Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Bridge of Spies" by Giles Whittell

This is the true story of 3 men, poised at the center of the Cold War, and whose actions, although not intended to do so, changed the direction of that conflict. Their story is the beginning of both Russia and the United States making a committment to what later became known as detente. That they did so out of a confluence of events which were designed to produce results of the opposite nature makes this incredible story even more so. This also marked the beginning of both the CIA and the KGB in the administration of govermental policy. President Eisenhower, as well as Premier Kruschev, have acknowledged that they both felt "not in control" of the situation as it unfolded.

President Eisenhower knew of, and condoned the high altitude U-2 flights. But not this one. Officially, the existence of these flights were denied by the United States. On May 1st, 1960 just months before a summit between Eisenhower and Kruschev in Moscow, one of the U-2's, carrying pilot Gary Powers, was shot down over Russia. This is precisely the incident which Eisenhower was trying to avoid in the months leading up to the summit.

The U-2's mission was to photograph the last remaining area of Russia that had not been searched for nuclear missles, or, as we call them today, WMD's. Lee Harvey Oswald, a US Marine, working radar out of Atsugi Air Base in Japan, was later implicated as having provided some of the intelligence necessary for the shoot down of Gary Powers' U-2 to have taken place.

Powers was flying a defective plane that day. It was known throughout the unit as a "dog." When the Soviets got lucky and downed the plane with one missle, Gary Powers had plenty of time to think as he fell from 70,000 feet. He was able to climb out of the plane rather than eject. He decided not to use the poison needle with which he had been provided, saving it for future use if needed.

As all of this was happening, an American student, Frederic Pryor, who had taken advantage of a summer program allowing foreign students to take a rare look inside Russia, was arrested and charged with espionage. He had been unwittingly recruited by the CIA in "tourist" style espionage, taking pictures of bridges and buildings, some of which were of military significance.

Powers and the American youth would both be eventually exchanged for the biggest Soviet Spy ever caught in America, William Fisher, aka, Rudolf Abel. He had resided in deep cover in the United States for years, and such was his value to the Soviets, that he would later be exchanged for both Pryor and Powers. That this exchange would later take place during the same week as John Glenn successfully orbited the earth aboard Friendship 7 was no coincidence. But that was still 2 years away. First would come the trial, and imprisonment of Gary Powers for espionage. He was faced with life imprisonment, or possibly death.

The trial took place in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, just after the Soviet-American summit, which had been scheduled for the same time, had been cancelled. Powers received 10 years imprisonment, as a sign of Soviet humanity. He would not have to serve the entire sentence, as the Soviets wanted Rudolf Abel returned.

The exchange was to take place at two locations, and at the same time. The first was to be at the so-called "Bridge of Spies", actually named the Glienicke Bridge, in Berlin. This was the "other" check point used during the cold war for transfer between East and West Germany. The most famous one was "Check Point Charlie", located only a few miles away. It is recreated in exact detail in the film version of John LeCarre's novel "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold." That check point would be the location for the second exchange.

This is a fascinating book for serious students of the Cold War. There are so many layers to this story that it is possible to get lost in the myriad of secrecy. What is true? What is true, but misleading? The book also delves into the 1960 Presidential election between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Was there a connection between politics and the ill advised flight of the defective U-2? And what was the common link between news reporter Joe Alsop and John Kennedy in this operation? Why did they lie about a Soviet missle gap when there was none? Remember, there would have been no need for the U-2 flights had the truth of the missle gap been known.

Had Gary Powers been successful in his flight over Plesetk, he would have discovered the 4 operational ICBM's. This was the extent of the Soviet nuclear arsenal with which Premier Krushchev had threatened to "bury the West." It is also the nuclear stockpile which John Kennedy, along with the help of Joe Alsop, purported to exist.

With it's careful research, and a cast of real life characters, this is a gripping read of the Cold War, and three of its principal players.

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