Spy-plane pilot is one of the few professions we should strongly discourage our sons from developing an interest in. Rich in experience, critically important and thrillingly challenging, it is, nevertheless, a career charged with personal and collective disaster. Along with the ongoing anxieties of parents and spouses, there are potential complications for one’s nation as a whole and even, occasionally, for world politics.

The first thing that springs to mind in connection with the affair of the U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic spy plane this week is the famous U-2 incident of 1960. At the peak of the Cold War, realizing the urgent necessity of monitoring the Soviet military buildup closely, the CIA launched the U-2 program. The U-2 spy planes were the technological marvel of the day. Taking off in Pakistan, they would cross the whole territory of the Soviet Union from south to north at an altitude beyond the range of Soviet missiles or jets. The buffoon Kremlin leader Nikita Khrushchev kept boasting that the Soviet Union was producing missiles “like sausages” — but apparently Soviet missiles were just as bad as Soviet sausages. For years, no one could reach a U-2. Only on May 1, 1960 did a Soviet missile hit a U-2, piloted that day by Gary Powers. Powers survived the crash, but Washington, presuming him dead, immediately denied that espionage had been the purpose of the flight. Having waited long enough for the Americans to construct a web of blatant lies, the triumphant Khrushchev eventually presented the pilot the way a circus magician pulls a rabbit from his sleeve. The result was an enormous loss of face for the Eisenhower administration and cancellation of the Paris summit at which the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France were to discuss the future of the world.

The U-2 and EP-3 stories have a lot in common. In both cases, the U.S. intelligence community was dealing with a technologically inferior totalitarian challenger. Both in 1960 and now, the totalitarian side resorted to bluff, bullying and — maybe even worse — enigmatic silence. No international summit is going to collapse in 2001 because of a spy-plane incident, but the consequences of the current crisis will still be grave.

It is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to stop monitoring China’s coastal areas from the air. Consequently, both sides will be on the alert for similar incidents in the future — a state of affairs that will not contribute to better relations between the two countries. Even now, in the U.S. media, China is slowly but surely taking the place of the Soviet Union as the evil empire of our time. China’s outrageous violations of human rights and aggressive foreign-policy behavior, all but ignored only 15 years ago while the Soviet monster was alive and well, are now being brought to public attention. Of course, in terms of an immediate military threat to the U.S., China cannot be compared to the Soviet Union in its prime or even to Russia now; yet, to use Mao Zedong’s metaphor, the Chinese military arsenal is no longer a paper tiger. Incidents such as the detention of the EP-3 crew will only polish China’s already ebony-black halo in the eyes of the American press.

As for China, it is certain to draw a connection between this week’s incident and the unfortunate bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by U.S. planes two years ago. Conspiracy theories are always in bloom in repressive regimes. Just as the Soviets did 40 years ago, the Chinese will accuse the U.S. of violating the principles of national sovereignty and international trust, of treachery, hypocrisy and deceit. The fact that the EP-3 was intercepted or, rather, rammed, over the high seas seems to have little meaning in the eyes of official Beijing. The People’s Republic of China tends to interpret the whole space of the South China Sea very liberally as an extension of its land-mass territory.

Another consequence of the affair might be the reinforcement of tensions around the coastal areas of the South China Sea, with China asserting its control over those areas by means not necessarily limited to diplomatic ones.

In 1960, the American pilot, Gary Powers, was put through a show trial in Moscow and then swapped for a Soviet spy in American custody. In all likelihood, the crew of the EP-3 will be treated better. Still, one can only empathize with these twenty-four men and women. Obviously, the island of Hainan is supplied not just with palm trees and beaches but also with a number of quite expert detention specialists.

In 1999, 40 years after the Powers incident, I happened to meet the survivors of the legendary U-2 program at a special conference in Bodo, Norway, once the final destination of their cross-country flights. By then, Powers himself had long since died, but his colleagues were just approaching retirement age. With obvious reluctance, they shared some memories of the risky enterprise they had all engaged in, such as the planes’ wings being so enormous that almost every other landing ended in an accident and the pilots being given special pills before each mission — basically, a suicide kit — that could be used in an icy desert, for example, or en route to a secret police dungeon. One man had piloted the aircraft that took the famous photograph of downtown Moscow in 1956. Now he looked at the picture with certain embarrassment: Apparently he could not quite figure out why all these historians and journalists were making so much fuss about it.

Doubtless, years from now, the EP-3 crew now being held in China will have to participate in similar events. My sympathy goes out to them: Their profession is one of those that entail more personal involvement in world politics than a human being can normally handle.

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