Following World War II, the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union grew increasingly wary. The USSR did not agree to a U.S. 'Open Skies' proposal in 1955 and relations continued to deteriorate. The U.S. instituted high altitude reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union because of this aura of mistrust. The U-2 was the plane of choice for the spying missions. The CIA took the lead, keeping the military out of the picture to avoid any possibilities of open conflict. By 1960, the U.S. had flown numerous 'successful' missions over and around the U.S.S.R. However, a major incident was about to occur. On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers was brought down near Svedlovsk, Soviet Union. This event had a lasting negative impact on U.S. - U.S.S.R. relations. The details surrounding this event are to this day still shrouded in mystery.
The conventional story given to explain the crash of the U-2 and the subsequent capture of Gary Powers is that a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane. However, the U-2 spy plane was constructed to be unassailable by conventional weapons. The major benefit of these high altitude planes was their ability to stay above enemy fire. If the plane was flying at its proper height and had been shot down, many question how Powers could have survived. It would have been very likely that he would have died in the explosion or from the high altitude ejection. Therefore, many individuals question the validity of this explanation. Several alternative theories have been put forward to explain the downing of Gary Powers spy plane:
- Gary Powers was flying his plane below the high flying reconnaissance altitude and was hit by anti-aircraft fire.
- Gary Powers actually landed the plane in the Soviet Union.
- There was a bomb on board the plane.
The newest and probably least probable explanation offered for the downing of the planes comes from the pilot of a Soviet plane involved in the incident. He claims to have been ordered to ram the spy plane. Admittedly there is little evidence to support this claim. However, it further muddies the waters of explanation. Even though the cause of the incident is shrouded in mystery there is little doubt to the short and long term consequences of the event.
- The Paris Summit between President Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev collapsed in large part because Krushchev demanded an apology that Eisenhower was unwilling to give.
- Gary Powers was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor. He only served 1 year 9 months and 9 days before being traded for the Soviet spy Colonel Rudolph Ivanovich Abel.
- This incident set in motion a pattern of mistrust that culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations reached an all time low. No one can predict if the Cold War might have ended sooner had the U-2 incident not occurred.