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This Day In History: Soviets Exchanged An American For A Russian Spy

February 10, 2017

This day in history, February 10, 1962, Francis Gary Powers, an American who was shot down over the Soviet Union while flying a CIA spy plane in 1960, was released by the Soviets in exchange for the U.S. release of a Russian spy.

Powers had been a pilot of one of the high altitude U-2 spy planes developed by the United States in the late-1950’s. Supposedly invulnerable to any Soviet antiaircraft defense, the U-2’s flew numerous missions over Russia, photographing military installations.

On May 1, 1960, Powers’ U-2 was shot down by a Soviet missile. Although Powers was supposed to engage the plane’s self-destruct system (and commit suicide with a poison pin furnished by the CIA), he and much of the plane were captured. The United States at first denied involvement with the flight, but had to admit that Powers was working for the U.S. government when the Soviets presented irrefutable evidence.

The U.S. government issued a cover statement claiming a “weather plane” had strayed off course after its pilot had “difficulties with his oxygen equipment”. They were not aware that the plane was still in tact.  In retaliation, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called off a scheduled summit with President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Powers was put on trial, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment followed by seven years of hard labor. In February 1962, the Soviet Union announced that it was freeing Powers because of a petition from the prisoner’s family. American officials made it quite clear, however, that convicted Russian spy, Colonel Rudolf Ivanovic Abel (Vilyam “Willie” Genrikhovich Fisher) was being exchanged for Powers—a spy-for-a-spy trade, not a humanitarian gesture on the part of the Soviet Union. The U.S. government announced that in exchange for Powers, it would release Abel.

On February 10, Abel and Powers were brought to the Gilenicker Bridge that linked East and West Berlin for the exchange. The bridge then earned the name “Bridge of Spies.” At the same time, captured American student, Frederic Pryor was released by the East German Stasi at Checkpoint Charlie. After the men were successfully exchanged, Powers was flown back to the United States.

In an announcement, the Soviet Union declared that its release of Powers was partially motivated by “a desire to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.” U.S. officials were cautious in evaluating the Soviet overture, but did note that the action could certainly help lessen Cold War tensions.