Dienesch on Powers Jr. and Dunnavant, 'Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy'

Francis Gary Powers Jr., Keith Dunnavant
Robert Dienesch

Francis Gary Powers Jr., Keith Dunnavant. Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy. Amherst: Prometheus, 2019. Illustrations. 312 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-63388-468-7

Reviewed by Robert Dienesch (University of Windsor) Published on H-War (December, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57248

The Cold War, as a series of historical events, is one of the most fascinating periods in human history. A world, on the brink of eternal disaster, was balanced between the United States and its allies on the one hand and the Soviet Union and its supporters on the other. An ideological confrontation between totalitarian communism and democratic capitalism, it brought the entire world into not just a struggle between political systems or economies but also a struggle that touched almost every level of society. Overshadowing all of this was the perpetual threat of a nuclear holocaust. In the midst of this conflict was the constant struggle to prevent the Cold War from becoming a hot war. One of the stories related to that struggle is that of Francis Gary Powers Sr. and the downing of a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960.

Discussed in many books and articles, the U-2 incident plays a prominent role in the story of the Cold War. In an effort to increase solid information on the Soviet Union and to try to stabilize the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began a series of intelligence programs that proved essential in the long term to preserve peace. Through the program Project AQUATONE, the US developed aerial reconnaissance capabilities as a stop gap until space-based spy satellites were available. Incredibly risky as it violated international law, the U-2 program was seen to be absolutely essential for American security. Eisenhower, like most of those read into the highly sensitive program, knew it was inevitable that one would be shot down. When luck finally ran out for the U-2, the man piloting the craft was Powers. The political storm that followed, while nasty at times, was weathered and Powers's flight became part of history. While the story of the downing of Powers has been discussed by many authors, Francis Gary Powers Jr. and Keith Dunnavant’s book, Spy Pilot, approaches the subject from a different perspective, through the eyes of a son.

Spy Pilot examines the loss of the U-2 over the course of 296 pages and nine chapters. Supported by a foreword by Sergei Khrushchev and backed up with extensive interviews and citations, it presents a unique view of the incident. For example, chapter 2 focuses on the road to the U-2 program and the pressing intelligence needs that drove it. Examining the difficulties faced by the US trying to understand events within the closed society of the USSR, it looks at the various attempts to overcome these issues reaching back as far as 1947 and the Truman administration. Attempts to penetrate Soviet security, the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the bomber gap, and an appreciation of the political risks, the chapter establishes a good foundation for the reader. Further chapters examine the loss of the U-2, the political fallout for the Eisenhower administration over conducting illegal overflights and lying about it to the public, the trial of Powers Sr., and the struggle by his son to understand his father’s place within the greater Cold War. This last point is important as it is clear that Powers Jr. did not understand his father's role in the Cold War during his lifetime.

The text is not written from the usual top-down perspective of policymakers. Rather it is written from the perspective of his son. The study, therefore, offers both a biography of the father and a journey of the son. Powers Jr.'s journey illustrates the challenge of a son coming to grips with his father’s participation in the greater events of the Cold War and in some ways it is inferred from this study. The greatest strength and value of the book is that its perspective is different. Yes, it goes over materials produced in great detail elsewhere, but the emphasis in Spy Pilot is on Powers, allowing the human part of the history to stand out. Often we lose track of the human story in events like these, and in this case the human impact was certainly significant for the Powers family.

The greatest limitation of the text is the citations. There are many citations but they do not provide the detail that is expected in most academic works. Citations are somewhat simplified and lack location information and details that are usually associated with academic studies, thereby reducing the value and impact of the text. This is unfortunate as the authors have put in a great deal of effort and produced a fascinating understanding of the U-2 incident and its impact. The citations will still provide a reader with some direction but are less effective than expected.

Overall this is definitely a book that will provide the reader with an interesting read and produce some eye-opening moments. The human story it tells is as important as the political/intelligence history that it is woven into, and as a result, it should be read by anyone interested in Cold War or intelligence history. This book should ideally be paired with some of the more traditional studies of the U-2 incident. Together, they would certainly balance each other and greatly increase the impact of the individual texts.

Citation: Robert Dienesch. Review of Powers Jr., Francis Gary; Dunnavant, Keith, Spy Pilot: Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 Incident, and a Controversial Cold War Legacy. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57248

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