Bridge of Spies

bridge-of-spiesThis is a wonderful book that describes what is portrayed in the current movie with the same title starring Tom Hanks . I thought Mark Raylance’s portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolph Abel stole the spotlight from Hanks, who was admirable in portraying James Donovan. Donovan was the lawyer who defended Abel and later was the intermediary who arranged the swap of U-2 pilot Gary Francis Powers for Abel and Frederic Pryor, a hapless young intellectual who was snared in Cold War politics.

An interesting aspect of the book is how Powers was treated after he had taken the risk of flying over the Soviet Union to take photographs of secret military facilities. John F. Kennedy as a candidate for Presidency of the United States had successfully used the “missile gap” as a campaign issue against Richard Nixon. The planned Powers flight would have delivered the evidence that the Soviets in fact only had four ICBMs. Powers and his U-2 were shot down instead of presenting the evidence that would have disputed Kennedy’s campaign rhetoric. Kennedy “…promised as a candidate to close a ‘missile gap’ that did not exist and declined to meet Powers on his return to the United States.”

A fascinating bit of theory for dedicated “Conspiracy Theorists” is that the Power’s mission was intended to fail. Eisenhower and Khrushchev had intended to launch a new era of détente until Powers and his U-2 was shot out of the skies. The Paris summit was wrecked and “…threw into high gear the arms race that took the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and did not end until the collapse of the Soviet empire nearly three decades later. From the moment Powers was reported missing, there were well-places skeptics on both sides of the cold war who suspected that his entire mission had been planned to fail, and in doing so to prevent the outbreak of superpower peace. It is a theory that lingers to this day.”

The real name of the spy who is the central character in the drama was William Fisher, and he had been born in Britain. There is no doubt he was a brilliant man, since he could speak five languages and was a math genius. “Fisher’s main task was to rebuild the Soviet spy network in America. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Fisher story is that he was completely ineffective as a spy. “There is no evidence that Fisher recruited any useful agents who have not been identified or transmitted any significant intelligence by those who have been. This did not stop both sides colluding in the creation of the legend of Willie Fisher—by another name—as the most effective Soviet spy of the cold war.”  The “Fisher myth” was perpetuated by Soviet officials because he became famous for his loyalty and refusal to betray the USSR to gain personal benefits.

There are descriptions of how Fisher had communicated with his underling, Reino Hayhanen. One method was a white thumbtack that wouldn’t be noticed by someone not paying close attention because it was on a white sign in Central Park. The thumbtack was a signal to Hayhanen, who is described as the “worst spy in history.” Hayhanen had lost a nickel that had been split in half to hide a coded message on microfilm. The nickel found its way to a newspaper delivery boy in a weekly payment. The boy dropped the nickel and it split open to reveal the tiny square of microfilm. He took the strange coin and dark square to a schoolmate’s father who was a detective. The detectives reacted by gathering all the coins from two nearby ice cream vans in the area and the money from the church where James’ mother was playing bingo. The coin and microfilm were given to the FBI. The coin gained notoriety, and the eventual trial of Fisher under the name Rudolph Abel was called the “Split Nickel Case.” The movie gives a somewhat different role to the nickel.

The Soviet Union changed when Khrushchev gave his “secret” speech that denounced Stalin’s “cult of personality” in February 1956. Fisher had traveled to the Soviet Union to find less paranoia. Burt Silverman was a Communist Party member who had met Fisher in 1954, and he describes how the Party meetings in 1956 were just an excuse to gather and eat pizza.

The book switches to the U-2s and Powers. The Lockheed plant where the U-2s would be constructed was called the Skunk Works. There was a strong smell from a nearby plastics plant, and it reminded someone of “the pungent moonshine still that Al Capp named Skonk Works in his Li’l Abner cartoon strip.

The pilots were trained at the isolated Groom Lake in Nevada near the nuclear test site. Some called the site Watertown and others called it Paradise Ranch. The planes were housed at a place that began to be called Area 51, and the planes glistening at high altitudes in the setting sun began to be called UFOs.

The first U-2 flight over the Soviet Union was piloted by Harvey Stockman, and he took off from Wiesbaden, Germany on July 4, 1956.The pilots were offered what was called “L pills,” with the L indicating a lethal glass capsule containing cyanide. There have been claims the pilots were ordered not to survive if they were shot down. CIA information indicates that taking the L pill was strictly optional.

The third member of the eventual exchange was Frederick Pryor. He was an adventurous and apparently harmless young man with wanderlust. He enrolled in the American Free University of West Berlin. He began to study Soviet foreign trade by interviewing East German officials. He was taken into custody and interrogated after the Berlin Wall was closed.

Jim Donovan is introduced to the story as the lawyer asked to provide Fisher American justice and he decided to accept the challenge. Perhaps Donovan was influenced by the fact that he had served as general counsel for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA.

The court room where Fisher was tried had twenty-five large tables containing evidence collected from his room. There was a hollow-handled shaving brush, cipher tables on edible silver foil, photographic equipment, and a half-empty box of condoms which might have been used to keep cash dry at dead drops and not for sex. The prosecution failed to find any members of the Rudolf Abel spy network, probably because he had failed to recruit anyone.

There was a “…theoretical possibility of a spy swap sometime in the future. Donovan mentioned it in his written argument against the death penalty…” Donovan also challenged Fisher’s convection to the Supreme Court based on the lack of a valid search warrant, which resulted in the tables of spy-related evidence displayed to the jury. The Supreme Court failed to make a decision in the first presentation and (I find surprisingly) found five to four in favor of upholding the conviction after the second presentation. Powers was shot down flying over the Soviet Union a month later.

Powers was in the U-2 called “Article 160,” which was considered by the pilots to be the least dependable U-2. He jigged from his flight path to overfly the Kyshtum site, which took him out of range of the Soviet surface to air missiles (SAMs). He completed photographing the site and turned back into range of the surface to air missiles. Powers heard what he described to be a “whump,” and the plane began to fly erratically as the three bolts holding the tail on had apparently been torn out by the blast. Powers was soon wedged in the cockpit with the wings torn off and the plane spinning as it fell. He parachuted to safety and did not consider using the curare-tipped needle held in a coin in his suit.

The descriptions of the negotiations to trade Fisher for Powers and Pryor are consistent with what is portrayed in the movie. The exchange portrayed in the movie is more dramatic than what is described in the book. I recommend the book and the movie to fans of Cold War History.

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