‘If You Want Peace, Prepare For War’

A new book provides a window into Reagan’s transformative Cold War naval strategy.

Scholars have already debated for decades, and will debate for centuries, the role U.S. policies — military, diplomatic, economic — played in bringing the Cold War to endgame and the Soviet Union to extinction. One milestone was Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative proposal, a technological challenge that could not be met by a Soviet economy already buckling under the combined weight of military spending and socialism’s ignorance.

But before SDI there was Ocean Venture ’81, initiated by Reagan as president-elect.

.. By 1980, there was rough nuclear parity, and the Soviets, with 280 divisions, had superiority of land forces. Reagan campaigned on building the U.S. Navy to 600 ships and using it for purposes beyond merely keeping sea lanes open to deliver supplies for land forces.

.. in the autumn of Reagan’s first year, Ocean Venture ’81 surged U.S. naval power into what the Soviet Union had considered its maritime domain, especially the Norwegian and Barents Seas. (And eventually under the Arctic ice pack, where the Soviets had hoped to hide nuclear ballistic-missile submarines.) By dispersing Ocean Venture ’81 ships when Soviet satellites were overhead, the arrival of a large flotilla in northern waters was an unnerving surprise for Moscow.

This “transformative” operation, Lehman writes, “came as a thunderclap to the Soviets, who had never seen such a NATO exercise on their northern doorstep.”

.. “The Soviets were particularly fearful of being attacked under cover of a forward U.S. exercise. Why? Because their own doctrine was to use military exercises to mask surprise invasions,”

.. By the end of 1986, with the Soviets having learned that they could not interfere with U.S. aircraft carriers operating in Norwegian fjords, the Soviet general staff told Gorbachev that they could not defend the nation’s northern sector without tripling spending on naval and air forces there. Thus did the Cold War end because Reagan rejected the stale orthodoxy that the East–West military balance was solely about conventional land forces in central Europe, so NATO’s sea power advantage was of secondary importance.

.. In the movie A Few Good Men, a furious Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) exclaimed to his courtroom tormentors — Navy officers — words that are actually true regarding almost all civilians in this age of complex professional military establishments configured for myriad and rapidly evolving threats: “You have no idea how to defend a nation.” Lehman’s book is a rare window on that world, and a validation of the axiom that if you want peace, prepare for war.