Review: Mayday

Mayday: Eisenhower, Krushchev, and the U-2 Affair, Michael Beschloss. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1986).

Summary: A detailed accounting of the shoot-down of a U-2 CIA reconnaissance flight over the USSR and the consequences that increased Cold War tensions between Eisenhower and Kruschchev and their respective countries.

After Sputnik, it was one of the first international events I remembered. A high altitude plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down during an overflight of the Soviet Union. Both Powers and enough of the plane survived to make clear that it was clear that it was a spy plane from the US. At first, the U.S. President Eisenhower believed that the plane was destroyed. That’s what he was told would happen. First they responded with silence, then a cover story of a NASA weather observation plane off course. Only when Kruschchev revealed that Powers had survived and they knew enough that it was clear he was doing aerial spying did Eisenhower finally take responsibility. Kruschchev thought he would take the cover Kruschchev offered, blaming it on subordinates and firing them. Eisenhower wasn’t that kind of guy, but the bungling had sown deep distrust in the lead-up to a four nation summit, meant to de-escalate continuing conflict over Berlin and Germany, both divided into East and West. The Summit ended up a disaster. Kruschchev was deeply offended and walked out early. An invitation for Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union was rescinded, a deep disappointment after the warm personal relations they had developed on a visit the previous year at Camp David and the Eisenhower farm. What Eisenhower hoped would be a crowning achievement of his eight year presidency ended in disappointment. All because of a downed plane.

Or was it? That’s one of the questions Michael Beschloss raises and leaves with us. On the face of it, the overflight was a deep offense, a breach of trust, especially since it occurred on Mayday, the Soviet equivalent of the Fourth of July. Behind the scenes, though, militaristic elements in the Kremlin were already coming to think that Kruschchev was too soft on the Americans, and were fearful that he would give away too much in negotiations on Berlin. Kruschchev was walking a tightrope. He wanted to lower military expenditures and invest more in a flagging economy. Beschloss raises the question of whether the downed plane gave Kruschchev cover to take a hard line, which he may have had to do anyway. The overflight and the American admission of spying allowed him to do so from the moral high ground of the moment.

Then there were questions about Power’s story. Was he really shot down or did something else account for him being taken into custody? For one thing, he survived. The plane was relatively intact for being shot down at 70,000 feet. Pilots were supposed to hit a self-destruct switch before ejecting. Powers claimed he was unable to. The fact that Powers apologized at all, even though he refused to denounce the US made him suspect or weak in the eyes of some. Why hadn’t Powers been better prepared for the possibility of surviving a shoot-down?

The book explores a number of questions around the Eisenhower administration. Why did they release a series of cover stories before admitting they were lies? Did the CIA fail the president in the assurances they gave him concerning the impossibility of a U-2 pilot surviving a shoot-down? Why didn’t Eisenhower take advantage of Kruschchev’s early arrival at the Summit to seek out a private meeting to see if he could resolve the tensions between them? And why did Eisenhower authorize a flight so close to the Summit?

Beschloss explores the intelligence dilemma that led to the pressure to approve these flights. The fear of a “missile gap” was driving pressure to increase defense spending. The intelligence gained through these overflights enabled him to fend off these pressures and control spending. There was no “missile gap.” Just a lot of boasting. The intelligence also helped defense planners to plan for the unthinkable, knowing better what assets to target. The Soviet Union was able to acquire this information with ease in the U.S., an open society. There was no comparable way for the U.S. to gather this intelligence, and overflying satellites were a few years away. One has the sense in the end, as regrettable as the U-2 incident was, that most feel the intelligence reaped over the years justified the incursions into Soviet airspace and the concomitant risks.

Finally, this is an interesting study of how easy it is in tense international relationships for parties to misinterpret each other’s acts and not to understand how they are perceived by others. Eisenhower concluded that because Kruschchev didn’t bring up the overflights at Camp David, he had decided to tolerate them. Kruschchev had decided they had repeatedly denounced these flights and that it wouldn’t help his relationship with Eisenhower, who he thought did not know about them. Kruschchev didn’t expect Eisenhower to take responsibility for the spying.

Beschloss offers a well-researched account that helps us understand this period of the Cold War. He helps make sense of the climate President Kennedy inherited. He also offers the intriguing perspective that the U-2 affair was the first in a series of events leading to Kruschchev’s downfall. Beschloss exposes some of the internal dynamics that weren’t clear to most of us at the time. Beschloss combines a well-paced account with careful scholarship that help us understand some of the dynamics of an era that had us hiding under our school desks.

One thought on “Review: Mayday

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2021 | Bob on Books

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