In the recent Academy Award-nominated movie, Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays real-life James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who was appointed by the Brooklyn Bar Association to defend an accused Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel. In the movie, as in the actual historical event, Donovan successfully argues Abel’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned Abel’s initial conviction. Also in the movie, again as in real-life, that was not the end of Donovan and Abel’s story, and Donovan ended up facilitating a prisoner exchange between the CIA and Soviet authorities in Berlin, Abel for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. The movie thrillingly recounts these events, which happened over a 3 year period from 1957-1960 during the Cold War. Arthur T. Downey’s book, The Cold War: Law, Lawyers, Spies and Crises, not only tells the story just as compellingly, but also places it in the larger context of 40-year long Cold War.
The purpose of Downey’s book is not to retell all the stories of the cold war, but to highlight the role that lawyers played in the conflict. The book is structured not to tell story after story but to place the stories in within thematic contexts: international law, subversives and spies, presidential war powers, the economic cold war. Many events that happened during that time period are not covered in the book– the Pentagon papers and the Viet Nam War, for example. Lawyers were certainly involved, but those topics are too unwieldy, are well-covered elsewhere, and draw from the focus of the book. This book seems to highlight those events where lawyers weren’t just present, but were front and center.
Downey, a lawyer, teacher, diplomat, and government official, writes with a historian’s precision– the 162 pages of text are supported by 495 footnotes– and a writer’s use of language. The book is readable and thrilling, but at the same time adds context, details, and commentary that a movie never could. Two appendices add valuable insight to the topic: Appendix I is a list of Cold War events, starting with the Yalta Conference in 1945 and ending with the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and the Russian Federation in 1991; Appendix II contains short biographical sketches of some of the lawyers who significantly influenced Cold War events.
Arthur T Downey, The Cold War: Law, Lawyers, Spies and Crises (ABA Publishing 2016).