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on 24 April 2014
Published in 1986, this remarkable book helped establish its author – Michael Beschloss – as one of the most reliable and respected ‘cold war’ historians writing and researching in the field.

Using the May Day downing of the U2 as the core for his narrative, Beschloss skilfully examines all of the diplomatic, political and military responses that flowed from it.

Long before the mid-point of the book, Francis Gary Powers and the mangled wreckage his of aeroplane have all but disappeared from the story. In their place, the author brings Eisenhower, Khrushchev and an entire galaxy of Soviet and US personalities to centre-stage and the reader is treated to some of the most amazing political jousting ever to make it into print.

The ‘stage’ upon which the author’s drama is played-out is the Paris Summit of May 16, 1960.
The ‘big four’ of Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Macmillan and de Gaulle were scheduled to meet and there were high hopes that a relaxation of cold-war tensions could be achieved.

But, on the Soviet Union’s hugely symbolic national day of celebration – May 1st – two weeks before the Summit was due, the U2 was shot down deep inside Soviet territory
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The ensuing war of words between the Soviets and the US is wonderfully captured by the author. His sources are impeccable and he conveys the strutting and posturing of all and sundry very well indeed.

This book is much more than an account of a spy-plane being captured. Reading ‘Mayday’ provides a stark illustration of just how politicians, diplomats and military men, of all stripes, are swift to denounce their opponents for doing something that they, themselves, are doing!

Beschloss exposes the thin ice that both Eisenhower and Khrushchev were standing on when they launched into their bickering.

Like all US presidents, Ike required ‘plausible deniability’ for covert acts. He had authorised the flights but, in the run-up to the summit, he dare not be caught as the instigator of them. In order to ensure that the flights could be passed-off as ‘civilian’, rather than ‘military’, he had the CIA fly the missions.

But when Powers survived the crash, the President had an insurmountable dilemma. If he acknowledged his authorship of the missions, Khrushchev could – and did – accuse him of duplicity. If, on the other hand, the President ‘plausibly denied’ any involvement, Khrushchev could – and did – accuse him of not being in control of his own agencies. For Ike, it was a ‘no-win’ situation.

Yet, as we read on, Beschloss shows that Khrushchev also had a problem.

The author demonstrates that the Soviet Premier had known of the spy flights for a very long time but had been impotent to stop them. If his impotence had been widely known among his own people (let alone the Politburo), his tenure as an effective leader and defender of his country would have been seriously compromised. The Soviet leader kept very quiet about the incursions; that is, until Powers was shot down. There could be no denying the flights after that.

The author shows how the Premier’s political skill was able to turn everything around. Khrushchev could – and did – behave as though this had been the very first violation of his air-space and ‘his men’ had bagged a spy at the first attempt. By throwing the mud at ‘the Imperialists’, Nikita ‘the corn grower’, seemed to have won the moral high-ground.

Michael Beschloss spreads-out the chess-board and shows how the pieces moved themselves around it. It’s a remarkable story.
For readers who have an interest in the cold war years, this fine book is a must have. Michael Beschloss captures the whole thing in microcosm with this one event.

The book reads like a political thriller and there really are some moments of farce contained in the pages, too.
Indispensable for readers of the cold war.

Barry Ryder
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