Mayday Essay - Critical Essays


The U-2 affair, which dominated worldviews a quarter-century ago, has remained mysterious--in part as a result of the failure of the United States government to be candid about the purpose of the U-2 flights. Francis Gary Powers’ ill-fated flight, which was only one in a series of flights since 1956, took place because CIA director Allen Dulles assured the president that the pilot would not be taken alive and that all spy equipment would be destroyed in the event of a downing. Acting on Dulles’ assurances, Eisenhower ordered the flight to confirm his conviction that the Soviet military was growing at a slower pace than Khrushchev claimed. Eager to withstand the public demand for increased defense spending and to crown his presidency with a limited nuclear test-ban treaty, the president took what he regarded as a prudent gamble. After Khrushchev announced the downing of the plane, the United States government attempted to cover up the true purpose of the mission. When Khrushchev revealed that the plane and spying equipment were intact and that the pilot was alive, Eisenhower was faced with a dilemma. Khrushchev offered Eisenhower a way out in his claim that he believed the president had been personally unaware of the duplicity of the CIA. Instead, Eisenhower acknowledged that the U-2 had been sent into Russia with his full approval. From this followed a series of events that led to a revival and intensification of the Cold War.

The historical significance of the U-2 affair was profound. It contributed to John Kennedy’s narrow victory in the 1960 presidential election. It tainted the Eisenhower presidency--at least in the judgment of Eisenhower, whose great goal of fostering closer ties between the United States and the Soviet Union remained unfulfilled. It contributed to the atmosphere that precipitated the Cuba Missile Crisis and also was partially responsible for Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964. Most significantly, it aborted the sincere hopes by both Eisenhower and Khrushchev for a relaxation of the tensions between East and West in the spring of 1960.

MAYDAY is history of the first order. Through exhaustive research, Beschloss has achieved the historian’s major goals. In a rich narrative, he has asked the important questions and attempted, when the evidence permits, to provide plausible answers. He has also succeeded in analyzing the historical significance of an event which continues to color relations between the superpowers.