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.
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].
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!
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
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]
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.
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]
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."
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.
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]
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.
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.
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]
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.
Feedback Regarding this Review
Send this Review to a Friend
more book reviews