An Even Draw
As Major Ahkromeyeva climbed steadily and left the north Russian coastline below, she was a little more hopeful than usual. This time, when they reached Canadian airspace, they were going to scatter. Each aircraft would be able to take advantage of any cloud cover that presented itself, or go in at treetop level. Her evasive maneuvers in the old U-2 had been too much for the Messerschmidts, and Svetlana was supremely confident of her own abilities in that area. Besides, in contrast to the unarmed U-2, they now had many guns to defend themselves with.
One little problem was that the things Svetlana planned to do would use a lot of fuel, so much so that there wouldn't be any possibility of getting back. But there, too, she had a plan, one known only to Sergei. She would just keep going and land at the main Mexico City airport. The Mexicans might be confused, but she was pretty sure that they wouldn't simply shoot a woman pilot. Besides, she had secretly been learning Spanish. If Sergei survived, they would somehow get back together.
At the White House, there was a great assemblage of press people on the south lawn as a helicopter maneuvered overhead and prepared to descend. Aboard the helicopter was Mamie Eisenhower, who had just returned in great haste from the Dominican Republic. Waiting below to greet her was the president.
There were, inside the press circle, a number of diplomats. Among these were Mr. Boris Razumov and two colleagues from the Soviet embassy. They waited quietly until the helicopter had landed. Then, when the president had greeted his wife and come back up the lawn with her on his arm, he nodded meaningfully at Mr. Razumov. That gentleman touched his hat and nodded in return.
As the group broke up, Mr. Razumov went to one of the reporters, Miss Kittredge, and spoke briefly with her. He seemed to be reassured. Mr. Razumov was then taken by a presidential aide to a telephone in the White House basement.
In another part of the basement, in what amounted to a major communications center, there were being relayed back and forth a number of messages between Soviet and American statesmen and military people. It was understood that both countries had massive strike forces in the air, each heading toward the other. That couldn't be changed without decisions from the top men. But it was nevertheless essential to clear up certain misunderstandings and make it possible for them to make those decisions. It was agreed by both sides that they had about an hour before things would start to happen automatically.
Upstairs in the oval office, President Eisenhower was waiting with two interpreters for communication to be established with Mr. Khruschev. A couple of aides were coming in and out, and, off to the side, Admiral Radford and Mr. John Foster Dulles were speaking quietly with one another.
The telephone on the desk rang, and one of the aides picked it up. He then handed it to one of the interpreters, standing in front of the desk. The interpreter began to speak Russian, and the other interpreter, guessing from the half of the conversation that he could hear, explained to the president, still seated at his desk, what he thought was happening.
It was Mr. Khruschev's message that was translated first. It was a question:
"Why are you attacking us?"
The president's reply was immediate,
"Because we thought you were attacking us."
There was then a brief pause. The interpreter, speaking for Khruschev, said,
"If we turn around, will you?"
"Yes, but it'll take a little time to get the message through. Shall we order them to turn back in exactly ten minutes?"
The interpreter, a blonde young man who was looking extremely tense, spoke in Russian. He then turned to the president and said,
"Da. That is, yes, he says yes."
"Is he just saying that he acknowledges my message, or is he agreeing with it?"
There was another burst of both Russian and English over the phone, and the interpreter said to the president,
"He agrees, sir."
The president nodded and spoke to Admiral Radford, who went immediately to one of the other telephones. The president then spoke to the interpreter,
"I have given the order to Admiral Radford."
The reply came back,
"Marshal Malinovsky has ordered our forces to turn back at 2109, Moscow time."
There was then a quick discussion with Admiral Radford and some calculation. The president said to the interpreter,
"Our forces are turning back a minute later. We'll try to move them up a minute."
"Our reconnaissance planes are watching. They will report."
"So will ours."
The Soviet bomber formation had not yet scattered according to its plan for penetration. Major Ahkromeyeva, leading a squadron on the extreme right of the formation, heard the command to the strike leader to turn back even before it was relayed to the squadron leaders. The turn was to the left, and, in order to minimize the chance of collision, it was a wide sweeping one. On the outside of the wheeling movement, she increased speed and took her squadron out and around.
They had just about completed the movement when they spotted a large aircraft coming the other way, almost on a collision course. Major Ahkromeyeva steered left a little to widen the distance, as did the oncoming aircraft. When it was about a mile distant, she recognized it immediately as an American B-52. Although the American crew could hardly have seen her, she waved as they tore past. She then remarked to the co-pilot,
"The politicians can't ever seem to decide whether they want war or not."
At the White House, it took some time to sort out the details. There were a number of forces on both sides, and it had to be verified that each had turned back. When all that had been done, and both principals were convinced that their countries were safe, President Eisenhower, on the spur of the moment, issued an unprecedented invitation. It was for Mr. and Mrs. Khruschev to visit the United States. There was a short delay, and then an acceptance, "if the details could be worked out."