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Aerial reconnaissance, the press, and American foreign policy, 1950-1954.

On April 8,1950, the Soviets removed the shroud of secrecy surrounding the U.S. strategic aerial reconnaissance program. Soviet fighters shot down an unarmed Navy PB4Y Privateer patrol plane with a crew of ten men over the Baltic Sea. Three days later, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Y. Vishinsky handed U.S. Ambassador Alan G. Kirk a note of protest against a "gross violation" of international law, claiming that an American B-29 type aircraft first opened fire on Soviet planes over Soviet territory. (1) In his telegram to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Ambassador Kirk observed, "Vishinsky's manner was serious but not aggressive nor antagonistic ... recommend publicity on our side be avoided or if unavoidable, minimized." (2) Nevertheless, the lid was off. The highly classified aerial reconnaissance flights by the U.S. Air Force and Navy begun in the late 1940s were exposed to the American public. (3) By focusing on the U.S. press coverage of a series of aerial incidents in the early Cold War (1950-1954), American strategic aerial reconnaissance emerged as a significant factor influencing U.S.-Soviet tensions creating a "cycle of hostility" that shaped perceptions and foreign policy. (4)

Although intended primarily as a means to provide leaders with intelligence information for threat assessment and war planning, the very nature of aerial reconnaissance whether peripheral electronic intelligence or overhead photographic flights shaped U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. Throughout the early 1950s, a "cycle of hostility" sparked by American reconnaissance probes limited diplomatic flexibility. A consistent Soviet defensive reaction to U.S. reconnaissance patrols, regardless of location, cost American lives and increased superpower tension. Grabbing headlines, the loss of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft and other international incidents galvanized public opposition to diplomatic overtures. More than a mere tool of policy, aerial reconnaissance helped shape the strategic culture of the Cold War. The "cycle of hostility" may be characterized:

Prompted by American mistrust and fear of Communist intentions, reconnaissance flights aroused Soviet worries of capitalist encirclement and inspired aggressive defensive measures.

When incidents resulted in American dead, sensational headlines seized popular attention and stirred public outrage.

Reinforcing perceptions of implacable Soviet hostility, shoot downs justified anti-Communism that marked the Cold War.

In turn, the increased tension fueled further intelligence concerns, which led to additional reconnaissance flights, continuing the "cycle of hostility."

Following the Baltic incident, Admiral Forrest Sherman, Chief of Naval Operations, reported the results of a Navy investigation: an unarmed Navy patrol plane, not a B-29 as the Soviets claimed, departed Wiesbaden, Germany at 10:31 Greenwich Mean Time on a "properly scheduled flight pursuant to directives of the Commander in Chief, U.S. Naval Forces, Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean, for purposes previously approved by the Chief of Naval Operations." Tins cryptic phrase is significant because many sorties of the early ferret program were conducted under theater or service authority without specific Presidential authorization. As a result, even this official inquiry dodged questions concerning the purpose of the flight. Admiral Sherman added that standing orders required U.S. Navy aircraft to "make no approaches closer than 20 miles to any shore of the USSR, its possessions or its satellites." Verifying that the aircraft was unarmed, Admiral Sherman concluded:

A relatively slow unarmed patrol plane could not have attacked a Russian fighter and the Soviet note is untrue in that regard. It is probably untrue also with respect to the location of the incident. It is not likely that competent personnel would overfly Soviet occupied Latvia, nor that Soviet fighters would break off action over land under such circumstances. (5)

The Soviet attack launched a wave of frenzied rhetoric by outraged politicians and vigilant newsmen. For example, the New York Herald Tribune announced a "proposal by the House Democratic leader, Representative John W. McCormick of Massachusetts, that the United States should sever diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, or, perhaps recall Ambassador Kirk." Not to be outdone, Representative Carl Vinson compared the incident to the Japanese attack on the U.S.S Panay in 1937: "Here, in the same pattern, in the same manner, for the same purpose, with the same ruthlessness, with the same contempt of life, for democratic institutions, for international law, for decency--a barbaric attack is made on an unarmed!,] defenseless American aircraft." Reminding Americans of their unpreparedness for the last war, Vinson called for increased spending for military aircraft to "maintain sufficient force to insure Russian respect." (6)

Within a few weeks, probing reporters uncovered the plane's secret mission. In a Washington Post article, Marquis Childs revealed that "the Russians believed that the American plane was carrying a recently developed type of reconnaissance equipment.... [making] it possible to do reconnaissance at much greater distances than has ever more been possible." (7) Columnist Drew Pearson claimed the Navy's posted list of crew members, showing the presence of electronics specialists, broadcast the patrol plane's mission to the Russians before its takeoff: "They knew the plane was equipped with high-powered radar and electronics equipment that could watch amphibian maneuvers and the flight of rockets over the Russians' most secret rocket-testing ground--the Baltic." (8)

In his Washington Post column, Walter Lippman speculated that the Soviets destroyed the Navy Privateer as a deliberate act of policy. He believed the Soviets set a trap for the patrol plane: "... Soviet intelligence had advance notice that the plane would fly a course over the Baltic Sea, that though it was known to be unarmed the Soviet intelligence believed it carried important electronic equipment, and that orders were given to the Soviet fighter command to intercept it, to capture it if possible, and failing that, to shoot it down." (9) The fact that no wreckage could be produced over Soviet territory disproved the Russian claim of violated territorial sovereignty. Lippman questioned Soviet motives for decorating the fighter pilots credited for the kill: "The ostentatious award of "The Order of the Red Banner" to four Soviet flying officers was plainly intended to advertise the exploit. The award is particularly significant, it seems to me, because these officers did not in fact succeed in doing what, ... they tried to do. What then did these fighters do that entitled them to special honors and decorations?" (10) Answering his question, Lippman postulated that the incident served a twofold purpose: "One, which probably failed, was to capture a plane with valuable military secrets; the other was to demonstrate to the world that the Soviet air defenses are able to repel American strategic air power." Hence, in Lippman's view, the Baltic shoot-down suggested broader policy implications: "upon making their own territory invulnerable to American airpower.... the Red [A]rmy would be virtually unopposed around the periphery of the Soviet Union.... to convince the Russian people and also the people of Europe that the Soviet Union has achieved an air defense. (11)

Regardless of whether the columnists' speculation was correct, the 1950 Baltic incident thrust aerial reconnaissance into the national limelight. Largely caught unaware, President Truman called for a thirty-day suspension of flights until matters could be properly assessed. The political volatility of the missions had to be weighed against the need for intelligence, especially as concern over the prospect of a Soviet surprise attack increased. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Omar Bradley stated in a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense, "It is recognized that there is a risk of repetition of such incidents upon resumption of these flights, but it is felt that there would be more serious disadvantages occurring to the United States if the cessation of these operations were to be extended over an excessively long period." (12)

The 1950 Baltic incident led President Truman to order a review of U.S. aerial reconnaissance. On May 5, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff formalized the goals and operating procedures of the ferret missions, now called the Special Electronic Airborne Search Project (SESP). In a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense, later briefed to the President, General Bradley outlined the program. The aim of the SESP was to obtain "the maximum amount of intelligence concerning foreign electronic developments as a safeguard to national defense." The Joint Chiefs of Staff scheduled the missions to be flown along the borders of the Soviet Union to locate and analyze enemy air defenses. These flights would be conducted under strict operating procedures which included:

Flights will not be made closer than twenty miles to the USSR or ... satellite controlled territory.

Flights will not deviate from or alter planned courses for other than reasons of safety.

Aircraft engaged in these operations over routes normally flown by unarmed transport-type aircraft, i.e., the land masses of the Allied Occupied Zones and the Berlin and Vienna corridors, will continue to operate with or without armament. [The President scribbled "which?" on the copy forwarded to him. A later memo explained that the statement meant to "permit operations of either armed or unarmed aircraft dependent upon whether the armed or unarmed type is available at the particular time."]

Aircraft engaged in these operations over all other routes adjacent to the USSR or to USSR-or satellite-controlled territory will be armed and instructed to shoot in self-defense, ["good sense, it seems to me. H. S. T."] (13)

President Truman's approval of the Special Electronic Airborne Search Program proved to be a landmark in the history of aerial reconnaissance. No longer would ferret operations be conducted ad hoc by the military services; from 1950 onward, reconnaissance operations attracted Presidential attention and played a significant role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. The shock of the 1949 Soviet atomic explosion and fears of expanding Soviet military capability overpowered reservations of possible political consequences. As the Baltic incident showed, American efforts to gather intelligence risked violent reprisal by the Soviet Union which, in turn, captured headlines and aroused public opinion. The average American cared little about electronic intelligence or ferret operations; but, apparently "the Communists" murdered ten American boys in an unarmed plane. The death of the Navy fliers confirmed the arguments of those advocating vigilance in the Cold War. Thus, Truman's approval of the formal guidelines for aerial reconnaissance not only established the framework for operations to be conducted, but set the stage for an era of aerial confrontation.

The outbreak of the Korean War reinforced the need for a coordinated program for U.S. strategic aerial reconnaissance. Building on the Special Electronic Airborne Search Program, regular peripheral reconnaissance flights along Soviet borders continued worldwide. With the experience of the Baltic Incident, American leaders understood the potential diplomatic consequences of "ferret" flights. Nevertheless, intelligence needs dictated further missions. As later events proved, aircraft incidents of all types played a significant role in U.S.-Soviet relations. As the Korean War-related reconnaissance in the Pacific developed quietly, an unrelated incident shifted attention back to Europe.

On November 20, 1951, the United States Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, announced an American C-47 transport was missing after having been fired on by Hungarian and Romanian border guards. The embassy spokesman explained that the flight carried diplomatic cargo destined for Yugoslavia and a crew of four. Apparently, the missing plane had mistaken the Drava River, which flows close to the borders of Hungary and Romania, for the Sava River, which marked the air corridor to Belgrade. (14)

The missing plane triggered another outburst in the American press. Recalling the Baltic Incident, a New York Times editorial blasted the border guards' actions: "Behind the iron curtain is a jungle world into which one ventures at his own risk ... the Hungarian and Rumanian governments appear to believe that the "illegal entry" into their territory of a lost plane is sufficient cause to blaze away." (15) Adding to the clamor, two weeks later, the Soviet Union announced that its air force had forced down the unarmed cargo plane and accused the crew of planning to pick up "spies and saboteurs." The Soviets cited the plane's extra parachutes and equipment, including a two-way radio, as evidence. (16) This charge unleashed a media attack: "The current furor over the American C-47 plane forced to land in Hungary provides an instructive case history of Soviet paranoia and propaganda skill. It is a classic example of how the Kremlin can make a mountain out of a molehill, even when working with the most meager materials." (17)

Responding to the press attention, the Truman Administration acted swiftly, attempting to gain the fliers release through diplomatic pressure. The President ordered the Hungarian consulates in New York and Cleveland closed and banned private travel to the country. (18) Legislatively, Truman asked Congress to pass a $100 million Mutual Security Act to aid "selected persons residing in Soviet bloc states or refugees who wanted to form armed units" in opposition to Communism. (19)

Combining with the hostility produced by the Korean War, the C-47 incident strained U.S.-Soviet relations. The incident aggravated Communist suspicions of Western spying and capitalist encirclement. Soviet leaders believed the lost C-47 was spying regardless of its actual mission. American officials pointed out that the plane bore standard U.S. military markings and carried a crew of regular Air Force personnel. Regardless, the aerial incidents demonstrated that the Soviet Air Force would vigorously defend its borders from any perceived intruder, regardless of actual location or mission.

By late December, the Hungarians released the four crewmen held captive. The incident disappeared from the front pages, but the cycle of hostility had started. The press alerted the American public to the dangers of air travel near the Soviet bloc and emphasized the brutal hostility of the Communist foe. On the other hand, sensitive of their territorial sovereignty, Eastern bloc nations insisted upon the right to down aircraft penetrating their airspace without authorization.

The cycle of hostility featured in strategic aerial reconnaissance helped form the strategic culture of the early Cold War. In Modern Strategy, Colin S. Gray explained that strategic culture provided the context and meaning of events. More specifically, he discussed that strategic culture comprised the "ideas, attitudes, traditions, habits of mind, and preferred methods of operation" that marked a specific geographically based security community. (20) In this case, drawing upon fears of an atomic Pearl Harbor, American military and political leaders sought reassurance through aerial reconnaissance. Ironically, similar fears of surprise attack shaped Soviet strategic culture during the early Cold War. Senior Soviet leaders remembered German aerial reconnaissance on the eve of Hitler's invasion of the USSR in 1941. Hence, each belligerent viewed the other as hostile, dangerous, and aggressive. The series of aerial incidents reinforced perceptions and demonstrated the intentions of the enemy.

On October 9, 1952, the cycle of hostility continued when the front page of the New York Times announced "B-29 LOST OVER SOVIET KURILES." The article explained that a B-29 Superfortress, carrying a crew of eight, disappeared after "radar equipment had picked up an unidentified plane approaching it from the direction of the Russian-held Kurile Islands." The attack occurred eight miles northwest of Nemuro, a city on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, over Japanese territorial waters about fifteen miles from the international border two days prior.

Consistent with the pattern of events forming in such incidents, the United States protested the attacks as "uncivilized." (21) In its defense, the Soviets claimed the B-29 had violated its borders and had opened fire on Soviet fighters. According to a Soviet note of October 12, 1952, the incident occurred near Soviet-occupied Yuri island in the Kurile chain. (22) Rejecting the Russian explanation, the State Department demanded repatriation of any survivors and monetary compensation for the aircraft loss. In addition, the U.S. Government spurned the Soviet account of events: "By its calculated misrepresentation of the facts ... the Soviet government has sought, not for the first time, to evade responsibility for a wanton and unjustifiable attack carried out on an undefended plane by fighter planes of its air force." (23)

Joining the war of rhetoric, American newsmen interpreted the overall impact of the B-29 incident of October 1952 upon the Cold War. Noting the Kremlin's demand for the recall of Ambassador George F. Kennan, a New York Times editorial viewed the aircraft incident in grave terms:

Meanwhile, the attacks on the planes are justified with the now familiar charge ... that the American airplanes violated Soviet territory and fired first. These accusations are part of a Soviet policy of mendacity, but the actions themselves, like the Korean War, are part and parcel of the Kremlins cold and not so cold war against the West in general and the United States in particular.... But the purpose of the diplomacy is obvious. It is to lower American prestige in the eyes of the world, to demonstrate that the United States can be pushed around with impunity, and thereby break up the solidarity of the free world. (24)

Likewise, reporter Hanson W. Baldwin looked at the strategic significance of the events:

The Russians have been trying by threat, fear and suggestion to make the Baltic their "Mare Nostrum" .... In the Kuriles, the Russians have simply preempted some former Japanese islands to which they have no legal right and are acting on the basis that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Their action in shooting down our B-29 on Oct. 7 can be construed as intended to enforce this claim.

But the fact remains that Russia is steadily pulling down the Iron Curtain further and further all over the world.... This is, of course, a manifestation of the communist psychology of suspicion and fear. It could well be and probably is defensive in character, defensive militarily, and defensive against ideas from the West. But it could also ... mask offensive preparations. (25)

Adding to its impact upon Cold War tension, the October 9th shoot down occurred at a key moment in U.S. domestic politics. The news of the attack shared the front page with the intensifying Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential race. Cold War issues and Korea dominated the campaign and the killing of American airmen in direct clashes with the Soviets raised the prospect of a dreaded general war. In some ways, the October B-29 incident called attention to General Eisenhower's image as a leader strong enough to face the Russians, yet a man devoted to peace. In all probability, the flare up of Cold War violence helped Eisenhower's campaign.

On January 18, 1953, the day before Eisenhower's inauguration, Communist Chinese anti-aircraft guns downed a U.S. Navy P2V Neptune near the port of Swatow in southern China. (26) Adding to the disaster, a Navy PBM Mariner sea plane crashed on take-off after picking up ten of the Neptune's survivors. Only ten of the twenty-one men on board the two airplanes survived. The Neptune's loss marked the first time an American reconnaissance plane was shot down in the South China Sea since President Truman's decision to patrol the Formosa Strait on June 27, 1950. (27)

The hoopla surrounding the new President's inaugural ceremony diverted press attention from the incident in the South China Sea. Newsmen cared more for the color of Eisenhower's coat (dark blue) and whether he would wear a top hat (he reviewed the parade bareheaded) than for what were becoming routine acts of aerial "aggression." (28) In addition, the American diplomatic response was muted largely due to the office changeovers leaving a relative power vacuum until the newcomers learned their positions. As a result, the Navy continued its patrols and the incident passed quietly.

Paralleling the change in U.S. administrations, Joseph Stalin's death rocked the Communist world. Since his assumption of power in 1927, Stalin's iron hand had dominated Russian life. From a Soviet point of view, his warnings of the danger of capitalist encirclement and his emphasis on the inevitable conflict between capitalism and communism proved sound, as evidenced by the titanic struggle against Hitler. Therefore, Stalin's conviction to maintain huge military forces remained unopposed until now. In many ways, American reconnaissance missions justified Stalin's emphasis on the need for vigilance. When Soviet leaders questioned the purpose of American intelligence flights, the answer seemed obvious: these seemingly harmless, unarmed craft explored routes for nuclear-armed American bombers.

The power vacuum presented by the death of a leader undisputed for twenty-four years posed profound problems. In addition to the rivalry of various power blocs and the indecision surrounding who would eventually rule, Soviet foreign policy faced a dilemma. At the heart of the matter lay the prospect of nuclear war. Knowing firsthand the devastation and suffering caused by all-out conventional war, Communist leaders understood the potential destruction of nuclear conflict. They dreaded the thought of the annihilation of a state so many had sacrificed to save. Furthermore, the burden of a huge military establishment strained to the limit an economy still ravaged from the last war.

As a result, the next generation of policy makers sincerely wished to avoid war and reduce military spending; the question was how. To show weakness in front of the capitalist foe risked strategic losses, and perhaps more important, threatened political defeat in the Byzantine-like power struggles of the Kremlin. Men who had admired Stalin's strength in dealing with the West still held considerable power in the Party hierarchy. Nevertheless, new Soviet Premier Georgi Malenkov expressed hope of peaceful "coexistence and competition" during his address at Stalin's funeral. (29)

Within a week, two aerial incidents challenged Soviet leaders. On March 10, 1953, two Czechoslovakian MiG-15s shot down an American F-84 Thundeijet over the United States zone in Germany. The plane crashed near the Bavarian village of Falkenstein, twenty-three miles from the Czech border. (30) Two days later, Soviet fighters downed an RAF Lincoln bomber that strayed, according to the Soviet claim, from the Berlin air corridor. Seven British airmen died in the incident. (31)

The Soviet Union's conciliatory response to British and American protests surprised Western observers. In a note from General Vassily T. Chuikov, chairman of the Soviet Control Commission in Germany, the Soviet Government expressed "regret" over the incident and suggested a Soviet-British conference in Berlin to avoid further "misunderstandings." (32) By the end of March, the two sides conducted a secret meeting to eliminate future disputes of which little is known except the Soviet tone was unusually mild. (33) Although the Russians maintained a posture of righteous innocence in both incidents, their expression of regret marked the first move to lesson aerial tension and break the cycle of hostility.

Matching the Soviet tone, President Eisenhower assumed a policy of "conciliation plus strength" in response to the shoot downs. At a press conference on March 19th, the President delivered the mildest rebuke of Soviet actions since the start of the Korean War. Although the attacks on Allied aircraft were serious, he said, the Administration noticed no new pattern of hostility in them. Moreover, noting Malenkov's statements that unresolved problems between the two superpowers could be resolved through negotiations, Eisenhower remarked that the new Soviet leaders would never be met less than half-way. (34)

Despite the conciliatory tone of American and Russian leaders, the U.S. media interpreted the situation as one in which actions spoke louder than words. Many writers perceived Malenkov's talk of peace as a ruse to mask Communist hostility. For example, C. L. Sulzberger explained that Malenkov's talk of peace after the attack on American and British aircraft offered a useful lesson for the Allies: "It served as a brutal reminder of the overriding reality of our times--that the Soviet menace continues, regardless of which leader rides the juggemaut." (35) Refusing to be lulled into complacency, the New York Times called for increased vigilance: "For the latest attacks are no isolated incidents, ... At the very least, the attacks demonstrated the burning hatred inculcated into communist airman that is bound to lead to such incidents; at the very worst, they must be regarded as manifestations of a deliberate policy" to intimidate western Germany on the eve of voting to ratify the European Defense Community. (36)

Continuing a skeptical, unyielding line of thought, some newspapers interpreted the incidents as a Soviet signal, "Malenkov, ... was saying to the West in effect: the new regime is solid, tough and fissureless. The satellites are loyal to Moscow, and will take their orders ... witness the attack by Czech planes." (37)

Even though American strategic reconnaissance aircraft were not involved in these air confrontations, the net effect of the aerial violence limited the President's response to Malenkov's peace overtures. Although Eisenhower was personally wary of "Russians bearing gifts," adverse public opinion prevented him from exploring options even if he had wanted. With American troops still fighting and dying in Korea and U.S. fliers subject to unprovoked attacks, a move by the President to achieve detente would have been political suicide.

A Soviet attack on a SAC RB-50 reconnaissance aircraft on March 15, 1953, dashed conciliation hopes of the superpowers. Occurring only a week after the RAF Lincoln shoot down, the RB-50's defensive fire warded off a MiG-15 after the jet's initial firing pass. According to an Air Force spokesman, the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) aircraft was engaged in a "weather reconnaissance" flight over international waters near Siberia. Sources placed the plane twenty-five miles off the coast of Kamchatka, about 100 miles northeast of Petropavlovsk. (38)

In response to a "vigorous" U.S. protest note, the Soviet Union charged the American government with conducting "premeditated" violations of Soviet territory. (39) Nine days after the incident, the Soviet government released the following note:

In accordance with verified data, it has been established that an American bomber of the B-29 type violated on the 15 of March at 11:57 time in the district of Cape Krestovoi [the southern part of the Kamchatka Peninsula] the state frontier of the U.S.S.R. and flew over the territory of Kamchatka up to seventy kilometers ... At 12:26 the American aircraft B-29 type appeared again and violated the state frontier of the U.S.S.R. northeast of the town of Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka in the area of the village of Zhupanovo.

Good weather, which in both cases enabled the crew to carry out visual reconnaissance on a large scale, excluded the possibility of loss of orientation and confirmed that both cases ... were clearly of a premeditated character. (40)

The U.S. Air Force countered the Soviet claim with a detailed explanation of the aircraft's location and mission. An official spokesman announced that the aircraft's position was 54 degrees 2 minutes North latitude, 161 degrees 4 minutes East longitude when attacked, roughly twenty-five miles off the coast of Kamchatka. (41) The mission originated at Eielson AFB, Alaska, and conducted a routine weather reconnaissance mission to enhance the alert status of SAC's heavy bombers. According to Air Force policy, these daily weather flights were to approach the Soviet Union no closer than twenty-five miles. (42)

In a move that surprised many, Senator Ralph C. Flanders, Republican of Vermont, labeled the Air Force explanation as "preposterous." He charged the Air Force with "waging psychological warfare with the people of the United States." Flanders reasoned, "there is no need to go within twenty-five miles of Kamchatka to look for weather. There is just as much weather fifty or 100 miles out." According to his information, the reconnaissance bomber was not scouting for weather; this was a cover for another "useful" mission. Flanders summed up his criticism:

The serious thing about the incident is the false report of the Air Force.... It tended and was probably intended to influence public opinion by making the incident into an act of aggression. In publishing this false report the Air Force has been guilty, in effect of waging psychological warfare on the people of the United States. (43)

Adding to this rebuke of Air Force actions, Senator Warren G. Magnuson, Democrat from Washington, questioned the aircraft's location. Why was the RB- (50) so far away from American territory? Granted, there could be no excuse for the MiG's firing, but since the SAC aircraft was (600) miles west of the United States, he could understand the Soviet reaction. (44)

Despite these voices of protest in American domestic politics, the cycle of hostility continued unabated. Reports of Russian reconnaissance overflights of Alaska and Canada combined with the aerial incidents to justify even more extensive aerial surveillance. (45) The frequent Soviet shoot downs proved Communist hostility, whereas Western patrols increased Russian fears. Consequently, even though a ceasefire in Korea removed one major source of East-West friction, this cycle of hostility caused by reconnaissance incidents prevented other forms of detente.

On July 29, 1953, two days after the ending of hostilities in Korea, Russian fighters downed an RB-50 of the 343rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS) over the Sea of Japan, about ninety miles southeast of Vladivostok. (46) Attached to the 91st SRS at Yokota AB, Japan, the RB-50 conducted a "routine" electronic reconnaissance mission along the Soviet coast continuing the practice established during the Korean War. (47) According to Captain John E. Roche, the copilot and lone survivor of the crew of sixteen, the Soviets attacked the plane without warning from the rear. Although the RB-50's gunners fired a few bursts in self-defense, the MiGs raked the slower reconnaissance bomber with cannon fire causing it to burst into flames. (48)

The Soviet Government announced that "a four-motored bomber of the type B-50" violated the Soviet coast twice, at Cape Gamova and then at Askold Island, near Vladivostok. When challenged by two Soviet fighters on defensive patrol, the American intruder opened fire, seriously damaging one of the planes. As a result, the remaining Russian interceptor counter attacked and the American bomber "disappeared in the direction of the sea." (49)

Rejecting Ambassador Charles E. Bohlen's note of protest, the Soviets diverted attention from the RB-50 incident. They claimed American fighters "invaded" the airspace of Communist China in the last hours of the Korean conflict and shot down a Soviet passenger plane, killing the six crew members and fifteen passengers. (50) Immediately, U.S. analysts linked the two incidents, speculating that the Soviets downed the RB--50 in revenge or simply manufactured the story as a ploy to shift public attention from their act. (51)

Despite the Soviet charge, American newsmen pressed their attack on Communist brutality. A New York Times editorial condemned the Russian protest as a mere propaganda move:

All Soviet history shows Moscow's belief that a good attack is the best defense--in the diplomatic as well as the military arena. That this maxim is again being applied seems the most likely explanation for the Soviet charge ... that American planes shot down a Russian transport flying over Chinese territory. One can hardly blame Moscow for preferring to press this charge rather than defend the cold-blooded murder committed last week by the Soviet pilots who shot down an American B-50 plane over the Pacific Ocean forty miles from Soviet soil. (52)

Not all Americans blamed the Soviets for violent aerial confrontations. Some questioned whether the U.S. provoked Soviet hostility. Others doubted the wisdom of flying "routine" missions near Communist territory as shown by a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

In regard to the all-too-frequent incidents in which American planes are shot down by Russian airmen, hasn't it happened enough in the past few years for the United States to realize that there is a possibility of the same thing happening again and again ? ... I can see no point in sending a plane on a training flight near enough to Soviet territory to be in danger of attack. This policy apparently needlessly endangers the crew of such planes to say nothing of the ill-feeling and loss of prestige we generally suffer after such an incident. (53)

Unfortunately, safety concerns were not paramount in an era of worry over Soviet military capability. Despite the mounting losses, policy makers sought security from surprise attack and technological breakthroughs.

Unfortunately, further aerial confrontations hampered Eisenhower's attempt to moderate East-West tensions taking advantage of a window of opportunity made possible by Stalin's death. Over the ten months following the Korean armistice, three more U.S. reconnaissance planes were intercepted. The cycle of hostility continued; mistrust, provocation, self-righteousness, and further enmity characterized super power relations. Vigilant newsmen, concerned political leaders, concerned military commanders, and an aroused citizenry demanded that Eisenhower maintain an uncompromising position in the face of nascent Soviet peace overtures. They believed Soviet actions required toughness, regardless of Moscow's peaceful words.

On September 4, 1954, just over a month after the incident in the South China Sea, the Russians downed a U.S. Navy P2V Neptune patrol plane over the Sea of Japan. Navy sources placed the attack over international waters forty-four miles off the coast of Siberia and 120 miles southeast of Vladivosktok. An RB-50 coordinated the rescue of nine of the ten crew members. Claiming the Neptune was making a routine patrol flight from its base at Atsugi, Japan, the official statement did not elaborate upon the nature of the aircraft's mission. (54)

Consistent with previous aerial confrontations, the two superpowers exchanged fiery, contradictory notes. The United States Government protested "this wanton and unprovoked attack on a United States Navy aircraft engaged in a peaceful mission over the high seas." On the other hand, the Soviet note charged, "a twin-engine military aircraft of the Neptune type with identification marks of the United States Air Force violated the state frontier of the U.S.S.R. in the area of Cape Ostrovnoi, east of Port Nakhodka." (55)

Along with the diplomatic exchange, American newsmen continued a hard line against Soviet barbarism and several U.S. senators called for harsh diplomatic measures. A powerful Republican, Senator William F. Knowland, insisted upon the U.S. breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviets: "Just another note from our State Department to the Kremlin hierarchy will not impress these uncivilized rulers nor the Russian people ... that this new attack upon an American plane confirms Communist arrogance and aggressiveness to the point where the breaking of diplomatic relations is justified." (56)

Instead of severing ties, the Eisenhower Administration brought the matter before the United Nations Security Council. For the first time, the United States invoked Article 27, Chapter VI of the U.N. Charter calling for "Pacific Settlement of Disputes." American leaders realized the Soviet Union could, and probably would, employ its veto if faced with an unfavorable decision; however, the U.S. believed that bringing the matter before the Security Council might influence the Russian response in future confrontations. (57) In his presentation, U.N. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. emphasized the U.S. desire to settle the dispute peacefully and that the United States was prepared to negotiate "in good faith--face to face or through the International Court of Justice." (58)

Although the U.N. presentation did little to resolve the problem, the American media praised Eisenhower's moderate course of action. Breaking off diplomatic relations would gain little and lose even the limited ability to observe the Soviets first hand. Moreover, the harsh move would worry nonaligned nations over the possibility that the United States might be preparing for war. (59) Additionally, Eisenhower's course of action in the U.N. appealed to America's belief in legal justice. Although most observers acknowledged that cases before the U.N. and the International Court of Justice would not accomplish anything in the short run, leaders hoped to influence future Soviet actions and to score points with neutral nations. (60)

A month later, another shoot down of an Air Force RB-29 stirred the already turbulent waters of East-West diplomacy. On November 7, 1954 (Tokyo time), two Soviet fighters fired on an RB-29 from the 91st SRS over Hokkaido Island, Japan. The crew bailed out as the burning bomber plunged to earth near the town of Kenebetsu. Nine of the ten crew members survived the jump, although one perished when his parachute lines became enmeshed. Based at Yokota Air Base, Japan, the RB-29 had been conducting a routine photo-mapping mission. (61)

The U.S. State Department launched another protest, asserting that the aircraft did not cross the MacArthur Line, the territorial demarcation between Hokkaido and the Kurile Islands. Supporting this claim, the Air Force located the crash site ten miles inland and about thirty miles west of the Nemuro Strait, which separates Hokkaido from the Soviet-held Habomai Islands. (62) Furthermore, the U.S. State Department backed Japan's claim to the Habomai Islands, despite the presence of Soviet troops on them. Thus, even had the reconnaissance plane strayed off course, it had a legal right to be over the islands. (63)

The Soviet Union reacted in a predictable manner. Rejecting both the American assertion of the plane's position and the U.S. support of Japanese territorial sovereignty for the Habomai Islands, the Soviets lodged a "resolute" protest with the U.S. government. The Soviet note claimed a different sequence of events:

According to established facts, on Nov. 7 this year at 13 hours and 20 minutes local time ... a four-engined military aircraft of the B-29 type with identification marks of the U.S. Air Force violated the state border of the Soviet Union in the area of Tanfilyev Island (Kurile Islands) and continued to invade the airspace of the U.S.S.R.... the American aircraft was intercepted by Soviet fighters, ... when the Soviet fighters approached, the American aircraft opened fire on them. In view of this unprovoked action of the American intruder, the Soviet aircraft were compelled to retaliate the fire after which the American aircraft left the air space of the Soviet Union and flew off in a southerly direction. (64)

In sharp contrast to the harsh official statements, the leaders of the two superpowers muted the crisis atmosphere. President Eisenhower hoped to reduce tensions and persuade the Soviets to back his plan for an international pool of atomic energy resources. (65) Another wave of Cold War rhetoric threatened this proposal. Therefore, at his scheduled press conference, Eisenhower acknowledged that the boundary in question "was apparently not definitely defined"; he pointed out that the agreement with the Russians during the war failed to define the southern boundary of the Kuriles. (66) Consequently, although the President believed the United States was the aggrieved nation, he moderated the U.S. position in an effort to further the cause of peace. (67)

Matching Eisenhower's tone, Soviet leaders adopted a non-belligerent stance. At a Moscow diplomatic reception, Soviet Premier Georgi M. Malenkov and First Secretary of the Politburo Nikita S. Khrushchev praised Eisenhower in glowing terms. Representative Victor Wickersham, a Democrat from Oklahoma, quoted Malenkov as saying, "We have great admiration for Eisenhower and we want to send through you to him and the American people our best wishes and desire to live in peace." In addition, Wickersham relayed a similar statement from Khrushchev, who considered Ike "an honest soldier and true partner ... we have got the most wonderful recollection of America as partner and friend in the fight against Hitler." (68)

Despite this apparent thaw in Cold War attitudes, the cycle of hostility continued to influence U.S. foreign policy. Senator William F. Knowland resumed his attack on the mild U.S. response to Soviet aggression. He called for stronger measures and predicted more incidents if the United States "did not do more than merely send notes to Moscow." Furthermore, he found "considerable significance" in the timing of the incident, noting that it occurred on the eve of Japanese Premier Shigeru Yoshida's visit to Washington. (69)

Adding to Knowland's comments, many newspapers viewed the new Soviet line with hesitation. They cited the RB-29 incident as another example where Soviet actions spoke louder than their words:

The Soviets concluded their two-day celebration of the Thirty-seventh anniversary of the Bolshevist [sic] revolution by staging two events which illustrate again the difference between their words and deeds. In Moscow they gave a banquet for foreign diplomats in the Great Kremlin Palace at which sweetness and light were present. But some seven thousand miles away, at the other end of the Soviet empire, their pilots held a celebration of their own by shooting down another American plane--the ninth to be destroyed in fifteen Communist attacks on American aircraft--and adding another American life to the fifty that had previously been taken. (70)

The willingness of the superpowers to moderate their fiery charges and counter-charges in the November 1954, RB-29 shoot down suggested a change in Cold War thinking. Although still wary of Soviet hostility, President Eisenhower recognized the need for reduced tensions. Apparently, Premier Malenkov and First Secretary Khrushchev came to a similar decision although their basic mistrust of western powers remained. International incidents posed by shoot downs of reconnaissance aircraft still acted as a barrier in the path of detente; but, by late 1954, overriding strategic concerns dictated a move toward breaking the cycle of hostility.

Although incidents involving strategic aerial reconnaissance only formed one aspect of the Cold War, the constant reminder of the foe's hostility shaped the strategic culture of the time. Convinced of the need for intelligence, military leaders convinced the Truman and Eisenhower administrations to authorize dangerous and provocative aerial reconnaissance missions. Moreover, by 1954 technological breakthroughs resulting in the Lockheed U-2 promised both superior intelligence collection and the prospect of undetected overhead photography that would reduce the cycle of hostility established. Both American and Soviet leaders sought opportunities to reduce tension and open diplomatic dialogue. Still, as the later history of the U-2 and the shootdown of Francis Gary Powers showed, strategic aerial reconnaissance proved to be more than an instrument of policy; it influenced the policy and shaped the context faced by policymakers. Equally important, aerial incidents shaped the perceptions of the public; in the shootdowns and aerial jousting both Americans and Russians found evidence of the hostility of their opponents.


(1.) The PB4Y-2 Privateer was a Navy version of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator of World War II fame. Alan G. Kirk, "Telegram: Ambassador in Soviet Union to Secretary of State, Moscow, April," 1950 in Everett Gleason and Fredrick Aandahl, gen. ed., Foreign Relations of the United States 1950, (FRUS 1950) Vol. IV: Central and Eastern Europe; The Soviet Union, Rogers P. Churchill, Charles S. Sampson, and William Z. Slanney, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1980, pp. 1141-42.

(2.) Ibid., pp. 1140-41.

(3.) Electronic intelligence collection missions, known as "ferret" flights sought the location and technical information on Soviet radar defenses. For detailed accounts of the origins of U.S. strategic aerial reconnaissance see John T. Farquhar, A Need to Know: The Role of Air Force Reconnaissance in War Planning, 1945-1953 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala: Air University Press, 2004); Robert S. Hopkins, "U.S. Strategic Aerial Reconnaissance and Cold War, 1945-1961," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1998); R. Cargill Hall and Clayton D. Laurie, eds., Early Cold War Overflights 1950-1956 Symposium Proceedings, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Historian, National Reconnaissance Office, 2003); William E. Burrows, By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001); and Joe Santucci, "The Lens of Power: Aerial Reconnaissance and Diplomacy in the Airpower Century," (Ph.D. dissertation, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala, 2013). Robert Hopkins and Joe Santucci deserve special notice for their fine work in exploring different political dimensions and superior diplomatic perspectives of the consequences of strategic aerial reconnaissance. Additionally, R. Cargill Hall deserves recognition as the premier authority on US overflights of the Soviet Union during the early Cold War. He and Clayton D. Laurie organized an academic conference on the subject in February 2001, and published its proceedings under the auspices of the Office of the Historian, National Reconnaissance Office, Washington, D.C.

(4.) Initially written as the "circle of hostility," Dr. Sanu Kainikara's The Bolt of the Blue: Air Power in the Cycle of Strategies describes the cyclical strategic nature of air power as an instrument of policy that honed my thinking. Sanu Kainikara, The Bolt From the Blue: Air Power in the Cycle of Strategies (Canberra, Australia: Air Power Development Centre, 2013).

(5.) Adm. Forrest Sherman, Memorandum from Chief of Naval Operations to Secretary of the Navy, Subject: Attack on United States Aircraft by Soviet Aircraft, April, 14, 1950, FRUS 1950, Vol. IV, pp. 1142-43.

(6.) "McCormick Urges Break in Relations," New York Herald Tribune, Apr. 22, 1950, p. 1. Democratic National Committee Library Clipping File (DNC), Foreign Affairs File, Box 154, Folder: Russo-American Incident over Baltic Area, April 1950, Harry S Truman Presidential Library, Independence, MO (HSTL).

(7.) "Baltic Plane Mystery," Washington Post, 28 April 1950, n.p., DNC, Foreign Affairs File, Box 153, Folder: Incident of U.S. Plane Shot Down in Baltic, April 1950, HSTL.

(8.) 'Washington Merry Go Round," New York Mirror, May 9, 1950, n.p., Ibid.

(9.) Walter Lippman, "The Baltic Affair," Washington Post, Apr. 24, 1950, n. p., DNC, Foreign Affairs File, Box 153, Folder: Incident of U.S. Plane Shot Down in Baltic, April 1950, HSTL.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Gen. Omar Bradley, Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, Subject: Special Electronic Airborne Search Operations (SESP), May 5, 1950, President's Secretary's File, General File: Bradley, Omar N., HSTL.

(13.) Bradley, SESP Memorandum, May 5, 1950, HSTL; Louis Johnson, Memorandum to the President, Subject: Special Electronic Search Operations (SESP), May 24, 1950, President's Secretary's File, General File: Bradley, Omar N., HSTL.

(14.) "U.S. Asks Return of Property Seized in 1951 Plane Incident," Department of State Bulletin 27(December 22, 1952): 980; New York Times, November 21, 1951, 1:7. [Hereafter cited as DSB and NYT.]

(15.) "Shot in the Balkans," NYT, November 22, 1951, 30:3.

(16.) NYT, December 3, 1951, 15:2-6.

(17.) NYT, December 5, 1951, 34:1.

(18.) NYT, December 29, 1951, 1:6.

(19.) NYT, December 21, 1951, 10:3.

(20.) Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 129-31.

(21.) "U.S.S.R. Charged with Misrepresenting Facts in Bomber Incident," DSB 27(October 27, 1952): p. 650.

(22.) "Soviet Note of October 12," DSB 27(October 27, 1952): p. 649; "Russian Protest Note Admits Shots at B-29 Lost Off Japan," NYT, October 13, 1952, pp. 1:23.

(23.) Ibid.; "U.S. Bids Soviet Pay for B-29 and Return of Any Survivors," NYT, October 18, 1953, pp. 1:3.

(24.) "U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.," NYT, October 15, 1952, 30:2.

(25.) NYT, October 19, 1952, pp. 9:6.

(26.) "U.S. Plane Downed Near China Coast; Rescuers in Crash," NYT, Jan. 19, 1953, pp. 1:1.

(27.) Henry R. Lieberman, "Formosa Patrols Face New Dangers," NYT, Jan. 24, 1953, IV, pp. 7:7.

(28.) Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower, vol. 2: The President (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 42; NYT, Jan. 21, 1953, pp. 20:3.

(29.) Quoted in Robert F. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, rev. ed. Office of Air Force History, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1983), p. 648.

(30.) "Strong Protests Made Against Czechoslovak Attack on U.S. Aircraft," DSB 27(Mar. 30, 1953): p. 474; "2 Czech MiG's Down American Fighter in U.S. German Zone," NYT, Mar. 11, 1953, pp. 1:1.

(31.) Five aviators died in the crash and two succumbed later from wounds suffered. "Soviet MiG's Down R.A.F. Plane, Kill 5 in Berlin Air Lane," NYT, Mar. 13, 1953, pp. 1:1.

(32.) NYT, Mar. 20, 1953, pp. 1:2.

(33.) NYT, April 1, 1953, pp. 11:3.

(34.) Dwight D. Eisenhower, Public Papers of the Presidents 1953 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1960), p. 104; James Reston, "Eisenhower Voices Conciliatory View on U.S.-Soviet Ties," NYT, Mar. 20, 1953, pp. 1:1.

(35.) C. L. Sulzberger, "Europe Clings to Hope of Let-Up in Cold War, NYT, Mar. 15, 1953, IV, pp. 3:6.

(36.) "Aggression Over Germany," NYT, Mar. 13, 1953, pp. 25:2.

(37.) NYT Mar. 15, 1953, IV, pp. 1:5-6.

(38.) "Soviet Attack on U.S. Plane in North Pacific Ocean," DSB 28(Apr. 20, 1953): p. 577; Austin Stevens, "U.S. Plane Fired On By MIG Off Siberia; Replies to Attack," NYT, Mar. 18, 1953, pp. 1:1; NYT, Mar. 24, 1953, pp. 1:2.

(39.) Ibid.; "U.S. Demands Soviet Punish Flier for Attack Off Siberia," AWT, Mar. 19, 1953, pp. 1:2; "Soviet Charges U.S. Bomber Was Found Spying on Siberia," NYT, Mar. 24, 1953, pp. 1:2.

(40.) Ibid.; "Text of Soviet Note," NYT, Mar. 24, 1953, pp. 10:4.

(41.) NYT, Mar. 18, 1953, pp. 1:1.

(42.) Although official Air Force record of this incident remains classified, the RB-50G was the electronic intelligence version of the B-50 bomber.

(43.) "Flanders Attacks Air Force on MIG," NYT, Mar. 21.1953, pp. 3:5.

(44.) NYT, Mar. 18, 1953, pp. 3:6.

(45.) "Infrequent Soviet Flights Over Alaska Are Reported," NYT, Mar. 17, 1953, pp. 8:6.

(46.) "U.S. Strongly Protests Soviet Attack on U.S. Airplane," DSB 29(Aug. 10, 1953): p. 179; History of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, July 1953, p. 2, Archives Branch, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. (AFHRA).

(47.) Bruce M. Bailey, "We See All": A History of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, 1947-19671 [Tucson, AZ]: 55th ELINT Association Historian, 1982, p. 46.

(48.) Ibid., p. 47; History of the 91st SRS, July 1953, pp. 5-6, AFHRA.

(49.) "U.S. Note of January 26 Regarding RB-50 Incident," DSB 30(Mar. 15, 1954): p. 409; "Soviet Fighters Down U.S. Plane; Border Breach Alleged; 16 Missing," NYT, Jul. 31, 1953, pp. 2:2.

(50.) "Soviet Note of August 11, 1953," DSB 30(Mar. 15, 1954): p. 412; Alvin Shuster, "Moscow Note Says U.S. Flier Down a Russian airliner," NYT Aug. 1, 1953, pp. 1:1.

(51.) NYT, Aug. 2, 1953, IV, pp. 2:5.

(52.) "Two Plane Incidents," NYT, Aug. 3, 1953, pp. 16:2.

(53.) J. M. Owens, Letter to the Editor, NYT Aug. 5, 1953.

(54.) "Unprovoked Attacks by Soviet Aircraft," DSB 31(Sep. 20, 1954): p. 417; "Soviet Jets Down U.S. Patrol Plane Off Siberia Coast," NYT, Sep. 1954, pp. 1:8, 3:2.

(55.) "Soviet Attack on U.S. Plane in Sea of Japan," DSB 31(Sep. 13, 1954): p. 364; "First United States Note," NYT, Sep. 6, 1954, pp. 3:3-4; "Soviet Note," Ibid.

(56.) "Senator Knowland's Wire," NYT, Sep. 6, 1954, pp. 3:6.

57. "U.N. Council Opens Plane Case Today," AWT, Sep. 10, 1954, pp. 5:4.

(58.) A. M. Rosenthal, "U.N. Seeks Action by World Court on Downed Plane," AWT, Sep. 11, 1954, pp. 1:1.

(59.) "Relations with Russia," AWT, Sep. 9, 1954, pp. 30:2.

(60.) "U.N. Council Opens Plane Case Today," AWT, Sep. 10.1954, pp. 5:4.

(61.) "Attack on U.S. Aircraft by Soviet Planes," DSB 31(Nov. 19, 1954): p. 811; William J. Jorden, "U.S. Photo Plane Downed in Japan by MIG Fighters," AWT, Nov. 8, 1954, pp. 1:8.

(62.) Ibid.

(63.) Eisenhower, Public Papers 1954, 1080; Note 541, FRUS, Vol XIV, Part 2,1216; "U.S. Note," AWT, Nov. 9, 1954, pp. 3:3.

(64.) "Soviet Note," AWT, Nov. 9, 1954, pp. 3:4.

(65.) AWT, Nov. 9, 1954, pp. 14:4-5.

(66.) Eisenhower, Public Papers 1954, p. 1032; "President's Press Conference," NYT, Nov. 11, 1954, pp. 20:3.

(67.) Ibid.; NYT, Nov. 9, 1954, pp. 14:4-5.

(68.) "Eisenhower Is Praised at Party in Kremlin," AWT, Nov. 9, 1954, pp. 14:4.

(69.) "Knowland For Stronger Action," AWT, Nov. 8, 1954, pp. 4:5.

(70.) "Soviet Words and Deeds," NYT, Nov. 9, 1954, pp. 26:1.

Dr. John T. Farquhar graduated from the Air Force Academy and flew as a navigator in the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft with the Strategic Air Command. With a Master's Degree in U.S. Diplomatic History from Creighton University and a Ph.D. in American Military History from The Ohio State University, Dr. Farquhar has taught courses in military history, air power, and military & strategic studies at the United States Air Force Academy. In 2014, he published "Arctic Linchpin: The Polar Concept in American Air Atomic Strategy, 1946-1948."
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Author:Farquhar, John T.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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