LINDSAY: This archive edition episode of History Daily originally aired on February 10th, 2022.
It’s May 1st, 1960. High above the Soviet Union, an American U-2 spy-plane soars through cloudless skies.
The U-2 is a single-seater airplane operated by the American intelligence agency, the CIA. In its cramped cockpit, sits 30-year-old pilot Gary Powers.
Powers is surrounded by switches and dials; it’s not just the plane he has to control, but the onboard cameras, tape recorders, radars, and radios. As he flies over the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains, Powers reaches down to a small joystick at his side. It controls the cameras beneath the plane. He adjusts the focus, then squeezes the shutter button to take a photograph of the enemy territory below.
The United States and the Soviet Union were allies during the Second World War. But in the fifteen years since their joint victory over the Nazis, mutual suspicion between the superpowers has fueled a global cold war. It's a conflict that always teeters on the edge of violence. Both powers have atomic bombs in their arsenals; any misjudgment or provocation could lead to nuclear Armageddon.
With trust in short supply, both America and the Soviet Union are desperate to find out what the other is up to. For the CIA, the U-2 spy-plane is a key asset. It cruises at 70,000 feet well beyond the range of any Soviet aircraft; and as far as the Americans know, the Russians can't strike that high with their anti-aircraft missiles either.
The pilot of this U-2, Gary Powers, has flown over 27 missions in the spy-plane. But this is his most daring yet. Gary’s objective is to fly all the way across the Soviet Union, before landing in Norway. Along the way, Powers is to take photographs of missile installations, nuclear bomb facilities, and other military sites the Soviets may have hidden deep within their territory. It’s dangerous work, but so far… uneventful.
But then, hours into the flight, a flash of light streaks across Powers’ helmet visor. He barely has time to turn his head …before the air explodes just behind his plane.
As Powers struggles to maintain control of the aircraft, he sees another streak, and another flash followed by a second explosion, this one even closer. The force of the buffets the spy-plane violently. Alarms blare out in the cockpit as the plane’s engine sputters, before failing completely.
Then there is a sudden eerie silence. The nose of the plane dips and the U-2 spirals down toward the earth.
The U-2 Incident, as this encounter will come to be called, will spark a crisis in the Cold War. It will derail the fragile peace between the US and the Soviet Union and force both countries into a tense negotiation that will culminate in a spy swap on February 10th, 1962.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is February 10th, 1962: The Cold War Spy Swap.
Act One: The Cover-up
It’s May 2nd, 1960, one day after Gary Powers’ plane went down.
A helicopter takes off from Camp David, a presidential retreat in Maryland. On board the helicopter, code named Marine One, is President Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the aircraft lifts into the sky, the 69-year-old Commander in Chief stares out the window. Aides perch on seats beside Eisenhower, but they know better than to interrupt his thoughts.
The usually animated President is quiet. He’s just received news he's long feared. An American spy-plane has been shot down over the Soviet Union. The pilot is missing and assumed dead.
Eisenhower is in the last months of his eight-year Presidency. He came to power at the height of the Red Scare, a period when fears of Communism drove the American population to near hysteria. His administration has since grappled with the escalating Cold War. Now, as he nears the end of his time in office, Eisenhower is determined to leave his successor a more constructive relationship with the Soviet Union.
Central to those hopes is an east-west summit planned in Paris in just two weeks’ time. Along with British and French leaders, Eisenhower will meet with the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The hope is that a successful summit with his Soviet counterpart will finally ease the catastrophic threat of nuclear confrontation. But the news the President just received from the CIA puts all of that at risk.
On the Marine One flight to the White House, Eisenhower ponders what to do about the downed spy-plane. The CIA has suggested a cover-up. That doesn’t sit easily with the President. If Khrushchev finds out about the deception, all the work Eisenhower has done to build up trust could be ruined. But if the Americans are honest about the U-2, the Soviets will know from their own admission that the U.S. has been spying on them.
Eisenhower is trapped between two far less-than-ideal choices. When Marine One lands in Washington, he reluctantly gives the go-ahead for the CIA’s cover-up. With the plane assumed destroyed and the pilot dead, he hopes his administration will be able to lie their way out of the situation.
Soon, the U.S. government issues a statement. They claim the U-2 plane was on a mission to study the weather and that the pilot reported technical difficulties before straying into Soviet airspace where he crashed. But Eisenhower and his advisers do not yet realize that the pilot Gary Powers is alive and well, and in the hands of the Soviets.
It’s May 15th, 1960, at the US Embassy in Paris, France.
President Eisenhower waits inside for a car that will take him to the long-planned summit with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Eisenhower clasps his hands behind his back, pacing back and forth. It’s his habit when he’s nervous, and he has good reason to be today.
The Summit couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. A few days ago, the Soviets announced to the world that the plane shot down over the USSR was not on a weather mission, as the Americans claimed – it was espionage, and the Soviets have proof.
They have the wreckage of the plane and its spying equipment. And they have the pilot, Gary Powers. The U.S. Government assumed the CIA pilot died in the crash. But Powers survived and was taken prisoner by the Soviets.
The mission and the failed cover-up are deeply embarrassing for Eisenhower. Some in America have even called for the President’s resignation. He hopes this summit would crown his time in the Oval Office with a treaty that set the Soviet Union and America on a pathway to peace. Instead, all anyone can talk about is the spy-plane.
When Eisenhower hears a knock on the door of the embassy, he stops his pacing. An aide appears and tells him the car has come.
Soon the President arrives at the summit, and he is joined by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and French President Charles De Gaulle. They’ve already spoken to Khrushchev in private and they know the Soviet Premier is furious.
Indeed, almost as soon as the Summit begins, Khrushchev demands Eisenhower apologize. When Eisenhower refuses, Khrushchev walks out of the summit and rejects any further negotiations.
Eisenhower’s hopes for the Summit have collapsed. There will be no triumphant peace deal to mark the end of his time in office. Instead, Eisenhower will leave the White House with relations between the superpowers at a new low.
And soon, the task of forging a new peace with the Society will fall to Eisenhower’s successor, President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy will also have to deal with another issue: what to do about pilot Gary Powers. As Kennedy sets out to deal with the crisis, Khrushchev will make one thing perfectly clear: if the Americans want their pilot back, they will have to give the Soviets something in return.
Act Two: Fisher
It’s 7 AM on June 21st, 1957.
In a tiny hotel room in downtown New York, a scrawny 53-year-old named Willie Fisher is fast asleep when there’s a knock on the door to his room. The man blinks himself awake, then grumbles, and gets up to answer the door.
He sees there’s a man outside. He flashes an FBI badge and calls out through the door: “Mr. Collins?”
Fisher hesitates, then says “yes” and opens the door a crack.
“Mr. Collins” is one of the many aliases Willie Fisher has used since he first came to America. He speaks fluent English, with an accent people often mistake for Scottish. But Fisher is, in fact, a Soviet spy. He was born in England to communists parents. Later, they returned from England to the Soviet Union, where Willie Fisher grew up and learned the art of spycraft.
In 1948, his superiors sent him to America. For nine years, he lived undercover. Using different names and posing as an artist, Fisher ran a network of Soviet spies who smuggled nuclear secrets out of America. But soon, Fisher will learn that one of his comrades has betrayed him.
Fisher’s deputy was a lazy drunk. He was so incompetent that officials in Moscow ordered him to return to the homeland. Scorned, the deputy turned informant and told the FBI everything he knew, including where to find his boss, Willie Fisher.
Now, Fisher sits on the bed in the hotel room as the FBI man questions him but Fisher says nothing. But his stonewalling doesn’t prevent the agents from uncovering the truth. They find shortwave radios, cipher pads, and cameras. They also find thousands of dollars in cash and encrypted messages hidden on microfilm.
The FBI attempt to flip Fisher; to make him a double-agent, one who works for them against the Soviets. But Fisher is a loyal Communist, a true believer, and he doesn’t cooperate. He’s subjected to lengthy interrogations, but he reveals nothing, not even his name.
Unable to recruit Fisher, the U.S. Government prosecutes him for espionage. At a trial in November 1957, Fisher is convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Fisher is lucky he is not sentenced to death. He is allowed to live because his lawyer, James B. Donovan, convinces the judge that one day Willie Fisher may prove useful.
It’s February 3rd, 1962, in Germany.
A cold wind whips across the tracks of a train station. On the platform, Willie Fisher’s lawyer James B. Donovan squints into the distance. He can just make out a train approaching. The 45-year-old American wraps his coat tighter around his waist and ponders the strange course of events that have led him here to West Berlin.
It began with Donovan’s choice to defend Willie Fisher in court. Donovan’s decision invited the scorn of the public; protesters picketed his family’s apartment building, accusing the fastidious lawyer of being a Soviet sympathizer. Donovan certainly came to respect his client for his clear intelligence and his ability to speak five languages. But Donovan was no traitor and no friend of the communists. He had served in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War and after, he helped prosecute Nazis for war crimes.
While he was working on the Fisher case, Donovan did make contact with a person claiming to be Willie Fisher’s wife, but was in fact, a member of the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB. Four years after Fisher’s conviction, this agent contacted Donovan again. This time, she wanted to discuss a spy exchange. If the Americans were willing to release Willie Fisher, the Soviets would free the U-2 pilot Gary Powers.
With the approval of the U.S. Government, Donovan has traveled here to West Berlin to negotiate the exchange. But he’s been warned. Once he crosses into Communist East Berlin, he’s on his own; if anything goes wrong, the American government will claim complete ignorance of all his activities.
Soon, the train he's been waiting for rattles into the station, and Donovan quickly hops on board, eager to escape the icy wind. In a few moments, the train moves off again, carrying the American lawyer into East Berlin where negotiations will begin at the Soviet Embassy.
The talks with the KGB will last for days. And each night, Donovan will return to the Hilton Hotel in Berlin to report his progress to a CIA handler. In the end, Donavan will broker a deal with the Soviets. And the two spies, the artist Willie Fisher and pilot Gary Powers, will go free.
Act Three: The Swap
It’s before dawn on February 10th, 1962, in Berlin.
The Glienicke Bridge spans the border between Communist East Germany and Capitalist West Berlin. A car stops at a checkpoint on the East German end of the bridge. The rear door to the car opens, and CIA pilot Gary Powers climbs out wearing a heavy coat and a Russian fur hat.
As KGB agents escort him onto the bridge, Powers’ legs tremble. He’s already decided that if something goes wrong with the exchange, he’s going to make a break for the other side figuring a bullet in the back is better than returning to the Soviet prison he was held captive in.
Two years ago, in August 1960, Powers pleaded guilty to espionage charges in Moscow. He was sentenced to 10 years; three in prison and then seven more doing hard labor. But his incarceration a hundred and fifty miles east of Moscow was cut short in early February of this year when news arrived an agreement had been made to swap him for a Soviet spy.
Now, accompanied by KGB agents, Powers walks toward the center of the Glienicke Bridge. A white line marks the boundary between east and west. A group of men waits on the other side. One of them, an American, steps forward and crosses the painted border to approach Powers.
He shakes Powers’ hand and asks, “What was the name of your high-school football coach?” It’s a security question meant to verify his identity. Powers remembers filling it in on a form years ago. But today, in the strain of the moment, he can’t remember. Powers’ mind is blank. He knows that if he can’t come up with a name, they might not take him. So Powers blurts out the names of his wife, his mother, his dog, desperate to convince these men that he is who he says he is.
The American and the rest of the men return to the western side of the bridge to confer. Finally, after a long wait, at 8:52 AM, they wave Powers forward. He glances at the KGB men, but they make no move to stop him as he walks across the border. At the exact same time, a scrawny man in his fifties passes him from the other side.
Gary Powers and Willie Fisher are both free.
In the aftermath of the spy swap, both countries declare the prisoner exchange a victory. In America, Kennedy’s White House holds a triumphant late-night conference that lands the story of Powers’ release on the front page of The Washington Post and New York Times. After his release, Powers retires from the CIA to become a private pilot. But for years, he has nightmares about his time as a prisoner in Russia. He will later die in a helicopter crash. After which the American government will award him the Silver Star for valor.
The spy swap of pilot Gary Powers for artist Willie Fisher did not ease the tensions of the Cold War. Throughout the several decades after the swap, the two superpowers’ attempts at espionage and hard-nosed diplomacy only continued, reaching its first new peak only months after the swap during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But for a small moment, an agreement was reached when an American lawyer from the Bronx arranged a deal with the KGB, setting CIA pilot Gary Powers free on February 10th, 1962.
Next on History Daily.February 13th, 1935. Carpenter Bruno Hauptmann is convicted of the abduction and murder of the 20-month-old son of famous American aviator, Charles Lindbergh – a case that will make kidnapping a federal crime.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.