The “Cold War” prisoner exchange is the story of a prisoner exchange between the US and USSR in 1962, at the height of the “Cold War.”  Currently, it is being depicted in the movie “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Anyone over the age of 60 remembers the so-called “Cold War” between the US and the USSR – drills in schools where kids cowered under their desks (like that would do any good in the event of a nuclear attack), Russian missiles in Cuba, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on his desk while speaking at the UN.  Those were scary times, tense times.  Many people feared the world would end at any time in the fireball of a nuclear holocaust.  That was the historical context of the Cold War prisoner exchange.

There were a lot of intracacies and subplots to the situation, but basically, we had their spy, Rudolf Abel, and they had our U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers.  Each one possessed significant sensitive information.  Therefore, each country wanted its man back – badly.  An additional complication was that East Germany was detaining an American graduate student, Frederic Pryor, who was an innocent pawn in the drama.  Furthermore, the US could not be seen as negotiating with East Germany because, officially, it did not recognize East Germany as a “country.”  It needed the negotiations to be handled by a non-government person, in secret, without official sanction.  That is the essence of the back story.

Enter James Donovan.  Donovan was not a diplomat.  He was not an experienced negotiator per se.  He was not connected to the government in any way.  He was simply a partner in a NY-based law firm specializing in insurance cases.  There was nothing in his background that prepared him to negotiate an extremely delicate prisoner exchange with the Soviets and East Germans at the height of the Cold War in East Berlin without any official government sanction or protection.  He had defended Abel in 1957 as a favor to the Brooklyn Bar Association in order that Abel, heinous as his crimes were, could receive the “due process” guaranteed by the US Constitution.  Abel, an extremely successful Soviet spy, had been found guilty of espionage and “failing to register as a foreign agent.”  (In the movie, the Abel character responds to that absurd charge by asking facetiously how many foreign agents actually bother to register?)  Even though Abel was convicted, Donovan managed to save him from being executed.  In a remarkable piece of foresight Donovan had argued successfully that by keeping Abel in prison the US could possibly use him prospectively in exchange for a valuable American held by the Soviets.

That opportunity arose when the Soviets captured Powers in 1960.  Powers had been flying a U-2 spy plane, equipped with the latest and most sensitive surveillance equipment over Russian soil.  The Russians tried and convicted Powers of espionage and sentenced him to ten years. The government (CIA?) convinced Donovan, whom Abel trusted, to negotiate unofficially.  They were not really interested in securing Pryor’s release, but Donovan was.  He had to travel to East Berlin as a private citizen without diplomatic “cover” and negotiate with shadowy people who were likely connected to Soviet  and East German espionage agencies.  At the time, East Berlin was a very dangerous and lawless place.  The Berlin Wall had just been constructed.  Donovan had to deal not only with the East German police, who often acted as they pleased, but also gangs of thieves who roamed wild and unfettered.  Additionally, the obvious risk was that if things were to go “sideways,” he was on his own.

Another complication was that even though the USSR had some degree of control over East Germany the latter had its own agenda, which did not necessarily coincide with that of the former.  There were many twists and turns, but ultimately Donovan not only pulled it off, but he also managed to secure Pryor’s release.  On February 10, 1962 Abel and Powers were exchanged at the Glienicke Bridge, which separated East and West Berlin, and Pryor was released through “Checkpoint Charlie.”  This was a tremendous feat accomplished under the most trying circumstances.


So what became of Donovan, Powers and Pryor?  A few years later, Donovan successfully negotiated the release of 1,100 survivors of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and 8,500 political prisoners from Cuba. Later, he became vice president of the NYC Board of Education and president of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  He ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1962.  He died in 1970.

Powers was not exactly received as a conquering hero upon his return.  Many thought he should have destroyed the plane and the sensitive equipment onboard rather than permit it to fall into Soviet hands and/or taken the “optional” suicide pill provided by the CIA.  He was called to testify before the Senate Armed Services Select Committee (whose members included Barry Goldwater and Prescott Bush – George’s father and W’s grandfather).  Eventually, it was determined that he had followed orders and had not divulged any crucial information to his captors.  Powers worked as a test pilot for Lockheed Aviation and then as a helicopter reporter for a news station in Los Angeles where he died in 1977 in a tragic helicopter crash while on the job.

Pryor achieved success as an academic at various well-known universities as both a professor and researcher.  In addition, he has written over a dozen books primarily dealing with the economy in communist countries.  Currently, he lives in the Philadelphia area.


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