The story of the U-2 reconnaissance plane is remarkable, as is its role in the early years of the Cold War. This invention went a long way to stabilizing the international situation, making war less likely and saving the American taxpayer billions of dollars.
The U-2 was a product of the Central Intelligence Agency in its relatively early days. The man behind it was one Richard Bissell, who had been the architect of the Marshall Plan. At this time there was huge excitement about the possibility of applying high technology to espionage and intelligence work, especially given the difficulty of getting human intelligence (HUMINT) on the Soviet Union. The Agency in this day was full of relatively young idealists who believed in the power of the individual to change history and hold back the assault of Communism. Bissell's plane was a great example of how a relatively cheap covert project could make a huge difference.
Bissel had been working on the U-2 since 1954, a year after Dwight D. Eisenhower became President. Eisenhower's interest in imagery intelligence (IMINT) stretched back to World War II, during which he had served his country (and the free world) as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. He had been much impressed with the possibilities of aerial reconnaissance, and at one point had asked to be flown over German territory in the back seat of a P-51 Mustang - 'much to the alarm of his staff', notes one historian. He was hence all too happy to sign off on the U-2 project.
Bissel was able to bring the project to a successful conclusion after a mere eighteen months, and $3 million under budget. The final cost of the plane to the American taxpayer was $19 million. This stupendous achievement was due to Bissel's ability as a member of the CIA to circumvent the usual Pentagon procurement process. By avoiding bureaucracy he could simply go straight for the best parts and quickly put the plane together, which was done with the help of Lockheed Martin. The U.S. now had at its disposal a plane capable of flying at 75,000 feet (Soviet MiGs couldn't get above 50,000) and collecting large amounts of photographic data about the ground below it.
Eisenhower was very wary of offending the Soviets, and so instructed that he should personally approve each flight by the U-2. However, there was no doubt in his mind that the flights were necessary. In the 1950s there was a huge and permanent worry in the U.S. intelligence and defence establishments that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe was imminent. At one point early in the decade they had even pinpointed a certain day (June 1, 1952) as zero hour. Even more perniciously, there was a huge fear of Soviet nuclear capabilities. It was widely believed that the Soviet planned economy could produce bombers and missiles at a higher rate than the Americans, and that they would easily overtake their enemy in this field.
Apprehension multiplied by ignorance almost always results in exaggeration. Eisenhower, realizing this, had expounded his Open Skies initiative on several occasions. This initiative called for the skies of the Soviet Union and the U.S. to be left open to surveillance aircraft of the other side so that they could better estimate each other's capabilities. The Soviets, who had little to gain by such an initiative (it was fairly easy to get information about America because it was an open society), rejected his idea. The U-2 helped to close the gap in American knowledge of Soviet capabilities. By flying over Soviet airfields and factories, the U-2 exposed the myth of the 'bomber gap' and the 'missile gap'.
It was soon realized that the Soviets didn't have such a huge quantity of missiles and bombers as was expected. It appeared that they had been practicing some sneaky methods to enhance perceptions of their abilities, such as repeatedly flying the same squadron of bombers around Red Square at May Day celebrations. The intelligence gained from the U-2 flights allowed Eisenhower to resist pressure for a rapid inflation of defence spending and to construct a more rational national defence policy.
The Soviets knew about the U-2s fairly early on, but it wasn't in their interest to say anything. They didn't want to admit the Americans had this capability. They often scrambled MiGs to try and shoot the planes down, but had little success. Then, toward the end of the 1950s, they developed a surface to air missile capable of reaching the required altitude. Amusingly, the notorious inefficiency of the Soviet state kept preventing a shoot-down happening before 1960 - one time the missile was ready but there was no fuel for it, another time the reverse was the case. However, on May Day 1960, they finally got the hit they'd been waiting for. The U-2 incident began.
On this day, a plane flown by one Francis Gary Powers was shot down near Sverdlovsk, deep in Asian Russia. Fearing this eventuality, Eisenhower had been reassured by two claims made by Bissell - one, that the plane would disintegrate upon being hit, and two, the pilots had a cyanide pin that would ensure they would never be captured. As a result, he supported a cover story which had been developed much earlier, stating that a NASA weather plane had been lost, possibly after accidently straying into Soviet territory. A U-2 was quickly painted with NASA's colours and shown to the media to bolster this story.
The Soviets had meanwhile waited for the cover story to be provided by the Americans, at which point they pounced. For, in fact, Khruschev explained, the pilot was "very much alive and kicking". He revealed this to the Supreme Soviet (sort of a Soviet legislature) to cries of "Shame to the aggressor!" (yes, they actually shouted things like that in the Supreme Soviet). Eisenhower learnt to his rage that pilots had in fact been provided with a cyanide pin, but also a parachute. It was left to their conscience which they would use. Secretly, Bissell had considered it unlikely any pilot would survive the jump - but he had been wrong. The plane even reached the ground somewhat intact.
The U-2 incident led to a minor crisis in American-Soviet relations. Obviously, the Soviets were adopting double standards as they had the largest intelligence service on the planet and a host of spy satellites. The damage done by this incident was minor compared to the great service the U-2 had provided in enhancing American knowledge of Soviet capabilities in the 1950s. It was again instrumental in the Cuban missile crisis, allowing the Americans to discover the Soviet missile base while it was still under construction and before a more pressing threat had developed. Had the threat seemed more pressing, the American response might have been catastrophic.
The U-2 is still in use today, but will likely be phased out in the near future to be replaced by an unmanned craft. Despite the fact we now live in the age of the spy satellite, planes are still invaluable for their ability to operate anytime, anywhere.
The historian mentioned above is the official historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, whose book For the President's Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (New York, 1995) represents the state-of-the-art in its field. More detail on the U-2 project can be found in Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men: The Early Days of the CIA (New York, 1995)