OCEANS VENTURED: WINNING THE COLD WAR AT SEA
By John Lehman
W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, 368 pages
As a young workaday Defense Department civilian employee in the mid-1970s, I watched with regret as the American military deteriorated after the end of the Vietnam War. As a Navy veteran who served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I was particularly saddened to see our once-great Navy diminished greatly.
This all changed when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. President Reagan promised to rebuild the U.S. military — in particular, a formidable 600-ship Navy — to counter the Soviet Union’s military expansion.
John Lehman, a former Navy aviator, became Mr. Reagan’s secretary of the Navy and he served from 1981 to 1987. Mr. Lehman took the helm and guided the service toward that 600-ship Navy goal, which played a significant role in leading to the winning of the Cold War and the crumpling of the “evil empire,” as Mr. Reagan once called the Soviet Union.
Looking back at that crucial time in history, Mr. Lehman has written an interesting book called “Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea.”
“Since World War II, major changes of direction in American national security policy have been rare. Presidential elections have always included strong differences on some issues: Ike promised to end the Korean War; Jack Kennedy campaigned against Ike’s “missile gap”; and Nixon campaigned against Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War. But Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign against the Carter administration represented something wholly different: a fundamental rejection of the administration’s policy of detente and convergence with the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Lehman writes in his introduction to the book, “Reagan promised a robust increase in defense spending to build significantly the size and capability of American military and naval forces. He rejected the Soviet-declared Brezhnev Doctrine and made clear his intention to pursue a “forward strategy.” When asked back in January 1977 about his policy toward the Cold War, he had famously replied, “We win and they lose, what do you think of that?” In addition to pursuing the declared policies, he also intended to launch a highly classified program to exploit Soviet economic, political, military, and psychological vulnerabilities.”
In “Oceans Ventured,” Mr. Lehman recounts how the naval build-up and bold naval exercises, such as “Ocean Venture 81,” played a role in Mr. Reagan’s plan.
“Oceans Ventured,” a play on words based on the naval exercise, makes use of Mr. Lehman’s memory, as well as interviews with other participants of that era and wide use of historical material, including many recently declassified documents.
When Ronald Reagan became president and John Lehman became Navy secretary, the United States was losing the Cold War. The Soviets were building up their military during the years we were dismantling ours. In particular, the Soviet navy was working feverishly to become the most powerful navy in the world.
President Reagan led a bipartisan effort through Congress to fund the restoration of the Navy and Mr. Lehman conducted naval exercises, beginning with “Ocean Venture 81,” sending ships and aircraft dangerously close to the Soviet Union. This effort informed the Soviets that our expanding fleet could sink their submarines and takeout Soviet bombers and missiles while simultaneously striking deep inside the Soviet Union. The exercises also showed that the fleet could operate in Arctic waters, which no navy had previously attempted.
Mr. Lehman notes that the technological advances in electronic warfare at the time made “ghosts” of American submarines and surface fleets, which confounded and confused the Soviets. Even though despicable American spies, such as Navy Warrant Officer John Walker, gave the Soviet Union many of our secrets, the Soviets were unable to counter the American Navy effectively.
The Soviets tried to match our military growth in an accelerated arms race, which caused their economy to fail miserably — just as Mr. Reagan had predicted. The Soviet Union would fall on President Bush’s watch, but clearly, Mr. Reagan gave them the fatal push.
In addition to President Reagan, Mr. Lehman generously gives credit for the rebuilding of the Navy to a good number of naval officers, civilian defense officials, members of Congress and others.
I interviewed John Lehman in 2015 and asked him what his high point was as Navy secretary, and he replied, “The high point was just overall being able to work for a leader like Ronald Reagan and being able to lead the transformation and rebuilding of the 600-ship Navy.”
He noted that they got to 594 ships. His low point, he told me, was leaving the Navy.
At times reading like a military thriller, John Lehman’s “Oceans Ventured” offers an interesting and illuminating look back at Cold War naval history. One might also be interested in reading John Lehman’s earlier memoir of his time as Navy secretary, “Command of the Seas.”
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.