Famous Exchange of Spies at Glienicker Bridge During the Cold War
The Cold War is a thing that is now history, but at one time it had the attention of the world as a monolithic Soviet Empire faced the Western World led by the USA. The Cold War commenced on the ruins of the defeat of Nazi Germany, when the Soviets under Josef Stalin attempted to export their brand of communism around the world. The West felt threatened and reacted harshly, by ringing the Soviet Union with a string of military bases. At that time Pakistan threw its lot with the USA, while India chose to steer an independent course.
The highpoint of the cold war was the blockade of Berlin ordered by Stalin in 1948. At that time the USA was the only power that had the A- Bomb and had demonstrated its lethal power, when it was used to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima, twin Japanese cities in August 1945. The Russians were thus wary of an armed conflict with the USA, never the less they blockaded Berlin. The USA and its allies began a round the clock air lift to Berlin and kept the city alive with supplies and food. Stalin was furious, but could do nothing, mainly as the Soviets had been unable to develop a A-Bomb.
In a secret meeting Stalin authorised the NKVD( Secret Police) chief Beria to try and ferret out the secret plans for manufacture of the Atomic Bomb. Possession of the bomb was vital for Soviet interests and parity with the USA. In the absence of the A- Bomb, Stalin had no choice but to climb down and call of the blockade. The NKVD got into action and selected Colonel Rudolph Abel of the Soviet Army and a long time member of the NKVD to proceed to the USA and infiltrate the American nuclear establishment. He had a one point agenda to bring out the US nuclear plans.
The real name of Colonel Abel was Vilayam Fisher and he was born in England of Russian parents. He came back to the Soviet Union and joined the Russian army. Later he was seconded to the espionage wing of the NKVD. Fisher had many aliases and passports and assumed different identities at various times as he travelled to and fro in the USA. Helped by a pair of renegade scientists who were inspired by communist ideals Rudolph Abel could transmit vital secrets to his mentors in Moscow. The value of the information provided by Abel has never been assessed, but in 1949 Russia was able to test a nuclear device, which came in handy as a deterrent during the Korean war( 1950-53).
Rudolph operated in the USA for years and despite the best efforts of the CIA and FBI, he was not caught. In between he built up a network of spies and contacts and for years fooled the FBI. However time ran out for Abel when Lt Colonel Reino Hayhanen of the Soviet secret police ( KGB) defected to the West at Paris in 1957. He revealed important information about Colonel Abel and the FBI could then arrest Colonel Abel. However the CIA and FBi kept the information of his arrest secret for weeks as they attempted to ' break' powers. They also offered him immunity and a new life in USA if he defected and became a double spy. Abel was offered a young American girl as a wife and the option to live his life later in the USA as well have children, if he became a double agent.
Colonel Abel refused as he wanted at some stage to get back to his wife and daughter in East Germany. The FBI then formally arrested him and committed him to trial. The role of James Donovan, the lawyer appointed by the court to defend Abel did yeoman's service when he convinced the Judge not to hand the death verdict to Abel. The Colonel was sentenced to 30 years in prison and escaped the death penalty.
The action of James Donovan who took his brief seriously was not liked in America and he began to receive hate mail and many Americans agitated against him outside his house. But James Donovan had done a great service to the USA as future events unfolded. President Eisenhower authorised secret flights over Russia for espionage activities, The planes would take off from Peshawar ( Pakistan) and fly across the Soviet Union and land in Norway. Peshawar had become a CIA base. The plane used for these flights was known as the U-2. It had high resolution cameras and could fly at an altitude of over 70,000 ft above MSL. The Russians were aware of these secret flights, but could do nothing as they did not have a missile to hit a flying object at that height. Nikita Khrushchev the Soviet leader was exasperated , but could do nothing.
The flights continued for 2 years and one of the veteran pilots was Francis Powers. He was earlier a USAF pilot, before he was recruited by the CIA. The Russians finally had a SAM and in 1959, one of the planes piloted by Powers was hit by a Soviet missile. Gary Powers was to self destruct the plane, but he failed to press the self destruction button and had to bail out. He was 1200 miles inside Russia and when he landed he was arrested by the KGB. Powers was taken to Moscow and put on trial as a spy.
The arrest of Powers had political implications and a later summit meeting was wrecked as Khrushchev demanded an apology and General Eisenhower refused. Powers was sentenced to 10 years in prison including hard labor. The loss of the plane and capture of Powers had a negative effect on US prestige and the CIA was keen to get its hands on Powers. They wanted to know what all he had told the Soviet secret police.
This was the time when senior CIA functionaries approached James Donovan and requested him to be the intermediary between the Soviet and US government sand ask for a prisoner swap. The Americans were prepared to exchange Col Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. James Donovan flew to Berlin and began a long and tortuous negotiation for a prisoner swap. It is a tribute to the skill of James Donovan that he could convince the Russians to exchange Powers for Abel.
Finally on 10 February 1962 the exchange took place on the bridge that was the border between East and West berlin. Abel was brought from the state prison at Atlanta by a USAF plane and taken to Berlin. The exchange took place well after midnight. It was the first ever exchange of spies by the superpowers and remains a landmark in espionage history.
Col Abel settled in Russia and gave lectures to school students. He died at the age of 69 of lung cancer. Powers returned to the USA, but was cold shouldered by the CIA. He died in 1978 in a helicopter crash. But decades later Gary Powers was reinstated as a war hero and given a burial at the famous Arlington cemetery. This remains a thrilling episode in espionage history and one that even now does not fail to excite.
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