31 Days of History: 8 July

On this day in 1960 (49 years ago today), the Soviet Union charged US Air Force pilot Gary Powers with espionage. Two months earlier, Powers was shot down while flying a secret mission over Moscow in a U-2 spy plane. He was found guilty on 17 August of the same year and sentenced to 10 years in prison (three years of imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor).

Gary Powers on trial in the USSR

Powers' indictment signaled a massive setback in the peace process between the United States and the Soviet Union. Here's why:

The U-2 was a CIA program. U-2 pilots carried out espionage missions using a spy plane that could reach altitudes above 70,000 feet, essentially making it invulnerable to Soviet anti-aircraft weapons of the time. The U-2 was equipped with a state-of-the-art camera designed to take high-resolution photos from the edge of the atmosphere over hostile countries that included the Soviet Union. These cameras systematically photographed military installations and other important intelligence targets.

Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane

Powers' U-2, which departed from a military airbase in Peshawar (Pakistan), was shot down by a Soviet Surface to Air missile on May 1. The CIA mistakenly believed that since May 1 was a Soviet Holiday ("May Day", similar to our 4th of July), Soviet defenses would be less vigilant. Somewhere over Sverdlovsk, deep in Soviet airspace, Powers plane was struck and he was forced to bail out. Powers was unable to activate the plane's self-destruct mechanism before he parachuted to the ground, right into the hands of the Soviet Army and the KGB.

A map showing Powers' projected route and crash site

The wreckage of Powers' U-2

When the U.S. government learned of Powers' disappearance over the Soviet Union, it issued a cover statement claiming that a "weather plane from Turkey" had crashed down after its pilot had "difficulties with his oxygen equipment" and might have accidentally wandered into Soviet airspace. What U.S. officials did not realize was that the plane crashed almost fully intact, and the Soviets recovered its photography equipment, as well as Powers, whom they interrogated extensively. The White House, believing Powers was dead, went on to proclaim that "there was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace and never has been". This propaganda continued until Khrushchev announced the pilot had survived and was in Soviet custody. (Several months later, Powers 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 deconfliction 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 US, openly accusing the Americans of being "militarist" and "unable to call a halt to their war effort." Suffering major embarrassment, President Eisenhower was forced to admit the truth behind the mission and the U-2 program, although he refused to publicly apologize to Khrushchev. This refusal caused the Paris Summit to collapse when Khrushchev stormed out of negotiations ,effectively ending the conference and setting back the peace talks between Khrushchev and Eisenhower for years.

On February 10, 1962, twenty-one months after his capture, Powers was exchanged along with American student Frederic Pryor in a spy swap for Soviet KGB Colonel Vilyam Fisher (aka Rudolf Abel) at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, Germany. (Fisher was an English-born KGB agent that had been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for espionage.)

KGB Agent Vilyam Fisher

Glienicke Bridge, connecting East and West Germany, was the site of three major "exchanges" between the US and USSR during the Cold War

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. After his return, Powers worked as a test pilot for several years before becoming an airborne traffic reporter for radio and TV stations in the Los Angeles area. Powers died on 1 August 1977 returning from covering brush fires in Santa Barbara county when his helicopter ran out of fuel and crashed.

Gary Powers, recreated as a traffic reporter

In 2000, on the 40th anniversary of the U-2 Incident, his family was finally presented with his posthumously awarded Prisoner of War Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star and National Defense Service Medal. In addition, then CIA Director George Tenet authorized Powers to posthumously receive the CIA's coveted Intelligence Star for extreme fidelity and extraordinary courage in the line of duty. (By means of comparison, upon Vilyam Fischer's return to Moscow, he continued to work as a trainer for the KGB and was rewarded with the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration provided by the Soviet Union.) Powers is buried in Section 11 of Arlington National Cemetery

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