We now have in existence a generation of Canadians that have no memory of the Cold War. Attempts to explain this twilight struggle, its place in Canadian history, and the fact that it did not result in a war more catastrophic than the First or Second World Wars are complicated by the difficulty in transmitting the zeitgeist and level of danger inherent to those times. Documenting the Cold War experience has never been easy, particularly in intelligence matters related to nuclear warfighting, yet Curtis Peebles the author of several authoritative studies on the development of American reconnaissance programmes, has done a superb job of prizing the cover off some of the most secret events of that 45-year long conflict.

Aerial reconnaissance was a most dangerous game but the stakes were extremely high. Without the information gathered by these Cold Warriors, it was likely that the Western powers would not have triumphed and instead their descendents would be occupying a radioactive wasteland. Connected with the nuclear deterrent effort, aerial reconnaissance sent a message to the communist adversaries that the NATO powers were auf wacht.

The Gary Power/U-2 story and its place in the Cold War drama is not a new one, yet how many have heard of the exploits of British Spitfire recce pilots operating from Hong Kong against communist China? Or the dangerous but critical RB-45C penetrations of the USSR by the RAF for the purposes of revealing the locations of Moscow’s air defences? Or the American use of unmanned balloons drifting through Soviet airspace to photograph vital nuclear facilities? Or the mass use of RB-47s conducting overflights over the Kola Peninsula? Peebles also discusses the role of aerial reconnaissance in collecting information on peripheral Cold War conflicts in the Middle East and noting that that information was a factor in resolving such conflicts. Scott Ritter and UNSCOM’s U-2’s over Baghdad was not an innovation.

Though Peebles is careful to announce the limits of his study to American aerial espionage efforts, the close relationship with Great Britain receives some attention, specifically British participation in the U-2 programme. It is unfortunate that Peebles has not documented the even closer Canadian-American intelligence relationship and its aerial components. These missions were equally important factors in maintaining the long polar watch during the long Cold War. It is equally unfortunate that Shadow Flights ends in the 1960s rather than progressing into the last two decades of the Cold War.

An engaging work, Shadow Flights should be read by anyone interested in how the Cold War was fought and won.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Military Journal

-Sean M. Maloney, PhD