Winning the Cold War at Sea
By John Lehman
W.W. Norton. 330 pp. $27.95
Reviewed by Eric Dorn Brose
John Lehman built on high academic degrees, service as a naval aviator, and his role as naval adviser to presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to become secretary of the Navy (1981-87). Based on his personal experience and recently declassified documents, Oceans Ventured focuses mainly on the naval dimension of the Cold War’s end phase to 1991.
By 1979, many experts worried the USSR had pulled ahead militarily. Although NATO stationed more than 100 divisions in Europe, the Warsaw Pact countered with 280. It had long become clear that the West needed to use nuclear equalizers in such a war, but the Soviets pulled slightly past nuclear parity in the 1970s, highlighted by their deployment of intermediate-range missiles. The Red Navy had also expanded, threatening to venture into the North Atlantic to threaten NATO’s reinforcement and supply lines. Those around Lehman believed NATO’s naval strategy of defending the line between Greenland, Iceland, and the UK, the so-called GIUK Gap, smacked of a “Maginot mentality” that would fail just as the Maginot line had failed France in World War I.
Once in office, Reagan expanded and modernized forces in Europe. Intermediate-range missiles that were superior to those of the USSR were prepared for deployment, ande Lehman initiated a doubling of naval strength. Ships were refurbished, new ones laid down, and World War II battleships recommissioned, all with new antisubmarine/antiaircraft weaponry and novel run-silent technology, which could hide the movements of entire fleets. In August 1981, well before these pieces were in place, NATO navies undertook Ocean Venture ’81, an exercise that rushed forces over the GIUK Gap into the vicinity of the Red Navy’s northern bases. Its purpose: to provide operational training in harsh northern waters and warn the Soviets that attacking NATO meant defeat for the Red Navy, a threat to Warsaw Pact army flanks, and submarine missile strikes against cities. Lehman proclaimed this doctrine of aggressive deterrence to a cheering crew off Norway: “If the Soviets start a war on NATO, we will kick their ass,” a reflection of his “public affairs offensive against the Soviets.”
These operational exercises increased in number and geographic extent to include the Mediterranean and Pacific, all in the name of aggressive deterrence. The anti-Soviet “go public and loud” offensive continued as well. There had been much gamble and bluff before mid-decade, however, because the naval expansion took time, and the Soviets, based on their own doctrines, saw exercises as springboards for hot war and feared NATO was preparing a first strike. The Soviets were so jumpy they shot down a Korean airliner in September 1983.
In 1984, therefore, Reagan toned down his “evil empire” rhetoric to improve relations ahead of nuclear arms reduction talks. Lehman’s accelerating naval exercises in 1985-86 still had presidential approval, but Lehman, while carrying his big stick, was told to speak more “softly.” The president was now negotiating with the new man in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev. Although Lehman resigned in 1987, strong naval operations continued, contributing to Soviet willingness to back off in a Cold War it could no longer afford to finance — and a naval war it admitted it could not win.
Although Oceans Ventured will be a must-read for many, including college educators whose courses deal with these times, the book’s central thesis is problematic. Were “the United States and NATO losing the Cold War” in 1981? Did they reverse things only through military expansion? True, this buildup put nails in the Soviet coffin, but the USSR was not exactly alive and well in 1981. The signs of decline and impending fall, following a legitimacy crisis that had been getting worse for decades, are too numerous to list here.
Because it’s summer, a baseball metaphor may suffice. Rather than viewing Reagan as the slugger who saved a losing game with a grand slam in the eighth inning, see him as the gutsy two-inning closer. When he took the mound to earn the save, his blue team led by three runs against a red team that had made many errors, whose dugout was riddled with grumbling and dissent, and whose players brought along the baggage of miserable home lives. Beaten, the red team knew that next season “we cannot go on like this,” to quote Gorbachev.
Lehman leaves us, however, with an important warning. We have many domestic and military problems to solve, but in this difficult trade-off we dare not neglect the latter in solving the former. The list of failed republics on the rubbish heap of history includes many that neglected national security. Keeping the navy good and strong will help avoid being taken out with the garbage.
Eric Dorn Brose is emeritus professor of history at Drexel University.