In 1956, the US Air Force bought 48 single-seater models of Lockheed’s U-2 spy plane, and five 2-seater models. The planes flew too high for Soviet anti-aircraft missiles or fighters, and had free reign after 1957. They flew from bases in Japan, Turkey, and Britain, staying in the air for 12 hours, and mapping and photographing the Russian land mass, air and missile bases, and factories.
In 1960, as President Eisenhower prepared for a summit with Russia’s Khruschev in Paris, the CIA pressed for one last U-2 mission over the Soviet Union to establish whether there was a missile plant or base near the Urals. It was one mission too many.
On May 5 as the summit was about to begin, Khruschev announced that a U-2 had been shot downover Soviet territory. The Americans denied that the plane had been on a spy mission, but Khruschev produced the pilot, Gary Powers, along with his suicide needle, cameras, and other evidence.
Eisenhower accepted responsibility and declared in Paris that the spy flights had taken place with his full knowledge. Khruschev insisted on an American apology, a promise not to do it again, and that ‘the criminals be punished’.
France’s DeGaulle pointed out that modern technology was making sovereignty over a state’s higher airspace a more and more elusive concept. He pointed out that a Soviet satellite was orbiting over France.
In the end, the Paris summit never took place. A month later the Soviet delegation walked out of the Geneva disarmament talks.
By late 1961, the U-2 flights and the first of the American spy satellites made it clear that the US had overwhelming superiority in the ability to deliver nuclear weapons, even if not in warheads.
In 1962, U-2 flights played a critical role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.