Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor, cuts a slice from the U-2 incident of 1960–in which an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, its pilot was captured alive and later exchanged for a Soviet spy—and builds it to feature length. The movie has almost finished its theatrical release and can be streamed on Amazon.

Soviet leader Khrushchev and wreckage from shootdown of U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers

Soviet leader Khrushchev and wreckage from shootdown of U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers

“Bridge of Spies,” is not—and does not purport to be—the complete account of the incident.   The part of the U-2 story that Spielberg focused on was a triumph for American diplomacy and the American way, as incarnated in the everyman insurance lawyer, played by Tom Hanks, who finds himself thrust into the Cold-War faceoff.

The full U-2 story? Not so much of a triumph.

Google “U-2 Incident” and you’ll get over 40 million results. There’s a 4,500-word Wikipedia article. Or you can get the essence of the episode and a laugh to boot, in less than 250 words, from my old friend Esther Greenleaf Murer’s “Talking U-2 Blues,” at the bottom of this post.

President Eisenhower, in the last full year in office, had been allowing American Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance jets to fly over the Soviet Union since 1957, at altitudes beyond the reach of Soviet fighter planes, sometimes flown by British pilots–for “plausible deniability” of American involvement in case one was shot down—other times by Americans. And it was an American, Francis Gary Powers, who was in the cockpit when a U-2 was dispatched to photograph Soviet missile launch sites on May 1, 1960, just two weeks before a four-power—the US, USSR, Britain and France—summit meeting was scheduled to open in Paris. To borrow a line from a song by Esther Greenleaf Murer (about whom more anon) the trouble starts right here.

The Soviets had been monitoring the U-2 flights, and after several failed interception attempts, brought the plane down with a surface-to-air missile. Powers ejected, parachuted to the ground, and was taken into custody. Four days later, without knowing that the U-2 and its pilot had been recovered, a NASA press release described the flight’s purpose as weather-related and said the pilot had reported experiencing oxygen difficulties, even releasing a photo of another U-2 painted in NASA’s colors to (to borrow another lyric, this one from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado) corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. But Eisenhower’s lie was exposed when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev revealed that he had both the plane and its pilot.

Like a fish on a hook, the US thrashed around, floating one evasion after another trying to save the summit or at least Eisenhower’s credibility in the waning months of his presidency.   The Russians had no room to talk, it was said, not when they had submarines cruising the Atlantic. Khrushchev had known about the U-2 spy flights but forebore action until the summit was imminent to embarrass Eisenhower and the US. In the end, however, the lie was exposed and summit was launched, but ended early.

It was a humiliating note on which to end a presidency: the president who shepherded the World War II alliance with the Soviets and who had kept the US-Soviet relationship from exploding through eight years of the Cold War, mousetrapped by a Soviet leader under attack in his own country.

But that’s not why I’m writing about it now. It’s because seeing “Bridge of Spies” brought to mind an old college friend, Esther Greenleaf, now Esther Greenleaf Murer after marrying another college friend who had lived in the University of Wisconsin cooperative where I lived and that Esther, in those pre-coed-housing days, frequented. I have not seen Esther, who is now a published poet, since then. But I remember her fondly as a friend of high intelligence, great good nature, and a wit and creativity comparable to Tom Lehrer’’s.

And I remember a talking-blues-type song that she wrote while the U-2 incident was still in the headlines.

Talking U-2 Blues

American spy shot down today,
And the whole world glowers at the USA.
The State Department looks at its toes,
Sends the Russians a note, and here’s how it goes:

“Oh, don’t you blame us, Mr. K!
Our good faith, don’t you doubt it.
It warn’t our fault it happened this way,
‘Cause we didn’t know nothin’ about it.”

A senator says, “From an undisclosed source
I have a report (unconfirmed, of course)
Of Russian subs seen in the Atlantic.
I’m shocked that we’d stoop to a comparable antic!”

“So don’t you blame us, Mr. K” (etc).

“Of these goings-on I was unaware,”
said the President.  ” ‘Tain’t my affair.
For efficiency we’re organized;
Our intelligence is centralized.

“So don’t you blame me, Mr. K” (etc.)

“The Russians are trying to monger war,”
Said the press.  “They’ve seen our planes before,
but they waited to mention it till today –
With the Summit only a week away.

“You’re playing dirty, Mr. K,
And your good faith, we doubt it.
We’ve been spying on you for many a day,
And you knew all about it!”


  1. Eric
    March 7th, 2016 | 4:56 pm

    Wonderful! Maybe you could sing it and send out your YouTube performance

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