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 An invitation for Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union was rescinded, a deep disappointment after the warm personal relations they had developed on a visit the previous year at Camp David and the Eisenhower farm.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.

Review: Presidents of War

presidents of war

Presidents of WarMichael Beschloss. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of eight American presidents who led the nation into war, how they coped with its stresses, and the consequences of their actions with regard to presidential power.

As recent tensions (I write in July 2019) with North Korea and Iran underscore, the potential and power of a U.S. president to lead the nation into war is great, and brings solemn consequences in terms of loss of life, ongoing entanglements, or the ultimate cataclysm of nuclear conflict. Michael Beschloss, in this work, studies eight American presidents who led the nation into war. The presidents are James Madison (War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican-American War), Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam).

It is fascinating to see pretexts and concealed motives for conflicts. For example, Madison took a poorly equipped nation into conflict with Great Britain over impressments of American sailors and the high-handedness of George III, while entertaining ambitions to invade and seize Canadian territory. James Polk, similarly had territorial ambitions to annex territory in the southwest from Mexico and used clashes on the disputed Texas-Mexico border to seek a declaration of war. The fall of Fort Sumter was the flashpoint of the simmering conflict between North and South that both knew was about slavery. Yet until the summer of 1862, Lincoln spoke of the war as an effort to restore the Union. The sinking of the Maine, likely caused by a shipboard accident, served as the cause for the Spanish-American War, allowing the McKinley administration to seize the Philippines and achieve “regime change” in Cuba. Critical intelligence was not passed on to fleet commanders at Pearl Harbor, and the catastrophic Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt the mandate he needed to lead a reluctant nation into war. Dubious attacks in the Tonkin Bay in response to covert US activity resulted in a congressional resolution that served as the basis for Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

Beschloss also chronicles a tension inherent in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution entrusts the sole power to declare war to Congress, Article II, Section 2 names the President the commander in chief of armed forces, entrusting to him the power to launch and direct military operations and deploy our forces, important in the event of attacks upon the country. In this work we see not only how presidents used various pretexts to argue for war declarations up through World War II, but also how Presidents avoided seeking such declarations in the case of Korea and Vietnam, actions that turned out to be unpopular with the American people. Beschloss notes that today’s all-volunteer armies and the lack of a draft make this easier.

Presidents used war to push the limits of presidential power, whether in the suspension of habeas corpus, in executive orders, in harnessing civilian industry to war aims (such as Harry Truman’s takeover of a strike-plagued steel industry), or even the Emancipation Proclamation, effecting an end of slavery without constitutional amendment. At the same time, failure in the exercise of these powers brought new curbs or temporarily weakened the presidency, such as the 1973 War Powers Act, after Vietnam, and the weakened administrations of Ford and Carter, post-Vietnam.

Beschloss also studies how different presidents coped with the pressures of war. Madison seemed not to cope well at all, offering indecisive leadership and being routed from Washington. Polk was the first president who paid a toll with his health for fighting a war, barely surviving his presidency in broken health. Lincoln admitted, “This war is eating my life out” and he had a strong impression that he would not live to see its end (he barely did before an assassin’s bullet struck him down). McKinley turned to his Bible and justified the seizure of the Philippines as a trust to bring Christianity to the archipelago. His life was also ended by assassination while in office. Wilson suffered a stroke after fighting for his Fourteen Principles, the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt also suffered a fatal stroke on the eve of the allied victory and Johnson’s health was seriously impaired with his death coming within five years of leaving office. Fate is not kind to most war presidents.

This work is an excellent survey of many of America’s wars, and of presidential leadership, both in taking the nation into war and leading the country through them. It is disturbing how many times the country is deceived or deprived of critical information in being led into war, and how often fervor substitutes for a sound basis for war, perhaps most notably in 1812 and in Vietnam. Given the high stakes of modern warfare, Beschloss’s work suggests that questions of character, demonstrated leadership, and the mental and physical fitness of the holders of the office of President should weigh heavily in our electoral processes. It also suggests the critical role of Congress in the exercise of its War Powers, and its role of requiring a President to make the case for war to the American people. The fate of a nation, or even the world, may rest on how our President, and our elected representatives act.