Patrick's Reviews > Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War

Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell
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Jun 24, 2011

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This was an interesting book about the cold war, focussing on an exchange of prisoners between the US and USSR in 1962. The exchange involved two Americans, Francis Powers, the pilot from a U2 spy plane shot down over Russia, and Frederic Pryor, and American student who was not involved in spying but was unfortunate enough to cross into East Germany a few days after the Berlin Wall went up and be arrested by the Stasi, and Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy living in New York City and trolling for details about the US nuclear program, who was captured by the FBI. The story of the how the deal was brokered is amazing considering the animosity the two superpowers had for each other, especially after a failed conference in Paris where Kruschev, originally planning on proposing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the US, instead took a very aggressive tone due to the uncovering of the U2 spy plane missions. The figures involved put a lot on the line to have these political prisoners brought home.
What was just as interesting about the book to me was the overall view of the Cold War at the time, 1950's-early 60's. I was born in 1981 and was pretty young when the Cold War ended in 1989-90. I can remember being enemies with Russia but never had to practice crawling under my desk at school. However, it seems much of the Cold War has been swept under the rug of history. At least I don't hear much about it anymore which is strange considering it was our major political-military motivation for the second half of the 20th century. The book does a good job going back and talking about the early years of the Cold War, the motivations and fears that spurred both sides. Perhaps the biggest fear on both sides was that of nuclear attack, and that idea plays a central role in the book. The main reason for the U2 spy plane program was to spy on the USSR's nuclear capabilities. Mr Whittel does a good job explaining all the sides of the story and how the major players arrived at their decisions. He has done exhaustive research and interviewed all the characters from the narrative that are still alive. All in all the author has done a good job putting the downing of the U2 spy plane in its larger historical context. The incident was responsible for a re-hardening of positions on both sides just as it seemed Eisenhower and Kruschev might be able to broker some sort of lasting peace. However, he also explains how even after both sides took hard line approaches, they were still able to broker the prisoner exchange that let three people be returned to their homes.
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