- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

AT THE ABYSS: AN INSIDER’S HISTORY OF THE COLD WAR

By Thomas C. Reed

Introduction by former President George Bush

Ballantine Books, $25.95, 368 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN

If you enter “Cold War” into the Google window and click “Search,” you will get 6.7 million hits. But as John Stuart Mill wrote, “On all great subjects much remains to be said,” and of none is this truer than the Cold War.

This book by a weightily-credentialed Thomas Reed adds considerable new information on how the Cold War was fought. Mr. Reed is the former secretary of the Air Force, and was special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for national security policy and a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory consultant.

Normally a reviewer reviews a book, not the introduction to a book. But not in this case, because the introduction is by former President George H.W. Bush. I am astounded that a hard-liner like the author, an unalloyed admirer of Reagan, would have selected Mr. Bush to write the introduction. In it, Mr. Bush once more demonstrates his disdain for Reagan by forgetting to mention that Reagan had anything to do with winning the Cold War.

In fact, Mr. Bush doesn’t mention Reagan at all. It’s as if Reagan had never existed.

It seems to me that the author owes his readers an explanation as to why he selected Mr. Bush to write the introduction. As president 41, Mr. Bush did all he could to save the Soviet Union from disintegration with his “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he warned the Ukrainians against what he called “suicidal nationalism,” namely, voting to secede from the Soviet Union.

Even before he was elected president in 1988, Mr. Bush had demonstrated his dislike of everything Reagan stood for. An extraordinary 1988 conversation between the then-Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and then-Vice President Bush was reported by Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott in their 1993 book, “At the Highest Levels.” The authors disclosed that on Dec. 10, 1987, Mr. Bush confided to Mr. Gorbachev that President Reagan was surrounded by “marginal intellectual thugs” who regarded Mr. Bush as a closet liberal.

Because of such a discomforting environment, Mr. Bush told the erstwhile Soviet leader that during the 1988 presidential campaign, he “would have to say and do many things to get elected. Mr. Gorbachev should ignore them.”

According to Mr. Beschloss and Mr. Talbott, Mr. Bush told Mr. Gorbachev that during his years as vice president “he had to keep his moderate views to himself … that he was uncomfortable with some of Reagan’s harsh rhetoric and gestures toward the Soviets at the start of their first term.”

Upon his election in 1988, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker began to distance themselves from the eight Reagan years. They instituted a vendetta against any and all Reagan-appointee incumbents, whom they purged. They did everything they could to minimize Reagan’s accomplishments.

In light of this public record, plus Mr. Bush’s failure to rid the world of Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of Gulf War I in 1991, I simply cannot understand why Mr. Reed chose Mr. Bush to introduce his book.

Now about the book itself, “At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War,” which comes with much-deserved blurbs from the late Edward Teller and from Lou Cannon, Reagan’s biographer. If there is a Renaissance man in the field of nuclear and missile science, Mr. Reed is he.

I learned a good deal from these pages, like how Whittaker Chambers’ autobiography excited the author’s intellectual-political development. Most fascinating is the story of what Mr. Reed calls the courageous American “paparazzi pilots.” These brave men overflew the Soviet Union during the Eisenhower presidency at great personal risk so as to photograph Soviet military installations.

What Mr. Reed does eloquently is to show what the Cold War meant in real, everyday terms when your assignment as an Air Force pilot was to fly around the northern periphery of the Soviet Union armed with the latest cameras and film, trying to avoid Soviet fighter jets and missiles. All this was going on when 200 German rocket scientists were working in the Soviet Union at the Scientific Research Institute, north of Moscow.

Mr. Reed joined the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division in June 1957, which has enabled him to display in these pages an intimate knowledge of the U.S.-Soviet ballistic missile rivalry. This is history without footnotes or sources, but his reporting as a participant-observer is so persuasive, so revealing, that one is inclined to accept Mr. Reed’s history as gospel.

Yet it is difficult to accept his un-footnoted revelation that on Feb. 28, 1953, at a late dinner at Joseph Stalin’s dacha, Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, dropped into his host’s wine glass a dose of warfarin, a tasteless, odorless blood thinner that killed Stalin.

No source is given for this story, so it is easy to suspect that it is made up out of whole cloth. We have had all kinds of stories of how Stalin died but I hadn’t heard the warfarin “theory.” Is this “theory” to be found in any Russian archives, any KGB archives, or any archives at all? I know of none.

Let me put it this way: Where Mr. Reed talks about the American scene, especially the missile story, there is much in his revelations. But when he ventures beyond the American border, beware.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. An updated edition of his biography “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian” will be published next month.


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