A passionate look at the hidden role played by aerial spying during the Cold War.
The Cold War ended just a little over a decade ago, and it will probably be many years before its complete history is set down. But here, Burrows (Journalism/NYU; This New Ocean, 1998, etc.) fills in some of the blanks by providing a detailed account of aerial intelligence between 1950 and 1970. Far from providing just a technical history, the author highlights the stories of the aviators and crew who risked (and occasionally suffered) capture, torture, and death in the service of a country that was often oblivious to their existence. Many readers will be surprised to learn that no fewer than 163 airmen died as a result of reconnaissance missions, most of which were not acknowledged at the time. To this end, much of this story reads as an oral history provided by the surviving pilots, including many harrowing tales of survival and imprisonment. However, Burrows does not neglect the technical dimensions of aerial intelligence, such as the development of the SR-71 Blackbird, which replaced the famed U2, and the dawn of the satellite era, which largely, but not completely, supplanted the use of spy planes. Burrows is also careful to place aerial spying in its larger institutional and political contexts. His chapter on General Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command is chilling, but made comprehensible by his attention to the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia that prevailed at the time. Burrows rightly emphasizes the benefit of the knowledge gained from aerial intelligence but downplays the tensions produced by the illegal over flights of other nations’ territory.
An unquestionably valuable service, well-written and tremendously informed, for the families of airmen lost during the Cold War—and for everyone else now beginning to process the meaning of that part of recent history.