Pretty good book. Doc hasn’t seen the moving picture of the same name, with that Tom Hanks fella from “Big” and a handful of other pictures, but when I cracked this book open, I was expecting the Hanks character to have a hell of a bigger role, assuming the movie previews were any indication. Man, was I wrong. And that don’t matter a lick, I just thought it was worth tossing out there.
“Bridge of Spies” is an excellent read about the events leading up to the first event that’s come to be known as “spy-swaps” between the US and the Soviet Union. Drawing heavily on the author’s personal interviews with some of the main players 50 years ago, as well as letters and memoirs of those no longer with us, the book walks us step-by-step through the circumstances that found the three men accused of espionage to begin with and who would become part of this swap meet. The Hanks character, James Donovan, doesn’t really make much of an appearance until the final chapter.
The character we already know the most about, probably because of the amount of chatter he created this side of the Iron Curtain at the time of his capture, was Frances Gary Powers. Powers was a former Air Force pilot who signed on with the CIA to fly the Lockheed’s new U-2 high altitude photo reconnaissance plane under the aegis of collecting weather data. The only weather he was collecting was “weather” or not (heh heh) the Soviets had the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles Khrushchev was trying to frighten the West with at the time. Our analysts at the time surmised that, based on the Soviet leader’s statements and other information deduced, the Reds had probably targeted the US with anywhere from 200 to 400 missiles capable of flying that far to deliver destruction. Hindsight being a funny little thing, as it turns out, Khrushchev only had 4 such missiles. But it’s for purposes of collecting that ground truth that our U-2 pilots were asked to penetrate Soviet airspace and put their lives at risk.
Powers did just that, and for a number of reasons or as the result of curious circumstances, his U-2 was brought down in pieces. Whittell provides an outstanding retelling of Powers’s struggle to free himself from the U-2, which without its wings turned out to be as aerodynamic as a dumpster. Eventually he does free himself, where he is shortly met by friendly Russians whose eyes must have popped when they discover he’s an American. Shortly after his recovery, and being relieved of his handgun, he is whisked away by the Soviet authorities. In short order, Khrushchev uses him deftly as a pawn in his chess match with Eisenhower, who shortly after Powers was shot down, believes (along with almost everyone else in Washington) that the pilot had died in the crash. No pilot (so the line of thought went) could survive a fall from 70,000+ feet. Even so, had the pilot survived, the unwritten rule was that he would make use of the pin dipped in a deadly amount of curare, thus avoiding pesky interrogations and ungainly torture. And of course, to preclude any embarrassment to the US. Funny thing about unwritten rules, though – if they ain’t written down, they’re tough to know about, and even tougher to enforce.
Another player traveled through the book with about twelve names, the most famous of which was Rudolph Abel. Abel, born Willie Fisher, was a Soviet intelligence officer who, by all accounts (and it goes without saying, very much so in Whittell’s eyes), was as sloppy a spy as they come. Tom Hanks, who operates under the name James Donovan, elects to be Abel’s lawyer when he is arrested and charged with conspiracy. Donovan is an insurance lawyer at this point, but it would appear that he’s got some serious Washington DC connections. He’s not the greatest lawyer, but it can be argued that he kept Abel’s neck out of a noose when his espionage activities started to come to light. Because he was working for the USSR, and because this book is written primarily in English, Abel is the least sympathetic character in the book, just ahead of Ike.
The third of our choirboys is actually the least likely to have been an actual spy. Frederic Pryor had the poor fortune to be in Berlin when the first barbed wire genesis of the Berlin Wall appeared; stopped at the border, his car was found to be loaded with his economics notes – surely, as damning a block of evidence as you can find. As Whittell explains in the book, it’s not so much that Pryor was spying, as reading books (and taking notes from them) that he wasn’t given permission to access. He wasn’t prevented from it – they were simply available on a bookshelf that he wasn’t told he could use. As a result, he found himself a guest of the Stasi (East Germany’s State Security) in a cell where he began wasting away, wondering what the hell just happened.
Of all the people in this Cold War cocktail, it’s actually Powers’s cantankerous father, Oliver, who came up with the idea of swapping Abel for Powers – in fact, he wrote directly to Abel, asking what he would think of such an arrangement. The CIA felt peeved that Abel was being contacted out of the blue by the parent of a high-profile prisoner in the Soviet Union, and possibly a little out of sorts that they hadn’t thought of it first. Donovan, meanwhile, as Abel’s lawyer, caught wind of the letter, and tried to move things in that direction – not so much because he felt that what had happened to Powers was a travesty of justice, but (according to Whittell) had political aspirations, and felt this might be his foot in the door.
In two shakes of a year and a half, the exchange is happening. Pryor was fortunate enough to be thrown in, since it would be considered a valuable and easy way to show that the US views East Germany as a legitimate government by negotiating with them at this level. Still, as an also-ran, Pryor suffered the indignity of being moved through Checkpoint Charlie, and not on Berlin’s Glienecke Bridge. Pity for him, because he never got to meet Tom Hanks.
Doc’s one of them folks who likes facts to be facts in his non-fiction. Something happens in real life, and it’s being documented in a book that purports to be non-fiction, you’d sort of expect it to either be left out if it ain’t all that important, or to be rendered with some level of accuracy if it’s deemed worthy of inclusion. In his Epilogue, Whittell talks about what happened to each of the main characters in this tale. I came to a screeching halt when I read that Powers died in a helicopter accident in 1975 – he actually died in 1977. How can such a rudimentary fact be erroneously written down? Wish I knew. And stuff like that tends to call other details into question. But I’m going to give Whittell the benefit of the doubt. He deftly juggles three storylines and a broad cast of characters not seen since the likes of ‘War and Peace’. I’ll spot him this one. But if I find out that Powers never actually did get released, Whittell’s going to have some serious damned explaining to do.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the dog’s breakfast and 10 being dinner at the Ritz, Doc gives this gripping read a solid B+.