Review: At the Abyss, An Insider’s History of the Cold War

The Cold War, thankfully, is receding into history like a bad but distant memory. I was born about a decade after the Cold War began and I was in my early thirties before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, which of course ended the Cold War. For a few wonderful years afterward Americans lived largely free of the fear of imminent nuclear attack.

Of course, we have not given up our nuclear weapons. We still have nuclear missiles on standby. We still think nuclear weapons are a deterrent. Instead of building nuclear arsenals to destroy the planet, now we develop smaller yield tactical nuclear weapons designed to drill deep underground and destroy hardened bunkers. Nor has the end of the Cold War diminished interest in nuclear weapons. The cost of entry into the nuclear club has dropped dramatically. It seems that every rogue state with sufficient means, and even many mainstream states like India, also wants the bomb.

The threat of nuclear war thus only receded a bit with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it has morphed and become a different and arguably far more complex chessboard. Today we are beginning to understand that the Cold War never wholly left, but instead it has mutated. What have changed are its players. Use of a nuclear weapon today, if it occurs, has only one small redeeming aspect: it is less likely to start a worldwide thermonuclear war and the United States is less likely to be its first victim.

Therefore, in a way the Cold War seems almost nostalgic. For all its immense cost the problem of nuclear deterrence was, in some respects, simple. Our strategy was to show that if attacked we could also attack our foes with equally lethal force, meaning that neither state would survive to claim victory. Was it luck, the hand of God or enlightened leaders that kept us from Armageddon? While we may never know for sure, former Air Force Secretary Thomas C. Reed would argue it was the latter. In his 2004 book, At the Abyss, An Insider’s History of the Cold War he walks us through its long history.

Mr. Reed though does bring some unique insight to the Cold War. He was one of our nuclear program managers, and managed the development of a number of nuclear weapons as a young Air Force officer. It is in his description of the development of these weapons and his witnessing of their testing that this book shines. There is no substitute for a first hand account of a thermonuclear test in the Pacific. Mr. Reed gives us insight into what a real thermonuclear war would be like. I would say it would be chilling, except it would be just the opposite. The reality is hellish:

There’s the light, a brightness that simply does not stop. People talk about a flash, but a thermonuclear detonation is not a flashbulb event. The sun starts to burn on earth; darkness seems never to return. There are the colors- purples and other hallucinogenic hues that confirm Shakespeare’s observation about the next world: “What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” There’s the heat. It makes no sense to the brain, because the explosion being observed is almost over the horizon, as far away as Baltimore is from Washington. Yet the first flash gives way to an oppressive, lingering heat whose persistence is unnerving. And then there’s the all-enveloping roar of the savage beast unleashed… So much else happened that the senses are numb. The first shock wave is not a crack or a pop, as one hears from a gun fired far away. It is the opening of a roar encompassing the senses, seeming to continue forever.

Reed’s first hand accounts of thermonuclear tests, along with his recollections of what it was like working in the nation’s premier nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California are fascinating and insightful, as well as very scary. I was struck by the utter sobriety of those engaged in this ghastly nuclear weapons business, as well as their ingenuity in making such arrays of nuclear devices work from so many platforms: from submarines that lurked beneath the seas, from airplanes, and from all sorts of land based missiles. This was done while also ensuring that they would remain inert unless very complex permission schemes were used. Reed does us a favor by giving us a very intimate glimpse of these years. It is fascinating and sobering reading.

Eventually Reed got out of the nuclear weapons business and the Air Force. Politics attracted him. In particularly he was a devoted follower of a certain former actor and governor of California. No, I do not mean Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Ronald Reagan. Reed was a friend of Reagan during his years as governor, and acted as his chief of staff during those years. He also assisted in his many campaigns and won Reagan’s personal respect and friendship. He served as the Secretary of the Air Force under President Ford, and then went to work on Reagan’s National Security Council, ably assisted by a certain Major named Oliver North. Consequently, Reed also brings us some unique insights into the back stage shenanigans at the Reagan White House. We learn that the White House was broken into two sets of key players, the Old Guards of which Reed was a member, and a newer and more politically savvy set, epitomized by James Baker. Reed was an unabashed admirer of Reagan. He gives him full credit for ending the Cold War, although he is certainly respectful toward most of the presidents who developed the strategies and exercised the leadership needed during our long Cold War. He does not even mention Reagan’s fiscal and environmental wreckage.

While this book has many merits, it also has some detractions. Where Reed has personal insights, it shines. When he has no first hand experiences, like the Vietnam War, we tend to get short histories of the sort you can read free on Wikipedia. You can also tell that he chooses to walk a fine line. He is in awe of Reagan’s leadership and personal character, but he is less enamored with Nancy Reagan, who he portrays as “The Queen of Hearts”. On the other hand, even when he gets into sensitive areas, like Nancy Reagan’s behavior, he manages to do so in a way that is mildly gossipy, yet offers little in the way of new revelations.

Reed is also Republican to the core, so his bias is obvious. In the first chapter, for example, he gives a history of the death and misery inflicted by Communist rulers. It was a tragic chronicle but the numbers of deaths that he asserts were caused by Communism are so large as to seem incredulous. He asserts, for example, that Stalin killed over twenty million Russians and more than thirty million Chinese died in Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution. Unlike others, like Barbara Tuchman, he thinks our bombing of North Vietnam actually was quite effective.

The book’s title is a bit misleading. I imagine his publisher demanded a florid title to ensure brisk sales. He was never at the abyss, unless that means being fifty miles from a planned thermonuclear explosion. He was not starring down the Russians in the seas off Cuba in 1963. He does however provide plenty of insight and personal experience in significant aspects of the Cold War. This makes his book worthy of the read, in spite of its abject partisanship. For Reed is as much a patriotic American as he is a Republican. He comes across as one of the more eloquent and grounded people in the Republican Party, more of the Barry Goldwater mindset than the Newt Gingrich variety. Books like his are invaluable for historians and scholars. We should be grateful Mr. Reed took the time in the autumn of his life to capture it for us.

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