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“The Cold War . . . was a fight to the death,” notes Thomas C. Reed, “fought with bayonets, napalm, and high-tech weaponry of every sort—save one. It was not fought with nuclear weapons.” With global powers now engaged in cataclysmic encounters, there is no more important time for this essential, epic account of the past half century, the tense years when the world trembled At the Abyss. Written by an author who rose from military officer to administration insider, this is a vivid, unvarnished view of America’s fight against Communism, from the end of WWII to the closing of the Strategic Air Command, a work as full of human interest as history, rich characters as bloody conflict.
Among the unforgettable figures who devised weaponry, dictated policy, or deviously spied and subverted: Whittaker Chambers—the translator whose book, Witness, started the hunt for bigger game: Communists in our government; Lavrenti Beria—the head of the Soviet nuclear weapons program who apparently killed Joseph Stalin; Col. Ed Hall—the leader of America’s advanced missile system, whose own brother was a Soviet spy; Adm. James Stockwell—the prisoner of war and eventual vice presidential candidate who kept his terrible secret from the Vietnamese for eight long years; Nancy Reagan—the “Queen of Hearts,” who was both loving wife and instigator of palace intrigue in her husband’s White House.
From Eisenhower’s decision to beat the Russians at their own game, to the “Missile Gap” of the Kennedy Era, to Reagan’s vow to “lean on the Soviets until they go broke”—all the pivotal events of the period are portrayed in new and stunning detail with information only someone on the front lines and in backrooms could know.
Yet At the Abyss is more than a riveting and comprehensive recounting. It is a cautionary tale for our time, a revelation of how, “those years . . . came to be known as the Cold War, not World War III.”
Under the Cover
An excerpt from At the Abyss
Communist Takeovers and Makeovers
Why was there a Cold War? Fear. Fear of what “they” would do to “us” if they took over.
Citizens of the Western democracies watched in horror as one ancien régime after another fell to Marxist ideology, fearing the slaughter and suffocation that inevitably followed those takeovers. They did not want such horrors visited on themselves or their children. To the east, in the fact-free Soviet empire, the government generated a fear of capitalist imperialism. It invoked the horrors of World War II, horrors that we westerners can never comprehend. On a personal level, Soviet citizens came to fear the obligations and risks that logically follow individual freedom.
To me, there was the immediate fear of the war in Korea. In 1951, I was about to graduate from high school, so events there began to get my attention. A war started on the Korean peninsula during the previous summer; President Truman had threatened to use the A-bomb to protect American forces there. By the spring of 1951 that war had stagnated into a mindless meat grinder. No one was winning, but it was clear to us high school seniors, primary draft bait, that we could be the big losers. Our silent generation reacted to that war differently than did our children when faced with Vietnam, but the underlying feelings were the same: something was terribly wrong, our government did not know what it was doing, and we were being set up to pay the price. In the shadows stood some greater conflict, a fundamental struggle between good and evil only dimly perceived.
In a speech to the U.S. Congress that spring, on the occasion of his recall from command of the UN forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur spoke words that resonated with the righteous weariness of the Old Testament. He praised the men he had left behind in Korea, then spoke of the challenges ahead: “Once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War’s very objective is victory, not prolonged indecision.” He was speaking of Korea, but he just as well could have been laying out the markers for the forty years to come.
Whittaker Chambers Explains It to the Free World
In the spring of 1952, Whittaker Chambers’s book Witness was published.* It was the defining work for many of my generation, certainly for the cold warriors then taking up arms. In a preface to its republication in 1987, columnist Robert Novak describes how, as a twenty-two-year-old Army lieutenant, it changed his worldview, and how, over the ensuing thirty-four years, he found a large fraternity of like-minded leaders whose lives were similarly impacted.
Witness is an unforgettable book in part because Chambers was a talented writer. In 1928, as a freelancer, Chambers came to national literary attention with his translation of Bambi, by the Austrian novelist Felix Salten, into beautiful English. That book became a best-seller, then a Disney movie, and created a demand for his talents. In due course Chambers went to work for Time magazine, starting out as a book reviewer in 1939. He was an immediate success, and by 1944 was
*Whittaker Chambers. Witness. Random House, republished by Regnery Gateway, 1987.
in charge of the foreign news department. From that vantage point he
illuminated the foolishness of Yalta and the disintegration of China. He explained the meaning of “Iron Curtain” and “Cold War,” terms new to the American lexicon in the late 1940s. Henry Luce, publisher of Time, described Chambers as, “the best writer Time ever employed.” My acquaintances there agree.
In addition to its beautiful literary form, however, Witness is a book of immense historical substance. It documents Chambers’s life as a student at Columbia University in the early 1920s, as a recruit to communism in 1925, his selection in 1929 for “Special Tasks” by the Soviet intelligence service, and his promotion to management of the Ware espionage group in the United States in 1934. The book then tracks his disenchantment with communism as Stalin began to kill off competitors in the purges of 1937-38. The denouement was Chambers’s defection and flight into hiding on April 15, 1938.
In 1939, Chambers began his work for Time, hoping the visibility of that job also would give him protection from kidnapping or assassination. But this also was a time of sudden national interest in communist activity. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August and the subsequent bilateral invasions of Poland made the Communist party an instrumentality of a potential enemy. On September 2, 1939, Chambers told a part of his tale to Adolph Berle, a U.S. government official.
With the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government lost interest in communist underground activity. Overnight, the Soviet Union had become an ally, but from the minarets of Time, Chambers kept calling attention to that nation’s dubious geopolitical aims and its moral rot.
With the breakdown of the end-of-war Yalta accords, the new Republican Congress of 1946 decided to take a serious look into the matter of communist influence on U.S. policy during the Truman administration. In August 1948 the House Committee on Un-American Activities called Whittaker Chambers as a witness, based on his reve- lations to Adolph Berle almost a decade earlier. At those hearings, Chambers revealed his prewar membership in the Communist party, his break with communism, and the identities of individuals prominent in the U.S. government who were still active in the Communist party. State Department official Alger Hiss was the name of greatest interest to the committee, and he was called to testify. Hiss denied ever having transmitted government documents to Whittaker Chambers, and denied even meeting with Chambers after January 1, 1937.
At first only one young congressman, Richard Nixon, believed Chambers, but within eighteen months Nixon’s persistence led to Hiss’s January 20, 1950, conviction on two counts of perjury. Hiss served a forty-four month term in federal prison. The Venona transcripts,* released in 1997 and identifying Hiss via his code name Ales, and the postwar testimony of defecting Soviet code clerk Igor Gouzenko, remove any doubt about Hiss’s guilt.
In the spring of 1950, after Hiss’s conviction and sentencing, Chambers wrote two chapters of what was to become Witness. The book was published in May 1952, becoming the ninth best-selling book of the year. His twenty page foreword, in the form of a letter to his children, describes the seductive appeal of communist theory and the horrifying consequences of its reality. In those pages, Chambers tries to answer the questions: What is communism? Why do men become communists, why do they continue to be communists? Why do some break with it and some go on? He identifies communism as a call to change the world, to dispense with God and to enthrone man as the supreme being.
My definition is more prosaic. To me, communism is a nice theory on how to meet noble human goals, but in reality it relies on terror to make it work, and even with the full application of terror, the system does not deliver. Communist states always have dictators because the concentration of economic power means the concentration of all power. Such power corrupts; the dictatorship of the proletariat never withers away. The people lose their freedoms because communism denies the existence of a soul, of a conscience able to judge right from wrong, or of any authority higher than the state.
Chambers explained what communism gave to its adherents: “A reason to live and a reason to die.” Then he tells why, despite all its appeal, people cease to be communists. He used the words of a young girl who explained, with some embarrassment in the 1930s, why her father, a staunch Communist party member, had become an implacable anticommunist. “One night, in Moscow, he heard screams.”
*Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner (eds.). Venona. Central Intelligence Agency—Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1996. These are the transcripts of Soviet messages from the U.S. embassy and consulates back to Moscow during and immediately after World War II. The Soviet codes were broken in the late 1940s, leading to the arrest of their nuclear spies in the U.S., among others.
Chambers went on to write:
What communist has not heard those screams? They come from husbands torn forever from their wives in midnight arrests. They come, muffled, from the execution cellars of the secret police, from the torture chambers of the Lubyanka, from all the citadels of terror now stretching from Berlin to Canton. They come from those freight cars loaded with men, women, and children, the enemies of the communist state, locked in, packed in, left on remote sidings to freeze to death at night in the Russian winter. They come from minds driven mad by the horrors of mass starvation ordered and enforced as a policy of the communist state. They come from the starved skeletons, worked to death or flogged to death (as an example to others) in the freezing filth of sub-Arctic labor camps. They come from children whose parents are suddenly, inexplicably, taken away from them—parents they will never see again.
Of course, not all Communist party members heard those screams. Nor did many of the Soviet rank and file hear them, for their government was very good at muffling those screams, at jamming the internal systems of communication, leaving the Soviet word as the only word. For that reason, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) held onto power for over seventy years, and for a while it seemed that power might envelop us all.
Witness left a lasting impression on me not only because of the quality of its writing and the description of the screams. Chambers’s most compelling observation was that “in this century [it] will be decided for generations [to come] whether all mankind is to become communist, or whether the whole world is to become free . . . It is our fate to live upon that turning point in history.”
It was my fate to participate in that transformation, to watch and help as the hinges of fate swung shut on the communist horror. Forty years later, when the Cold War was over, I had a chance to talk to some of those who had screamed.
The Coming of the Gulags
In 1917 the communists took power in St. Petersburg by intrigue and mob rule, not by popular vote nor the consent of the people. There was not, and never has been, any legitimizing event leading up to their seizure of power. A civil war ensued that took four years to put down. Assassinations of political competitors was one tool of the Red Terror, but the most long-lasting and terrible instrumentality of the mob was the Glavnoe Upravlenie Legerei (Main Camp Administration), soon to be known by its acronym, the Gulag. These concentration camps were built, according to Anne Applebaum, to safeguard the Soviet Republic from class enemies by means of isolation. In the process, they extracted free labor from the healthy while killing off the undesirables.
Construction of the Gulag started in 1919; by 1920, eighty-four camps, holding 50,000 prisoners, were up and running. Their commandants were pioneers in horror. They developed a system of food allocation that disposed of the unproductive. They optimized their tortures and perfected procedures for the murder of the uncooperative. By 1922, when Lenin successfully imposed his will on a new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, there were over three hundred such camps in operation, “home” to nearly a quarter million prisoners, known as “zeks.”
Lenin died in 1924, and in the ensuing four years Joseph Stalin seized and consolidated his power as General Secretary of the CPSU. In the process, Gulags metastasized throughout the new Soviet Union. Close to five hundred Gulags processed over eighteen million souls through their portals during Stalin’s thirty years in power. Millions more never made it to the camps, dying in railroad cars and ships’ holds en route to their fate. Another six million offending citizens were simply exiled from their homes in the cities to the forests and deserts of Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Famine in the Ukraine: Ten Million Dead
One of Stalin’s targets in his consolidation of power was Russia’s neighbor and sometimes possession, Ukraine, a country not interested in the Bolshevik revolution. The peasants there wanted to keep running their farms as they had for generations, making Ukraine and the Caucasus the breadbasket of Europe. Such activity was not compatible with communist theory, so in 1930, Stalin imposed collectivization on those Ukrainian farms. The peasants would not cooperate. They fought back with guns, axes, and knives. They slaughtered their cattle rather than turn them over to the state. Stalin decided to starve the peasants out, imposing grain production quotas that the peasants could not possibly meet. For two years he decreed the confiscation of all food and the destruction of all crops.
Elena Yakimenko lived in Armanir, in the northern Caucasus. She reported that to effect this famine, the Komsomol, or communist youth, made twice daily calls on every farm and farmer. They would walk in teams through the maize crop, knocking it over as they went. They would prod soft spots in the ground with metal rods, looking for hidden food. In the afternoon, after the farmers had raised up the bruised crop, the Komsomol teams would come back to trample it again. Any food found in homes was confiscated. She confirmed that by 1933 most of the men were dead or had disappeared, transported to the Gulags. Their families were being wiped out where they lived. By 1933 the authorities were removing an average of 250 corpses per day from the Kharkov train station alone, lost souls trying to escape the horrors of the government-imposed famine.
Elena’s neighbors to the east had lost both parents and four of their six children to the famine. The two surviving children sold their farmhouse to a well-connected apparatchik at the mill for a sack of flour. Then they disappeared. To the west lived a mother with three children. One evening she produced four potatoes from a secret stash, boiling them for dinner. One child stepped away from the table for a moment and another reached for the unguarded potato. The mother responded with a tap on the offender’s forehead with a wooden spoon. The child was so weak that he fell over, dead. Without missing a beat, the surviving two children asked that he not be buried but that his remains be cooked.
Recent post-Soviet literature now estimates the death toll among the Ukrainian and northern Caucasus peasantry during these Stalin- directed famine years to be around ten million, one-fourth of the people living there. Today the terror is gone, but the legacy of incompetence remains. The government still owns the land. Ukraine is a net importer of food.
Stalin’s Ghosts: Twenty Million Dead
The struggle in Russia itself was far worse. At every turn “counterrevolutionaries” and “saboteurs” were identified and tortured until they “confessed” and implicated others—who were then sucked into the same maw of Soviet terror. There was a voracious need for slave labor to build the canals and dams of the new Soviet Union. Slaves built the nuclear facilities that fueled the Soviet military machine while slowly killing those who operated them. There was an unquenchable need for labor in Siberia, people to dig mines, denude forests, and suck oil from the bowels of the earth. On top of all that, there were arbitrary “execution quotas,” assigned to local officials for no reason other than to keep the people in line.
In February 1956 the first authoritative glimpses of these horrors were revealed to the nomenklatura* of the Soviet Union. Stalin had been dead for three years, Nikita Khrushchev had consolidated power as Stalin’s successor, and at the Twentieth Party Congress, Khrushchev began to reveal the excesses of Stalin’s rule. Rumors of that speech percolated into the Western press within a month, and on June 5, 1956, the New York Times was able to publish the full text. The headlines told the story: khrushchev talk on stalin bares details of rule based on terror. The first screams were now out there, reliably reported to anyone who would listen. I was a few days from college graduation, and I certainly heard their echoes.
A generation later I met the relatives of some of those Russians who had screamed. I talked to those who had watched the infrastructure of the Soviet empire being built by zeks. I heard firsthand stories from those who had been exiled for no reason other than a friendship with a misfit. Historians in Russia and the West are now trying to come to terms with the scope of this Soviet cruelty. Reliable records are hard to come by, but today’s Russian textbooks count the casualties during these years at twenty million dead, with another forty million imprisoned or shipped off to labor camps. The Black Book of Communism, a scholarly work by six authors from as many different respected research institutes, published in Paris in 1997, confirms these numbers.
It was not only the uncooperative masses who were victimized. The Soviet nation as an institution paid a terrible price. In the 1930s, Stalin directed the arrest and execution of most senior officers in the Red Army. Starting with Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, by all accounts a true military genius, Stalin killed off all possible contenders for power. The cost of this folly first became evident in November 1939, when the remnants of the Red Army were unable to prevail over the troops
*Literally, the “list of names,” i.e., the establishment of the CPSU and thus the USSR, the insiders who ran the country and benefited from the perks.
of tiny Finland in a minor border dispute. It took mighty Russia five
months to defeat the Finns. The final bill came due two years later
when the well-oiled Nazi war machine invaded and rolled over the rabble trying to defend Belarus, the Baltic States, Ukraine, and much of western Russia. A year of time and an ocean of blood were required before the Soviet Union could field a new and capable officer corps.
Mao’s Ghosts: Another Thirty Million Die in the Great Leap Forward
Professor Sang-chen “Sam” Tu was born in Kashing, fifty miles southwest of Shanghai, in 1928. During World War II he managed to get a university education, but in 1948, as China’s civil war closed in, he left for the United States. Sam pursued graduate studies in electrical engineering at Cornell, and during the 1955-56 school year, as my thesis adviser, he oversaw my work on a very primitive analog computer. During the summer that followed, Sam Tu heeded the call of the mother country to return home, to help build the new China. He got there just in time for the Great Leap Forward.
Mao Tse-tung announced this bizarre economic plan in January 1958. The intent was to vastly increase the production of food, steel, and infrastructure, all perceived to be the sinews of a modern state. Communes were established, and everyone was to build a backyard blast furnace. The results were disastrous. The peasants could only melt down their scythes to make their steel quotas, leaving the grain to rot in the fields. By 1959 millions were starving. The government started “antigrain concealment drives,” just like those in Ukraine in the thirties.
The Tu family, living in Beijing, knew little of all this, and they suffered not at all. In fact, they were the beneficiaries, members of the elite with special cards that allowed them to shop at special well-stocked stores in the city. It was their relatives in the countryside who paid the price. The Great Leap Forward went on for three years. By 1961, China’s rural society was near collapse.
Twenty-five years later the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that during the Great Leap Forward wheat yields had fallen by 41 percent, oil seed production by 64 percent, and textiles by 50 percent. The pig population had dropped 49 percent, and the population of all draft animals seems to have fallen in half as well.
The Great Leap Forward was finally stopped in 1961 by Liu Shao-qi, president of the country and Mao’s heir-apparent. By then, tens of millions of peasants had died. In 1984, Dr. Judith Bannister estimated the casualties at “30 million excess deaths during 1958-61.” In 1988, Contemporary Chinese Population concluded that “out of a population of 500 million, there were 19.5 million deaths in the countryside,” a quarter of whom appear to have been “useless” peasant girls who were allowed to starve or were killed by their parents. Other recent books published in China lump deaths and reductions of births together at around forty million during this period.
In 1966, Mao tried to stage a comeback with a new orgy of ideology known as the Cultural Revolution. In part this was to be a reignition of revolutionary fervor, but Mao’s main motive seems to have been political revenge. He wanted to reclaim the power lost in 1961 and to punish those who had usurped it. The Cultural Revolution was to be an upheaval of the intellectual community, enfranchising students and fools to operate as “Red Guards,” attacking and destroying those who had limited Mao’s power and ended the famine.
Liu Shao-qi was one of its first victims, but the Tu family took their hits too. Sam was not harmed physically, since his Institute for Automation was responsible for the control systems of China’s embryonic missile and space programs, and the first Chinese satellite launch was only four years away. But Sam was subject to the ridicule and harassment imposed on all “intellectuals.” His family was not so lucky. His mathematician wife, Mary, was sent to a commune in Hubei Province, and their four sons were scattered to other hopelessly inefficient state farms.
In the cities during those years, the Red Guards set out to destroy the very heritage of China. Communist party officials organized orgies of cannibalism to prove their ideological ardor. During the decade that ended with Mao’s death, the Chinese killing machine again took the lives of millions. The Black Book of Communism estimates total Chinese deaths due to Mao’s ideology, from his accession to power in 1949 to his death in 1976, at between 45 and 72 million people.
I crossed paths with Sam Tu in 1998 when he returned to the United States for a family reunion. Sam and Mary confirmed that it all happened. China’s weapons and space programs were successful, and continue to be, but the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were disasters. Their boys put history as only the young can do: “It was crazy. The last ten years of Mao were really bad. Everyone’s life became worse. Mao was nuts.”
The Lesser Dictators—Just as Bloody
kim il sung, trained as a communist in prewar Moscow, was installed as the puppet dictator of North Korea when that peninsula was partitioned at the end of World War II. But within a few years he had eliminated all political competition. By the spring of 1949 he had a clear plan for the reunification of Korea under his control.
At 4:00 a.m. on Sunday, June 25, the North Korean army invaded the South. Within two months they had nearly cleared the peninsula of defenders. The North Korean political cadres, following in the wake of the army, were killing local anticommunist officials and the landlord classes at an appalling rate. The U.S. Marine landing at Inchon changed that, cutting off the North Koreans from their supplies and annihilating their reserves. As the invaders fled northward, they executed all the anticommunist political figures they could find. In the village of Hamhung alone, three hundred men and women were killed. The more valuable prisoners were taken to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, but that was no refuge: they were executed as U.S. troops approached.
With this rout in process, Kim Il Sung called for help. The Chinese responded, and so did the United States—with the threat of nuclear weapons. The battles raged for three years. By the time the armistice was signed, on July 27, 1953, three million Koreans had died, along with a million Chinese. The North Korean regime, a last relic of Stalinist government, killed another million of its own people in pursuit of its ideology. Kim’s son remains in power today, his people starving while he dreams of dealing in nuclear terror.
nicolae ceausescu came to power in Romania in 1965 as the heir to the first postwar communist dictator. The state police, known as the Securitate, were already in place, but Ceausescu empowered them to decimate the country. Prewar Bucharest was glorious, but with the arrival of Ceausescu, the beautiful city villas and ancient town squares were flattened to make room for Stalinist apartment buildings. The economy collapsed. The use of low-grade coal added pollution to the already darkened streets while Ceausescu amassed a personal fortune. Unused presidential houses littered the countryside. His personal office in the presidential palace occupied an acre of floor space. He wore a new suit of clothes every day, pretested to detect any signs of radiation and then burned after that day’s use. There is no accurate count of the deaths incurred by this regime, but the violence of the December 1989 revolution that overthrew and executed Ceausescu and his second in command—his wife—speaks volumes. A decade later the Romanian economy is still shrinking.
In Cuba, fidel castro came to power by means of revolution, deposing a corrupt dictator on New Year’s Day 1959. At that time the economy of Cuba was about on a par with the state of Florida. Castro created a one-party socialist state, imprisoning and killing his political opponents, creating collective farms, nationalizing all industry, and otherwise wrecking the economy.
In 1962 the Soviet government attempted to use Cuba as a missile base, with the planned installation of SS-5 intermediate range (2,800 nautical mile) rockets on Cuban soil. American discovery of this operation led to the Cuban missile crisis during the very tense week of October 24–28. Incredibly, on October 26, 1962, Castro asked Khrushchev for a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States. Khrushchev thoughtfully declined.
As the Cold War drew to a close, Cuba lost its economic dole from the Soviet Union. By the year 2000 the once-equal economies of Florida and Cuba had diverged sharply. Florida’s per capita output now exceeds that of still-socialist Cuba by a factor of more than three.
The north vietnamese army overran Saigon on April 30, 1975. Thousands of the Republic of Vietnam’s leaders were executed, and others fled the country. The 400,000 government officials, military officers, and friends of the U.S. who were left behind were dispatched to reeducation camps where many spent the rest of their days. The Black Book of Communism charges the communists with a million deaths in their struggle for power in Vietnam.
When pol pot came to power in Cambodia in 1975, his Khmer Rouge emptied the cities. The civil war and the ensuing slaughter in the killing fields claimed between 1.3 and 2.3 million lives out of a population of only eight million. Thousands of those victims, the middle class “parasite intellectuals,” were photographed and then tortured to death in a former lycée in Phnom Penh that became known as the Tuol Sleng prison. Vann Nath heard the screams there, night and day. He is one of only seven survivors of that torture house: fourteen thousand other souls perished there. Nath avoided their fate only because he was an artist, chosen to portray dictator Pol Pot for the masses.
I visited Tuol Sleng in 1994. The ghastly cells, the drowning tanks, the electroshock apparatus, the racks and shackles, are all still there, along with the sad photos of those who passed through that hell.
In all of these places and times, from Russia in 1917 to Cambodia in 1975, the story was the same. Communism was but a concept, a set of advertising slogans, designed to secure absolute power for the well-organized few. Lenin made his plans clear in 1918. The Soviet world order could be achieved only “by subjecting the will of thousands to the will of one.”
As Lord Acton warned, absolute power corrupts its holders absolutely. Communist leaders achieved and clung to power by means of terror, and once in power, they destroyed their societies in an attempt to build new ones. The sad thing is that all of those sacrifices were for naught. Those hopelessly inefficient societies could not possibly deliver on the economic promises of their masters. Some, like the Soviet empire, sank from view, leaving behind a detritus we have yet to unscramble. Others, like Cuba and North Korea, remain as relics of lost civilizations. They are the modern day equivalents of the overgrown temples at Ang- kor Wat, but with their leaders very much alive, dreaming of nuclear revenge.
Some of these horrors were still in the future when I returned for my sophomore year at Cornell in the fall of 1952. I had listened as General Eisenhower and young Senator Nixon were nominated to lead us out of the Korean morass. That seemed like a step in the right direction. Late night talks with fellow students Carol and Bob Wray brought the words of Whittaker Chambers into sharp focus. We talked about duty-honor-country and about the mess in Korea. Upon my return to school, I enrolled in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, which would lead, in time, to a commission in the U.S. Air Force.
I did well in college, spent my summers in less intellectual pursuits—such as working in the oilfields of west Texas—but I watched the communist empire continue to grow. Something about the siege and fall of Dien Bien Phu, in May 1954, in a faraway place called Vietnam, seemed spooky. I read the last dispatches from that lost outpost and wondered what it must have been like to be overrun. Why were those Frenchmen there? And what were we supposed to do about their demise? I did not know that even then some American pilots were being killed there or that some officials of the American government were proposing the use of nuclear weapons to “save” Dien Bien Phu.
Classmates interested in the frontiers of technology were talking about the aircraft industries in southern California. One showed me an ad in the Cornell Engineer. It charted the employment growth of a firm called Ramo-Wooldridge in Los Angeles. The ad did not explain what Ramo-Wooldridge did exactly, but the gossip was “missiles.” I applied for and got a temporary job there, awaiting the call to active duty in the U.S. Air Force. It was an easy choice, as southern California seemed the promised land.
In June 1956, I graduated at the top of my engineering class and as the cadet commander of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. I received my lieutenant’s gold bars, returned my first salute (cost: one dollar to the sergeant making that first salute), married, and headed off to California. I was ready to play my role in Whittaker Chambers’s turning point of history.
Thomas C. Reed is a former Secretary of the Air Force. He has been Director of National Reconnaissance, a Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Policy, and a consultant to the Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where much of the country’s nuclear weapons research takes place. He lives in northern California.