Perhaps I’m a tad paranoid because today I’m writing about the 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial moments in the Cold War. And one that the CIA had its greasy tentacles all over. By the way, some historians postulate that we didn’t so much win the Cold War against the Russians as we outspent them.
Some think those were better days. Sure there was the threat of nuclear annihilation, but at least the country wasn’t broke and planes weren’t flying into skyscrapers. (Not to mention those unbearable Bin Laden basement tapes.)
In memory of that era I wrote a satirical screenplay, “The Last Straw,” about rogue KGB and CIA agents longing to re-ignite the Cold War. Instead of saving the world from communism, grumpy CIA operative Rollie Southern curses that he’s reduced to having to learn Arabic from Berlitz tapes on a recorder made in China!
But, dear readers, that’s the end of the comedy portion of today’s missive as I reflect back on May 1, 1960. Up to that point that was clearly the most ominous day in the life of 30-year-old American pilot Francis Gary Powers. The son of a Virginia coal miner and raised during the depression, he was on a CIA spy mission when he and his U-2 reconnaissance plane were shot down and captured in Russia. (At the subsequent trial Powers potentially faced the death penalty.)
When the truth came out the incident embarrassed America in the eyes of the world. It also derailed President Eisenhower’s highly anticipated peace summit with the Soviets scheduled for only two weeks later.
The ultra-sleek U-2 was basically a glider equipped with a jet engine. Precarious to fly, it could, however, cruise above 70,000 feet, out of range of Soviet artillery. Or so we thought.
Powers, who had flown numerous and dangerous spy missions for years, was now a powerless pawn in a Moscow show trial. He was sentenced to 10 years, three in a cold, foreboding prison and seven to be in a work camp.
But, after 21 months in a Russian prison, we finally come to what took place 50 years ago, today. On a foggy pre-dawn at the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, and in a scene right out of a spy movie, Gary Powers was exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. But, while Abel was greeted in Russia as a returning hero, Powers was not.
Powers was subjected to weeks of intense CIA debriefing and public criticism. (And even death threats.) The left criticized him for his part in the war machine and the right for his not having killed himself and destroyed the U-2 when faced with capture. (Ignoring that those were never his orders.)
There were much publicized Senate hearings that, if they went poorly for Powers, there was talk that he might be charged with treason. But after his Senate testimony, Powers received a standing ovation and a commendation that he had “performed well under dangerous circumstances.” (A slight understatement considering Powers had been shot down from 70,000 feet.)
As it happens, in my Dec. 16, 2011 column (“Drone, drone on the range”) I mentioned Powers and the U-2 incident. Gleaned from Internet sites, I noted that Powers had suspected CIA sabotage of his flight to destroy the upcoming summit with the Russians.
My column posted at 5 p.m. and seemingly at 5:05 I got an e-mail emphatically denying that Powers believed the sabotage scenario. As perhaps only I can, I assumed the CIA was reading my columns!
When I finally stopped hyperventilating, I noticed the e-mail was from Gary Powers Jr. So, to set the record straight on the so-called sabotage, I stand corrected. (Actually, I’m sitting.)
Powers Jr. did share something about his father and Lee Harvey Oswald, whose military training included radar and had been stationed at a U-2 base. Powers Sr. thought it likely that Oswald divulged to the Soviets the U-2’s cruising altitude. (Which begs the eternal question, how did Oswald get back into the U.S., but don’t get me started.)
Francis Gary Powers was a Cold War warrior mistreated by his government. But there is some justice. This past December, the Air Force announced that in 2012 it will posthumously award Powers the prestigious Silver Star.
“It is vindication of my father 50 years afterwards,’ Powers Jr. said. “Dad is one of our American heroes.”
I second the motion.