Francis Gary Powers Gets His Silver Star

Cold War closure and its meaning for today.

In 1960 Francis Gary Powers flew a U-2 over the Soviet Union and was shot down, interrogated and imprisoned. Last week, the U.S. Air Force finally gave Powers the Silver Star, more than half a century after the fact but better late than never. Powers’ heroism remains particularly relevant today.

Military men at last weeks’ ceremony said it “boggles the mind” what they asked Powers to do. As Brig. Gen. Kevin Chilton put it, that was to fly over Moscow “alone, unarmed and unafraid, then to suffer in prison during what indeed was a war, the Cold War.” For many that conflict is a cloud of unknowing, and U-2 evokes only a rock and roll band, not the spy plane Powers flew.

The United States and its NATO allies needed such a plane because the USSR remained Stalinist and imperialist even after Stalin’s death in 1953.  A totalitarian state is a difficult place to run intelligence operations, but the West needed to know what the Soviet military was doing. In 1954 the first of 30 U-2 planes emerged from the Lockheed “Skunk Works,” built in only 88 days. The U-2, called the “Dragon Lady,” could fly higher than any Soviet aircraft, out of range from the Soviet surface-to-air missiles of the time.

One of the first U-2 pilots was Air Force Lt. Francis Gary Powers, already a veteran of reconnaissance missions. Powers overflew Soviet territory under the guise of weather missions. Soviet agents at the Bodo base in Norway leaked flight plans and routes to Moscow. Soviet MIGs intercepted Powers at lower altitude over Sverdlosk and shot down his U-2. Powers fell into the hands of the KGB, whose interrogation teams worked him over for 107 days without getting what they wanted. The Soviets then put Powers on trial for espionage and sentenced him to 10 years, but in 1962 they traded him for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.

It was a key transaction of the Cold War, but Powers got a rather cold reception back in the USA. Some Americans, including his daughter’s teacher, thought he should have killed himself, and said so in front of the class. Powers endured the criticism and worked as a test pilot for Lockheed until 1970. He went on to fly a news helicopter for a television station in Los Angeles, hardly a job in keeping with his talent and experience. He died tragically in a 1977 crash, so he was not around to see the end of the Cold War and the demise of the USSR. Perhaps he could have compared notes with his KGB interrogators.

In 2000, after some details of his 1960 mission had been declassified, the U.S. government awarded Powers the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Department of Defense Prisoner of War Medal, and National Defense Service Medal. Now he has the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award, but the criticism once thrown his way should now be replaced with respect, for good reason.

Asked what he thought of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan said, “We win, they lose.” We did win, not a shooting war but a conflict of covert operations, spycraft, secret reconnaissance and such. That depended on people like Francis Gary Powers, willing to fly unarmed over hostile territory, endure brutal interrogation, and spend years in a Soviet prison.

The West also out-produced the Soviet Union, another key to victory. The U-2 remains in service today, outlasting the SR-71 “Blackbird” and still accomplishing tasks surveillance satellites, for all their sophistication, cannot manage. The U-2 served in Vietnam, in Iraq, and more recently helped enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. Not bad for an airplane first built in the 1950s.

As George Will has noted, in wartime you want to have the best soldiers and the best equipment. Fight with the second-best and you have two choices: bluff or fold. The Cold War is over but the United States and its allies face adversaries such as North Korea, a Stalinist holdout, and Iran, a militant theocracy now striving to gain nuclear weapons.

The leaders of North Korea and Iran do not disclose their plans. The United States and its allies have to find those out for themselves and act accordingly, as in the days of Francis Gary Powers. In 2012, as in 1960, bluffing and folding are not options.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.  

Tags: Cold War, USSR