U-2 Incident Wrecks Paris Summit Meeting

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U-2 Incident Wrecks Paris Summit Meeting

An article from CQ Almanac 1960

Document Outline

Route to Summit

Chronology of Incident

Political Repercussions


Diplomatic relations between the United States and the Soviet Union suffered a severe setback in 1960 in the wake of President Eisenhower's acknowledgement that an American U-2 reconnaissance plane shot down over Russia May 1 was on an official intelligence-gathering mission for which the U.S. Government offered no apologies. As a direct result of the U-2 incident, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev broke off his long-planned summit meeting with the President, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and French President Charles de Gaulle, and cancelled an invitation to Mr. Eisenhower to visit Russia.

On the domestic scene, Democrats locked horns with Republicans over the Administration's handling of the incident; the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a closed-door inquiry into the matter, issued a circumspect but nonetheless critical report. Although the issue itself did not enter into the Presidential campaign, Republicans made much of an early comment by Sen. John F. Kennedy (D Mass.) that the President might have expressed his regrets to Khrushchev.

On the international scene, the strain imposed by the incident contributed to the subsequent collapse of East-West disarmament talks and the President's refusal to meet with Khrushchev during the latter's unbidden visit to the United States to attend sessions of the United Nations General Assembly in September. Following are the details of steps leading to the summit, a chronology of the U-2 incident, domestic political repercussions, the hearings and report of the Foreign Relations Committee, and highlights of the incident's aftermath.

Route to Summit

Hopes for an East-West accommodation on such issues as Germany and disarmament rose in 1955, when the Big Four heads of government held their first postwar conference in Geneva, July 18-23, even though President Eisenhower warned that the meeting “can, at the best, be only a beginning in a renewed effort that may last a generation.” In the event, the “smiles of Geneva” quickly vanished and no substantial agreement ensued. Reluctant to run the risk of raising false hopes once more, the President held out for more than one year before agreeing to Premier Khrushchev's demand for another summit conference. “The most we can hope,” the President said April 27, 1960 of the forthcoming May 16 encounter, “is ease of tension, some evidence that we are coming closer together.”

Soviet efforts to scale the summit for a second time began in December 1957, when Premier Bulganin proposed a new meeting to seek a general European political settlement and a disarmament agreement. Preliminary talks by the foreign ministers opened in Moscow April 17, 1958 but came to a fruitless end in mid-June when Khrushchev, who had become Premier March 27, accused the West of sabotaging the proposed conference by laying down impossible conditions. Subsequent moves took place in the following sequence:

July 19, 1958 – Khrushchev called for an immediate meeting with Eisenhower, Macmillan, de Gaulle, and Prime Minister Nehru of India to deal with the “armed intervention” of U.S. and British forces in the Middle East following overthrow of Iraq's pro-Western regime July 14. Eisenhower countered July 22 with a proposal for a meeting in the framework of the United Nations Security Council. Khrushchev at first agreed, then backed down Aug. 5 after returning from talks in Peking with China's Mao Tse-tung. Thereupon the Middle East problem was turned over to the UN General Assembly.

Nov. 10, 1958 – Khrushchev announced Soviet intentions of handing over to the Communist regime of East Germany all Soviet functions in divided Berlin, and demanded an end to the city's four-power occupation. In notes to the Western powers Nov. 27, he set a six-month deadline for negotiation of a new status for Berlin. In their replies Dec. 14, the U.S., Britain, and France rejected the implied Soviet ultimatum, and in notes to Moscow Feb. 16, 1959 proposed a foreign ministers' conference “to deal with the problem of Germany in all its aspects”. Khrushchev, in a Feb. 24 speech, insisted on a summit meeting instead, but on March 3 the Soviets agreed to a foreign ministers' meeting. In a March 16 broadcast, President Eisenhower expressed his willingness to meet with Khrushchev if the foreign ministers made progress, a position that was reiterated March 23 following talks with Prime Minister Macmillan.

May 11, 1959 – The foreign ministers' conference opened in Geneva and almost immediately became deadlocked, the Soviets insisting on immediate peace treaties with East and West Germany, the West opposing a treaty until Germany could be reunified through free elections. The conference broke off June 20, was resumed July 13, then recessed indefinitely Aug. 5 without reaching any agreement on Berlin or related questions. Meanwhile, the President Aug. 3 announced that Khrushchev had accepted an invitation to visit the United States and that he would visit the Soviet Union in turn later on.

Sept. 15, 1959 – Khrushchev arrived in Washington and, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 18, proposed “general and complete disarmament” within four years. Following talks with the President at Camp David Sept. 26-27, it was agreed to reopen negotiations on Berlin. Khrushchev had agreed “there could be no fixed time limit” on these, the President said Sept. 28, and had thus “removed many of the objections that I have heretofore had” to a summit meeting.

Dec. 21, 1959 – Following a meeting in Paris between Eisenhower, Macmillan, de Gaulle, and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the Western powers wrote Khrushchev proposing a summit conference in Paris to discuss disarmament, Germany, and East-West relations. On Dec. 30, Khrushchev agreed to the May 16 date.

Chronology of Incident

Preparations for the Paris meeting were in full swing when the U-2 incident broke on a startled world. Following is a day-by-day summary of what happened:

May 5 – Addressing the Supreme Soviet in Moscow, Khrushchev said that an American plane, otherwise unidentified, had crossed the Soviet frontier May 1 from Turkey, Iran, or Pakistan, “continued its flight into the interior,” and been shot down on government orders. He described the flight as “aggressive provocation aimed at wrecking the summit conference”.

In Washington, the State Department said the downed plane might have been an unarmed U-2 weather research plane operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, missing since May 1 after taking off from its base in Turkey on a high altitude weather mission. Its civilian pilot had reported trouble with his oxygen equipment, said State, suggesting that he might have lost consciousness and “the plane continued on automatic pilot for a considerable distance and accidentally violated Soviet air space.” In a supplemental statement, NASA said the missing plane was one of 10 U-2s used in weather research in various parts of the world since 1956.

May 6 – The U.S. Embassy in Moscow asked the Soviet government to “provide it with full facts of the Soviet investigation of this incident and to inform it of the fate of the pilot,” identified as Francis Gary Powers, a 30-year-old civilian. In Washington, State Department spokesman Lincoln White was quoted as saying “there was no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet air space and there never has been.”

May 7 – Khrushchev informed the Supreme Soviet and the world that the pilot of the missing U-2 had been captured and had confessed that he was on a photo-reconnaissance mission when he was shot down by rocket fire near Sverdlovsk, 900 miles east of Moscow and 1,200 miles north of Afghanistan. According to Khrushchev, Powers had admitted that he was actually employed by the Central Intelligence Agency, that he had made many flights over Soviet territory, and that his final flight had begun April 27 when he flew from Turkey to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he took off May 1 for a 4,000-mile hop across the Soviet Union to Norway. Pounding home his advantage, Khrushchev displayed aerial photos of Soviet airfields taken from Powers' plane and described in detail equipment found in the wreckage and on the pilot, including 7,500 Soviet rubles and a poisoned “suicide” pin. He had withheld all of this information in his May 5 speech, Khrushchev said, “to see what the Americans would invent.”

Caught in what appeared to be a barefaced lie, the State Department said “it appears that in endeavoring to obtain information now concealed behind the Iron Curtain, a flight over Soviet territory was probably undertaken by an unarmed civilian U-2 plane.” But, the statement added, “there was no authorization” from Washington for the flight described by Khrushchev.

U.S. Acknowledges Flight

May 9 – Following a May 8 conference with President Eisenhower, Secretary of State Christian A. Herter said that, at the President's direction, the U.S. had engaged in “extensive aerial surveillance by unarmed civilian air-craft, normally of a peripheral character but on occasion by penetration.” He strongly defended the propriety of such action “to overcome this danger of surprise attack,” seeking in effect to shift the onus to the Soviets. Herter's statement was issued after he and CIA Director Allen W. Dulles had given 18 key Senators and Representatives a 90-minute briefing on the situation. In Moscow, meanwhile, Khrushchev warned Turkey, Pakistan and Norway that “if they allow others to fly from their bases to our territory we shall hit at those bases.”

May 10 – Chairman Clarence Cannon (D Mo.) of the House Appropriations Committee told the House that his group had full knowledge of U.S. espionage flights, which he said had been going on since 1946, and that funds for the flights were “justified by honored and established precedent.” Although criticism was voiced in other quarters on Capitol Hill, particularly of the timing of the ill-fated flight, no effort was made to revive a 1956 proposal to establish a joint CIA watchdog committee. (1956 Almanac p. 509)

In Moscow, the Soviet government officially protested the May 1 flight in a note that threatened “retaliatory measures” against any repetition and stated that Powers would be brought to trial.

May 11 – President Eisenhower, in a statement to his news conference, took full responsibility for ordering the overflights, and defended the U.S. Government's intelligence activities as “a distasteful but vital necessity.” He described the Soviet “fetish of secrecy and concealment” as “a major cause of international tension and uneasiness today,” and said he would renew his 1959 “open skies” proposal at the summit meeting.

In Moscow, Khrushchev expressed doubt that the President would be welcome in Russia, where he was scheduled to arrive June 10. Speaking off-the-cuff at a display of Powers' “spy equipment” and plane wreckage, he said: “The Russian people would say I was mad to welcome a man who sends spy planes over here like that.”

May 12 – Moscow censors released Khrushchev's further remarks of May 11, describing Herter's statement of May 8 as one “that could only be made by a country in a state of war.” Terming the overflight a “gangster and bandit raid,” he said Powers would be tried “severely as a spy”. In Washington, the State Department dispatched a note to Moscow rejecting its May 10 protest.

May 13 – The Soviet Union delivered notes to Turkey, Pakistan, and Norway protesting their alleged involvement in the flight of the ill-fated U-2, which the Russians claimed was enroute from Pakistan to Norway when shot down by rocket fire over Sverdlovsk. At the same time, the chief of the Soviet Air Force, Air Marshal K.A. Vershinin, cancelled a courtesy visit to the United States shortly before his scheduled takeoff, suggesting postponement until “a more suitable time.”

May 14 – Premier Khrushchev arrived in Paris for the summit conference and issued a mild statement promising to “exert all effort to make the conference a success.” In Moscow, the Soviets announced they had launched a 4 1/2 ton “space ship” with a “dummy spaceman” aboard, placing it in a 200-mile orbit around the earth.

May 15 – President Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan arrived in Paris amid signs of crisis. Both conferred with French President Charles de Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In separate meetings with Khrushchev, Macmillan and de Gaulle urged the Soviet leader to abandon his combative position on the U-2 incident, but without success.

May 16 – In a three-hour meeting of the Big Four, Khrushchev led off with a bitter denunciation of the May 1 “spy flight” and laid down his terms: the conference could proceed only on condition that the United States declare that it “will not violate the state borders of the U.S.S.R. with its aircraft, that it deplores the provocative actions undertaken in the past, and will punish those directly guilty of such actions.” He proposed that the conference be postponed for “approximately six to eight months”, in a context that suggested he would prefer to deal with the next Administration. Finally, he withdrew his invitation to the President to visit Russia June 10 on grounds he could not be received “with the proper cordiality.”

U.S. Cancels Overflights

In reply, the President repeated his earlier argument that the overflight was a necessary step to guard against surprise attack but had no aggressive intent. He denied Khrushchev's assertion that the U.S. had threatened to continue such flights, revealing that “in point of fact, these flights were suspended after the recent incident and are not to be resumed.” He announced plans to submit a proposal to the United Nations for a UN “aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack”. But Khrushchev was “left in no doubt by me,” the President reported, “that his ultimatum would never be acceptable to the United States.” Khrushchev, however, “brushed aside all arguments of reason,” the President said, indicating by his behavior that “he came all the way from Moscow to Paris with the sole intention of sabotaging this meeting.”

Following the meeting, Charles H. Bohlen, special adviser to the Secretary of State and one of the participants, told reporters that Khrushchev had said the plane incident “was a matter that involved deeply the internal politics of the Soviet Union,” a statement Bohlen said he had never heard at any similar meeting. Bohlen also said Khrushchev “seemed to me to be rather ill at ease” and “seemed to pay a great deal of attention” to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and the Defense Minister, Marshal Rodion Y. Malinovsky. Bohlen's remarks, coupled with the fact that Malinovsky remained at Khrushchev's side during their entire stay in Paris, prompted widespread speculation by Western observers that the Soviet Army was behind Khrushchev's unbending truculence.

Conference Ends

May 17 – After meeting with Eisenhower and Mac-millan, de Gaulle invited Khrushchev to join them. The invitation was refused, however, and the Soviet premier repeated his earlier argument that the summit conference had never begun and could begin only after the U.S. agreed “to condemn the treacherous incursion” of May 1 and “publicly express regrets”. The three Western leaders were reported as feeling “complete disgust” at the Soviet attitude. Each side issued communiques blaming the other for the collapse of the conference.

May 18 – In a final press conference before leaving Paris for East Germany, Khrushchev reiterated all of his earlier charges against the United States in pungent language. Noting that President Eisenhower, in announcing suspension of further overflights, had added that he could not bind his successor in office, Khrushchev said “international relations cannot be built on the term of this or that official.” He said he had intended to raise the issue of overflights with Eisenhower during their Camp David talks in September 1959, but “then I became apprehensive and I thought there was something fishy about this friend of mine.” As for reaching any agreement with the United States, he said “we can wait and, if the next President doesn't understand that, we can wait some more.”

Regarding the subjects the Big Four never got around to discussing – Berlin, disarmament, and a nuclear test ban – Khrushchev said:

  • Berlin – “When we consider the time to be right,” the Soviets would sign a treaty with East Germany, thus depriving the Western powers of “the right to maintain their troops in West Berlin.”

  • Disarmament – “What is going on now at Geneva is merely procrastination.” If continued, the Soviets would take the matter back to the UN General Assembly.

  • Test Ban – “We shall continue our negotiations at Geneva…. But if Eisenhower threatens that he will continue testing then we too will follow suit.”

Meanwhile, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko demanded an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council “to halt the unheard-of provocative action of the United States.”

May 19 – Replying to a May 13 protest from Norway regarding the U-2 incident, the Department of State said “assurances” had been given, in line with the President's statement in Paris, that no further flights would be undertaken. A similar protest was filed May 17 by Pakistan. Meanwhile, Gen. Thomas D. White, Air Force Chief of Staff, told the Senate Appropriations Committee that Soviet behavior in Paris indicated an “irrationality” on their part and suggested adding two squadrons of Atlas missiles to the defense program.

Summit Aftermath

Stopping briefly in Portugal May 19, the President said that “rather than be dismayed, we must tighten our belts, keep our chins up, and each of us work a little harder” for the cause of peace. On his return to Washington May 20, he warned that “we can be watchful for more irritations, possibly other incidents,” citing a report just received that an unarmed C-47 transport plane was missing over West Germany. (Forced down by Soviet fighters after straying over the East German border, the plane and its nine American passengers were released May 25 by Soviet authorities after a perfunctory protest.) At the same time, the President was reported to have written leaders of some two dozen free world nations defending his position on the U-2 incident, blaming the Soviets for scuttling the conference, and expressing hope for the future.

Meanwhile, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev informed the world that the Soviets would make no effort to force the Berlin issue before another summit conference could be arranged in six to eight months. Speaking May 20 in East Berlin, he repeated his earlier charge that the conference “was torpedoed by the aggressive actions of the ruling circles of the U.S.A.” But he pledged that “we will not do anything to sharpen the international situation and to bring it back to the worst times of the cold war.” Regarding Berlin, he said “it makes sense to wait” for another conference and “to retain the existing situation.” But the Soviets had no intention, he said, “of sitting by the sea forever and waiting for good weather.”

At Soviet request, the 11-member United Nations Security Council met May 23 to consider a Soviet resolution condemning as “aggressive” acts “the incursions of United States aircraft into other states.” In an atmosphere laden with propaganda, Soviet and U.S. spokesmen traded charges of espionage, while a group of smaller nations put forward another resolution calling on the Big Four “to resume discussions as soon as possible.”

In debate May 26 Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said President Eisenhower was following “a policy of dangerous provocations which place mankind on the brink of war”, and U.S. Delegate Henry Cabot Lodge described Gromyko's remarks as “atrocious”. Lodge showed a carved wooden seal of the United States which he said was presented to the U.S. embassy in Moscow by Russians and hung in the ambassador's office until a microphone was found hidden in it.

The Security Council May 26 rejected the Soviet resolution by a 7-2 vote, with Ceylon and Tunisia abstaining. Next day, with the Soviet Union and Poland abstaining, the Council voted 9-0 to adopt the small-nation resolution calling on the major powers to resume disarmament talks. There was no censure of U.S. flights over Soviet territory.

In Peiping, Communist China May 27 said American U-2 jets had made at least three flights over the China mainland.

May 28 – Soviet Premier Khrushchev said in a radio address “American hotheads” had wrecked the summit conference and the United States had to be taken down “a peg or two”. He said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions and he (President Eisenhower) will really get there.”

May 30 – Soviet Marshal Rodion Y. Malinovsky said he had ordered rocket strikes at the takeoff base of any foreign plane that violated air space of the Soviet Union or its partners.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Halvard Lange said Norway would give no more permits for reconnaissance flights by allied aircraft without special approval of the Norwegian government.

May 31 – French President Charles De Gaulle said the May 1 U-2 flight was “untimely” but not sufficient motive for the Soviets to wreck the conference.

Japanese Foreign Minister Aiichiro Fujiyama said the U.S. had assured Japan that U-2 planes based in that country were used only for weather observation and the Japanese Government was not considering asking that the planes be withdrawn.

Political Repercussions

Democratic and Republican leaders were quick to react to the U-2 incident and the subsequent collapse of the summit meeting. Prior to May 16, Democratic criticism was muted by expressions of national unity of purpose; following the denouement of Paris, it grew sharper, as did GOP rebuttals.

Adlai E. Stevenson set the tone of pre-summit comment when he said May 12: “Our Government has blundered and admitted it. The blunder has made the President's task at the summit meeting more difficult. Changes must and will be made. But this is no time for partisan censure. The summit is too fateful for any American to risk making the President's task even more difficult.” Sen. Kennedy made the same point May 16, saying that Khrushchev “cannot divide America on partisan lines in matters affecting the security of the United States.”

Stevenson, House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D Texas), Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D Texas) and Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D Ark.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 17 sent a telegram to President Eisenhower in Paris saying: “As leaders of the Democratic party of the United States, we earnestly urge you to convey to Premier Khrushchev the views of the opposition party in your country that he reconsider his suggestion for postponement of the summit conference until after the national elections in this country.

“We feel that total failure of the conference and increasing mistrust on both sides will be serious and deeply disturbing to the whole world.

“All of the American people earnestly desire peace, an end to the arms race and ever-better relations between our countries. We ask you as the leader of this Nation to see that these views are conveyed to Mr. Khrushchev.”

Also on May 17, however, Kennedy made the statement that “you can't have lived in this country during the last week without realizing it is time for a change; you can't be a citizen without realizing that the Republican claims of peace and prosperity are blowing up in smoke.”

Kennedy Statement

On May 18, Kennedy made the comment concerning “regrets” later cited by Republicans as evidence of his lack of qualifications for the Presidency. This was his statement:

“Once the summit had broken up and once Mr. Khrushchev indicated his refusal to continue, I don't think the U.S. could – but – he said there were two conditions for continuing. One, that we apologize. I think that might have been possible to do.” The other condition, Kennedy said, was that “we try those responsible for the flight. We could not do that…. If he had merely asked that the U.S. should express regret then that would have been a reasonable term.”

Stevenson spoke next, in much more critical terms. In a Chicago speech May 19, the two-time Democratic nominee said: “Premier Khrushchev wrecked this conference. Let there be no mistake about that…. But we handed Khrushchev the crowbar and the sledgehammer to wreck the meeting. Without our series of blunders, Mr. Khrushchev would not have had a pretext for making his impossible demands and wild charges.” The “hard, inescapable facts,” Stevenson said, were “that this Administration played into Khrushchev's hands; that if Khrushchev wanted to wreck the conference our Government made it possible; that the Administration has acutely embarrassed our allies and endangered our bases; that they have helped make successful negotiations with the Russians – negotiations that are vital to our survival – impossible so long as they are in power.” The Nation, he said, “cannot sweep this whole sorry mess under the rug in the name of national unity.”

Stevenson's broadside touched off both interparty and intraparty reaction. Rallying to Stevenson's side were 38 House Democrats, led by Rep. Frank Kowalski (D Conn.), who wrote the President May 20 that it was “the Administration's responsibility to answer” a series of eight questions dealing with the U-2 incident. (Another 18 House Democrats had signed the letter May 23.) But James A. Farley, former Democratic National Chairman and a supporter of Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D Texas) for the Presidential nomination, called Stevenson an “apostle of appeasement”. In a statement May 21, Farley called on Democrats to condemn and repudiate Stevenson's “absurd” speech.

Stevenson's criticisms, in turn, drew further endorsement May 22 from the Democratic Advisory Council in a statement saying “the fiasco in Paris raises again the whole issue of the lack of competence of the present Administration.” The Eisenhower foreign policy had failed, the Council charged, “because of its fundamental lack of purpose and integrity.”

GOP Rejoinders

Republicans also responded cautiously at first to the U-2 incident, then answered Democratic fire round for round.

Republican National Chairman Thruston B. Morton May 12 said, “The American people should feel more secure now that they understand the scope of the intelligence activities being carried out by the United States…. The aircraft surveillance program is part of our unremitting effort to assure no more Pearl Harbors…. I believe that the incident will serve to strengthen the hand of President Eisenhower at the summit meeting. Prior to this incident, Khrushchev may have felt that he held more cards in a mistaken assumption that we were not totally informed on military developments in the Soviet Union.”

Vice President Richard M. Nixon May 15 said some good had come from the U-2 incident: “You realize that this flight clearly demonstrates the feasibility of the open skies proposal of the President.” Nixon defended the flights over Russia; to criticisms of the timing of the flights, just before the summit meeting, he said, “There is never a right time to make one of these flights, if you're going to be caught.” Nixon May 17 said the President had planned to tell Khrushchev at the summit that he would give all U.S. U-2 planes and other espionage equipment to the United Nations for a UN surveillance force.

When Democrats began to talk of a Congressional investigation, Nixon told newsmen in Buffalo May 18: “If they believe we should have allowed a gap in our intelligence, let them investigate it. If they believe the President should have apologized to Mr. Khrushchev, let them investigate.”

Stevenson's caustic speech of May 19 provoked the Republican National Committee, which charged May 21 that Stevenson had fallen “like a ton of bricks for the Khrushchev line.” By his “disastrously divisive speech at a critical hour,” it said, Stevenson “has tried to destroy American unity for personal, partisan political reasons.” Rep. William E. Miller (R N.Y.), chairman of the Republican Congressional Committee, commented in like fashion on the letter to the President by House Democrats. “As I recall,” said Miller, “the Democrats dropped our guard once before…at Pearl Harbor. We're not going to let that happen again.”

Speaking in the Senate May 23, GOP Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen (R Ill.) charged that Stevenson himself had “torpedoed” the summit conference in an interview published in a Paris newspaper on the eve of the meeting, in which Stevenson was quoted as approving Western concessions on Berlin, including the reduction of American forces from 11,000 to 7,000, in return for Soviet agreement to a treaty banning nuclear tests. Dirksen speculated that the interview had perusaded Khrushchev that “he might be dealing later with a more gentle, a more tractable, a more flexible, and a less firm President.”

Stevenson denied giving French reporter Robert Boulay an interview or making the statements attributed to him during a conversation in Stevenson's home a month earlier. Boulay, in turn, denied that he had misquoted Stevenson. But the incident, brought to the fore by Dirksen, set off a series of angry exchanges in the Senate between Democrats Mansfield, Kennedy, and Symington, and Republicans Dirksen and Hugh Scott (R Pa.).

Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (R N.Y.) entered the fray May 23 with a 1,000-word statement calling on both parties to prevent the debate from degenerating “into a clash of absurd partisan absolutes.” But he said that “some aspects of American conduct, immediately prior to the conference, demand examination of their purpose and prudence.” Rockefeller, who later announced he would accept a draft for the Republican Presidential nomination, thus affirmed his policy of maintaining an independent position vis-a-vis the Administration.

The President, however, made no apologies for American conduct in his address to the nation May 25. He assumed full responsibility for the U-2 flight, saying for the first time that its timing, “considering the imminence of the summit meeting”, had been considered and the decision made that “the program should not be halted.” He also stated, for the first time, that the initial U.S. statement regarding the missing plane had been deliberately misleading because “protection of our intelligence system and the pilot, and concealment of the plane's mission, still seemed imperative.”

Acknowledging that he had ordered further flights of the U-2 stopped before leaving for Paris, he noted that “their usefulness was impaired” and that “new techniques, other than aircraft, are constantly being developed.” This was reference to the Midas (missile defense alarm system) satellite, the first of which was successfully launched into orbit May 24 from Cape Canaveral. The President also disclosed that he personally had approved a worldwide military communications alert ordered late May 15 by Secretary of Defense Thomas S. Gates Jr.

As for East-West relations, he said: “We must continue businesslike dealings with the Soviet leaders on outstanding issues, and improve the contacts between our own and the Soviet peoples.” Regarding current negotiations with the Soviets on disarmament and a nuclear test ban, he said “we shall not back away, on account of recent events, from (our) efforts or commitments.”


Two probes of the events preceding the ill-fated summit meeting were launched by Senate Democrats – one by the Foreign Relations Committee, the other by the Government Operations Committee's National Policy Machinery Subcommittee, headed by Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D Wash.). Both groups heard closed-door testimony by Administration witnesses.

Foreign Relations Committee

Testimony presented to the Foreign Relations Committee was screened for security information before being released, as follows:

TESTIMONY – May 27 – Secretary of State Christian A. Herter said President Eisenhower had publicly assumed responsibility for the U-2 espionage flight over the Soviet Union to avoid a “trap” set for him by Premier Khrushchev. Herter said it was better to tell the truth about the flight than to be drawn “deeper into fabricating excuses or disavowing responsibility”.

He said he believed the flight was a factor in Khrushchev's decision to wreck the conference and a “convenient handle” for him to use, but, the decision was made before Khrushchev left Moscow and may have been based on a fear of the outcome of the summit meeting, if it had been held. Herter said the U-2 incident may have contributed to undermining Khrushchev's position in the Kremlin.

He said there had been no specific decision not to suspend the U-2 flights during the weeks before the conference and neither Herter nor President Eisenhower knew in advance of the May 1 flight, although they knew of the general program and had approved it.

Under Secretary of State Douglas Dillon, who was in charge of the State Department until May 6 while Herter was abroad, said the Department “at no time” worked directly with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on “publicity or anything regarding these flights”. He said the May 5 NASA statement describing the flight as a weather mission “apparently utilized the general guidelines which had been given them” by the Central Intelligence Agency following conversations between CIA and the State Department.

May 31 – CIA Director Allen W.Dulles testified for nearly six hours in strict secrecy. Committee Chairman J.W. Fulbright (D Ark.) later that day said Dulles did not reveal what information the U-2 plane was seeking when it was downed over the Soviet Union May 1. Fulbright said it was unwise for the President to acknowledge responsibility for the flight, and added that the President did so because of questionable decisions by State Department and White House officials, whom Fulbright did not identify. Fulbright said the CIA should not be held accountable for these decisions because Dulles “does not pass on the wisdom of policy but confines himself to the furnishing of information.”

June 1 – Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, Deputy Director of NASA, said White House Press Secretary James C. Hagerty referred reporters to NASA and the State Department for information on the U-2 flight, and with newsmen converging on his agency Dryden asked the CIA to provide material for the fictional May 5 statement, although the statement itself was written by NASA. Dryden said that although the National Security Council had decided a few hours prior to the issuance of the statement that the State Department would “handle the publicity” on the U-2 flight, he did not learn about this decision until two days later. The decision was made by the National Security Council while it was meeting with the President outside Washington during a civil defense exercise. He said there was no communication between NASA and the State Department or NASA and the White House before the statement's release. Dryden said he had no knowledge of details of the U-2 program.

June 2 – Defense Secretary Thomas S. Gates Jr. said the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union produced a wide range of vital information. Gates said as far as he knew there never was any Administration discussion of discontinuing the flights as the date for the summit conference approached. Gates said a military alert he ordered while in Paris for the summit session was prudent and “absolutely essential”. He said it was primarily a communications alert, and noted that officials who would be most deeply concerned in any military decisions – the President, the Secretary of State and himself – were in Paris.

Gates listed the following persons as taking part in the May 9 conference at which the decision was made for the President to assume responsibility for authorizing U-2 espionage flights: Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, Under Secretary of State Douglas Dillon, Assistant Secretary of State Foy D. Kohler, Charles E. Bohlen of the State Department, Secretary of the Air Force James H. Douglas, Gates and perhaps “one or two others”. Gates said that he knew of only one meeting (May 5), in the series of pre-summit conference meetings considering U.S. reaction to the U-2 incident, at which President Eisenhower was present.

Committee Report

The Foreign Relations Committee June 25 released the report (S Rept 1761) of its inquiry into the “Events Relating to the Summit Conference.” All six Republicans on the 17-member Committee expressed reservations regarding the majority's conclusions, although four of them signed the report. Major conclusions were as follows:

  • MAY 1 U-2 FLIGHT – The Committee said its deliberations on whether the May 1 flight should have taken place were hampered by Administration refusal to state what information the spy mission was seeking. But the Committee did say that “if one accepts the conclusion that the failure of the mission furnished an excuse for Khrushchev's wrecking of the summit conference, then, in the absence of compelling reasons to the contrary, there is good reason to conclude that the flight should not have gone.”

The Committee said there was “no reason to believe that technical preparations for the flight were faulty or that the pilot was unreliable in any respect…. From the technical point of view…what befell the U-2 on May 1 was just plain bad luck.”

The Committee said “little, if any, consideration was given to the proximity of May 1 to the date of the summit conference”, and the argument made in testimony, that if diplomatic considerations were taken into account there would always be a reason for canceling a flight, was “not really persuasive because it fails fully to recognize the importance of the summit conference.”

On the Administration's refusal to say what the U-2 mission was trying to find, the Committee said it was “strongly of the opinion that a government based upon a separation of powers cannot exist on faith alone. (The Committee) is disappointed that the responsible officials of the Executive Branch did not see fit to confide in it this one piece of information which is crucial to reaching an informed judgment. The Committee recognizes that the Administration has the legal right to refuse the information under the doctrine of Executive privilege.”

  • U.S. REACTION TO THE U-2 DOWNING – The Committee concluded that the U.S. reaction to the failure of the U-2's May 1 mission “complicated the problems which resulted from that failure.”

First, the report said, the “cover story” issued May 5 by NASA that the flight was a routine weather research mission “was inadequate for the circumstances which in fact existed.” The purpose of the flight was known by those responsible for the cover story, the Committee said, and “it would have been a reasonable assumption that the chances were quite good that the plane was nowhere near the Soviet border”, but actually deep inside the Soviet Union, near Sverdlovsk, 1,200 miles inside Russia.

The Committee said “perhaps too much emphasis may have been placed on justification of the flights. If justification was to be made, it would have been enough simply to say we were seeking intelligence vital to our own security.”

A third point on the U.S. handling of the incident was that although “the record is full of references to coordination among the various agencies of the Government…at crucial points, the coordination broke down.” The Committee gave as examples the fact that NASA issued its statement two or three hours after it had been decided by the officials concerned following a National Security Council meeting that only the State Department would issue a statement and “there are few, if any, references in the record to direction.” The report said direction was “what was most lacking in this period. There were many interagency meetings to coordinate activities, but there was apparently no one official or agency to direct activities. If this direction is not to come from the White House, then it ought to be made clear, by the White House, that it is to come from the State Department. Indeed, one of the lessons to be learned from this whole affair is the need for reasserting the primacy of the State Department in these matters.”

  • SUMMIT FAILURE – The report absolved President Eisenhower of any blame for his handling of the situation in Paris as the summit conference was about to begin – “given the situation which existed by the time the President arrived in Paris.”

On the “crucial questions” of whether the U-2 incident “was the reason or the excuse for Khrushchev's behavior and whether his behavior would have been significantly different if the U-2 incident had been handled differently”, the report said “there probably would have been a summit conference” if the U-2 incident had not occurred, but this did not mean that it would have been successful. The Committee said if it was Khrushchev's purpose to prevent the summit, “the U-2 incident made his task easier”.

The Committee said it was more difficult to assess whether Khrushchev's behavior in Paris would have been “significantly different” if the incident had been handled differently, but it “seems reasonable to suppose” that the Soviet reaction was intensified by the general interpretation of U.S. statements to mean that the flights would continue and by the personal assumption of responsibility for the flight by Mr. Eisenhower.

  • CURRENT SITUATION – The report said “the Committee is inclined to agree with Secretary Herter that the basic realities of the world situation have not greatly changed.” The report said evidence was “neither solid or consistent” but there were “indications” that Khrushchev, who had been following a “less aggressive course”, was reacting in Paris to pressure from his own military and from the Chinese Communists. If this was so, the Committee said, the U.S. should “encourage Soviet proponents of a peaceful course”.

Finally the Committee said the U-2 incident illustrated the need for international agreement on how high sovereignty extended skyward. The Committee said it hoped the United Nations would study the problem and try to bring about agreement.

In a separate statement, Sens. Frank J. Lausche (D Ohio) and Alexander Wiley (R Wis.) who abstained from approving the report, said “bad luck, not bad judgment” caused the U-2 incident; President Eisenhower “had to state the truth” about the flight; the U-2 incident gave Khrushchev “an excuse for wrecking the conference” but it “was the cause, not the actual reason” for his doing so.

Sens. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R Iowa), George D. Aiken (R Vt.), Frank Carlson (R Kan.) and John J. Williams (R Del.) said they “joined in approving the Committee report, which is a result of composite committee views” but they believed Wiley and Lausche stated “concisely and succinctly reasonable and proper conclusions…and we express our general approval of their statement.”

Sen. Homer E. Capehart (R Ind.) said he voted against the report because he did not think “it promotes the best interests of the United States and international relations.”

RELATED DEVELOPMENTS – June 25 – Wiley said the report was “falsely premised” and “illogical”. Defending the Administration's action, Wiley said sending the May 1 spy flight was wise; the flight's failure did not contribute to the summit collapse; the “weather flight” cover story was properly used and “properly abandoned” when the Soviet Government proved it had detailed knowledge of the flight. Wiley said that following the summit, “It is important that the U.S. – and particularly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – not provide ammunition for the Soviet Premier to use against our country.”

Fulbright Speech

June 29 – In a Senate floor speech, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J.W. Fulbright (D Ark.) said the American people must be told the truth to “discharge their duty as citizens…. It would be easier, more pleasant, and I am sure more popular, to join those who pretend that all is well, that the summit meeting was a triumph for the West and that the Japanese fiasco only demonstrates once again the viciousness of the Communists.” Fulbright said “the prestige and influence of our country on the affairs of nations has reached a new low.” He listed errors he felt the Administration made in the U-2 incident and said the gravest mistakes were “the assumption of Presidential responsibility and the self-righteous attempts to justify the flights in terms which implied their continuation…. This attitude of smug self-righteousness must have been unbearably provocative to the Soviet Government and contributed substantially to the violence and intemperate bad manners of…Mr. Khrushchev at Paris.” Fulbright also said discussion of the wisdom of the President's taking responsibility for the flight “has frequently been confused by irrelevant arguments over whether or not President Eisenhower should lie or tell the truth…. My argument is that he should not as the head of our Nation have become personally involved in the incident one way or the other.”

Fulbright said “if we can disabuse ourselves of the habit of self-delusion, of viewing defeats as victories and of advertising blunders as strokes of genius, there are some things we can learn from these sad events”: First, there was need for better coordination and “much firmer direction of foreign relations – “what is lacking…is not so much coordination as direction…. Elaborate arrangements for coordination are really nothing more than a poor substitute for a firm hand directing affairs. It is the difference between making a hurried phone call to Gettysburg for approval of a coordinated position and receiving clear instructions based upon reflective consideration from the White House.”

Second, Fulbright said, there should be “no direct, public link” between the President and the espionage activities of U.S. intelligence agencies, but closer policy control over those agencies should be kept by the Executive Branch.

Third, Fulbright, said, “Short of the madness of preventive war, I can think of nothing more dangerous than to resume overflights of the Soviet Union. These over-flights were useful while they lasted, but they have now obviously become, as the professionals describe it, compromised.”

Policy Machinery Group

The less extensive probe undertaken by the Jackson Subcommittee, as part of its continuing study of national policy machinery (see story p. 721), resulted in a brief report issued June 17, summarizing seven basic assumptions concerning intelligence work, as follows:

  1. The free world needed intelligence activities to insure its survival. Intelligence was as important as armed strength, particularly in the age of push-button weapons, when intelligence constituted the first line of defense.

  2. Intelligence operations were instruments of national policy, should be subject to effective and continuing higher review and coordination weighing gains against risks.

  3. Collection and evaluation of intelligence was a job for professionals. Intelligence organization should be tight, centralized, responsive and to the greatest possible extent anonymous.

  4. Officials depending on intelligence must be professional in handling the problems it raised.

  5. The conduct of diplomacy should be insulated from sensitive intelligence operations; the latter were a source of information for diplomacy, not part of it.

  6. Public revelation of sensitive intelligence was never a harmless act. It both jeopardized the normal conduct of foreign relations and compromised the sources of vital intelligence. If public statements had to be made at all, they should be made only in response to overriding national interest and on the responsibility and under the control from the outset of one high authority.

  7. The “golden word” of intelligence was silence. More could be lost by saying too much, too soon, than by saying too little, too slowly.

The report concluded that “recent events have not altered the need for adherence to these principles. They have in fact attested to their wisdom.”

Other Developments

Two days after release of the Foreign Relations Committee's report, delegates of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Poland June 27 withdrew from the 10-nation disarmament conference in Geneva. Soviet delegates, who had submitted a new disarmament plan June 2, broke up the conference, charging Western refusal to negotiate seriously, just as the United States and four other Western nations were about to present a counterproposal. The same day (June 27), the Soviets called on the UN General Assembly to take up the disarmament issue at its September meeting. Other related developments were as follows:

Second Plane. The Soviets July 11 said a U.S. reconnaissance plane missing since July 1 had been shot down that day by Soviet fighter plane over Soviet waters in the Arctic, near Archangel. Two of the crew were captured and four were missing. The Soviet note said the incident proved the U.S. was continuing its “aggressive” and “deliberately provocative” espionage flights over the Soviet Union despite President Eisenhower's “alleged order to discontinue American spying overflights” following the May U-2 incident. The note said the plane had taken off from a base in England, and warned that the United States' allies were “inviting a great danger” by permitting use of their bases.

In an official note the same day, the U.S. said the plane, an RB-47 reconnaissance bomber, had been “wantonly attacked over international waters” and the Moscow version of the incident was a “willful misrepresentation and misstatement of fact”. The note said the plane was on “an entirely legitimate mission” of electromagnetic research as part of a series of flights “well known to the Soviet Government to have taken place over a period of more than 10 years” and its mission was “entirely different in character” from that of the U-2 spy plane shot down May 1. The aircraft was “at no time” closer than 30 miles to Soviet land territory, the note said.

Powers Trial. Francis Gary Powers, pilot of the U-2 plane shot down on May 1, went on trial in Moscow Aug. 17 on charges of espionage. He pleaded guilty to overflying the U.S.S.R. to take photos of the country on behalf of the U.S. Government, and on Aug. 19 was sentenced to 10 years' confinement – the first three to be spent in prison, the remaining seven in Siberia. The Soviets did not, however, carry out earlier threats to press similar charges against the two crewmen of the RB-47 downed on July 1. But the fliers were still in Soviet custody, as of Dec. 15, 1960.

Khrushchev at UN. Premier Khrushchev arrived by boat in New York Sept. 19 as head of the Soviet delegation to the General Assembly meeting. President Eisenhower, addressing the Assembly first on Sept. 22, indirectly assailed the Soviet Union for its action in the Congo and for breaking off disarmament talks, and underscored U.S. support for the UN. The President did not meet with Khrushchev, who called Sept. 23 for major revisions in the UN structure, including the ousting of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and his replacement by a three-man directorate representing the West, socialist states and neutrals. Khrushchev also proposed: adoption of a declaration calling for “immediate” independence for all colonial and trust territories and elimination of “strongholds of colonialism in the shape of possessions and leasehold areas”; moving UN headquarters out of the United States to relieve the U.S. of its “burden”; a three-stage world disarmament program, and another summit conference “within a few months.”

Campaign Charges. Throughout the 1960 Presidential campaign Vice President Nixon taxed Sen. Kennedy with having exhibited weakness in his May 18 remarks on the U-2 incident (see above). As Nixon put it in his July 28 acceptance speech: “It was not Mr. de Gaulle, or Mr. Macmillan, or Mr. Adenauer, but Mr. Kennedy who made the rash and impulsive suggestion that President Eisenhower should have apologized and sent regret to Mr. Khrushchev for the U-2 flight which the President had ordered to save our country from surprise attack.”

During the second of their four televised debates Oct. 7, Sen. Kennedy said his May 18 remarks had been distorted by Mr. Nixon and other Republicans. What he had felt at the time, said Kennedy, was that “rather than tell the lie which we told, rather than indicate that the flights would continue,…it would have been far better then if we had expressed regrets if that would have saved the summit.” Nixon, in rebuttal, said “I don't intend ever to express regrets to Mr. Khrushchev or anybody else if I am doing something that has the support of the Congress and that is right for the purpose of protecting the security of the United States.”

Document Citation
"U-2 Incident Wrecks Paris Summit Meeting." CQ Press Electronic Library, CQ Almanac Online Edition, cqal60-880-28173-1331115. Originally published in CQ Almanac 1960 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1960). http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal60-880-28173-1331115 (accessed July 16, 2009).

Document ID: cqal60-880-28173-1331115
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/cqal60-880-28173-1331115

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