At The Abyss:
An Insider's History of the Cold War
Thomas C. Reed

Random House, March 2004
ISBN 0-8914-821-0

AveryThe saga of the development of the atomic bomb and its deployment against Japan at the end of World War II is now part of our mythology. But for readers of my generation, an equally important part of the mythology is what happened after World War II in what we call the "Cold War" that is deemed to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thomas Reed began his career as a new engineering graduate from Cornell University in the mid-50s, worked as a weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, became Secretary of the Air Force in the Ford administration, and then moved on to senior posts in the administrations of Ronald Regan and George Bush Senior.

For myself personally, the two most intriguing parts of his story are (a) the initial years of nuclear weapons development, testing and deployment, and (b) the events in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the opening of relations with the Russians responsible for the Soviet Union's weapons program.

In between was the Vietnam War. Vietnam was a traumatic experience for the US Air Force, and also for the US Army. Neither service was equipped or prepared to fight a war with conventional weapons, and both subsequently went through massive rebuilding and restructuring programs.

In many cases, Reed tells the story as if he were directly involved at the highest level; in fact though, especially in the early years, Reed was involved only at more junior levels, but he fills out the story based on document releases and other disclosures that occurred in the late 1990s after the Cold war was over and relations had been established with the Russians.

Reed's ability to tell his story is aided by the fact that he knew many, if not most, of the key players personally. He was a close friend and adviser to both Ronald Regan and George Bush Senior.

One of the most telling vignettes in the book, in my view, is Reed's description of a visit by Russian nuclear weapons physicists and engineers to Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos in February 1992. In particular, he describes a dinner whose participants, both Russian and American, had all been witness to multi-megaton nuclear events -- and who were unanimously horrified at the thought that such terrible weapons might have ever been used in anger.

And Reed's narrative ends with a very moving description of the ceremony, on 31 May 1992, at Offutt Air Force Base, at which the USAF Strategic Air Command was stood down, a definitive event marking the end of the Cold War for the United States.

This is a very important book, well worth reading. My only regret is that this brief review really does not do justice to the material covered in the book. Most highly recommended.

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