On May 1, 1960, only two weeks before the scheduled Paris summit at which President Dwight Eisenhower hoped to achieve a limited test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union, a Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored U-2 spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was downed deep within the Soviet Union. A thaw in the Cold War, which had begun with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States, and which it was hoped would be furthered by the summit and Eisenhower’s planned visit to the Soviet Union, was endangered. The inability of the leaders of both nations to understand fully the limitations of power under which each functioned and the domestic conditions prevailing in both countries led within days to the collapse of the Paris summit and a return to the Cold War. In addition, the United States government’s failure to respond forthrightly to the American people about the nature and purpose of the U-2 flights contributed significantly to the public’s distrust of and cynicism toward their leaders, especially toward the presidency and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The U-2 fiasco and its aftermath tainted the Eisenhower presidency, especially for Eisenhower himself, whose great goal of fostering closer ties between his country and the Soviet Union remained unfulfilled. It contributed to John Kennedy’s narrow victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election and to the atmosphere of mistrust that precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also undermined Khrushchev’s authority within the Soviet government and the party and was partially responsible for his ouster in 1964. Few events in modern history have had both such an immediate and long-term impact. Yet no significant attempt had been made prior to this book to determine the real motivations behind the U-2 flights, to explore the reasons for Eisenhower’s duplicity immediately after it was announced that the plane had been downed, and to gauge the impact of the event on domestic American and Soviet politics and on superpower relations. The passage of time has enabled historians to evaluate the event and its immediate aftermath with greater objectivity and has afforded them the perspective to determine its true significance.
Michael R. Beschloss, educated at Williams College and at Harvard University, is currently an adjunct historian at the Smithsonian Institution and a senior associate member of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. Beschloss’ area of study is modern American history and political science, and his first book was Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1980). Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair, Beschloss’ second work, is the product of his access to a variety of primary sources. He is acutely aware that studies of recent events affecting the United States and the Soviet Union present special problems to the historian. Many significant documents are still unavailable, and even the access to documents made possible by the Freedom of Information Act still generally excludes postwar intelligence records. Published personal memoirs, such as Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change (1963) and Waging Peace (1965) as well as the Soviet leader’s Khrushchev Remembers (1970), suffer from incompleteness and inaccuracies caused by their authors’ understandably faulty memories, prejudices, and their own ignorance of vital information. Interviews, although vital, are also necessarily faulty because of the passage of time and the incomplete knowledge of many of those interviewed. In addition, Soviets generally refuse interviews as well as access to unpublished documents. Nevertheless, Beschloss concluded that the time was ideal to undertake a book on the U-2 affair. Many of those involved are still living and were willing to be interviewed. In addition, in 1982 the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee released the previously censored portions of its 1960 investigation of the U-2 program, the Mayday flight, and the Paris summit. These, combined with information made public in 1960, are excellent basic sources on the U-2 flight and also supply what is generally unavailable in studies of recent intelligence operations: the contemporaneous testimonies, under oath, of the secretaries of state and defense, the director of the CIA, and other key figures. Also, in the early 1980’s, the White House, State and Defense Departments, and other agencies began releasing documents relating to the U-2’s impact on American-Soviet diplomacy. These include records of conversations among President Eisenhower, his staff, and members of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA. These sources and the memoirs of Eisenhower, Khrushchev, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, French President Charles de Gaulle, and Francis Gary Powers’ ghostwritten (by Curt Gentry) account of his experiences provide the main corpus of source materials for Mayday.
The U-2 program began in November, 1954, when President Eisenhower secretly authorized CIA director Allen Dulles to undertake a program, funded at $35 million, to build a high-flying plane to spy on the Soviet Union. Eisenhower’s major goal since entering office in January, 1953, had been to achieve détente—an easing of strained relations—with the Soviet Union. He was uniquely qualified to achieve these goals because the American people, on the basis of his military career and record, trusted him to protect their interests and not to capitulate to the Soviets. The Soviets, too, because of their wartime experiences with...
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