We can all remember where we were at the time of great or stunning events. I remember Pearl Harbor Day vividly, for example, and VE and VJ Days, the day President Roosevelt died, and of course the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. On that day I was in the SCORPION office at Charleston Navy Shipyard, and someone, I think Luke or Charley Bing, came in to say the President had been shot. On the day we learned THRESHER had been lost during sea trials I was in SCORPION’s wardroom when then Commander Kaufman, the CO, came in to say that THRESHER was down. And I remember aJI too vividly when Ray Jones called me in my Pentagon office to say that SCORPION had not made her scheduled arrival at Norfolk, and was presumed lost. I remember the tremendous feeling of grief and loss, and pain for the families waiting for the ship that did not return.
It’s right that we should remember the grief, and feel again the loss. But it is also right that we should celebrate those 99 brave Americans, what they were a part of, and what they accomplished. They were a part, a very important part, of a great enterprise, one that culminated in one of the most remarkable events in the history the victory of the United States in the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Even now, only eight years after the event, people are already beginning to forget just how serious the threat was during the Cold War, and how seriously we took it.
Eight years ago I had the honor of addressing the graduating class of Severn School, some 40 years after my own graduation. Gratification at merely being around to do such a thing was certainly in my mind, but it was also an opportunity to contrast the world of 1990 with that of 1950. I reminded my audience that 1950 was a fairly somber time. The Cold War had been joined in earnest. The struggle between the two great world systems, capitalism, and communism, dominated the international scene. Communism seemed to have special appeal to developing countries, many of which were emerging from colonial rule. The failure of capitalism during the Great Depression was still fresh in many minds. Militarily the Soviet Union possessed awesome land forces, and had demonstrated the previous year that it could produce nuclear weapons. And of course, the Korean War was to break out that summer. It seemed to many people at the time that the tide of history was on the side of the USSR. Almost everybody believed that war between the superpowers was inevitable, and that when it came it would be nuclear, violent, and destructive beyond all human experience or imagination.
Against the threat of the spread of communism and ultimate domination by it, the United States developed a strategy of containment which had political, economic, and military aspects, we developed a system of alliances, and pursued containment with what must be acknowledged to be remarkable steadfastness and success. But that success was not easily won, and was never assured. We would do well to reflect on how we felt during the Berlin blockade, or the Cuban missile crisis, or when the Soviets detonated a 100 megaton nuclear device. The concern is putting it mildly.
Of particular concern was the Soviet submarine force. In 1950, when I graduated from Severn, it was being reported that Stalin, drawing conclusions from the World War Two Battle of the Atlantic, planned to build 1000 submarines. Our own Navy responded to the threat implied by this by placing unprecedented emphasis on anti-submarine warfare. The initial thrust was to press forward with concepts that had been successful in World War Two, such as maritime patrol aircraft, hunter-killer groups, and better sonars and weapons for escort ships. But some thoughtful and innovative people believed that our submarines should have a role in this battle, and began developing sub versus sub doctrine, tactics, and weapons.
Stalin died in 1953, and the great 1000 submarine threat never materialized. But what did happen was that the Soviets began experimenting with a wide variety of submarine applications. In 1952 they began work on their first nuclear-powered submarine, well ahead of our intelligence estimates. They also began investigating ways of launching missiles, both ballistic and cruise, from subs. This work went on through the ’50s and early ’60s. Their first SSN began operating in 1958. By this time they had developed missiles that could be launched from surfaced submarines,
and testing of these systems was in progress.
Meanwhile, we had commissioned NAUTILUS, had begun to build several classes of SSNs, had developed sonars and torpedoes that were the beginnings of an ASW capability, were developing both diesel and nuclear boats to deliver the nuclear Regulus missile, and had started on the Polaris program and the George Washington class of SSBN. Many of you here recall those days, and the frenetic activity involved, the long deployments, the long hours of work in the port, the unscheduled absences. There was a standing joke that if you saw the paymaster on the pier when you came to work, you knew just what you’d be doing for the next 60 days.
The Cuban missile crisis was clearly a watershed event for the USSR. Not long afterward we began seeing signs of activity that indicated what we now know was a determination never to be in a situation of vulnerability and inferiority again. By the late ’60s and on through the ‘ 70s the Soviets deployed an astonishing array of weapons systems, mainly nuclear, at rates and in numbers that were frightening. Once again, it is useful to think back to that time. On land, they engaged in a massive deployment of ICBMs. They developed MIRVs well before we thought likely. And at sea they produced massive numbers of SSNs, SSGNs, and SSBNs, the latter being characterized by one Secretary of Defense as coming on line like cookies out of a bakery. From my vantage point then on the NSC staff and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it was clear to me that our top national leadership was very concerned about these developments. And at home, the Vietnam War had taken resources from our own advanced development programs, and made meeting the Soviet threat at sea a major challenge. By the end of the 1970s all our military forces were run down and demoralized, with the Submarine Force perhaps least so, but face daunting challenges.
Historians will no doubt debate into the indefinite future how we got to where we were in 1980, why the turnaround happened, and when the Soviet Union began to come apart at the seams. What we do know for sure is that the defense buildup of the 1980s will be remembered as a monument to President Reagan, and that it dramatically changed the terms of the competition. Within the buildup, two major elements seem to me to have stood out in bringing the Soviets to see that they could not win the competition in any meaningful sense, and that they were destroying their country by trying. These were the strategic defense initiative, and the maritime strategy.
People have raised lots of issues and objections to ballistic missile defense. Certainly, it is a rich and complex enough subject that those so included can debate it interminably. For me, three things stand out: that the Soviets were convinced we could do it, that there was no world in which they could match us at any price they could afford, and that it scared the hell out of them. They stood to lose the effect of their huge investment in ballistic missiles, and be essentially disarmed. They couldn’t stand it.
I’d like to say a little more about the maritime strategy because it is more important to my main point. For much of the period between the end of World War Two and the end of the Cold War, the Navy and Marine Corps were viewed as bit players and supporting actors in any global war. Their role in projecting power and influence in peacetime was acknowledged, but in a global war, many believed that the whole stakes of the war rested on the air-land battle for Central Europe. If we lost that, the game was over. Furthermore, the Navy and Marine Corps had little direct relevance to that battle, since they didn’t have the heavy land and air forces needed.
I don’t need to tell this audience that that thinking was narrow to the point of silliness, but we remained locked in that conventional wisdom until the maritime strategy was developed. That strategy held essentially that the Soviets had vulnerabilities that could be exploited by action from the sea. Time and other factors don’t allow me to talk about all of them, but there is one that is particularly relevant. It was clear that the Soviets had put an enormous investment into their SSBN force, and that it was very important to them. Some even argued that SSBNs contained the reserve of strategic force that was the guarantee of their retaliatory capability. If that hypothesis was correct, it meant that Soviet SSBNs protected the very core values of the Soviet state. Putting these ships at risk would give U.S . forces enormous leverage, in war or in peacetime. The task of developing this option was assigned to the Submarine Force.
I won’t belabor the point, but history shows that the Submarine Force met that challenge with flying colors. The superb competence, the dazzling array of technical devices and methods, and the deep experience of our Submarine Force did the job. As in the case of ballistic missile defense, the Soviets were convinced we could do it, and it contributed materially to the collapse of their will to continue the superpower struggle.
The point I want to make here is that the awesome capability our Submarine Force was able to bring to that challenge didn’t happen overnight. It was the product of long years of development; practice and plain hard work; of trying to do things with diesel subs we wouldn’t try with an SSN today; of pushing edges of the possible everywhere; of testing systems, ships, and people in long, arduous deployments. SCORPION was part of that long, hard, and ultimately successful effort.
So it is not just that those 99 Americans died in the line of duty. They did so in supplying the indispensable foundation for the maritime strategy, and hence the defeat of the Soviet Union after 45 years of Cold War. Wherever they are, SCORPION’s crew can sing hymns of victory, and can rest easy, knowing they have served our beloved country well. Our friends and shipmates, fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands, are an imperishable part of the history of our country, and their illustrious service will be remembered always.
Mr. Clay D. Blair
CAPT James F. Caldwell, Sr., USN(Ret.)
CDR J.W. Chapman, USN(Ret.)
Mr. Leon J. Faso
Mr. Paul D. Penman