The U2 crisis

Background

By the late 1950s, the relationship between the two superpowers was relatively calm. The two leaders, Premier Khrushchev and President Eisenhower, pursued a quiet policy of co-existence even though they remained ideologically opposed. However, their domestic political situations demanded that they be seen to defend their country against the other in the Cold War. Eisenhower, especially, was under pressure from American military leaders to build up the USA’s reserves of nuclear weapons, especially after the Soviet Union surpassed it in satellite technology with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

The American military constructed the idea of a missile gap between the US and the USSR, claiming that the Soviets were ahead in the arms race and that the President should spend more money on weapons. They also wanted to spy on the Soviets to discover evidence of this missile building. Eisenhower agreed to the spy missions because he believed it would show that the missile gap did not exist.

There was a summit meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev in the US in 1959, and the two leaders agreed to meet again in Paris the following year.

What was on the agenda for the Paris Summit of May 1960?

Discussions on the agenda for the Paris summit in 1960, were a nuclear test ban treaty, Berlin and Cuba

  • Nuclear weapons and the need for a Test Ban Treaty: both sides knew the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and wanted to avoid turning more of the planet into radioactive no-go areas.
  • Berlin: The Soviets were exasperated that East Berliners were escaping to the West in significant numbers.
  • Cuba: The Americans were concerned that the recent revolution in Cuba had created a communist government on their doorstep.

The U2 Incident

Just thirteen days before the summit, on 1 May 1960, an American U2 spy plane, piloted by Gary Powers, was shot down over the USSR. The USA claimed that the U2 was a weather monitoring plane that had lost its way. However, the film that the Soviets retrieved from the plane clearly indicated that Powers had been on a spying mission.

When President Eisenhower arrived in Paris for the summit meeting, Khrushchev demanded he apologise for the mission, and when Eisenhower refused Khrushchev walked out.

Consequences

The Paris Summit ended in failure:

The Paris summit ends with no test ban treaty, no deal on Berlin or Cuba. America lied which increased tensions between the USA and USSR
  • There was no agreement on a Test Ban Treaty.
  • The US was embarrassed as it was shown to be using espionage and that it had lied about the U2’s mission. They no longer held the moral high ground in the Cold War.
  • No deal was reached over the future of Berlin or Cuba and both would remain major sources of tension for the remainder of the Cold War.
  • The relationship between the USA and the USSR deteriorated even further, heightening Cold War tensions.
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