Today in History: The U.S. Accuses the Soviets of Spying on American Soil (1960)

U-2 Spy Plane. Historiana

The Cold War was a competition of sorts. The United States and the USSR strove to prove that their societal and economic structures were better than the others. They did this without directly engaging in military conflict (though they did sponsor fighting through other groups and country, most notably Vietnam). The arms race and the space race are just two of the examples of this competition.

Needless to say, this was a dangerous game. Both countries had developed nuclear weapons, and at times the only thing that kept them from plunging the world into total destruction was the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD. Robert S. McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s famously said, “It’s not mad! Mutual Assured Destruction is the foundation of deterrence.”

Robert S. McNamara. US Secretary of Defense 1961-1968. History Channel

Several times during the Cold War, the conflict between the United States and the Soviets came close to becoming full-out war. One of those times was in 1962, when it was discovered that the Soviets had placed nuclear launch sites in Cuba, which is just 90 miles from the United States. This was a response to similar placement of missiles in Turkey and Italy by the United States. It was so tense that McNamara once said  “It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the president’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night.”

In between the tensions and the competitions, there was a lot of jockeying for position between the two countries. Neither one was interested in playing a fair game. On May 26, 1960, the United States first accused the USSR of spying on American soil. This came just weeks after the US had been criticized by the Russians because a United States’ spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union.

Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. US Ambassador to the UN 1953-1960. Wikipedia

The appearance of Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge before the UN Security Council on May 26, 1960 was an attempt by the Americans to prove that while the United States had been spying on the USSR (which they admitted after the spy plane had been shot down), it wasn’t anything that the USSR wasn’t also guilty of. To prove this, Henry Cabot Lodge brought out a wooden reproduction of the Great Seal of the United States, and a listening device that had supposedly been found inside of it. The bug had apparently been found in 1952, eight years before the American spy plane had been found out.

The Russians were not impressed. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN laughed outright during Lodge’s speech then asked “From what plays were these props taken and when will it open?”

For sure the US and the USSR spied on each other. They were both caught out at it several times during the Cold War. After the U-2 spy plane was shot down on May 1, 1960, the US admitted that it was spying. It would be an embarrassment to the State Department and to President Eisenhower. The performance of Henry Cabot Lodge, and the US’s attempt to prove the Russians equally at fault didn’t take away that embarrassment.

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