The Story Behind The U2 Spy Plane And All Its Consequences – May, 1, 1960


1 May 1960: An American U-2 spy plane being flown by CIA pilot Captain Francis Gary Powers is shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. It crashes near the Ural Mountains.

5 May 1960: A statement released by NASA indicates that a weather research plane has gone missing; the USSR admits shooting down a plane over its territory.

7 May 1960: After the US authorities continue the cover story, Khrushchev reveals OR that the pilot has wm been captured y and the wreckage recovered.

11 May 1960: American President Eisenhower admits that spy planes have flown over the USSR but refuses to issue an apology, insisting that they are defensive flights. Khrushchev walks out of  the Paris summit after just one day, blaming US provocation and ending any hopes of reconciliation between the nations.

10 February 19262: Captain Powers is released in Berlin in a prisoner exchange. A captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, is released in return by the USA.

What was it?


U-2 Spy Plane

On 1 May 1960, Soviet air defences spotted an unidentified aircraft in their airspace at extreme altitude – 70,000 feet up. The intruder was shot down near the Ural Mountains. NASA claimed it was a weather research plane, suggesting that a problem with the oxygen equipment rendered the pilot unconscious over Turkey with the autopilot engaged, but the aircraft was actually an American U-2 spy plane tasked with taking reconnaissance photographs of military targets.

However, the USA was unaware that the pilot, Gary Powers, had been captured and that the plane was largely intact. When the Soviets announced they had interrogated Powers and released photographs of the plane, the cover story was blown. On 11 May, President Eisenhower admitted that there was a programme of spy flights over the USSR carried out under orders from the White House.

What were the consequences?


Khrushchev is shown some of the wreckage from the shot-down spy plane

The diplomatic fallout from the U-2 Incident soured relations between the USA and USSR, bringing to an end a period of peaceful coexistence and ending any hopes that the Cold War might be brought to a close through dialogue. The crisis erupted just before a summit in Paris during which both sides were due to discuss disarmament, but Eisenhower refused to apologise, insisting that the flights were necessary and pushing for an “open skies” agreement.

In response, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev walked out of the summit after only one day and withdrew an invitation to Eisenhower to visit the USSR. Tensions increased, with both sides acting more aggressively. Over the next two years, the USSR authorised the building of the Berlin Wall and the placement of missiles on Cuba, while the USA attempted a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The Cold War had become a lot more dangerous.

Who was involved?

 gary-powersGary Powers

Recruited by the CIA, the U-2 pilot was released by the Soviets after two years in a prisoner exchange.


Dwight EisenhowerDwight Eisenhower

The US president personally approved U-2 spy flights over the USSR and was party to the cover story.


Nikita KhrushchevNikita Khrushchev

The Soviet leader had to appease hardliners in his regime and abandon attempts to reach out to the US.


Hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic – 1922-1923

During World War I prices in Germany had doubled, but the real trouble started afterwards. The new German Weimar government was bound by the Treaty of Versailles – designed to ensure that the grandees of the now defunct German Empire could never wage war on their neighbors again. The Treaty’s terms put the Weimar government under intolerable financial pressure; it would have been a miracle if the ailing German economy had recovered. The stupendous amount the Germans had to pay the Allies in reparation for the war meant they couldn’t afford to buy imported goods, and the loss of their colonies meant they couldn’t rely on cheap raw materials. At the same time billions of marks hoarded during the war suddenly came back into circulation.

The rising cost of goods combined with a dramatic increase in the money supply created perfect conditions for inflation. Before World War I the exchange rate was just over four marks to the dollar. By 1920 the value of the mark was 16 times less. Here it stabilized at 69 marks to the dollar for some months. The government was still in a position to get a grip on the economy; instead it chose to print yet more money in order to pay the reparation debt. By July 1922 prices had risen by some 700 per cent and hyperinflation had arrived.

The government had to print million-mark notes, then billion-mark notes. By November 1923 $1 was equivalent to 1,000 billion (a trillion!) marks. A wheelbarrow full of money couldn’t buy a newspaper. Shopkeepers couldn’t replenish their stock fast enough to keep up with prices, farmers refused to sell their produce for worthless money, food riots broke out and townspeople marched into the countryside to loot the farms. Law and order broke down. The German attempt at democracy had been completely undermined.

When: 1922-1923

Where: Germany

Toll: Millions of Germans were bankrupted – an entire life savings sometimes wasn’t enough to buy a loaf of bread. Conspiracy theories sprouted and extremist political views became acceptable. Ultimately, hyperinflation enabled Hitler to gain power.

You should know: A new currency, the Rentenmark was introduced in August 1924, backed by the US gold reserve, and realistic reparation payments were agreed. Although economic mismanagement on the part of the Weimar government is usually blamed for causing hyperinflation, evidence suggests that speculators were in large part responsible: they started ‘short selling’, effectively betting on the value of the mark dropping.


Afghan Election – 2009

The fiasco of the Afghan presidential election of 2009 is an object lesson in the consequences of blithely marching into alien territory and attempting to impose by force Western notions of liberal democracy on an ancient and complex kinship culture in which clan loyalties invariably take precedence over national identity.

After the UN (United Nations) forces ousted the Taliban in 2002, pro-western Hamid Karzai was installed as a ‘safe’ transitional leader. At the first presidential election in 2004 Karzai, backed by America, unsurprisingly obtained the necessary 50 per cent of the vote to grant him a five-year term. But by 2009 he was no longer the golden boy. The Americans were rooting for his main opponent, Dr Abdullah.

In southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban still hold sway, the election was boycotted – the polling stations simply did not open. Karzai’s campaign team went to the other extreme – they indulged in bare-faced corruption by inventing ghost polling stations, registering literally millions of fake voters and stuffing the ballot to achieve a 54.6 per cent majority. America tried to pressurize Karzai into a power-sharing deal. When that failed they demanded a second round of the election; at which point Dr Abdullah had the grace (or was persuaded – who knows how a kinship culture works?) to bow out and Karzai was reinstated as president.

The UN was left with egg on its face. The election had to be seen to be a success in order to justify the eight-year military occupation. By the standards of Western democracy the entire electoral process was a nonsense – but then in Afghan cultural terms the very concept of individual political enfranchisement is a nonsense. The farcical level of corruption merely demonstrated the impotence of the occupying forces in the face of the complex problems of the region.

When: August 20 2009

Where: Afghanistan

Toll: According to Amnesty international ‘the highest level of civilian casualties since the fall of the Taliban in 2002 has been registered in Afghanistan in the period around the elections’. The security situation grew worse than ever and any Afghanis relying on the UN to create political stability have seen their hopes completely dashed.

You should know: America had decided to invade Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban long before 9/11. The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers merely provided a pretext and ensured UN backing.


Scandal of the September Dossier – 2002-2003

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed to support America’s invasion of Iraq he was on shaky ground – under international law there was no casus belli. But in September 2002 the government published a dossier based on British intelligence reports. It claimed that Saddam Hussein was armed to the teeth with biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which could be deployed within 45 minutes. Blair argued that ‘the stability of the world’ was at stake and ‘unless we face up to the threat… we place at risk the lives and prosperity of our own people’. The next day The Sun newspaper’s headline trumpeted: ‘Brits 45 Mins from Doom’.

In May 2003, a few weeks into the Iraq war, Radio 4’s Today program broadcast an interview with journalist Andrew Gilligan in which he declared he had it on good authority that the September dossier had been ‘sexed-up’ by government spin doctors and, more specifically, the 45-minute claim (the government’s main grounds for declaring war) was fictitious.

A massive row broke out between Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell and the BBC which led to the first of many parliamentary inquiries. Gilligan’s information source was ‘outed’ as Dr David Kelly, a Ministry of Defence weapons expert. Kelly was hauled before the inquiry and, a few days later on July 18, was found dead in the woods near his home. Instead of an inquest, the investigation into Kelly’s death came within the remit of the postwar Hutton Inquiry where, without further ado, it was declared an open-and-shut suicide case.

The ‘sexed-up’ dossier led to a complete breakdown of trust between the New Labour government and the British people. It became clear that the government was tailoring facts to suit its policy and that Blair had misled parliament and the nation.

When: September 24 2002 to July 18 2003

Where: House of Commons, London, UK

Death toll: The death of Dr. David Kelly was directly attributable to his exposure as Gilligan’s informant. During the actual invasion of Iraq 33 British soldiers died. Another 146 died in its immediate aftermath and 790 were seriously wounded. The invasion cost over 7,000 Iraqi civilian lives and there have been at least another 110,000 (possibly as many as 600,000) violent deaths in the subsequent years of insurgency.

You should know: The September dossier scandal may not be over yet. On December 5 2009 six doctors started a legal action demanding an inquest into Dr. Kelly’s death on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to prove that he killed himself.


Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp – 2002 onwards

Guantanamo Bay on the southern tip of Cuba has been an American naval base ever since 1898, used from the 1970s as a detention camp for Cubans and Haitians caught attempting to slip into America by sea. After the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, President Bush found a chilling new purpose for it: Guantanamo was converted into a high-security detention center and declared to be beyond the jurisdiction of US law and the articles of the Geneva Convention.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic deemed it a perfectly reasonable ethical response to an extreme situation and hid behind euphemistic catchphrases: apparently the ‘war on terror’ demanded the ‘extraordinary rendition’ of ‘enemy combatants’ to undergo ‘coercive interrogation’ for the sake of our very survival.

Since its inception, at least 775 captives have been detained in Guantanamo, around 420 of whom were eventually released without charge. Many of these had been rounded up randomly by Afghan tribesmen in exchange for bounty money; among them were children as young as 13. It was US policy to keep the prisoners’ identity secret and information as to what was going on in Guantanamo dripped out slowly: detainees were routinely subjected to ‘unorthodox interrogation techniques’ including beatings, sexual and cultural humiliation, sleep-deprivation, prolonged stress positions and exposure to heat, cold and unbearable noise, and the infamous ‘water-boarding’ torture of semi-drowning.

The world was aghast at the depravity of the US administration. But it was not until 2006 that the British government, after much blustering, tentatively declared that Guantanamo was ‘an anomaly’. Its very existence demonstrates just how easily the democratically elected government of a ‘civilized’ country can trample on fundamental human rights. America’s reputation as the world’s guardian of liberty, justice and truth was in tatters.

When: From January 2002

Where: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Death toll: Unknown

There were many attempted suicides, at least four of which were successful, and three deaths have been attributed to suicide by the Pentagon. The detainees have all been left with permanent physical and psychological scars. At least 60 of the detainees were boys under the age of 18, some as young as 13.

You should know: In January 2009 some 245 detainees were still incarcerated; by November this had been reduced to 215. Of these it is anticipated that between 60 and 80 will eventually stand trial, though it is not known when nor what they are to be charged with. The remainder will be freed – eventually. No more than 24 prisoners were closely linked to the terrorist organization al-Qaeda and only one is an important international terrorist – Mohamed al-Kahtani, who is thought to have helped plan 9/11. On January 22 2009 President Barack Obama ordered that Guantanamo detention camp be closed within a year. This is turning out to be easier said than done. No country is willing to accept the remaining detainees, so the US government doesn’t know what to do with them.


Labor Party Rally in Sheffield – 1992

As the 1992 general election approached, Britain was sliding into recession. The electorate were more than ready for change after 13 years of Tory rule, but not entirely convinced by Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. In the weeks leading up to the election the polls were neck and neck – it looked as though the result could be a hung parliament.

On the morning of April 1 the latest opinion poll showed Labour ahead. Labour supporters were over the moon. With only eight days until the election, the scent of victory was in the air. The auspices couldn’t be better for that evening’s Sheffield Arena rally, a gathering of 10,000 Labour Party members that was costing £100,000 to stage.

The rally had all the razzmatazz of an American campaign convention with live music and celebrity backing. Kinnock flew in by helicopter, his entrance timed to coincide with the nine o’clock news. The nation watched as an ecstatic-looking Kinnock, followed by his beaming shadow cabinet, paraded through the audience to delirious applause and bounced onto the podium flushed with triumph.

Whether he bellowed ‘Well, all right! Well, all right!’ or ‘We’re alright! We’re alright!’ is disputed but, whichever it was, it wasn’t so much the words as the tone that was the mistake. Kinnock sounded like a tinpot preacher. And with national flags fluttering overhead and party apparatchiks fanatically chanting ‘We will win. We will win’, the scene had altogether too many echoes of Nuremberg for the liking of the British electorate.

Voters went to the polls a week later with the image of a rabid Welsh evangelist fixed firmly in their heads. It was not a pretty picture. Kinnock’s triumphalism stuck in the craw of the electorate. The Sheffield rally had turned into a public relations debacle and the Tories won the election.

When: April 1 1992

Where: Sheffield Arena, UK

Toll: A disappointed Neil Kinnock resigned as Labour leader and the country had to suffer another five years of a government it detested.

You should know: The Sun newspaper has always asserted that ‘it wos The Sun wot won’ the 1992 election. The paper ran a virulent anti-Kinnock campaign with an election day headline: ‘If Neil Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’. But the Conservatives certainly credited their unexpected victory to the misconceived Sheffield rally.