The history of the Cold War is littered with what-ifs, and in Diplomacy Shot Down: The U-2 Crisis and Eisenhower's Aborted Mission to Moscow, 1959–1960 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020), Professor of History, E. Bruce Geelhoed of Ball State University explores one of the most intriguing: What if the Soviets had not shot down the American U-2 spy plane and President Dwight D. Eisenhower had visited the Soviet Union in 1960 as planned?
In August 1959, with his second term nearing its end, Eisenhower made the surprise announcement that he and Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev would visit each other’s countries as a means of “thawing some of the ice” of the Cold War. Khrushchev’s trip to the United States in September 1959 resulted in plans for a four-power summit involving Great Britain and France, and for Eisenhower’s visit to Russia in early summer 1960. Then, in May 1960, the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 surveillance plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.
The downing of Powers’s plane was, in Professor Geelhoed’s unorthodox recounting of this episode in Cold War history, not just a diplomatic crisis. The ensuing collapse of the summit and the subsequent cancelation of Eisenhower’s trip to the Soviet Union amounted to a critical missed opportunity for improved US-Soviet relations at a crucial juncture in the Cold War.
In a blow-by-blow description of the diplomatic overtures, the U-2 incident, and the aftermath, Diplomacy Shot Down draws upon Eisenhower’s projected itinerary and unmade speeches and statements, as well as the American and international press corps’ preparations for covering the aborted visit, to give readers a sense of what might have been. Eisenhower’s prestige within the Soviet Union was so great, Geelhoed imaginatively observes, that the trip, if it had happened, could well have led to a détente in the increasingly dangerous US-Soviet relationship.
Instead, the cancellation of Ike’s visit led to a heightening of tensions that played out around the globe and nearly guaranteed that the “missile gap” would reemerge as an issue in the 1960 presidential campaign. A detailed account, based almost entirely on American sources of an episode that some would say helped to define the Cold War for a generation, Diplomacy Shot Down is, in its narrative, something rarer still—a behind-the-scenes look at history in the unmaking.
Charles Coutinho Ph. D. of the Royal Historical Society, received his doctorate from New York University. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written for Chatham House’s International Affairs, and the University of Rouen’s online periodical Cercles.
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