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Book Reviews

Nov. 9, 2016 –


Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War

Edited by Nate Jones. Forward by Tom Blanton. 
A National Security Archive Book.

The New Press, (New York) 2016.

I recently got called out for being too nice in my book reviews. That’s a problem when I generally only review books that I actually like. I know I’m supposed to note something the author could have done better or some point of disagreement. But most of the books I review share my same purpose – disseminating government secrets, promoting transparency, and hopefully learning something from the past. Nate Jones’s new book on Able Archer 83 does all those things so well you should go out and buy it right now. Really! Click here and buy it now! 


That being said, I’ll pick it a part a bit too because there is just so much good stuff in there screaming for an intellectual discussion. (I hope he reads this and sends me his response so I can post it below.) 


For Jones, Able Archer 83 (Google it for the quick overview) represents the most important of the series of events in 1983 that brought about a turn in Ronald Reagan’s thinking from “evil empire” war rhetoric toward respectful engagement with the Soviet Union. Jones was not the first to identify this “turn”.  That started with Beth Fischer, as he notes, but he is the first I believe to center the turn around Reagan’s thinking about the Soviet response to Able Archer 83. That event, as Jones notes, scared the crap out of the Soviet leaders who thought the annual NATO exercise in 1983 could be a pretext for a first-strike and thus moved Soviet forces toward an elevated level of readiness. 


Jones argues that the NATO exercise could have actually been the closest the United States and Soviet Union came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. That may be true, but the problem I see is that in the Cuban Missile Crisis both American and Soviet leaders had their fingers on the button making it an actual crisis. During Able Archer 83, President Reagan barely paid attention to the exercise and had no idea the Kremlin was actually freaking out. Without both fingers on the button, I don’t see how the exercise can be elevated to the status of crisis. In fact, it wasn’t until the next year, thanks to some deft espionage, that Reagan first learned that Soviet force had actually been put on high alert and prepared for an American first-strike. 


Fortunately, Able Archer 83 is really just a lesson in poor communication brought about by heightened tensions following President Reagan’s decision to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 just two months before, and growing tensions in the middle east after the bombing of the marine barracks on Oct. 23, 1983 left almost three hundred Americans dead. Albeit, a very important lesson in what can happen when lines of communication fail during periods of heightened tension. In this case, but for cool heads in the Kremlin nuclear Armageddon may have become a reality. 


Going back to the big picture here, and this is where I think historians of the end of the cold war are in need of some help, I’m not convinced, as Jones is, that Reagan’s turn had in fact anything to do with the war scare events of 1983. Henry Maar may still convince me with his forthcoming work on the nuclear freeze movement, but for the moment I’m still of the camp that the pivot Reagan made in 1984 toward engagement with the Soviet Union was exactly inline with his campaign promises and policies when he first came into office. “We are going to negotiate from a position of strength,” he promised in the campaign. That’s exactly what he did. 


The events of 1983, including Able Archer 83, may have had an impact on his decision to engage the Soviet Union, but in my mind his turn was entirely consistent with what he had said all along. The United States was “armed to the teeth,” Pat Buchanan advised Reagan in 1985, and there was nowhere left to go but negotiate. 


Bravo Nate Jones. Thanks for fighting for these documents, twelve years alone for the February 15, 1990 President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Report, “ The Soviet ‘War Scare.’” Don’t. Ever. Stop.

Oct. 28, 2016 —Book Review: "The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War,” by H.W. Brands. DoubleDay, 2016.

   It might not have been the kind of hand-to-hand  combat Teddy Roosevelt preferred, but in The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman At the Brink of Nuclear War, acclaimed historian H.W. Brands argues that Truman wasn’t afraid to get bloody when it mattered.


What mattered to Truman: whether the president of the United States or the commander in the field determined American tactics and policy. General MacArthur, one of the most decorated soldiers in American history, led the American-supported United Nations effort to defend Korea from a Chinese-backed communist takeover. Whereas MacArthur publicly supported the direct bombing of China and hinted at American use of nuclear weapons to end the conflict, Truman believed that containment would ultimately succeed and that the risk of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union outweighed either the benefits of a direct attack against China or use of nuclear weapons.

These different approaches, Brands shows, played out before American eyes thanks to eager reporters looking for any discrepancy in tactics or policy to come out of the White House and General MacArthur’s own public statements. The two obliged.

Not surprisingly, 15 years after 9/11 and a continued American presence in the middle east, the next white house will no doubt be faced with tough decisions that will likely conflict with the advice of American military leaders.

The case of Truman and MacArthur and the Korean conflict, Brands demonstrates, could have better guided these decisions. Yes, the cold war is over, but containing terrorism, much like containing communism, seems to have been the better approach. Why invade China, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, when keeping the Soviet’s or the Libyan’s or even the Chinese contained would have saved American lives and been more cost-effective? Improved intelligence gathering and analysis was to be the key to taking out Osama Bin Laden and preventing another 9/11, while a war in Afghanistan and Iraq has allowed once marginalized groups to fill the vacuum. Crossing into China may have prevented the split of the Korean peninsula and the small headache that North Korea has so far been for the United States, but at what cost? Truman wasn’t about to find out.  Choosing between a communist North Korea or World War III didn’t seem to keep him up at night. Better a wall than a war, perhaps Representative John F. Kennedy observed at the time.

Truman’s cool head and conviction proved correct with the fall of the Soviet Union and thus the de facto end of the communist threat. Doing so knowing that it could cost him his job and possibly usher in a new era of Republican leadership demonstrated true grit – those long-lost Midwestern values that come with doing what is right no matter the consequences.

MacArthur, a World War II hero in the pacific theater and then head of the American effort to transition Japan to a constitutional democracy, was not one to back down from a fight. Whether demanding Truman fly half-way across the world if he wanted a meeting or ordering the bombing of North Korea without presidential approval, Brands shows us that the early stages of the Cold War could have quickly gone in a more violent direction. Nuclear weapons, with a different finger on the button, may have been used, while an American attack on China seemed all but inevitable.  Cooler heads in the Oval Office – those able to take a longer view of history – proved better suited to the enormous responsibility that comes with balancing both American foreign and national interests against the perceived immediate dangers of a worldwide communist movement.

So where does that leave us? “The celebration that greeted MacArthur on his return from Asia,” Brands writes after Truman’s public firing, “was unlike anything ever seen in America, and unlike anything ever imagined almost anywhere.

Rome had lavished public triumphs on its victorious generals, and America had done the same after the Civil War and the two world wars, but to save the greatest celebration for a general who had just been fired, amid a war that was far from won, suggested that something larger was afoot. The parades for MacArthur were celebrations, but they were also protests: against the president who fired him, against the ambiguous policies the president pursued, against the constraining circumstances that kept America from smiting its enemies as decisively as it had done in those earlier, more satisfying wars. The millions of Americans cheering and shouting for MacArthur wanted the general to lead them, like a modern Moses, out of the wilderness of uncertainty that seemed to be Americans’ lot in the contemporary struggle against communism. MacArthur was the last general to return home after World War II; if anyone could restore the certainty – the moral certainty, the civic certainty, the political certainty – that had characterized the American life during the earlier struggle against facism, MacArthur could.

But it wasn’t MacArthur, or Joe McCarthy, or Kennedy or Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan who all stared communism in the eye and called out evil when it was popular to do so. It was patience, adherence to a well thought-out policy of containment, and most importantly a willingness to sacrifice self for country when it mattered most. Truman did just that and lost his job and reputation, while Brands reminds us how with a different finger in the oval office we now might be arguing over whether World War III had started with a communist invasion of Korea or the American decision to attack China.

An important contribution and a must-read for military historians, presidential historians and those interested in the Korean War.

The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War.

By: James Graham Wilson (Cornell University Press, 2014)

Review by Scott Whitmore

Feb. 18, 2014 


Highly readable and illuminating, in The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev's Adaptability, Reagan's Engagement, and the End of the Cold War author James Graham Wilson (@jamesgramwilson) rejects current theories explaining the Cold War’(Click the text above to continue reading)

The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power 

By: John Prados (University of Texas Press, 2013)

Review by Jason Saltoun-Ebin, for

Oct. 1, 2013 

Almost forty years after Seymour Hersh broke the story for The New York Times on Dec. 22, 1974 that the CIA was illegally spying on Americans, John Prados’s The Family Jewels: The CIA, Secrecy, and Presidential Power (University of Texas, 2013) reminds readers that the recently released Top-Secret CIA “Family Jewels” document Hersh relied on for his groundbreaking story to examine the history of CIA illegal activities is as relevant today as it was when Hersh broke the story.

Prados, along with the National Security Archive, obtained the release of the over 700-page “Family Jewels” document in 2007 through a Freedom of Information Act request.  Domestic spying, attempted assassinations and assassinations, and the Watergate scandal comprise much of the “Family Jewels”, which Prados notes the CIA created at the request of then director of central intelligence James R. Schlesinger so that Mr. Schlesinger would be apprised of all the CIA’s questionable activities. Prados rounds out his study by analyzing the legacy of the “Family Jewels”, events after 1973 that may, when the evidence is finally revealed, show a continued pattern of CIA illegal activities. The Iran-Contra scandal, domestic spying, rendition, as well as drone strikes play significant roles in his account.

 The Family Jewels is much more than just the history and legacy of the CIA’s Family Jewels document. The book is actually at its best when looked at as a study of the interactions between Congress, the CIA and the Presidency. Prados appropriately calls upon his political science background to complete this task.

 The central figure to emerge from his study is none other than former vice president Richard Cheney, whom he writes was the “leading ringmaster” of the CIA’s Family Jewels. “Over a period of three decades starting with the Year of Intelligence, Dick Cheney remained a central figure,” Prados argues. “As deputy assistant to the president, Cheney set up the Rockefeller Commission and ensured its narrow scope. Promoted to assistant with Donald Rumsfeld’s departure, Cheney spearheaded President Ford’s responses to the congressional investigators. In the Iran-Contra affair, Representative Cheney was crucial in limiting the joint committee inquiry and in drafting a minority report to discredit Congress’s findings. In the second Bush administration, the vice president stood at the forefront of those actually ordering the operations that created Family Jewels, functioning as George. W. Bush’s manager for the dark side. Mr. Cheney was at the heart of rendition and interrogation as well as NSA eavesdropping, not to mention the invasion of Iraq. Cheney’s involvement in the Family Jewels can hardly be overstated.” (326)

 It is through Cheney that Prados examines the interactions between the White House, Congress and the CIA, with the CIA all too often becoming the convenient scapegoat when “Family Jewels” get leaked. Prados looks behind the scapegoating, as in Iran-Contra, to argue that those in the White House and Congress deflected blame onto the CIA. Although Prados notes that the roles of both President Reagan and former director of central intelligence William Casey still remain ambiguous, despite the claim of Robert M. Gates that Casey probably did not know about the diversion, Prados argues there is “a fair likelihood that he did.” Overall, in terms of the White House/CIA relationship, Prados concludes that “The agency’s effort to protect the Family Jewel only did it harm, while the Iran-Contra faults overall were so large that no effort to scapegoat the CIA actually could protect the White House.”

 Prados does not exempt the current presidential administration from his critique. “Obama’s failure to sustain the effort to close Guantanamo and his acquiescence in continued authority for the wireless intercept programs show poorly,” he argues. “He either lacked the courage of his convictions or let himself be led by the intelligence mavens.” Yet Obama does not rise to the likes of Cheney, in Prados’s assessment, because “Unlike his predecessors, however, President Obama did not add new Family Jewels. Obama functioned as an enabler for the jewelers, not as their ringmaster.” (327)


The lesson Prados leads his readers to is the need for an informed polity to guard against what he calls “the most disturbing aspect of all.” For Prados, that is that “Family Jewels seem to have a tendency to replicate, suggesting that abuse fulfills some functional purpose.” For example, Prados writes: “Vietnam-era surveillance is reprised by war on terror surveillance. Vietnam-era eavesdropping yields to the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Harsh interrogation tactics used in the CIA molehunt are followed by the even greater horrors of the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees. The assassination plots of the Cold War have been succeeded by the real killings of the drone program.” (322)

Though I imagine that Prados had in mind when he started this project the importance of informing Americans of what their government did in their name, I wonder if the author had a loftier goal in mind. Throughout the work he weaves a narrative of the White House, Congress and the CIA constantly digging themselves a deeper hole through their efforts to protect the “Family Jewels.” Nixon and Watergate, as well as Reagan and Iran-Contra, standout. In that regard “The Family Jewels” serves as nothing less than a warning to future administrations that the best, and perhaps only, way to avoid another Watergate or Iran-Contra is simply to avoid authorizing any actions that would later rise to the level of a “Family Jewel.”

Prados’s warnings should not go unheeded by future administrations. “The Family Jewels” is highly recommended for history buffs, especially those interested in the intersection of intelligence, congress and the white house. The book is available at and by clicking here: The Family Jewels.

Planning Reagan's War: Conservative Strategists and America's Cold War Victory

by Francis H. Marlo (Potomac Books: 2012)

A must read for any serious student of the Reagan administration!

Dr. Marlo's first book is an important contribution to scholarship on the Reagan administration for two very important reasons. First, his use of the holdings of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in particular the files of the National Security Council, led him to conclude that President Reagan personally developed a "Grand Strategy" to defeat the Soviet Union. Based on these NSC documents, Marlo identifies five parts to Reagan's strategy: (1) rejection of containment and detente; (2) importance of communist ideology; (3) centrality of superior power in dealing with the Soviet threat; (4) the importance of Soviet weakness; and (5) the superiority of democracy and capitalism. Although historians and journalists writing about the Reagan administration have come to many of these same conclusions, Marlo is one of the first to have based these conclusions on the holdings of the Reagan Library, thus verifying what many have argued before anyone had access to the holdings of the Reagan Library.

Second, Marlo brings to his study his background in strategic studies as well as his graduate training at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His background gives him the tools to successfully blend the fields of history, political science and strategic studies. The result is an analytical narrative that helps to explain not only the foriegn policy of the Reagan administration, but every administration since Reagan left office. 

Highly recommended!

President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination

by Richard Reeves (Simon & Schuster: 2005)

Highly recommended: a stellar narrative of the Reagan administration by one of America's finest journalists! 

President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination is one of my favorite books on the Reagan administration. Reeves is a master storyteller and his style lets the reader feel what it is like to be inside the White House during the Reagan administration. Full disclosure: I worked as a research assistant for Richard Reeves while he was writing this book. He hired me to help him sort through the millions of pages of material on the Reagan administration held at the Reagan Library. I can thus tell you from personal experience that his book is probably still (as of 2012) the most important Reagan biography to blend both the holdings of the Reagan Library with the authors unique insights from his days as Washington D.C. bureau chief for the New York Times. 

Highly recommended for anyone interested in a readable narrative of the Reagan Years. 

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

by Lou Cannon (Simon & Schuster: 1991)

Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter, has written more about Ronald Reagan than any other writer. “The Role of a Lifetime” represents his account of the Reagan administration. As one of the first major accounts of the Reagan administration (published just two years after Reagan left office), the book was a landmark at the time of publication as it represented the most extensive account of the inner-workings of the Reagan Administration. The book still stands as an important study of the Reagan administration, but given its age should be read with more recent accounts, like my book The Reagan Files (2010) which makes use of documents that were not available to Cannon at the time President Reaganwas published. Highly recommended.

The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of The Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy

by David E. Hoffman (Doubleday: 2009)

This Pulitzer-prize winning account of the end of the Cold War is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the importance of present day arms control negotiations. Hoffman, a former Washington Post reporter who covered the demise of the Soviet Union, also sheds new light on the inner-workings of the former Soviet Union and the decay that brought the U.S. and Soviet Union dangerously close to nuclear war. Perhaps his most significant, and chilling contribution, is his account of the post Cold War period in which President Clinton was forced to make tough decisions about how best to prevent the former Soviet republics from selling their biological, chemical and nuclear weapons materials to the highest bidder. Highly recommended!

The following books are in need of review:

(Have you read a book about the Reagan Administration that you would like to review? The Reagan Files is looking for volunteer contributors who would like to submit reviews of books on the Reagan Administration. Please with the name of the book you would like to review and why you are interested in being a contributor to

Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

by Richard Aldous (W.W. Norton:  2012)

Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America

by Joseph McCartin (Oxford University Press: 2011)

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt: 2011)

Reagan on War: A Reappraisal of the Weinberger Doctrine, 1980-1984

by Gail E. S. Yoshitani (Texas A&M Press: 2011)

© Jason Saltoun-Ebin 2016