10 February 1962: On this day in Berlin history, the US spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel at the Glienicke Bridge, between West Berlin and Potsdam. A key event in the Cold War and one depicted in the Steven Spielberg film ‘Bridge of Spies’.
The ‘U2 Incident’, which resulted in Powers’ capture came at a particularly tense period of the Cold War. Powers’ mission was to photograph missile bases in Kazakhstan and Russia, in aid of the US counter nuclear strategy. His Lockheed U2C spy plane took off from US base Peshawar in Pakistan on the 1st of May 1960. The Soviets were ready. When Powers’ plane entered their airspace, Soviet command scrambled several fighters to intercept him. However, they were unable to reach the plane due to the extreme height of above 21 kilometres. Eventually coming into range of a Surface-to-Air missile site in the Ural region, Powers’ plane was hit. The explosion to the rear of the aircraft left the plane careening out of control – but with the cockpit still intact, the pilot was able to eject and parachute to safety. He was arrested quickly and taken into Soviet custody, where he was sentenced to 10 years in jail.
The timing was difficult for the United States. Powers’ arrest came just before the four power Paris conference between leaders of France, the UK, the USA, and the Soviet Union. Even more embarrassing, President Eisenhower had initially claimed he had no knowledge of the flight, but finally admitted the existence of the U2 spying program and justified their use as part of US defence planning. At the Paris conference, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev publicly demanded an apology. When Eisenhower refused, the conference was ended (after only two days) and an offer for the US President to visit the USSR was rescinded. The conference – far from easing the Cold War temperature – unexpectedly ratcheted up the heat leading into the cauldron of the 1960s.
Fortunately for U2 pilot Powers, the United States had a spy ready to exchange – Rudolf Abel. In 1957, Abel (real name William August Fisher) was arrested after a defecting Soviet spy informed on him. Without his former colleagues’ defection, it is likely Abel would have remained undetected, having come under no suspicion during his 9 years as a Soviet spy in the USA. Abel never considered defection himself, knowing that to do so would have forfeited his ever seeing his wife or daughter again. During his trial for espionage, his defence attorney, James B. Donovan argued Abel should be spared the death penalty, for the purposes of future spy exchanges.
Donovan’s arguments would prove to be prescient. In 1962, he would be sent to negotiate the exchange spy swap in Berlin. Although the CIA was opposed to the swap, President Kennedy approved it. In addition to Powers, an American student accused of espionage, Frederic Pryor, would also be traded for Abel. On February 10th, Abel and Powers were brought to the Glienicke Bridge in Potsdam, where they were exchanged. Pryor meanwhile would be handed over at Checkpoint Charlie.
A visit to the famous Bridge of Spies is a highlight of any Potsdam tour.
This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember in February. See what else made the cut on our blog.