Security Studies Program Seminar

At the Abyss

Tom Reed
Former Secretary of the Air Force

Tuesday May 4, 2004

I did a lot in the Cold War, but for the most part it was just being at the right place at the right time. I was at the Pentagon. I had clearance. Nixon got swept out of office, along with most of the building. Gerald Ford knew my name. I hadn't been indicted. That's how I became the Secretary of the Air Force.

We tend not to realize the implications of events which we're a part of as they occur. I realized it was time to put down my thoughts on paper when I was giving a talk at a high school and was asked by a group of kids, "Tell us about Viet Nam, because our grandfathers flew there."

We all thought in my generation that the Eisenhower years were tranquil. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, Eisenhower believed that the "Arsenal of Democracy" had won WWII, and decided that the American economy would win the Cold War. He authorized B-47 bombers, equipped with cameras, to fly all over the Soviet Union. If any of those planes had been shot down, this would have been a problem. Realizing that bombers wouldn't cut it, he initiated the U-2 program as well as a satellite program. This was years before Sputnik.

The first U-2 flight took place on the 4th of July 1956, right over Leningrad. Khrushchev hated the U-2s, but admitting they were there would have meant admitting his country couldn't shoot them down, that the USSR was technologically inferior. He instructed the military to fire everything they had at the U-2s. One missile barrage resulting from this order downed Gary Francis Powers (as well as his MiG pursuers).

In 1957, 70 or 80 tons of radioactive reactor product went critical and blew up at Mayak, yet we never heard a thing. This was Chernobyl times 10,000. 200 or 300 towns were evacuated.

In 1962, the Soviets had over 90 nuclear weapons already based at Cuba, and the Soviet general in command had authority to use them. If we had gotten creative and started bombing airfields, I have no doubt that those weapons would have been used, at least in an anti-ship capacity. And we would have retaliated. We owe a lot to the Kennedy brothers for striking deals on and off the table to keep this situation under control. Now at that time there were no locks on these weapons. Both sides realized this was unacceptable. The Soviets came up with a very rigid system called SIGNAL, in which no weapon could be fired without a combination of codes held by the General Staff. We came up with a similar system called Permissive Action Links. In 1966 a nuclear-armed B-52 went down in Palomares, and in addition to the crew, four thermonuclear weapons were lost. Seeing as they did not go off, the locals used them as a picnic bench until the Air Force eventually picked them up. Without the codes, these bombs might as well have been metal tubes.

We drastically escalated our mission in Viet Nam after an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin. The problem is that this attack never occurred. We had aircraft on patrol which could not find a single torpedo boat, but by the time they had radioed back their report, the resolution was already on the floor of Congress. Viet Nam was incredibly bloody on the ground, but most people don't realize it was also incredibly bloody in the air. Both the Air Force and the Navy both lost over 2,000 aircraft, and there were some big lessons learned, which led to the aircraft which are today the mainstays of our forces.

We know that the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but where did it come from? It was never difficult in the years after WWII to get from East Berlin to West Berlin. The line dividing the two was like a window. A decade after the Berlin crisis, Khrushchev announced he was blockading Berlin again, and began by recognizing East Germany as an independent nation. The Eisenhower administration sat down to figure out what they would do. One idea that was discussed was a plan called Live Oak, in which an armored formation would be sent rolling down the autobahn armed with tactical nukes. Khrushchev was leaked this plan and agreed that this was not a pleasant thought. He agreed not to recognize the GDR, and essentially to wait out this crazy man Eisenhower. Finding that Kennedy was just as much a Cold Warrior as Eisenhower, he endeavored to separate East Berlin from the West with a wall. The wall was a result of prudence on the part of the USSR.

The Soviet Union was thought of in these days as a stable monolith, an economic power which would last forever. By the Reagan years, however, it was becoming known that they were flat broke. They were producing oil with no eye to reservoirs, just cash sales today. They were selling gold into a declining market. Traveling businessmen were coming back saying that these guys were a nuclear superpower, but that is it. In my day the conventional idea was that they were spending 15%, maybe 20% of GDP, on defense. A couple of us suggested that they were spending as much as 50% of their GDP on defense. A couple of backbenchers suggested that we use this to push them over, and Reagan said, "Yeah, that's what we're going to do." We weren't going to send tanks to Moscow. We were going to compel them to seek the consent of the governed, straight out of the Declaration of Independence.

The fall of the Soviet Union was in reality a product of some very brave and fore-thinking officers in the Soviet military. We were sweating bullets in Washington while the coup was going on, wondering who had the briefcase? The reality was that months before, in August, the General Staff, realizing that things were getting worse by the day but also believing that the Americans weren't about to do anything stupid, simply unplugged the briefcase. Just think about the number of court martials this could have brought about.

There are a couple of lessons in all of this:

Technology counts. This sounds simple and even trite, but think back to the days of the H-Bomb. This was quite literally a technological race. They were going to build the H-Bomb whether or not we did it first. Technology is still just as relevant as it ever was.

Government is the servant of the people. When government gets out of hand, the Gulags follow. Today we're looking at the Patriot Act. Where do we draw the line? I'm not sure, but I do know that we can never let the government get ahead of the rest of us.

Nuclear material is out there, and it absolutely must be accounted for. There is a lot of this stuff, and unlike us, the Soviet Union never weighed it as they produced it. They have no idea how much of it they made. And today it's not all that uncommon for someone to open up their barn and find 28 barrels of something that smells funny or that sets off his Geiger counter. The recipes to turn this stuff into bombs are out there. It is my belief that there will be a nuclear event in America some time in this decade. Many countries are trying to make nukes, and we must take it upon ourselves to prevent this. This does not necessarily mean we must resort to force. Recently Libya gave up its nuclear program and decided it was time to rejoin the West. Others, like South Africa, actually endeavored to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. Brazil and Argentina were both going down the nuclear path and decided it was wasteful, and so signed a treaty making the area a nuclear-free zone. On the other hand, North Korea is an example of how to do it wrong.

Lastly, we must rebuild the intelligence capability. Satellites aren't cutting it anymore given the nature of our enemies. We must take a new approach that places a much greater emphasis on HUMINT and on studying foreign cultures.

Rapporteur: David Blum

back to seminar schedule, Spring 2004