Before BRIDGE OF SPIES: America’s Cover Up Of The 1960 U-2 Incident

This weekend marks the opening of a new Steven Spielberg movie called Bridge of Spies. It stars Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, an American lawyer recruited by the CIA to help rescue a pilot detained in the Soviet Union. The movie is based on true events, but spends the majority of its time on Donovan’s quest to save American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.

On May 1, 1960, Powers got in his U-2 spy plane and flew over the Soviet Union. The Soviet Air Defense Forces detected the plane, went on red alert and eventually downed the plane, with Powers bailing out of the aircraft and parachuting safely to the ground, where he was captured.

A couple days after Powers was captured NASA issued a release saying that the US government had been using U-2 planes to study meteorological conditions in the upper layers of the atmosphere. One of the planes, they said, disappeared while in Turkish air space and could have crashed in Turkey’s Lake Van after the pilot reported an equipment malfunction.

In a Supreme Soviet session a couple days later, Nikita Khrushchev publicly revealed some of the details of the U-2 incident, though he did not reveal that the Soviets had recovered some of the plane and had Powers in custody. The US didn’t flinch, with both the State Department and NASA reiterating their story and providing further details on their “meteorological mission”.

You could assume that the Russians were giddy with excitement at their situation. They had caught the Americans in a massive lie and held all the keys, and the Americans didn’t know how much they knew. They teased out information and the United States decided to defend their story, unaware of the fact that the Soviets had both Powers and the plane.

After a couple more days, Khrushchev dropped the hammer. He announced that Powers was alive and in the USSR. After that, the United States had no choice. They admitted that they had flown into Soviet Union airspace and that they had been doing it for a number of years in an effort to collect information on the USSR. President Dwight D. Eisenhower admitted that he issued orders to collect information on the Soviets by any means because it was necessary to protect America and the free world (and defend against potential surprise attacks).

As U.S. News succinctly puts it, the incident was an “international humiliation for the White House.” Things changed after that incident, with US — Soviet relations worsened and the former halting its manned flights over USSR airspace (instead, they turned to satellites). Eisenhower canceled his planned trip to the Soviet Union and a summit conference planned in Paris did not happen.

This was an extremely tense time, and it is this climate in which Donovan had to negotiate the swap of Powers and Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who Donovan had defended in court five years prior to the swap negotiations. Bridge of Spies takes Donovan, who very much believes in the ideals of the United States constitution and puts him in between Soviet Union negotiators and US officials who have no problem shitting on the constitution to do what they need to do. You can watch it in theaters starting today.

Originally published at

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