With hindsight, we see that the Soviet Union never had a chance of military world domination, but we didn’t know that then – they did and do and therein lies the crux of today’s foreign policy dilemmas.


Two groups of men huddled in trench coats and slouch hats meeting on a bridge. The man leading the first group is named "Abel"; the man leading the second is named "Powers." Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union when he was shot down in May 1960. He was subsequently convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Abel was a Soviet intelligence officer who had been found guilty of espionage in 1957. The "U-2 incident" brought to an abrupt end President Eisenhower's efforts to implement an arms control agreement with the Russians and marked the end of the brief period of detente that had characterized the last years of the 1950s. The subsequent exchange of Powers for Abel on the Glienicker Bridge at the border between the U.S. sector of West Berlin and Potsdam, East Germany did little to improve relations between the two superpowers.

Two groups of men huddled in trench coats and slouch hats meeting on a bridge. The man leading the first group is named “Abel”; the man leading the second is named “Powers.” Francis Gary Powers was an American pilot flying a Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance plane over the Soviet Union when he was shot down in May 1960. He was subsequently convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Abel was a Soviet intelligence officer who had been found guilty of espionage in 1957. The “U-2 incident” brought to an abrupt end President Eisenhower’s efforts to implement an arms control agreement with the Russians and marked the end of the brief period of detente that had characterized the last years of the 1950s. The subsequent exchange of Powers for Abel on the Glienicker Bridge at the border between the U.S. sector of West Berlin and Potsdam, East Germany did little to improve relations between the two superpowers.

The Soviet Union never had the technology that the United States enjoyed and relied heavily on human intelligence assets that were by and large able to penetrate the American arms endeavor at every level. This helped them build the second greatest arsenal in the world – one that was certainly capable of starting a catastrophic war but they were still left with the lingering uncertainty of their ability to win it and that is what kept the cold war cold. Prehaps more accurately we should say that it was what kept the arms race a feint by the Soviets while they applied the Hegelian inversion to Clausewitz  and used politics as a continuation of war by other means.

This book is a very good account of one example of  the tactic. Having scored a huge public relations bonanza by accidentally shooting down the most sophisticated unarmed plane in the world and putting the pilot on trial as a spy they then managed to trade the pilot and a hapless graduate student for one of their actual spies who had already been neutralized by American counter espionage activities. While we can not agree with the author that we were ever on the brink of an intentional Armageddon the way that the Soviets managed the fear of that for the best part of the Cold War – and the profound effect it had on the social life of the United States – makes a fascinating study and begs the question of who actually won.

The Soviet peasant in chief preparing to bang his shoe on the table at the United Nations and threaten to bury us all - after he had visited Disneyland

The Soviet peasant in chief preparing to bang his shoe on the table at the United Nations and threaten to bury us all – after he had visited Disneyland

Bridge of spies: a true story of the Cold War New York: Broadway Books, c 2010 Giles Whittell Espionage, Soviet History Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xxii, 274 p., [8] p. of plates: ill.; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Who were the three men the American and Soviet superpowers exchanged at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge and Checkpoint Charlie in the first and most legendary prisoner exchange between East and West? Bridge of Spies vividly traces their paths to that exchange on February 10, 1962, when their fate helped to define the conflicts and lethal undercurrents of the most dangerous years of the Cold War.

Francis Gary Powers - the pilot

Francis Gary Powers – the pilot

Bridge of Spies is the true story of three extraordinary characters – William Fisher, alias Rudolf Abel, a British born KGB agent arrested by the FBI in New York City and jailed as a Soviet super spy for trying to steal America’s most precious nuclear secrets; Gary Powers, the American U-2 pilot who was captured when his plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over the closed cities of central Russia; and Frederic Pryor, a young American graduate student in Berlin mistakenly identified as a spy, arrested and held without charge by the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police.

By weaving the three strands of this story together for the first time, Giles Whittell masterfully portrays the intense political tensions and nuclear brinkmanship that brought the United States and Soviet Union so close to a hot war in the early 1960s. He reveals the dramatic lives of men drawn into the nadir of the Cold War by duty and curiosity, and the tragicomedy of errors that eventually induced Khrushchev to send missiles to Castro. Two of his subjects — the spy and the pilot — were the original seekers of weapons of mass destruction. The third, an intellectual, fluent in German, unencumbered by dependents, and researching a Ph.D. thesis on the foreign trade system of the Soviet bloc, seemed to the Stasi precisely the sort of person the CIA should have been recruiting. He was not. In over his head in the world capital of spying, he was wrongly charged with espionage and thus came to the Agency’s notice by a more roundabout route. The three men were rescued against daunting odds by fate and by their families, and then all but forgotten. Yet they laid bare the pathological mistrust that fueled the arms race for the next 30 years.

Francis Gary Powers - the prisoner of war

Francis Gary Powers – the prisoner of war

Drawing on new interviews conducted in the United States, Europe and Russia with key players in the exchange and the events leading to it, among them Frederic Pryor himself and the man who shot down Gary Powers, Bridge of Spies captures a time when the fate of the world really did depend on coded messages on microdots and brave young men in pressure suits. The exchange that frigid day at two of the most sensitive points along the Iron Curtain represented the first step back from where the superpowers had stood since the building of the Berlin Wall the previous summer – on the brink of World War III.

The Soviet show trial of Francis Gary Powers - more costly and worth more than all the intelligence gathered

The Soviet show trial of Francis Gary Powers – more costly and worth more than all the intelligence gathered

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