Bad Cheer: The Holiday Exchange Precipitating ‘Bridge of Spies’


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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, center, during their trial for espionage in New York in 1951

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Associated Press

The events that lead to the chilling climax on a Berlin trestle in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” — the solemn exchange of captives between the United States and the Soviet Union — were ignited in real life at a nondescript Automat on 38th Street just west of Broadway in Manhattan.

What to other cafeteria patrons must have looked like an inconspicuous exchange of holiday gifts on Christmas Eve 1944 would produce another profound, if largely forgotten, consequence in the annals of Cold War espionage.

Julius Rosenberg was waiting at a table when Aleksandr Feklisov arrived. Both men placed their packages on a windowsill. Feklisov’s contained an Omega stainless steel watch for Rosenberg, a crocodile handbag for his wife, Ethel, and a teddy bear for their only son at the time, Michael.

The other box, the one that Rosenberg eagerly brought with him, weighed a hefty 15 pounds, and Feklisov prudently waited until he returned to the Russian Consulate before opening it.

Inside, according to his account, he and his colleagues in Soviet intelligence were stunned to discover a secret device that Rosenberg had smuggled out of a heavily guarded manufacturing plant where he worked as an inspector for the Army Signal Corps.

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Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies.”

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Jaap Buitendijk/DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox Film

The device contained a tiny radio transmitter and receiver that enabled antiaircraft batteries to destroy planes by exploding shells near their targets rather than requiring a direct hit. The device, called a proximity fuse, was vital to the Allied victory in World War II.

In 1960, the Soviets used an advanced version of the device to shoot down the American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, prompting the prisoner exchange chronicled in “Bridge of Spies.”

“It was the first time a Soviet-made proximity fuse — a direct descendant of the device Julius Rosenberg had cleverly slipped out of Emerson Electronics and handed Feklisov as a Christmas present in 1944 — shot down an enemy aircraft,” Steven T. Usdin wrote in “Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.”

Harvey Klehr — a history professor at Emory University and co-author, with John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev, of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” — explained: “In his autobiography Feklisov says that a modified version was used to shoot down Powers. I’d say that was fairly significant.”

“Bridge of Spies” was acclaimed by reviewers, but did not go into detail about a pivotal moment: How were the Soviets able to shoot down a 13-mile-high secret reconnaissance plane just as it began its mission to photograph Russia’s version of Cape Canaveral, missile launching sites and a plutonium plant?

The U-2 incident and the capture of Powers was a propaganda coup for the Soviets, prompting them to cancel a summit meeting between the Soviet premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower and two years later leading to the prisoner exchange of Col. Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy, for Powers on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin.

The Rosenberg case’s focus on the theft of atomic bomb secrets overshadowed the industrial and other military technology that American spies were accused of delivering to the Soviets.

The Central Intelligence Agency, seeking to assess Soviet military strength before the scheduled summit conference, chose an inopportune day, May 1, for Powers’s nine-hour flight from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Bodo, Norway, which included a 2,900-mile incursion into Soviet airspace.

May Day was a national holiday in the Soviet Union. Military and commercial air traffic was light, and Soviet controllers would be more likely to notice an unauthorized plane. In fact, using upgraded versions of sophisticated radar stolen and perfected by Joel Barr, a Rosenberg recruit who defected to Russia, they began tracking Powers’s plane 15 miles before it even reached the Soviet border with Afghanistan.

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Movie Review: ‘Bridge of Spies’

The Times critic Manohla Dargis reviews “Bridge of Spies.”


By AINARA TIEFENTHÄLER and ROBIN LINDSAY on Publish Date October 15, 2015.


Photo by Jaap Buitendijk/Disney, via Associated Press.

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“The radar-guided antiaircraft weapon that tracked the U-2, aimed and calculated when and where to fire,” Mr. Usdin said, “was based on designs that other members of the Rosenberg ring supplied to the Soviet Union.”

Thirteen fighters were scrambled to intercept the U-2, but they couldn’t come close as it flew 70,500 feet above the Ural Mountains.

The first rocket fired from a missile battery produced a fiery display that prompted cheers on the ground, but a Soviet pilot reported that flaming debris apparently had come from the disintegrating rocket, not from the U-2. Another rocket accidentally struck one of the Soviet MIG-19 fighters, destroying it.

The fateful rocket proved the value of proximity fuses against targets that flew higher and faster. The missile exploded just behind Powers’s plane.

“I suddenly felt and heard a dull explosion,” Powers wrote in his prison journal, now housed at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

“It was not a bang or a loud noise but sounded like ‘whump,’” he continued. “Everything seemed to stand still for a long time. It seemed as if time had stopped. It couldn’t have been more than a second, but it seemed to me at least five minutes.

“I remember saying to myself, maybe aloud, I don’t know, ‘Good Lord, I’ve had it now.’”

“A tremendous orange flash lit the cockpit and the sky,” he later recalled. The wings ripped off, the plane spun out of control and Powers bailed out.

He was captured, confessed and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But he recalled in his memoir that even with the whole world watching during his televised show trial, he feared that the Soviets would mete out the death penalty. That was the fate in the United States of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after they were convicted in 1951 of conspiracy to commit espionage.

“Yet the whole world had been watching the Rosenberg case,” too, Powers wrote. “And we had executed them anyway. Except for the fact that their crime was treason, mine espionage, there was no reason to suppose the Russians would be any less severe with me.”



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