By Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew With Annette Lawrence Drew
New York: Harper Paperback, 1999
ISBN # 0-06-103004-X
514 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2009

This is a well-written gripping story of the U.S. Navy’s spy submarines from the period of the end of World War II to the end of the Cold War in 1989, and the follow-up for a few years after the end of the Soviet Union.

The authors not only did a great deal of impressive research, but interviewed many navy people, not only officers and higher-ups, but more lowly sailors who were crew members, but not decision makers of policy or even command decisions.

Because of those personal interviews, and the choices of the authors, the book in many cases reads more like an exciting espionage novel than it does a book of non-fiction. The book’s scope is astonishing, and the detail amazing. In so many cases I wished I were reading a novel and not a history. But more of that later. What makes it even more like a novel are details of everyday submarine life that have nothing to do with the main story (sub espionage in Cold War days) but humanizes the men. An illustration is of a trip that a sub was making for about 150 days: they loaded canned goods so densely that some passage ways in the sub couldn’t be used in the early weeks. There were also crazy stories of their visits to bars in California the night before a sub would go out on a long mission.

Of the men:

“This was a blue-collar crowd, but they were, as a whole, a bit tougher, a bit more inventive, and a lot more willing to put up with long months of confinement than just about anyone in this regular Navy.”

But in the main business of the book and projects we readers follow the early development away from diesel subs just after WWII toward nuclear subs, and the incredible technological development of the ability of subs to do many things – run faster and more silently, track Soviet vessels, including their subs, and even in near science fiction out of Jules Verne, to go to the depths of the ocean to either tap Soviet phone lines or retrieve bits and pieces of Soviet missile testing. Operation Sand Dollar was such a plan to mine a deep place in the sea where the Soviets had aimed test missiles, and thus there was the possibility of learning much.

“… Soviet’s most sensitive defense systems; the best in Soviet missile guidance systems, metallurgy, and electronics – all of it … tantalizing trash.”

While I found the book (having to constantly remind myself this wasn’t fiction) gripping and actually learned a great deal, I wasn’t a good reader for these authors. Their presentation is one of a sort of hero worship of these subs and their officers, regular sailors, the “spooks” on board and the U.S. Navy and political system which enabled them. I am a citizen of the U.S. nation and one who believes very much in both democracy and living according to law and constitution. As the authors choose to present this story it is one of nearly relentless celebration of violation of international and U.S. law. That’s not violations as I would define them, but as the authors THEMSELVES celebrate them, claiming at least, that this information came from the submarine people themselves.

Early on the authors cite the sailors as celebrating their “achievements” when they could routinely violate International Law by crossing the 12 mile claimed barrier of Soviet territory and then even show blatant disregard for the law of the U.S. itself .

We also read the weak excuse that this was an “undeclared war” (as though that then excuses the violation of U.S. and international law) and they were even willing “… to go even inside the 3-mile territorial limit recognized by the United States.” One captain of an early such achievements is quoted as saying these “achievements” “… would forever mark the high point of their careers.”

It wasn’t like they were doing these things unawares of their violation of U.S. and international law. The authors cite claims of others. A typical example: “Indeed, just as Behrens (commander) snuck into the channel, crewmen saw one of his officers disable a mechanical training device that plotted the sub’s movements so there would never be any written record of the incursion.”

Again, I can cite myself as probably not a reader ready to celebrate the cavalier rejection of the United States Constitution and law, nor ready to see the U.S. officials and officers of the U.S. Navy be celebrated for violating international conventions and treaties which the U.S. signed in seeming good faith. That’s just not my idea of what democracy is all about.

So why would I read the book to begin with? I took the book to read since a high school classmate of mine, a classmate who graduated with me from high school some 52 years ago, was on one of these subs which plays an important part in this account. His own experience with the sub was in the very early days of the book, and the main parts of the sub’s fame came later, I still wanted to read about what his world and experiences had been. I have always had great respect for him (and certainly still do), and wanted to see what this was all about.

Despite my frustrations with the parts I hint at above and detail below, I very much enjoyed the book, and having read many non-fiction historical accounts of many different topics, this report (as I would see it) comes closer to exciting James Bond like experience than any other non-fiction account I’ve ever read. However, does raise many moral, philosophical and political problems for me along the way. I tried to set those aside and tried, as best I could, just to read it for what it was, but as my notes below suggest, I didn’t do such a good job.

Some of these include:

Lying to Congress was no issue whatsoever. When some 30 million dollars is needed, they create data:

“Craven, on Rickover’s orders, had just a few days to come up with an official mission statement, a full-bore cost-benefit analysis, and a detailed study as to why the Navy needed the mini-sub.

“Well, you know, Admiral, that study really doesn’t exist,” Craven answered.

“It will exist by the time the hearing takes place,” Rickover barked back.

“Now the existence of NR-1, and perhaps his own career, rested on Craven’s ability to spin vision from a black hole. He needed to prove that NR-1 was a crucial investment, one worth $30 million.”

Later we read:

“Staffing these boats had never been easy. Navy recruiters went through bizarre contortions to keep their secret and at the same time find men who wouldn’t mind trespassing in Soviet seas for the purpose of cable tapping.”

This reader had to keep remind himself – this isn’t an espionage NOVEL – this is an historical account.

A 1970 scheme to tap Soviet phone lines from secret sub base to a mainland base was another illegal incursion inside Soviet’s 3 mile limit (which the U.S. itself demanded). The main concern was: don’t get caught. “Bradley hoped Kissinger would look past that, as much as he hoped Kissinger would ignore he fact that the timing for this kind of risk was just awful. Halibut would be trespassing when Nixon was publically painting himself as a peacemaker and statesman. The president had just gone on national television to declare that he personally rescued flagging arms control talks in secret communication with Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev.”

My own frustration and utter disgust has never been with sailors (in this case) or with soldiers in other wars I have opposed, but with the blatant disregard of our own constitution and international laws by the leaders of our country and those in leadership positions in the military. But we do read in this book of the men’s willing compliance.

“Few of the men suffered qualms of morality or politics. As far as they were concerned, détente and diplomacy were public shows put on by both sides to hide true intentions. Still what they were doing, the men told themselves, could be construed as an act of war. Worse, what they were doing could start the war they feared most.”

One of the most celebrated and honored subs was the Parche. It was waiting to penetrate Soviet waters as Reagan and Gorbachev discussed the end of nuclear weapons. SDI was the blocking point.

“But perhaps the most telling moment occurred when Trost and the top Soviet admiral, Vladimir N. Chernavin, began joking, or half-joking, that their fates were linked. If either side failed to maintain an adequate-size navy, the other would have a terrible time justifying his defense expenditures.”

One admiral says:

“’The fact that you get caught periodically is historical. So what. You know everybody’s in the game.’” He went on to say: ‘As long as we’re doing it, which you might say in a way that does not clearly violate agreements that we made or international law we subscribe to, it is a fair game. We should never apologize for it. We’ve got to get on with it. And if we don’t do it, we are not doing our job.’”

The authors opine:

“Perhaps the entire nuclear arms race was insane, but once it existed, spy subs became a crucial part of dealing with that insanity. That subs were lost to technological failures and in a rush to the sea is horrible. But once nuclear missiles were put on submarines, there had to be a way to track them, to threaten them, to ensure that neither country felt safe enough to use them. For the Soviet Union, that meant trying to keep the United States from knowing just how many failures their nuclear subs were suffering. For the United States, it meant trying to keep the Soviets from knowing just how truly vulnerable their subs were.

“With stakes this high, there were valid reasons for secrecy. But obsessive secrecy tends to feed on itself, obscuring critical lessons from the past-lessons that are being lost forever as generations of men who lived that past are dying. Now, with the end of the cold war and a new phase in submarine espionage beginning, it’s time to look back, time to assess what has so long been hidden.”

Such blatant disdain of U.S. law, our constitution and democracy itself truly disgusted me. Yet despite that, the book was thrilling and had the ring of hard reality. That I appreciated.

Bob Corbett


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