When should a President lie to foreign powers–and to the press and American people? The issue is raised a good deal in my book The Tunnels in relation to the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s pressure on U.S. networks to kill coverage of escapes under the Berlin Wall. But as anyone who saw the recent movie Bridge of Sighs know, there was also a great number of lies relating to the Soviet shoot down of a U2 spy plane. The following excerpt from the book captures a later, more minor, U2 incident in September 1962, and President Kennedy’s own plan, almost comical in spots, to obscure the truth…
The question of whether Soviet missiles were heading for Cuba had rapidly become critical to President Kennedy—and, in his mind, critically linked to Berlin. But in the early days of September another crisis demanded his attention, causing him to cut short a Newport vacation.
An American spy plane had briefly entered Soviet air space over the tip of Sakhalin Island, breaking the ban on overflights the White House accepted after the infamous U-2 shoot down of 1960, which led to the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers. This time the Soviets didn’t fire at the high-flying jet, but they had spotted it on radar and protested loudly. Another high-flying U-2 was still taking photos over Cuba, so the White House didn’t want a new spy plane crisis to erupt.
As the late-morning meeting on the straying U-2 commenced, Dean Rusk said, “It’s very clear indeed that the Soviets have got us right on the hip on this one.” The plane had simply drifted off course for about nine minutes at night. Still, the U.S. didn’t want to get Khrushchev excited—he might do something rash regarding Berlin. So Rusk read a draft statement falsely calling the U-2 a “weather reconnaissance and air-sampling aircraft” that had “unintentionally” been victimized by Mother Nature.
“It undoubtedly did some air sampling, didn’t it?” Rush asked, hopefully. “Don’t all our flights do some of this?” Others around the table indicated: no way.
“Well, I don’t know…” Kennedy replied, “we don’t owe him [Khrushchev] the whole truth….” He argued that mentioning “night time” would indicate no photography. “That seems to me—that gets away from the U-2 idea.”
“But it is a U-2,” Bundy reminded him. Kennedy nevertheless decided that calling it a “weather reconnaissance aircraft” without the “air-sampling” detail might be enough. This was what the U.S. had claimed for weeks after the enemy shot down Gary Powers’ spy plane—until the Soviets produced the pilot.