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It seems at times that the hardest thing for a nation to analyze rationally is its participation in warfare.  Just in the past few months we've seen the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag become an issue in our Presidential primaries, as Southern patriots and Civil Rights groups squabble over the meaning of the Civil War.  And two of the most controversial books of the past year are Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War and Patrick J. Buchanan's A Republic, Not an Empire (see Orrin's review)  Ferguson caused a firestorm by asserting that Britain made a catastrophic mistake in entering WWI.  Buchanan stirred up a hornets nest by questioning the advisability of America's internationalist foreign policy generally and support for the Allies in WWII specifically.  The reaction to these well reasoned treatises was so vituperative and jingoistic as to indicate societies, both British and American, which are incapable of engaging in a dialogue about these topics.  If such is the case for those rapidly receding wars, we can anticipate how much more difficult it will be to seriously consider the much fresher events and strategies of the the Cold War.  But the fact remains that the half century maintenance of the Cold War strategy of containment of the USSR was only one of four broad options that were available to us, and was not necessarily the best of the four.

In essence, containment (a policy most closely identified with George F. Kennan, though he later disputed the interpretation and application of his ideas) called for the West to allow the USSR and Eastern Bloc to exist within strictly defined boundaries and only confront them at the points where they tried expanding beyond their own borders.  This wholly defensive posture required the West in general and America in particular to devote a tremendous portion of national resources to the military-industrial complex.  It put the West in the curious, and I would argue morally dubious, position of countenancing repression and mass murder within the Eastern nations, but going to war to stop the threat of such measures elsewhere--Korea, Vietnam, etc.  The combination of spending required to maintain continual deadlock with the Soviets and to pay for small scale brush wars (not to mention the mammoth social spending of the era) eventually subsumed the ecomic boom that began after WWII and lead to the extended period of inflation and stagnation for which the 1970's are remembered.  In his seminal book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers : Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, Paul Kennedy made the then controversial but compelling argument that this was exactly how great nations had destroyed themselves throughout history.  Military spending is uniquely unproductive since it builds equipment which is intended either to not be used or to be destroyed.  Moreover, it diverts money, minds and emphasis from more productive industries.  And because it is all government spending, it is horribly inefficient--we all recall the thousand dollar hammers and toilet seats of the Reagan buildup.  Our eventual victory over the Soviets has served to mask the corrosive effects of the moral compromise and economic waste, but does it justify them?

The first alternative to containment, one that was always in favor among fellow travelers and many socialist types, would have been to simply accept Leninism/Stalinism as a legitimate political system, regardless of how it was imposed on nations.  We could have continued our close wartime relationship with the Soviets and ignored the undemocratic nature of Eastern governments.  This option, a kind of constructive engagement, is essentially what we are currently doing with China.  As we have seen, this course of action tends to cause the American people an enormous amount of ethical discomfort and spiritual angst and so would probably, though not certainly, eventually have lost public support had we tried it with the USSR.  The advantage provided by our potential savings on military spending, appear to be more than counterbalanced by the moral compromise that our active collusion would have entailed.

The second alternative, one that is consistent with our own historical precedents, would have been to simply abandon the world stage, disengaging from both Eastern and Western Europe.  This return to isolationism would have required us to turn a blind eye to Communist tyranny and aggression, but that is not something that has given us much trouble at other times in our history.  This alternative would have allowed considerable savings and would not have implicated us in Soviet actions.  It would have required us to ignore Soviet expansionism, but it is likely that such expansion would have quickly turned to over extension and would have resulted in a quicker demise to the Soviet empire than the Cold War brought about.

The final alternative, one that was available to us throughout the period but especially at the end of WWII, was to destroy the USSR.  Instead of divvying up Europe with Stalin, we could have attacked him and with the forces we had available in Europe by 1945, would inevitably have toppled the Communist government.  Even after whiffing on this opportunity, we had a window where we had such air superiority (see Richard Rhodes' Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb for an amusing description of General Curtis LeMay sending simulated bombing runs over Russia, just to demonstrate to them and to his own craven bosses that he could obliterate their military capacity in a matter of hours) and exclusive access to atomic weaponry, that we could probably have dictated terms of a peace.  The disadvantage of this course of conflict would have been the loss of American life that would have accompanied it, but particularly when the Bomb is added to the equation, there is no reason to believe that we would have suffered appreciably more casualties than we did in the subsequent wars which failure to pursue this course made necessary.  The great advantages are: the moral coherence of ending WWII only after all the totalitarian regimes had been defeated; the fifty additional years of freedom that the captive peoples of Eastern Europe would have enjoyed and the countless lives that would have been saved from death in the gulag; and, as the current Post-Cold War boom makes obvious, enormous economic benefits would have been realized had trillions of dollars not been squandered on the Cold War.

Mind you, I harbor no illusions that it is possible for folks to actually consider these alternatives.  With Democrats having virtually beatified Truman and Kennedy and Republicans insistent, rightly so, on Reagan's pivotal role in winning the conflict, both sides simply have too much invested emotionally in the orthodox view of the whole Cold War to ever reckon with the possibility that it was all one huge catastrophic mistake.  But their willful blindness should not deter us from such speculation.  And I can think of no finer exhibit for the prosecution than Blind Man's Bluff.  In a triumph of investigative reporting, Sontag and Drew provide chapter and verse on the history of America's post-War submarine program.  They reveal the thrilling tales of cat and mouse games played by Soviet and American submariners, of Tom Swift style rescue efforts and of cloak and dagger spy missions.  The Navy men who were called on to perform these tasks emerge as genuine unsung heroes and their Soviet counterparts often seem to be worthy adversaries.  But at the end of the day, the question that they tip toe up to but refuse to take on is: what was the point?

The costs of the program were exorbitant.  To take just one example, building the Glomar Explorer to go out and try retrieving a years old Soviet sub cost at least half a billion dollars.  And that's back when a billion dollars was real money.  Today's subs, like the Seawolf series, which President Bush was going to discontinue but which Bill Clinton revived as a kind of super expensive job program, cost $2.5 billion per ship.

And was all this money well spent?  Well, one of the real revelations of the book is that, for all of our romantic image of subs (a product of dozens of Hollywood movies) and the fearsome image of U-Boat wolfpacks, the modern sub fleet was pretty much just used to gather information; they were little more than elaborate and expensive espionage tools.  While they performed that duty quite well and were substantially better boats than anything the Russians ever produced, the USSR was able to buy information of equal or better value from the Walker and other spy rings for the cost of a few thousand dollars.  And had push ever come to shove, it's hard to see how the subs would have been useful for much more than making the rubble bounce when they surfaced after a large scale nuclear exchange.

The story that Sontag and Drew have to tell is truly enthralling and the men who served our nation so well deserve to have their remarkable story told.  Moreover, since so much of what they did was considered secret, it is high time that their families were able to find out about their courageous service.  But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the whole program and the acts of derring-do that these men performed were largely a waste of time and money.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Sea Stories
Book-related and General Links:
    -Blind Man's Bluff: Authors' Web Site
    -PROFILE & INTERVIEW: Sherry Sontag (Anne Online)
    -Submarines, Secrets and Spies (NOVA, PBS)
    -Submarine Fleet - Diesel and Nuclear Submarine Homepages
    -Historic Ship USS Nautilus
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One: A Deadly Beginning
    -REVIEW: of Blind Man's Bluff (Timothy Naftali, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: 20,000 leaks under the sea: ëBlind Manís Bluffí illuminates the murky history of the submarine espionage (Dan Raviv, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: Spying-sub stories surface after Cold War (Steven Komarow, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: (Jules Wagman, Special to The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: New book reveals the Cold War spy exploits of Navy submarine (John Diamond, Associated Press)
    -REVIEW: (G. Ernest Govea, Security Management)