(Khrushchev: Exercising the Righteous Indignation Clause)
1960 started off rather hopeful. In 1959 a noticeable thaw was taking place in the Cold War. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a visit to the U.S., cultural exchange programs were going full force and all was looking optimistic that maybe we all could get along after all. May 17th was slated to be the day the first major summit conference between the NATO powers and The Soviet Union would begin.
And then came the U-2 spy plane incident. The U.S. had been sending regular reconnaissance missions over Soviet territory, taking pictures of military installations. On May 1st, the Russians shot down one of the planes, announcing to the world on May 5th they had captured the pilot Francis Gary Powers.
At first, the State Department denied the plane was on a spy mission, saying Powers was flying over Turkey and had become unconscious, sending the plane in auto-pilot over Soviet air space and all was an unfortunate accident. But later, the story was recanted and officials conceded Powers was really on a spy mission.
With last minute negotiations via British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan as go-between, Eisenhower agreed to suspend future flights, but refused to apologize for the incident.
Khrushchev promptly pulled the plug on the much hoped-for summit conference on May 17th and issued a stinging three-hour denunciation of the West at the Press Conference in Paris on May 18th.
Whether it was a calculated move on Khrushchev's part, knuckling to pressure from the hawkish elements of the Politburo (that would cost him his job in 1964) or it was a supreme blunder on the part of the Eisenhower administration has been a topic of dispute for years.
In any event - on this day in 1960, the Cold War got a whole lot colder.