by an immediate telegram to Washington.

Both Ayub and I returned to Pakistan, and a good many days went by before there was any announcement by the Soviets. Of course, when it did come it came in a spectacular fashion. Ayub did not seem unduly concerned about this, but Pakistan was subjected to a tremendous amount of Soviet propaganda and threats. You might recall, in particular, the threat of bombing Peshawar, from where the U-2 took off.

I would say that the decision on the part of President Eisenhower eventually to admit exactly what had happened and to make it a matter of public record, however necessary this might have been, surprised Ayub and rendered it difficult for him to deal with the Soviets.

“Things got chilly pretty fast”

John D. Scanlan, General Services Officer in Moscow, 1958-1960

SCANLAN:  [I was in Moscow when the U-2 thing happened.] It really hit us by surprise. It happened on May 1. There was a famous photographer for Life Magazine who had been assigned to Moscow a year or so before that. He and his charming wife and two kids lived in a suite in the National Hotel, which had a great view of Red Square, looking right into Red Square. He invited a group of 21 people to a May 1st party to watch the parade from his apartment. Carl Mayden was his name. Very nice person.

We were among those invited. Others invited were Clifton Daniels and his wife, Margaret Truman, who were visiting Moscow at the time, and a lot of the press corps – Max Frankel, lots of others. We were fortunate to have been invited. We were all watching this thing. I was taking movies. The start of the parade was delayed for about an hour. I had a telescopic lens on my camera, one of those old 8-millimeter cameras with a turret. I had this on telescopic focused on [Lenin’s] mausoleum when the Marshall of the Red Army came up and reported to Khrushchev and the others and they looked like they were in some sort of animated conversation.

Then the parade went on. We didn’t know what had happened. We didn’t find out until Saturday or Sunday. There was a meeting of the Supreme Soviets a couple days later. It was at that meeting that Khrushchev announced from the podium the shoot-down of the U-2. Thompson attended.

I was in the embassy when he came back. He was furious. Thompson was a very calm, quiet, very well-mannered person who rarely showed emotion. But I just happened to be in the elevator when he came back and he was obviously very upset. I wasn’t in the meeting with him after that, but I was told that what upset him so much was the fact that Washington had not told him.

He found out about that at that meeting. He was terribly embarrassed. He was subsequently called in by the Soviets and read the riot act to them.

Of course, the Eisenhower visit was canceled. We had had a month of beautiful preparation. We had had a series of events, parties, we had brought in all kinds of things, including a beautiful fiberglass motor launch on a trailer which was going to be Eisenhower’s gift to Khrushchev and it had on the dashboard a brass plate that said something like “From the President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev on the occasion of the former’s visit to the latter in June.”

This brass plate was on it. Later on, we got instructions from Washington to remove the brass plate and send it back by diplomatic pouch because they didn’t want to be embarrassed by having this brass plate.

Then we wanted to keep the boat to use at our dacha. There was a nice little river and a small artificial lake near our dacha.

We were told, “No, you have to send the boat out. Again, it could be an embarrassment to have that boat.” It was under canvas. We had brought it in by air. So, we had to send it back out. I guess we sent it out by rail. Things got chilly pretty fast then after that and remained chilly for the remainder of our tour.