George F. Will: Book underlines axiom that if you want peace, prepare for war

August 22, 2018


Scholars have 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.

The protracted strategy, of which this enormous operation -- 15 nations’ navies, 250 ships, more than 1,000 aircraft -- was a harbinger, came to be referred to by some Soviets as the “Lehman strategy.”

In “Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea,” John Lehman, a Navy aviator who was secretary of the Navy during Reagan’s first six years, explains the Navy’s role in the “forward strategy” that implemented Reagan’s Cold War policy. Reagan explained the policy when asked about it in 1977: “We win and they lose, what do you think of that?”

Among Reagan’s early actions was to increase the 1981 and 1982 Navy budget.

By 1980, there was rough nuclear parity, and the Soviets, with 280 divisions, had superiority of land forces. Reagan campaigned on building the Navy to 600 ships and using it for purposes beyond merely keeping sea lanes open to deliver supplies for land forces. Those purposes included signaling U.S. confidence and ambition -- what Lehman calls a “combat-credible forward naval presence” -- in order to ratchet up psychological pressure on Soviet leaders.

So, 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. 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.

“In preceding years,” he says, “during the hopeful pursuit of detente and arms control by Presidents Ford and Carter, such robust NATO activity would have been unthinkable, as provocative to the Soviets.”

Lehman says that in 1986, with Mikhail Gorbachev inching crabwise toward acknowledging the Soviet Union’s terminal sclerosis, “the most delicate period of the Reagan naval strategy began.”

Reagan would continue to deploy and demonstrate the multiplying American military proficiencies, but would avoid a triumphalism that might provoke an anti-Gorbachev coup by the humiliated Soviet military.

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.

In the movie “A Few Good Men,” a furious Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) exclaimed to his courtroom tormentors -- Navy officers -- words that are 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.

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