On May Day 1960, Soviet forces downed a CIA spy plane flown deep into Soviet territory by Francis Gary Powers two weeks before a crucial summit. This forced President Dwight Eisenhower to decide whether, in an effort to save the meeting, to admit to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev—and the world—that he had secretly ordered Powers’s flight, or to claim that the CIA could take such a significant step without his approval.
In rich and fascinating detail, Mayday explores the years of U-2 flights, which Eisenhower deemed “an act of war,” the US government’s misconceived attempt to cover up the true purpose of the flight, Khrushchev’s dramatic revelation that Powers was alive and in Soviet custody, and the show trial that sentenced the pilot to prison and hard labor. From a U-2’s cramped cockpit to tense meetings in the Oval Office, the Kremlin, Camp David, CIA headquarters, the Élysée Palace, and Number Ten Downing Street, historian Michael Beschloss draws on previously unavailable CIA documents, diaries, and letters, as well as the recollections of Eisenhower’s aides, to reveal the full high-stakes drama and bring to life its key figures, which also include Richard Nixon, Allen Dulles, and Charles de Gaulle.
An impressive work of scholarship with the dramatic pacing a spy thriller, Mayday “may be one of the best stories yet written about just how those grand men of diplomacy and intrigue conducted our business” (Time).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:November 30, 1955
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:Williams College, Harvard University
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Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair
By Michael Beschloss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Michael R. Beschloss
All rights reserved.
"I've Had It Now!"
In South Asia, it was now Sunday, the first of May. Inside the well-guarded hangar at Peshawar, two hours after midnight, Francis Gary Powers rose from his cot and braced himself for his mission — 3,788 miles north to Bodö, Norway, bisecting the Soviet land mass at the Urals.
Last Wednesday, at the American base in Adana, Turkey, he had asked his wife Barbara for "a good-sized lunch"; she packed sandwiches, cookies and thermos bottles of soup and coffee into a red plaid case. He took it, kissed her and walked out of their house trailer into the sunshine. With two dozen fellow U-2 pilots, officers and technicians, he took a transport plane to Peshawar, there to cook his meals from rations and wait.
On the Khyber Pass above the old city, hundreds of thousands of tribesmen were climbing to Afghan grazing lands. They were the world that Kipling knew — lean brown men on camels, women staggering under bundles, children, sheep, hens, goats, donkeys. Their forebears had climbed these hills each spring since before the age of Alexander. They were indifferent to the Cold War and the rise and fall of nation-states.
Frank Powers never saw them. He was confined to a small corner of the field that the United States used as a military-intelligence base.
On Thursday before dawn, he was shaken from sleep to make his flight but, after washing and dressing, learned that Soviet weather was bad: no flight that day. On Friday and Saturday, the mission was scrubbed again. He killed time and tried to relax by reading and playing poker with friends, but the false starts made him very nervous.
Finally on this Sunday morning, he was told that this was the day. Like an astronaut before launching, he feasted on eggs, bacon and toast to keep himself alert: he would not eat or drink again until landing in Norway thirteen hours from now.
The false starts were not all that made him nervous. He disliked the plane, Number 360, brought in last night for this mission. Something had always seemed to go wrong: now one of its fuel tanks was reputedly on the blink. And Powers wondered whether the Russians were by now able to shoot down the U-2. When two missions were scheduled for the spring of 1960 after the hiatus, fellow U-2 pilots had guessed that the CIA was trying to jam in as many flights as possible before the Russians shot one down. Powers's superiors had told him that it was "absolutely safe" to fly over the Soviet Union, but he was still anxious: today's route would take him over hostile terrain for seven long hours.
While squeezing into his flight suit, he was asked, "Do you want the silver dollar?" It looked like an ordinary coin with a loop attached for fastening onto a key chain. But inside the two halves of the coin was a tiny pin loaded with a shellfish toxin perfected by the CIA at a reported cost of three million dollars. One jab and death was almost instantaneous.
As Richard Bissell later said, the U-2 pilots were "exhorted but not ordered" to kill themselves if caught by the Russians. Allen Dulles thought there was "more chance of a man's individual nobility prompting him to such an act" if he had not been ordered. If a plane went down and a U-2 pilot was captured, he might well prefer suicide to torture. Powers knew how American prisoners of war had been abused in North Korea: he accepted the lethal coin and dropped it into the pocket of his flight suit.
He would carry other equipment over Russia in case of an accident — a hunting knife, a custom-made .22-caliber pistol with silencer, a parachute that opened at 15,000 feet. His seat pack held survival gear including a collapsible life raft, clothing, water, food, a compass, signal flares, matches, chemicals for starting fires from damp wood, a first aid kit, heavy-duty hunting gear and a large silk banner in fourteen languages:
I AM AN AMERICAN AND DO NOT SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE. I NEED FOOD, SHELTER, ASSISTANCE. I WILL NOT HARM YOU. I BEAR NO MALICE TOWARD YOUR PEOPLE. IF YOU HELP ME, YOU WILL BE REWARDED.
The rewards were 7,500 rubles, two dozen gold Napoleon francs, gold rings and watches for men and ladies.
This kind of cache was later immortalized in Stanley Kubrick's classic Dr. Strangelove when the redneck pilot portrayed by Slim Pickens read fellow airmen the contents of their survival packs: "In them you'll find one forty-five-caliber automatic, two boxes amma-ni-shun, four days' concentrated emergency rations, one drug isha containin' annabahyotics, mor-phine, vah-tamin pills, pep pills, sleep-in' pills, trank-willizin' pills, one minitcher Roo-shin phrase book and Bah-ble, one hundred dollars in rubles, one hundred dollars in gold, five packs o' chewin' gum, one isha prophylactics, three pair o' nah-lon stockin's —
"Shoot, a guy could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!"
Powers and the other fliers did not know it, but the main reason for the equipment was not pilot survival but pilot morale — at least from Richard Bissell's point of view. Bissell did not think there was "one chance in a million" that a pilot would survive a mishap. The U-2 was so fragile that when one was buzzed by two curious Canadian jets over West Germany it broke up amid the shock waves. Bissell thought a Russian assault might shatter the plane before the pilot had the chance to even think about bailing out.
In case that did not come to pass, there was the explosive that technicians stowed behind the U-2 pilot's seat before flights into the Soviet Union. Each pilot was told that in an emergency, it was his "duty to ensure the destruction of the aircraft and its equipment to the greatest extent possible." If he had to abandon his plane over hostile territory, he must set off the bomb before using his ejection seat and parachute. After the first switch (ARM) was flipped, the circuits were activated; after the second (DESTRUCT) was flipped, the pilot would have seventy seconds to bail out before the bomb exploded, or so he was told.
Flying over hostile terrain with a bomb behind the seat would have unnerved anyone. Powers knew that despite safeguards, a spark might ignite an explosion in midair. And from the CIA's "exhortations" to kill themselves if captured, the U-2 pilots knew that the Agency had an interest in ensuring that no flier emerged from a mishap alive: dead pilots told no tales. Some of the men wondered whether the bomb had actually been rigged with a sixty-second delay — or fifty seconds, or ten. Some suspected there was no delay at all: that way, once they flipped the second switch, the bomb would obliterate not only the equipment but them too.
Fliers were invited to supervise the testing of the explosive device before each mission by technicians they knew and liked. But no one could be sure what would really happen until someone actually set off the bomb in midair. "If my plane goes down, I'm not going to pull the switch," cried one pilot. "I'm jumping!"
By 5:20 A.M., the Sunday morning sun had been beating down from over the Hindu Kush Mountains for over an hour. With a package of Kents in his pocket, Powers was strapped into the scorching cockpit of Number 360. To keep the U-2 from being traced to the U.S. government, the plane's black skin and the pilot's silver suit were both unmarked. Powers's helmet bore only the number 29.
The CIA had ordered U-2 pilots to strip themselves of personal identification before making their flights. But some wanted to make sure that if they survived a downing in Russia the crash would be publicized and diplomatic efforts made to win their freedom. Like other pilots, Powers broke the rule this morning: in his wallet were two documents authorizing him to use U.S. Air Force facilities, a Social Security card, an American driver's license and a picture of himself dining with his wife in a nightclub. The Soviets later claimed that Powers also carried some "well-thumbed-over erotic literature."
Six o'clock, the assigned moment of takeoff, came and went. The CIA men at Peshawar were evidently waiting for final approval from Washington. Poised on the runway in the open sun, Number 360 was hot to the touch. One of the men stripped off his shirt and held it over the cockpit to shield Powers from the rays, but this did not much help. Inside the cockpit, sweat rolled down the pilot's face and drenched the long underwear he wore underneath his flight suit. Sealed inside his suit and helmet, he could not wipe his brow.
Six-twenty: still no word. By now Powers was convinced that his mission would be canceled. He could not wait to peel off his waterlogged flight suit and leap into a shower.
Then at 6:26 the signal came. The shirt was pulled from his cockpit. He locked his plastic canopy from the inside. The ladder was pulled from his plane.
"I knew that flying over the Soviet Union without permission was spying," Francis Gary Powers said much later. "I knew that it was. But I really didn't think that in the true sense of the word spy I ever considered myself a spy. I was a pilot flying an airplane and it just so happened that where I was flying made what I was doing spying."
His wife called him Gary, but almost everyone else he knew called him Frank. His head was slightly large for the stocky, muscled frame of five-foot-nine and 165 pounds. The brown wavy hair was clipped short: a caricaturist might have noticed that the hairline had the same contour as the overhead silhouette of a U-2's wingspan. When he spoke, the sound came not from his diaphragm but higher in the torso, which gave his voice the languid quality of a Perry Como. His accent did not betray his Appalachian origins, except on words like talk ("towk") and poison ("pawson").
Powers was modest, polite, with a fierce temper usually under control. Had they met, President Eisenhower would probably have thought him a fine young man. But the leader of a country that professed not to stoop to Soviet-style practices like espionage rarely had meetings with American spies — even incidental spies like Frank Powers. The President and top command of the CIA were as remote to the U-2 pilots as the pilots were to them. Some of the fliers knew even Richard Bissell only as "Mr. B."
Powers identified less with the world of his father, a struggling old miner and cobbler, than with the white-collar strivers who were the American heroes of the 1950s. He admired Eisenhower and considered himself a Republican but, like many military men, did not vote. He had once hoped to become a commercial pilot for the high wages, professional camaraderie and the chance to stay aloft but, when his first Air Force tour ended, discovered that he was over the maximum age for airline trainees.
Had he not joined the U-2 program, he might have applied for Project Mercury: his age, weight, height, looks and background were roughly correct for an astronaut. In April 1959, when he read in Stars and Stripes of the unveiling of the first spacemen, he was jealous and thought, How exciting it would be to be the first man to land on the moon.
Powers joked and caroused with fellow U-2 pilots but never quite succeeded in shedding the aura of the solitary man. "A dear, sweet man — somewhat retiring," said a colleague's wife. "Outstanding among the pilots for calmness under pressure," said an Air Force flight surgeon. "A naturally pliable type who has a tendency to go through life wanting to satisfy people," said an Air Force study based on who knows what evidence. And "possibly counterphobic" — inclined to prove himself by taking on dangerous missions demanding high courage.
He was born two months before the Crash of 1929 in the coal country of Burdine, Kentucky, a region without electricity or telephones or through roads. One of his earliest duties was to walk to a company store each day to find mining work for his father, who had dropped out of school in the fifth grade. Oliver Powers wanted Francis to become a doctor: he had never seen a doctor who had to fight for a living.
But the son had other ideas. The sound of World War Two bombers sent him running to windows, and he searched for books on planes and pilots. At thirteen, after his first flight in a two-seater at a fair, his knees shook with excitement.
Oliver packed him off to Milligan College, a church school in Tennessee, where he waited on tables and sat stone-faced through premedical courses. Only in his junior year did he tell his angry father that he would never be a doctor. Were the next part of the story up to a screenwriter, he might have gone to his nearest Air Force recruiter and sailed into the wild blue yonder. Instead, being Powers, he stuck it out until graduation and spent the summer of 1950 as a lifeguard near Pound, Virginia, where his father had opened a shoe repair store.
In June 1950, North Koreans crossed the thirty-eighth parallel. As Powers later recalled, "I was looking forward to going over, because I wanted to — what do you say? — try yourself in combat. I had never done this and I wanted to see how I would react emotionally — in a good cause, of course." After basic Air Force training, he was schooled in flying and photography in Mississippi. Flying his own plane brought him "the satisfaction of total responsibility, of being dependent solely upon yourself. ... I was in full control."
Appendicitis delayed his departure for Korea. By the time he recovered, the war was over. As a second lieutenant, he was assigned to a strategic fighter squadron at Turner Air Force Base near Albany, Georgia, to test F84s. He was taught to load atomic weapons into aircraft and given a target behind the Iron Curtain in expectation of the day that a President of the United States would be compelled to press the Button.
In August 1953, at the base cafeteria, he noticed a nineteen-year-old brunette and told the night supervisor he would "sure like" to meet her. She said, "That shouldn't be very difficult. That's my daughter, Barbara Gay."
Barbara Gay Moore, clerk-typist for the Marines and recent graduate of Cleone Morton's Business College for Girls, was as smitten with the Air Force man as he was with her. There was a strong physical attraction. Soon they were engaged. The impetuous and histrionic manner with which Barbara faced life was almost the opposite of her husband's. She resented his frequent departures for places like London and Tokyo. They broke their engagement half a dozen times; once Barbara hurled her ring into a river. But like more than one couple in history, they decided that marriage might solve their problems. In April 1955, when they wed, the new bride bit her husband on the neck: "Now don't you keep flying away from me!"
At Thomasville, Georgia (where Eisenhower often shot quail with Treasury Secretary George Humphrey), the couple spent their wedding night. "It sure made me forget all the apprehensions I had previously entertained about Gary's line of duty," Barbara later wrote. "Lordy, but how that handsome Ridge Runner of mine could make love!"
As an Air Force pilot at Turner, Powers was considered one of the best gunners in his wing. Four hundred dollars a month was more money than he had ever earned. The newlyweds went to Florida to sunbathe and waterski. Still he felt he "hadn't really proved" himself.
In January 1956, he and other pilots were approached about a civilian job offer. This was strange because the Air Force did not normally approach its own men about such jobs, and stranger yet because the meeting with the mystery employer was scheduled off the base and at night.
Curious, he drove as instructed to the Radium Springs Motel, knocked on Cottage One and called out his name. A man opened the door and identified himself as "William Collins": "I'm afraid there's not very much I can tell you. You and several other pilots have been picked to be part of an organization to carry out a special mission. It will be risky but patriotic." The mission would pay more money but would take him abroad for eighteen months without his wife.
Barbara reasoned that the job might help them set a down payment on a house. Back he drove to the Radium Springs, where Collins revealed that he was with the CIA and that for $2,500 per month, Powers would fly a new plane that rose higher than any before: "Your main mission will be to fly over Russia."
Excerpted from Mayday by Michael Beschloss. Copyright © 1986 Michael R. Beschloss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Prologue: April 30, 1960
- 1. “I’ve Had It Now!”
- 2. Eisenhower’s Dilemma
- 3. The Espionage Assignment
- 4. Building a Covert Operation
- 5. “The Most Soul-Searching Decision”
- 6. “Every Blade of Grass”
- 7. Khrushchev’s Ultimatum
- 8. Camp David
- 9. “The Great Thaw”
- 10. “I Would Like to Resign”
- 11. Debacle at Paris
- 12. Cold War
- 13. Final Reckoning
- 14. Who Shattered Détente?
- Epilogue: After the Storm
- Image Gallery
- Historiographical Note
- General Sources
- About the Author