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How the U-2 crisis chilled superpower relations

Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev and the U-2 Affair, by Michael R. Beschloss. New York: Harper & Row. 544 pp. $19.95. Exactly 26 years ago today, on May 1, 1960, an American spy plane was shot down by the Soviets, chilling the slightly warming relations between the superpowers and giving the world a new term: U-2. In ``Mayday,'' Michael R. Beschloss, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. and author of ``Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance,'' presents a vivid picture of the incident with all its attendant complexities and complications.

Still more valuably, he has done a remarkable job of providing the historical context in which this unfortunate event took place. Indeed, at times it seems that the heart of this book lies in its portrait of the Eisenhower presidency and, in particular, of Eisenhower's conduct of foreign policy, rather than in the exposition of the U-2 crisis itself, clear and gripping though it is. And rightly so, I think, for the ripples in the pool of United States-Soviet relations were finally far more significant than the particular rock which shattered the calm just as the Soviet Union was celebrating its May Day festival in 1960.

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We are reminded by this book that the incident took place at a time when the Western democracies felt that their national sovereignties were being violated almost hourly by the presence of Russian satellites (capable of taking photographs) orbiting above their territory.

As yet unequipped to retaliate in kind, the US had to be content to overfly the USSR at altitudes sufficiently high to avoid (they devoutly hoped) being shot down: hence the U-2 flights from Pakistan to Norway, photographing en route a large chunk of hitherto inaccessible Soviet territory.

Beschloss holds no particular brief in recounting the attitudes on both sides. As befits a historian, he is content to present the alarming antics of Nikita S. Khrushchev and the choleric blunderings of Dwight D. Eisenhower without overinterpreting their significance. The reader can see for himself the tragedy of lost opportunities for peace, the uncertainties and fear engendered by Khrushchev's torpedoing of the 1960 Paris Summit Conference, and, according to Beschloss, the obstinacy, rigidity, and insensitivity of the Americans that allowed a short-term intelligence gain to get in the way of a profound easing of East-West tensions.

``Mayday'' serves as a fascinating trip into the not-too-distant past, and affords many occasions for ruminating on the folly and wisdom of leaders on both sides.

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