The Bridge of Spies: The exchange of Francis Gary Powers for Rudolph Abel

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Francis Gary Powers, Jr. is the son of Francis Gary Powers who served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and completed twenty-seven U-2 photographic reconnaissance missions for the CIA, including several overflights of the Soviet Union, until shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile on May 1, 1960. Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Bridge of Spies” is inspired by historical events as described in Powers’ memoir Operation Overflight (Potomac Books, 2003).

The Bridge of Spies: The exchange of Francis Gary Powers for Rudolph Abel

OperationOverflight_rgbIt was a cold, dark, and foggy morning in Potsdam, Germany on the day of the exchange. Two prisoners and an entourage of KGB and CIA officials were on either side of the bridge in their respective delegations. Once the agents’ identities were confirmed, the signal was given and the prisoners walked across the Glienicker Bridge to their respective freedom. This exchange is now the center of Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller aptly named, “The Bridge of Spies” due to be released in the United States on October 16, 2015.

Rudolph Abel was welcomed home as a hero to the Soviet Union. But U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers returned home to controversy surrounding the U-2 Incident because of inaccurate articles and commentaries in the media. Many questioned the role Powers played in the intrigue between the two superpowers.

The U-2 Incident, which occurred on May 1, 1960, was one of the most pivotal events in the history of the Cold War. It was perhaps the first time in U.S. history that a president had been caught lying to the American people.The event caused such a strain on U.S.-Soviet relations that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev canceled an invitation for President Dwight Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union later that year. In addition, the Paris Summit Conference that was planned for May 16, 1960, collapsed when Eisenhower refused to apologize to Khrushchev for authorizing the U-2 flights over the Soviet Union and Khrushchev ended up banging his shoe during his next visit to the United Nations.

The controversy that surrounded the U-2 Incident was magnified in the annals of Cold War history because Powers was captured alive and because of the dramatic show trial that followed. The event was controversial because the United States was caught spying on the Soviets by flying over their territory—a practice that continues to this day with drones flying over Iran and other countries hostile to the United States. In addition, some people thought Powers did not follow orders upon capture and that the CIA had intentionally sabotaged the flight to ruin the  Paris Summit..

Rumors, speculation, misinformation, and some outright lies circulated in the press during Powers’ captivity about his conduct, loyalty, and the cause of his capture. After going through three months of Soviet interrogations, he was subjected to a highly publicized show trial designed to further embarrass the United States. Eighteen months after the trial, Powers returned to the United States where the CIA, the U.S. Air Force and the designer of the U-2 debriefed him for three weeks at a safe house in Maryland. During this time, he confirmed that there was no flameout or sabotage and that he was at his assigned altitude of 70,500 feet when shot down by a Soviet SA-2 (S-75 Dvina) surface-to-air missile that exploded below and behind the tail section of Powers’ airplane. This caused structural failure to the frame and brought down the plane.

On March 6, 1962, Powers appeared in an open hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. The committee exonerated him of any wrongdoing and called him “a fine young man performing well under dangerous circumstances.” After his testimony, the audience gave him a standing ovation. But at the time the U.S. government didn’t clear up many of the false stories that had been circulated, and the CIA wouldn’t permit him to write his account of the incident until many years later.

As a result of the end of the Cold War, Powers’ reputation started to transform from one that was infamous to that of a U.S. hero who was caught up in the global political environment of the time. Over the past fifty five years, additional evidence has surfaced from both sides that his U-2 plane was, in fact, shot down while flying at an altitude of 70,500 feet over Sverdlovsk.

As a result of declassified documents pertaining to the U-2 Incident, the U.S. Air Force determined that throughout his captivity, Powers exhibited steadfast loyalty and resistance to exploitation despite all Soviet efforts through insults and threats of death to obtain classified information. In June 2012, the Air Force presented Powers a posthumous Silver Star decoration for the valor he exhibited in carrying out his mission.

-Francis Gary Powers, Jr.