The Cold War during the 1950s and 1960s were fraught with examples of overt Soviet aggressions and the covert nature of the response taken by the United States government. In effect, U.S. authorities had taken a path of intelligence gathering; spying as a way of anticipating and interpreting Soviet intentions, as well as to maintain a current understanding of Soviet political activities deep inside the Kremlin. Espionage, as it was practiced by both sides during the Cold War, was as dangerous as it was dynamic; perpetrated by the U.S. and the Soviets on land, sea and air.

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U2 Spy Plane Incident: A Lesson in Obscurity

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During the height of the Cold War an incident occurred that would send ripples throughout the world. In 1960, an unarmed American aircraft would be shot down while flying over Soviet air space. The interesting nature of this event comes in two forms: first, it shows a Soviet response that is decidedly smug in nature, and; the rationalizations by American authorities would eventually prove to be a failure. The intent of the American aircraft was to spy on the Soviets, but attempting to obscure this fact was an exercise in bad judgment.

One of the most significant Cold War events occurring before the Cuban Missile Crisis happened on May 1, 1960 when the Soviet military shot down an unarmed U2 spy plane as it flew over Soviet airspace. Piloted by civilian Francis Gary Power, the United States government would go on to vehemently deny the plane was being used for intelligence purposes, claiming the aircraft was being utilized for purposes of weather research (Soviet Note to the United States).

However, in a note sent on May 10, 1960 to U.S. government officials, the Soviets claimed the U2 was sent for “hostile purposes,” meaning its experts had known the nature and use of the air plane and the United States had essentially been caught with its proverbial pants down. The tone of this communiqué is quite smug, evidenced by the fact that the Soviets more or less rub the collective noses of the actions of U.S. by leveling the official version as being “complete absurdity.” (Soviet Note to the United States) The Soviet position is somewhat understandable and perhaps if the situation would have been the other way around the Americans would have conducted the same sort of posturing.

However, instead of openly admitting to spying on the Soviets, the position taken by U.S. representatives was one of obfuscation. In a statement by Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, released on May 23, 1960, he goes on to describe a litany of rationalizations to gain support from U.S. allies and American citizens alike. This statement goes to great lengths to describe the nature of Soviet aggression, by citing the military takeover of Czechoslovakia, and the existing hostilities in both Korea and Vietnam (Herter).

Much of what is contained in Secretary Herter’s statement actually appears to be based on fact: the nature of Soviet post-war aggression, and; relatively free access to the free world for purposes of developing a vast espionage network. The Secretary even cites efforts by President Eisenhower to open air space over the United States and the Soviet Union so that air travel could be unencumbered, especially as this may related to commerce and trade (Herter). However true the facts may be, it would seem that America’s attempts at obscuring its actions and purposes for flying the U2 over Soviet air space were all for naught.

In the case of the U2 spy plane incident it does indeed appear that the United States government had been exposed. But, this was the nature of the Cold War, when similar efforts to collect intelligence would come to the fore from time to time. There are two elements to this story that are interesting as well as relatively amusing. First, the indignation of Soviet authorities was no more than bluster combined with a certain amount of braggadocio because in this particular case it was not their actions that had caused the row. Secondly, the response by representatives of the United States government was to decidedly obscure the fact that it had actually been caught spying on the Soviet by reasserting the nature of Soviet aggression. This public relations attempt was as feign as it would eventually be a failure. This back and forth quality, pitting U.S. and Soviet intentions through the use of obfuscation was central to the Cold War, and would appear to remain at its core up until the end of the Soviet regime.