Book Review: ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ by Sontag and Drew

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Obviously, no book available to the public is going to be up to date on this subject. Never mind; this book is a vivid history of the Cold War years between USA and Russia, and their strenuous efforts to stay ahead of each other in submarine warfare capability. It has enough detail and documentation to enthrall (and alarm?) any history buff.

The first submarine purchased by the US Navy in 1900, could hold six men. [That was three years before the Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk.] A sub’s purpose, in the century’s first half, was to sink ships carrying supplies to enemy nations. In the latter half, the purpose was to spy on enemy naval activity and communications. A diesel-electric powered sub could travel underwater for up to 24 hours, navigating by periscope and sonar, surfacing only to recharge its batteries. Later, with nuclear power, subs can now stay submerged for three months or more, limited only by the bulk of food needed to feed a crew of 100 to 150 men and women. Presumably they extract enough oxygen and pure water from the surrounding ocean.

Admiral Hyman Rickover pioneered the first nuclear subs, with a vigor unfazed by cost or Congress. He recruited young naval engineers (future president Jimmy Carter among them) by challenging their imagination and abilities. He ordered one candidate,“Piss me off, if you can.” Without a word and with a single motion of his arm, the candidate swept all the contents of the admiral’s desk onto the floor, papers, pens, books and all. (and was accepted into the program.)

Silence and stealth are the keys to discovering what the other side is up to. The Sea of Okhotsk, between Russia and Japan [the book includes good maps] has little shipping activity, and an American nuclear sub sought and found the undersea cable connecting Russia’s easternmost naval base with the rest of Russia. The sea is shallow; the sub could settle on the bottom while divers attached a monitor to the cable and recorded telephone conversations for months.

The Soviet navy had some “firsts” too. One commander took his sub under the polar ice to the North Pole, and surfaced by breaking through the ice there. He confirmed that his nuclear missiles survived and could still be accurately programmed to reach almost any part of North America below him to the south. Russians regularly patrol international waters off American coasts, just as American subs do off the coast of Russia and other nations.

In 1986, with both nations realizing the increasing danger of nuclear war and total annihilation, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in a diplomatic conference at Reykjavik, Iceland. Both nations had, by that time, developed their espionage to the point where their submarine forces were second lines of nuclear war defense, able to fire missiles from unpredictable spots in answer to the other side’s land-based missiles and air force, in the event that either would attempt to start a war. The expense of maintaining defense readiness was a growing economic problem. Negotiators agreed that they could cut ballistic missiles to 6,000, and delivery vehicles to 1,600 for each side to start with, and further reductions to come.

In 1991, The Soviet Union dissolved into its fifteen independent republics, including Russia. Gorbachev handed over the Union’s powers, including the Soviet nuclear missile codes, to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Two years later, American CIA director Robert Gates visited the Kremlin with, among other matters, a video tape of the recovery of six Russian sailors’ bodies from a sunken Russian submarine and their burial at sea, years before. “Two weeks later, the tape appeared on Russian television. The families [of the long-missing Russian crew] got to see American sailors standing at attention as both national anthems were played and as the Americans added Russian prayers to the naval service for the dead… They were astonished and moved that Americans, their enemies for so long, would treat their men with such respect.”

In the years since that time, new leaders have brought new distrust, and no one except perhaps the spies and the intelligence services, know how close we are now to a huge World War III, from which relatively few humans would survive. But Sontag and Drews’ well-documented book will give the reader hope and desire for a diplomatic solution. “Trust, but verify” seems the best watchword we have for now.

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