In 2000, after some details of his 1960 mission had been declassified, the U.S. government awarded Powers the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Department of Defense Prisoner of War Medal, and National Defense Service Medal. Now he has the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award, but the criticism once thrown his way should now be replaced with respect, for good reason.
Asked what he thought of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan said, “We win, they lose.” We did win, not a shooting war but a conflict of covert operations, spycraft, secret reconnaissance and such. That depended on people like Francis Gary Powers, willing to fly unarmed over hostile territory, endure brutal interrogation, and spend years in a Soviet prison.
The West also out-produced the Soviet Union, another key to victory. The U-2 remains in service today, outlasting the SR-71 “Blackbird” and still accomplishing tasks surveillance satellites, for all their sophistication, cannot manage. The U-2 served in Vietnam, in Iraq, and more recently helped enforce the no-fly zone over Libya. Not bad for an airplane first built in the 1950s.
As George Will has noted, in wartime you want to have the best soldiers and the best equipment. Fight with the second-best and you have two choices: bluff or fold. The Cold War is over but the United States and its allies face adversaries such as North Korea, a Stalinist holdout, and Iran, a militant theocracy now striving to gain nuclear weapons.
The leaders of North Korea and Iran do not disclose their plans. The United States and its allies have to find those out for themselves and act accordingly, as in the days of Francis Gary Powers. In 2012, as in 1960, bluffing and folding are not options.
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