Four days after Powers was shot down, and upon believing he was dead and the plane completely destroyed, the US deployed a cover story claimed that the plane had “gone missing” after the pilot experienced “oxygen difficulties.” Upon hearing this, Soviet Premier Khrushchev decided to spring a trap for President Eisenhower, announcing to the world that they had captured Powers — alive — and he had admitted to his mission over the Soviet Union.
Rather than torpedo the upcoming Paris Peace Summit later in the month, Eisenhower revealed the U2 espionage program, clearly stating that the flights took place not only with his knowledge, but with his direct approval.
While the summit went on as planned, Khrushchev, having caught the Americans with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, was less than pleased, and the talks fell apart quickly — leading to an increase in tensions that would plague the Cold War for years to come. – AJW
US admits charges of ‘spy plane’: Denies Russia flight was authorized
By John M Hightower
Washington — The United States admitted Saturday night that a high altitude American jet plane made an intelligence flight over the Soviet Union as charged by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
The State Department said, however, that the flight was not authorized by Washington officials.
The probably unprecedented admission was made in a statement prepared under the direction of Secretary of State Christian A Herter and cleared with President Eisenhower.
Triumph for Mr K
The action apparently hands Khrushchev a major propaganda triumph only a week before the opening of the May 16 summit conference in Paris.
But the State Department bitterly attacked Soviet “Iron Curtain” secrecy as the reason for espionage activities and thus provides a basis for Eisenhower to make a determined bid at the summit for an “open skies” policy among the great powers.
The statement also admitted the intelligence flights have been made by the same kind of jets “along the frontiers of the free world for the past four years.”
Available officials said they did not know whether such flights had crossed over the frontier into Soviet air space.
The State Department announcement said the aircraft making this flight was an unarmed civilian U2 plane, a single engine jet which operates at high altitudes.
The key sentence in the US statement bearing on Khrushchev’s charge that the aircraft was on a spying mission and was shot down by the Soviet rocket last Sunday was this:
“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 U2 plane.”
The word “probably” was used, informants said, because the officials who drafted the statement did not want to be in a position of confirming every detail of Khrushchev’s lengthy account of how the aircraft was shot down and its pilot, Francis G Powers captured after parachuting to earth.
Khrushchev said Powers had admitted he was on a spy mission. He suggested Saturday that Powers may be put on trial as a spy.
Officials declined to say whether an apology would be made to the Soviet government for the admitted violation of Soviet air space.
As to who ordered the flight, the official statement offered no explanation.
“As a result of the inquiry ordered by the President,” the statement said, “it has been established that insofar as the authorities in Washington are concerned there was no authorization for any such flight as described by Mr Khrushchev.”
‘Forget about me,’ flier told family
New York — The Columbia Broadcasting System said Saturday night a flier downed in the Soviet Union had told his family he was going on a secret mission and “if something happens, forget about me.”
CBS news correspondent Bernard Eisemann reported an interview with George Meade, brother-in-law of Francis Powers, the civilian pilot now reported in confinement in the Soviet Union for alleged spying by air over Soviet territory.
The US State Department has conceded that the civilian pilot was flying over Soviet areas to obtain information.
More than weather
Eisemann quoted Meade, interviewed at Powers’ hometown at Pound, Virginia, as saying that Powers had told him exactly what his mission was to be, and that it was much more than weather research.
Meade declined to go any further, the CBS correspondent said.
Eisemann said he was told that late last year Powers warned his family: “I know what I’m doing. If something happens to me and you don’t hear from me, don’t do anything. Just forget about me.”
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Source publication: Independent Record (Helena, Montana)
Publication date: May 8, 1960
Notes: Photos provided by the CIA