U.S. strategic aerial reconnaissance and the cold war, 1945-1961

Hopkins, Robert Smith, Department of History, University of Virginia
Leffler, Melvyn, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
Lichtenstein, Nelson, Department of History, University of Virginia
Lynch, Allen, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Strategic aerial reconnaissance flights during the early years of the cold war, largely overlooked by scholars because of the excessive secrecy surrounding these missions, contributed more to international stability between 1945 and 1961 than they did to tensions between East and West. Recently declassified documents from both sides of the Iron Curtain, the willingness of participants to recount their experiences, and concerted efforts by researchers provide new opportunities to account for the previously unexamined role of strategic aerial reconnaissance flights. After the Second World War American means to gather information about the Soviet Union were severely limited and failed to satisfy U.S. intelligence requirements. American policy makers redressed this deficiency by endorsing the use of long-range reconnaissance flights along the periphery of and often over the Soviet Union and its allies. These flights were both more numerous and widespread than previously believed. Intelligence gathered during these missions informed the evolution of U.S. cold war military planning and civilian policy making. Such intelligence also aided in developing war plans, in evaluating the Soviet atomic weapons program, and in guiding American policy through several international crises. These aerial reconnaissance missions reaffirmed presidential control over the military. ·Both President Truman and Eisenhower were aware of and embraced military overflights of the Soviet Union. This reflected their commitment to learn about America's potential enemy and indicated their willingness to risk direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union to gather this vital intelligence. Although these flights often adversely affected U.S.Soviet relations, they did not contribute to an ever-increasing level of tension between the two nations that luckily stopped short of war. Instead, these missions contributed to cold war stability. They reassured American policy makers that war with the USSR was not imminent and allowed more measured and less belligerent responses during times of crisis. The flights were less provocative to Soviet leaders than previously believed, and their reaction to them was a direct reflection of evolving Soviet national security policy rather than any direct hostility toward Western reconnaissance flights.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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