Recently I watched the Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies. This movie is about several famous Cold War episodes: the capture and prosecution of a Russian spy in the United States, the capture and prosecution of an American spy in the Soviet Union, and the successful efforts to arrange a swap of these spies.
The Russian spy was Rudolph Abel. He was caught red-handed—there was never any doubt that he was guilty of spying. The prosecution asked for the death penalty. He was given thirty years.
The American spy was Francis Gary Powers. He was flying an American U-2 spy plane when he was shot down deep inside Russia. There was never any doubt he was guilty of spying. The prosecution asked for fifteen years. He was given ten years.
The deeper message conveyed by the movie is that the US lives up to its best traditions of fairness and justice even when it’s hard to do so. The lawyer chosen to defend Rudolph Abel—and later to arrange the spy swap—is reluctant to take the case. He knows it will be a thankless task. Sure enough, he is subjected to a great deal of hostility and pressure, but he perseveres in defending the spy, making sure he receives a fair trial.
But an even more important component of this message is a comparison of the United States with the Soviet Union, and with communism. Of course the American spy pilot Powers receives no such fair treatment in the Soviet Union as the Russian spy Abel does in the United States. After all, communists have no principles to live up to like we do.
As pictured in the film, Powers is subjected to severe torture: he is locked in a dark dungeon filled with standing water, deprived of sleep, roughly dragged into the interrogation chamber, has cold water dashed in his face, and is subjected to brutal interrogation under bright lights. He is eventually convicted in a typical communist show trial. No justice. No fairness. Just typical communist brutality.
In fact, this portrayal of Soviet treatment of Gary Powers is completely false, essentially the opposite of the truth.
In 1970 Powers published Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident. The larger part of this book is a detailed account of his experiences in the Soviet Union.
Powers describes what he had been led to expect would happen if captured by communist forces:
I would be lectured about Communism, given only propaganda to read. Food would be doled out on a reward-punishment basis: if I cooperated, I would be fed; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. Interrogation would be at odd hours, under bright lights. No sooner would I fall asleep than I would be awakened, and it would start all over again, until eventually I lost all track of time, place, identity. And I would be tortured and beaten until, finally, I would beg for the privilege of being allowed to confess to any crime they desired.
He then concludes: “None of this had happened.” He makes it perfectly clear he was not abused: “No beatings, no torture.” The interrogation room was large. The chair was “not uncomfortable.” There were no harsh lights. He was never threatened.
Despite many hours of interrogation, we was allowed time for other things. He could walk outside each day. He was supplied with as many books as he cared to read: the Bible, Gone with the Wind, Agatha Christie novels. He was never dragged out of sleep.
He requested and was given a journal in which to write. He could send and receive letters. After he was convicted and before leaving for prison he was allowed a conjugal visit with his wife.
Powers states that
the majority of the people I met in Russia, from the farmers who captured me in the field to my guards at Vladimir, were friendly and without malice. Ordinary people, they were as curious about me as I about them. Apparently each of us had been led to believe the other was monstrous; the discovery that this wasn’t true was a pleasant surprise. … I can honestly say that while an uninvited house guest of the Russians, I had never met anyone I really hated.
But then he immediately describes the single exception. A prison official once made him stand and then cursed both him and the United States, using the “vilest epithets he could muster.” That’s it, the worst treatment he received: one guy, one time, cussed him out.
Back in the United States, Powers testified before the Senate:
Chairman Russell: I can’t refrain from saying that the Russians were much more gentle with you than I would ever have expected they would have been to one who was taken under those circumstances.
Powers: It surprised me also. I expected much worse treatment than I received.
Russell: I rather think you got off somewhat better than a Russian spy would in this country under the same circumstances.
The makers of this film chose to completely reverse reality in order to portray events in line with the anticommunist Black Legend. The film purports to represent historical events. Its portrayal of the physical appearance of the courtroom in which Powers was convicted closely approximates the photograph in his book. So they must have been, or should have been, familiar with his account. So I wonder how they justify such falsehood?
Probably they think it represents a higher truth. The real truth about communism is that communism is dark and evil. This is the higher truth. The actual truth in this case needs to be adjusted for the viewers to match the higher truth.
But this is exactly what the anticommunist Black Legend is all about. This is its purpose: to lay down a higher truth about the evil of communism. And this truth is repeated endlessly, even when it is flagrantly the opposite of reality.
Movies like this, and novels, and TV shows, and news broadcasts, and everyday wisecracks, all follow the established truth. Communism is evil, dark, vile, brutal, or just plain ridiculous. These images are laid down in our minds over and over, by endless repetition, until they become the truth, whatever the actual truth might be.