The Impact of U.S. Aerial
during the Early Cold War
Service & Sacrifice of the
Soon after the end of World War II, the United States faced off against the Soviet Union in a new global confrontation The Cold War. Intelligence showing the USSR’s strengths, weaknesses, and intentions was the key to finding ways to stop the advance of Communism around the world and help plan for possible conflicts. Collecting this information from the Soviet Union’s secretive, closed society presented a substantial problem. In a time before spy satellites, the nation depended on manner aerial reconnaissance to provide the bulk of the vital intelligence it needed. During the course of flying thousands of dangerous reconnaissance missions, hundreds of incidents occurred and more than 40 U.S. aircraft were lost to hostile fire. Of the more than 300 U.S. airmen involved in these incidents, over 200 (two-thirds) were killed or remain unaccounted for today.
This paper focuses on why U.S. leaders ordered these critical missions and if the loss of so many men was worth the intelligence they provided to the nation. To ascertain this, my research focused on declassified information and secondary sources published within the last few years; documents acquired from national and presidential archives; interviews with the participants and World Wide Web research. The beginning chapters of the paper set the stage for the Cold War by focusing on international events which led to the U.S./USSR confrontation. It further details the need for intelligence about the USSR and the obstacles faced in this effort. It asserts the need for U.S. manned aerial reconnaissance to provide vital intelligence for national leadership and war-planners as they confronted the spread of Communism from containment to massive retaliation policies.
The remaining chapters examine how these missions answered the nation’s call by providing critical intelligence in the Far East during the Korean War, then expanding intelligence collection on a global scale, albeit, with severe human losses. It details Soviet reactions to continued U.S. aerial reconnaissance efforts; how this led to the development of the U-2 program; and how the U-2 ultimately disproved the notion of Bomber and Missile Gaps. And the paper concludes by outlining the continued significance of aerial reconnaissance to national security after satellites were launched and further, highlights the service and sacrifice of this effort by showcasing a few of the several Cold War losses still under investigation.
The resulting paper outlines the overall aerial reconnaissance effort during the early Cold War and outlines the impact and value of these missions to national security. It highlights the types of intelligence collected and the degree of danger encountered as our adversaries took actions to deny the U.S. access to this critical intelligence. By examining these contributions and weighing them against our Cold War losses, the thesis determines that the service of these reconnaissance airmen kept national leaders informed and prepared to take actions to keep the nation safe at a time when they were the most indispensable intelligence asset available.
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