The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What a Cold War spy-plane crisis teaches us about China’s balloon antics

A U-2 spy plane. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man, File)
4 min

Richard Aldous, a professor at Bard College, is the author of “Macmillan, Eisenhower and the Cold War.

Echoes of the Cold War are everywhere right now. The diplomatic row about an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon spotted over Montana brings to mind the U-2 crisis of 1960. An American spy plane downed over the Soviet Union brought the Paris summit between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev crashing down with it. Lessons from that crisis tell us two things. That unexpected events can destroy years of diplomatic effort; and that the Chinese are likely now scrambling in a panic to get their story straight.

By 1960, the United States had been flying U-2 spy planes into Soviet airspace since the mid-1950s. Both sides knew it was happening, but as the CIA’s Richard Bissell said, the plane was so light there was only “one chance in a million” that it would survive a hit. So when Air Force Capt. Francis Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, everyone assumed that the plane was gone and the pilot dead. NASA put out a statement saying it was a weather plane that had gone off course. Only when the Soviets triumphantly paraded Powers and bits of the wreckage in Moscow did Washington realize the game was up.

Sebastian Mallaby: China’s alleged spy balloon is the perfect symbol of its clumsiness

Eisenhower and Khrushchev were due to meet at the Paris summit on May 16 — an event it had taken more than two years to organize. Both men still attended, but the Soviet leader demanded an apology from Eisenhower. He “tried to pulverize Ike,” the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, wrote. Eisenhower said later he almost choked while trying to keep his cool. With no apology forthcoming, the whole thing was called off. It was a humiliation for Eisenhower and dashed his hopes for a breakthrough in the Cold War at the end of his presidency.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, postponing his trip to China, decided not to take the Khrushchev route in administering an in-person dressing down to his Chinese counterpart. Representatives of the People’s Republic of China on the other hand are doing a passable impression of their American counterparts in 1960. In a carbon copy of NASA’s statement during the U-2 crisis, Beijing has said the balloon flying over Montana was used for weather research and had strayed off course.

C. Douglas Dillon, No. 2 at the State Department in 1960, is said to have audibly gasped when he was told about the NASA statement hitting the news wires. He knew it was a lie and that “the Russians would jump us on it.” There will be a Chinese version of Dillon gasping somewhere in Beijing right now, because the calculation for the Chinese government after its own statement today is the same as in 1960. If this object now turns out to be a spy balloon, then the Chinese government will have been caught out in an obvious lie.

President Xi Jinping faces the same unpalatable choice Eisenhower did. Blame someone lower down the chain of command and admit that you don’t know what’s going on in your own government. Otherwise, take the blame and accept the international consequences. Eisenhower believed owning up was the only viable option. The alternative, Vice President Richard M. Nixon agreed, “would be to imply that war could start without the president’s knowledge.”

Guest Opinion: The Chinese balloon is hardly alone in watching America from the sky

On May 11, Eisenhower acknowledged without apology what most had already guessed: that “ever since the beginning of my administration, I have issued directives to gather, in every feasible way, the information required to protect the United States and the free world against surprise attack and to enable them to make effective preparations for defense.” Such measures were “a distasteful but vital necessity,” he admitted. If the Soviets did not like it, then they should end their own “fetish of secrecy and concealment.”

Historians by and large have praised Eisenhower for his integrity in taking personal responsibility at a dangerous moment. The concern about the historical parallel with 1960, however, is that the U-2 crisis marked the beginning of one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. Khrushchev pulverized President John F. Kennedy at the Vienna summit the following year, much as he had attempted to do to Eisenhower in Paris. The Berlin Wall crisis that summer and the missile crisis the following year brought the two superpowers close to a nuclear exchange. Spying might well be a “distasteful but vital necessity,” but it is also one fraught with danger. Kennedy concluded after the missile crisis that it was vital for him to be able to speak directly to Khrushchev in person, day or night.

The secretary of state is not traveling, but it might be time for President Biden or President Xi to pick up the phone to stop events from escalating.