Recrossing the Bridge of Spies

Approaching the crescendo of the Cold War, two world superpowers exchanged a pair of spies on a bridge in Berlin separating East from West. The date was February 10, 1962. The weather had turned recently from snow to simply overcast, symbolic of the temporary thaw in relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that would allow them to make this gesture before descending into the madness that was the nuclear arms race.

At that time, according to author Giles Whittell, the two ideological foes had a mere ten ICBM nuclear warheads each. Before the Cold War came to a conclusion thirty years later, they would possess tens of thousands. It would seem that Eisenhower’s warning about the military/industrial complex had been ignored. It is during the span of time that “Bridge of Spies” covers that we see the seminal ground being laid for the war that thankfully never became a reality. It was fought in the shadows. Giles expertly peels back the layers of the onion domes to cast light on the fears each side had of the other.

Enter stage left, William Fisher, a spy of rather curious lineage from Russia. From Germany, he entered Canada via passenger liner at Quebec City under one of many assumed names. The date is November, 1948. The Soviets are seriously behind in nuclear technology and, since the days of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, have been feverishly spying on the Americans in order to play catch up. Fisher’s job is to recruit and establish a network of spies throughout the U.S. since the last group of Russian spies have been detected and routed (Klaus Fuchs and the executed Rosenbergs). William Fisher is a cool headed spy. He’s concerned mainly with establishing himself deep undercover and maintaining that cover at all costs. He does very little actual spying for years. It seems he’s quite comfortable maintaining his cover as an artist in New York, retired after making oodles in the photo-finishing business. The author points out that since no one ever made more than half an oodle at photo finishing, his cover should have been suspect at first glance.

This reminds me of two Nazi spies who landed by submarine in the Gaspé, Québec during WWII. They lasted all of about fifteen minutes. They sauntered into a small hotel in the middle of nowhere asking for a room. Paying in long outdated currency, they went up to the room for a much needed rest. The desk clerk couldn’t imagine from where these two “business travelers” had arrived. Had they really lugged their suitcases from the next village as they said, since they arrived on foot and reeked of diesel fuel? She immediately called the Mounties. William Fisher should have been similarly detected by his neighbors who he regaled with conflicting stories about his past, but they casually chalked it up to what people reinventing themselves generally do: a man without accomplishments concocts them to impress others. No matter that he was obviously a liar by his many conflicting histories, he was hail-fellow-well-met and he deeply shared their interest in art. His only contact in America that he cultivated in barren soil was Reino Hayhanen, a maritally troubled proponent of the Wets if there were to be a resurrection of the Prohibition discussion.

Enter stage right, Francis Gary Powers, a young expert Air Force pilot who is approached by the CIA to fly reconnaissance missions over Soviet airspace. At this point, the US has Strategic Bomber Command, large bombers constantly manned and ready to fly over the North Pole to deliver nuclear bombs on hypothetical Russian targets. The Russians soon match the nuclear bomb technology and leapfrog ahead with ballistic missiles capable of crossing continents in mere minutes. America is in a panic and desperately needs to know how many missiles the Soviets have and where they are. The U.S. has developed a plane, the U2, which can fly at 70,000 feet, far above the ability of Russian fighters to intercept. They need the country’s best pilots to fly long missions over hostile territory, taking photos of missile installations. For various reasons, it’s not practical to ask the CIA to develop a network of spies in the Soviet Union. This is the only avenue of approach open to them, and probably the most reliable.

Powers, coming from a very modest background in Virginia, is offered an astounding thirty thousand dollars to fly for the CIA. Anyone who knows the U.S. will recognize the allure for many Americans of disadvantaged lineage. In today’s money that would be equivalent to roughly half a million per annum. The work consists mainly of training missions. Each incursion into hostile airspace must have Presidential approval, so there are few flights over Russia. The real enemy becomes boredom and insidious meanderings of the jealous mind for wives who cannot accompany them into the remote air bases in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

Another key character in this drama is inanimate so to speak – the U2 itself. Whittell expertly describes the development of the aircraft needed to fly above intercepting Russian MIGs. Admittedly a reader needs a basic knowledge of aviation but the author opens that door to trade school readers. He tells us why the aircraft was finicky to fly at these altitudes, why the U2 had such low control in thin air, why the engine had to be enormously powerful to keep it aloft one step away from being in orbit, why the range between stall speed and over-acceleration at these altitudes required the aircraft generally be flown by autopilot, and why a pilot bailing out at seventy thousand feet was not expected to survive. Pop the parachute at that height and the human body, kept under pressure by an inflated elastic pressure suit, was expected to blow up due to expanding gasses in the blood stream and flesh. During tests, exposed skin not held down by the suit bubbled as aircraft attained high altitudes. Imagine an astronaut without his suit taking a walk in outer space. The result would be an instantaneous red and brown poopnado. It is conceivable that U2 pilots were not able to envision such images, but it’s more likely that they suppressed them, allowing their subconscious minds to create an ever pervasive undercurrent of fear to their existence, perhaps the cause of many a tightrope walker’s death.

The canvas on which this drama unfolds is also drawn to perfection. Giles dispassionately tells us of two powerful and immense rivals who try to impress each other with filmed open-air demonstrations of thermonuclear blasts, which serve as a warning of the power of 100 megaton mushroom clouds and the risks of open warfare between two hostile giants. Whittell takes a detached perspective necessary to understanding the folly of mankind and how close we were to the insane act of self-immolation. Having inputs from Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former General Secretary, is invaluable. Having the distance of 50 years hindsight equally so.

In this work we take a look at the contemporary political systems: the Soviet Union run by dogmatic social engineers who willingly sacrifice thousands in the Gulags to mold human behavior in acceptance of the concept of self-denial for the greater good of the State. Imagine if you will, a peasant in charge of this experiment with the bombastic personality and vacuous intellect of a Russian Donald Trump, exhibiting a tendency to remove his shoes in the United Nations and bang them on the desk as the ultimate power of his articulation. The peasant-leader claims the Soviet Union is manufacturing ICBMs like sausages and will bury the U.S.A. Take a look at a map of the Soviet Union. You can fit three complete United States in its territory. To prove or disprove the Soviet Union has launch sites ready to destroy the U.S. at a moment’s notice would be a daunting task, so the aggressive Khrushchev must be taken at his word. Hence the need for over flights.

The other side is essentially a class system run by lottery winners in the capitalistic struggle for individual supremacy. Their leader, John F. Kennedy was the scion of one of the more successful, morally ambiguous profiteers. John F. Kennedy joked that his father had asked him precisely how many votes were needed to win the 1960 election since he was too cheap to pay for a landslide. It matters little that the American proletariat all wish to play a game with losing odds to become the bourgeoisie. The seductive mirage of wealth, the freedom of choice to jump or not jump on the exercise wheel matters most. It’s a right even the disadvantaged like Gary Powers will defend to the death, even if that means annihilation of the planet. America is an industrial giant after World War II, and the average citizen is by far better off due to the free flow of capital and the credit system. They will defend this even if it means a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

Ironically, it would take the world’s largest Communist power to prove fifty years later that the capitalistic system sometimes works best. At the time however, the U.S. system was losing influence throughout the world. It was looking very bleak for free-enterprisers; China, Cuba, Greece, North Korea, Indochina, Malaysia, virtually all of Eastern Europe, and many others had fallen into Communist influence; hence the desperate need to catch up in number of ICBMs. The Cold War was very real, a nuclear tinderbox ready to ignite.

Fisher, the Soviet spy, is captured, convicted and sent to prison in Atlanta. Powers, shot down over Russia, is also imprisoned. ‘Bridge of Spies’ relates the details and background of their exchange in Berlin soon after the building of the Iron Curtain.

I’ll let author Giles Whittell take it from here since he can do a much better job of it than I ever could. Whittell writes with the professional skill of a detached journalist, weaving several threads together through time to create an intense and very relevant story from an omniscient perspective. To my mind, the work is extremely well researched, peppered with the histories of many bit players, such as the men who manned the missile sites that brought Powers’ U2 down 1500 miles inside Soviet airspace. To collect such detailed and precise information over several continents fifty years hence is a feat of Herculean proportions even for the best writer. I tip my hat to his superior skills in delving into the murky depths of the past.

Now that I have piqued your interest in the topic and skill of the author I must offer caveats. Napoleon was quite wrong about England; it isn’t populated solely by shopkeepers. It would seem it’s peopled by two types – either extremely gifted craftsmen or stultifying academics. As with many English non-fiction authors, Giles is a member of the first group with aspirations to the latter. If I say an author is an academic, it’s the kiss of death to his work as far as reading pleasure goes. Giles comes dangerously close a number of times, crossing the line for brief periods and quickly jumping back to keep the work interesting and moving along.

There is a temptation among academics when exposing a superior knowledge of a topic and complete possession of the facts to condescend. One of these errors is to make forward references as in – “There I was in Swaziland, faced by thousands of armed and half-crazed rebellious natives, but that’s all in the future. First let me tell you about my impetuous youth and what made me join the Queen’s Own Rifles as their number one surgeon.” Giles does this with his opening chapter, introducing a minor character at the scene on the bridge, which is quickly forgotten. He refers to her at the end, nearly two hundred and sixty pages later, but my memory is unable to place her.

Another thing academics like to do is clutter their work with numerous factual asides, establishing for the reader who’s in charge. In a mere few pages it becomes quite clear that Giles is English and from one of the elite schools, all without reading the book jacket. Giles has a subconscious habit of establishing his credentials to the reader through didactic diction and pedantry, intellectual snobbery handed to him when he received his diploma. Why an author will do this at the risk of sabotaging their own work is beyond me. His credentials as a professional journalist and editor also probably overwhelmed his proofreaders, preventing them from commenting on another stylistic error, most irritating to the reader of a fast moving historical drama. He very often makes references or inference to someone or something at the end of a small passage that is so oblique the passage must be re-read to be understood. For example, first he might talk about a plane capable of breaking through the seventy thousand foot barrier, and then he might discuss the program to create said aircraft, and lastly his reference or inference will be to ‘it’. I don’t know how many times I had to re-read a passage to discover which one ‘it’ meant. One last thing I found troublesome was the introduction to a crowd of faceless characters. We are introduced to so many Beerlis, Donovans, Drozdovs, Meehans, Silvermans, Sudoplatovs, Von Broekers, et al that their significance becomes a distant memory. Since Giles has created a list of characters in the foreword, he deems it unnecessary to jog your memory with a gentle reminder. Forget who she is? Go look it up, doofus. Just the title of the cast as ‘Dramatis Personae’ should have been a clue to its subliminal academic tendencies, but I digress. Giles, overall I have given you a B plus for your work, but if you wish to receive a higher grade on your next assignment I shall expect less pedantics from you in the future, young man.

All facetiousness aside, ‘Bridge of Spies’ is more than a good read, relevant to understanding who we are and an important, accurate history of the days when nuclear holocaust was a very real possibility for people of my generation. I remember the days of air raid sirens atop telephone poles in rural neighborhoods and drills during grade school to bend and duck under desks. If I remember anything about my early youth, it was having to prepare for and face nuclear extinction as an eight-year old. Giles Whittell does an excellent job of bringing that era back to life.