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Book Review of At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War, by Thomas C. Reed
Reviewed by Geoffrey Riklin
04 April 2004

A must read for anyone interested in the Cold War era and nuclear weapons. Reed is not shy to criticize Reagan, and reserves his praise for Bush Sr.


It is highly unlikely that you have ever heard of Thomas C. Reed, but he has now given us a very interesting memoir of his experiences during the Cold War. He was the Zelig of that period, a man who popped up in an improbable series of senior jobs that gave him a front row seat at a remarkable number of important events. From the development of America's early ICBMs to his stint as Secretary of the Air Force, from his acquaintance with the senior George Bush in Houston to his service on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, Reed saw a great deal and has a hundred stories to tell, all of them well worth telling. It's this collection of anecdotes that makes At the Abyss a very interesting and worthwhile book.

Born in 1933, Reed went off to Cornell where he studied engineering and graduated at the top of his class. In 1952 Whitaker Chambers published his famous book "Witness" and this had a profound influence on Reed's perception of the world. Reed came to see Communism as a profoundly dangerous evil. He signed up for the Air Force's ROTC program, and received his officer's commission in 1956, whereupon he went off to Edwards Air Force base in California. As most people now know, that base was at the heart of America's high tech programs in aircraft and rocketry. Reed sketches the roles played by an amazing galaxy of people. Howard Hughes, whose diminishing sanity did not prevent his company from playing a central role in the development of California's aircraft industry. Si Ramo and Dean Wooldridge, brilliant young engineers who took their experiences gained at Hughes Aircraft and formed an alliance with an old company named Thompson Products, resulting in the creation of TRW [pp. 63-68]. Harold Brown and William Perry, two gifted scientists who played prominent roles in nuclear physics while in their twenties, and who later became secretaries of defense and who won Reed's lasting admiration. Johnny Foster, yet another accomplished young physicist who in the 1950s was rather shocked at the primitive procedures used to test nuclear detonators and did something about it: the result was the creation of nuclear bombs that are virtually impossible to set off by accident [pp. 118-121].

One of the points that comes out most strongly in this book is that from the 1940s to the 1960s, America's nuclear weapons programs were a young man's game. People like Brown, Ramo, Foster, and Reed himself were in a sense the forerunners of Jobs, Gates, Dell and others of their generation. Reed worked on the Minuteman missile at the age of 25, [p. 89] went to the Lawrence Livermore laboratory near Berkley at the age of 26 [p. 94], was briefing senior officials on missile technology before turning 27 [p. 128], was the Director of Telecommunications and Command and Control Systems on the staff of the secretary of defense at 41 [p.172], and in 1976 became the Secretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office while only 43 [p. 184]. What a whirlwind!

Now for a few of his anecdotes. Reed talks at length about the extremely difficult experiences American pilots had flying over the Soviet Union in the 1950s, dodging fighter jets and early surface-to-air missiles, this in the era before America had spy satellites. [pp. 35-51] Eventually, on May 1, 1960, one of those missiles caught up with Francis Gary Powers and blew the tail off his U2 [pp.35-55] But at nearly the same time America's first spy satellite became operational, taking pictures and then physically ejecting capsules that floated down to earth and to be retrieved [pp. 57-60]

He points out that the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb (an "exact copy of the U.S. "Fat Man' dropped on Nagasaki", the plans having been stolen by the scientist Klaus Fuchs [p. 22]) on August 29, 1949, and that American planes collected atmospheric samples shortly thereafter. The samples were analyzed and by September 22 had been confirmed. Spitting in the face of this evidence, senior people like Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson denied that Soviets had the Bomb. [pp. 106-107] Later that year some scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer and I.I. Rabi urged the U.S. not to develop the hydrogen bomb. Reed states that Stalin had already decided to proceed with the H bomb, and quotes Andrei Sakharov saying: "Any U.S. move toward abandoning or suspending work on a thermonuclear weapon would have been perceived as a cunning, deceitful maneuver or as evidence of stupidity or weakness. In any case, the Soviet reaction would have been the same: to avoid a possible trap and to exploit the adversary's folly at the earliest opportunity." [p. 111] Fortunately for America, Truman saw the truth and ordered research to go ahead: "What the hell are we waiting for? Let's get on with it." [p.112]

Reed discusses -- in a manner comprehensible even to a non-techie like me -- the evolution of rocket designs in the 1950s [pp. 70-86]. In his opinion the Soviets had the edge but only for a few months in 1957, and the subsequent brouhaha in the 1960 presidential campaign was nonsense.

After the Cold War ended in the 1990s, Reed sought out some of his ex-Soviet counterparts, people like Liya Sokhina, a physicist. In the 1950s there was an accident at a research lab: "Her first job was to collect plutonium oxide from the rafters at Mayak. It had gotten there as the result of a pyrophoric explosion, and her assignment was to recover it with dust broom and bags but without benefit of mask or gloves." [p. 104]

Reed provides a simple but memorable description of the first H bomb he saw detonate. Standing 17 miles away on a little island in the Pacific, he says "there's nothing in the human experience that in any way relates to the detonation of a nuclear device on the distant horizon, no matter how "small' or far away. I cannot image what it would be like to be any closer... I saw only a few such events... the rest of you have no idea how lucky you are to have missed this experience in the real world." [pp. 139-140]

Reed gives a full account of the infamous accident that occurred on January 17, 1966, when a B52 carrying four nuclear bombs was flying over the Spanish coast. While receiving a mid-air refueling, something went wrong with the fuel boom, the tanker blew up, the bomber crew had just enough time to bail out before their plane blew up, and the nukes fell out. Reed explains how vital Johnny Foster's safety improvements proved to be. [pp. 163-169]

In addition to his activities in the defense establishment, Reed played important roles in the political careers of Reagan and Bush. 1965 he enlisted in Reagan's gubernatorial campaign, worked briefly in Sacramento as Reagan's personnel chief, helped out on Reagan's abortive run for president in "68, and ran his re-election campaign in 1970. This gives him an unusual perspective on Reagan -- whom Reed views as talented but rather odd -- and on Nancy, whom he regards as troublesome and the source of Reagan's ambition. He writes of the "dysfunctional Reagan family" and the difficulties of managing the "Nancy account" [p. 259], and states that by the time he became president "Reagan was a man capable of dealing with only one subordinate" [p. 263]. While Reed clearly admires Reagan's beliefs, kind heartedness, and especially his willingness to confront the Soviets, he writes that "...Reagan had no friends with whom he shared complete openness, trust, and confidences as most of us do with a few other human beings...Nancy was his wife, lover, his closest companion, but she was not his friend. Her close confidants have confirmed that she was not the person to whom Ronald Reagan bared his soul... she supplied the ambition and the focus." [p. 274]

In January, 1982, Reed joined the National Security Council and this gave him a chance to see Reagan from the inside of his administration. The picture he paints is not very pretty. It is that of an aging man whose instincts were sound but who lacked the intellect and character to select and manage his subordinates. As a result, he initially wound up with James Baker as his chief of staff. Reed views Baker as a political gunslinger, a man who had no loyalty to Reagan and who worked for him solely because of the opportunity it afforded. Reed points out that in his memoir, Baker praises Reagan exactly once, on page 562! [p. 273] Reed quit the NSC in June, 1983, so he wasn't around to see Reagan's profoundly troubled second term. In a few remarks he makes it clear that he regards Reagan's post-California staffers as selfish opportunists who didn't give a damn about their boss. They didn't know him and didn't care enough to try to understand him.

In contrast with the mentally feeble Reagan, Reed is far more impressed with the senior Bush, whom he credits with great integrity and talent. It's typical of Reed's luck that in 1954 George and Barbara Bush stayed with Reed's aunt and uncle in Houston while they looked for a house. Reed worked on Bush's "64 run for the US Senate and stayed in touch with him subsequently.

Connections like this helped lead to jobs like chairing a committee in 1991 charged with re-thinking America's nuclear strategy in the post-Soviet world. This in turn, gave Reed a chance to look at Dick Cheney, for whom he has great respect. [pp. 289-298]

While imperfectly organized -- it's devilishly difficult to keep track of Reed's complicated career path -- At the Abyss is a pleasure to read. Solid, substantive, told in clear and simple prose, and generous in giving credit wherever it's due (even to old Soviets who did their jobs with integrity, albeit in the service of a rotten cause), this is one of those books that will be listed in the bibliography of every competent book on the Cold War period published from now on. If you have any interest in the era, you should read it for yourself.


Geoffrey Riklin is a writer living in Detroit. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he also attended the London School of Economics, and has lived recently in Chile and Spain.


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