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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Nuclear Threats - Second Berlin Crisis - 1960

The occasion for the second Berlin crisis was a Soviet move to redress the strategic balance in Cold War Germany by pressuring for a renegotiation of the Status of West Berlin. The move failed when, after the ‘shooting down’ over the USSR of an American U-2 spy plane, talks in Paris collapsed. The height of the crisis saw United States forces placed on the same level of nuclear alert as was ordered by Nixon during the 1973 October war. The outcome was an abrupt end to the period of détente that had followed Khrushchev’s conciliatory visit to the United States in 1959. Relations between East and West would remain frosty until the near-disaster of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis provided imperative for co-operation.

Khrushchev’s visit had been a Soviet initiative (the United States had issued an invitation which they never thought would be accepted) and had been regarded with scepticism in the State Department. The following months saw a hardening of the American position over Europe, at least partly in response to pressure from European allies: France pressed for a delay in the upcoming Paris summit, to allow De Gaulle’s administration time to strengthen its hand by consolidating its position in Algeria and conduct a nuclear test.

Khrushchev had in November 1958 set a deadline for a treaty on Berlin; after his Camp David meeting with Eisenhower, he had allowed the deadline to become ambiguous. Khrushchev’s encouragement of negotiations what not received well in Washington: Any settlement would entail some form of recognition of the Soviet position in Eastern Europe and could weaken Konrad Adenauer’s administration in federal Germany, leading to a divided Germany and the loss of the allied enclave in West Berlin: Refusal by the West to engage with the Soviets allowed the continuing portrayal of the Soviets as brutal conquerors, on which could be focussed the attention of three million Germans displaced from the East, making a strong alliance with the West the only option.

On the morning of May 1st, 1960, a fortnight before the scheduled opening of the Paris conference, a U-2 spy plane appeared on the ground in the remote industrial area some1,200 miles inside the Soviet Union. Despite Soviet claims to have shot down the aircraft, photographs of the U-2, notoriously fragile in design, showed little damage. Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured.

Eisenhower’s public response was surprising blunt. The United States had been caught red-handed and such embarrassments normally occasion sheepishness. Yet when he addressed the American people on 11th May, he described the U-2 flights as a “vital necessity,” given that the Soviets made “a fetish of secrecy and concealment.”

Much of the detail of the incident remains open to interpretation and there is ample fodder for conspiracy theorists. Given the apparent inconsistencies, it is hard to discount the suggestion that the flight was a deliberate ploy to scupper talks from which the West had nothing to gain.

Powers later stated that he was flying close to his aircraft’s ceiling of 80,000 feet when he was “shot down.” The Soviet missiles purported to have done the job could reach no higher than 60,000 feet. The flight had taken him an unprecedented distance into Soviet territory. The reasons for this were later given by the CIA as a combination of clear weather, the opportunity offered by the distraction of May Day celebrations in the USSR and the testing of a new Soviet missile in Sverdlovsk, where the U-2 came to ground.

In fact, there were many clear days over the Urals in the spring and there was no missile activity in the area in the preceding two years. There also appears to be a contradiction between the Soviets’ supposed relaxation of radar controls for the holiday and the heightened security which would normally surround an important missile test. The fact that the flight took place at all is indication of Washington’s attitude toward the Paris talks: In the past (during the Suez Crisis, for example) it had been Eisenhower’s practice to suspend U-2 flights altogether before delicate negotiations.

Powers co-operated fully with his interrogators and was sentenced to tens years imprisonment in the USSR. Less than two years later, he was returned to the United States in exchange for Rudolf Abel, reportedly then the most important Soviet agent ever captured in the United States, on the face of it hardly a fair swap. Unlike other Americans who had co-operated with their captors, Powers did not face court martial but was instead awarded the Intelligence Star in 1963 had continued flying U-2 as a test pilot for Lockheed.

Apology was very much the norm following diplomatic incidents of the U-2 type; yet none came. Whether or not the incident was deliberately engineered, either by the President or by opponents of détente within the Pentagon, the United States took full advantage of the circumstances to avoid making otherwise inevitable concessions. Khrushchev, who a year before had taken leave of America’s “beautiful cities and warm-hearted people with the words “goodbye, good luck, friends,” was combative in Paris. A day before the conference ended, American forces were placed on “type 3” nuclear alert and it was clear that détente would have to wait. Khrushchev’s belligerence in the early 60s is often attributed to a Soviet practice of ‘testing’ new administrations and a desire to establish a firm position from which to deal with the next government. Yet it seems that it was not only the Soviets who found advantage in obduracy: Failure in Berlin was in the American interest.

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Page last modified: 23-07-2019 17:50:28 ZULU