The Cold War between the U.S. and Russia was at its iciest from the early 1950s until well into the 1960s. Neither side knew a great deal about the other’s military capabilities and even less about any grand designs for world supremacy. The information the two superpowers did possess came mostly from spies, diplomats, gossip and news reports ... Into this jurisdictional minefield entered four inordinately talented civilians who took it upon themselves to build and test technology that might reveal what was actually happening in Russia: Edwin Land, a genius in the field of optics; Kelly Johnson, an engineer who zeroed in on designing lightweight, high-flying aircrafts; Richard Bissell, a Connecticut blue blood the CIA assigned to oversee and facilitate the hush-hush project; and Francis Gary Powers, one of the daredevil pilots selected to test the new spy plane, which they called the U-2 ... A story as well told as Monte Reel’s A Brotherhood of Spies is an irresistible call to binge-reading.
It turns out that A Brotherhood of Spies ... cast[s] intriguing light on this familiar history. The rock-steady, nuanced leadership of Ike and JFK in these crises, supported by deeply experienced advisers desperately seeking to avert nuclear war, is a sobering contrast to today’s White House melodramas ... A Brotherhood of Spies is an old-fashioned tale of the American ingenuity, resourcefulness and grit that remade intelligence gathering—a triumph over implacable technical obstacles, bureaucratic inertia and military-turf defense ... Mr. Reel, a veteran journalist and author, tells the story in granular detail ... at once reassuring and disquieting. [the book] remind[s] us of how resilient, inspired and successful American military, industrial and political leadership could be in the direst days of the Cold War—and show[s] how today’s jangly crises pale compared with those the country survived in the 1950s and ’60s.
The U-2 spy plane stands as one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s landmark accomplishments ... During the frostiest years of the Cold War, when nuclear war was a legitimate national worry, the U-2 kept national security officials informed of the strength of Soviet missile programs ... There were concerns about a new Soviet plane, the Bison, capable of bombing runs all the way to the U.S. Ike had one big worry: What if the plane somehow crashed and the pilot was captured? Mr. Bissell and other CIA officials said Mr. Powers had an 'L' pill — meaning 'lethal' — containing a dose of prussic acid that would kill him within 30 seconds. Mr. Dulles was 'absolutely categorical' that the pilot would not survive a crash. As events played out, a Soviet anti-aircraft missile sent the U-2 tumbling to Earth. Mr. Powers parachuted to safety, ignoring the 'L pill.' ... Author Reel’s story is marred somewhat by his contention that such spying as was carried out by the U-2 is somehow immoral; that covert intelligence is not in the American tradition. In criticizing the U-2 overflight as an unethical invasion of another nation’s airspace, he ignores Soviet Sputnik flights beginning in 1957 — three years before the Powers U-2 incident — that overflew the U.S. daily.