Transcript: John Lehman on U.S. Naval Power in the Cold War
John Lehman is author of
“Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to the, “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Richard Nixon Foundation, we’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
How did the United States win the Cold War at sea? Our guest today to discuss this and other questions about U.S. Maritime power is former secretary of the navy, John Lehman. Secretary Lehman is the author of a newly released book on the subject called, “Oceans Ventured.” Secretary Lehman, thank you so much for being with us today.
John Lehman: Well, a pleasure to be back with the Nixon foundation and the library. And I’m delighted to be back as part of your program.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, why did you decide to undertake the project of writing this book?
John Lehman: Well, because nobody else did and it was a story that had to be told and very few people were in a position to tell it. It’s an important historic story and it has many lessons for the current world situation.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off with your background, how did you embark on a career in national security and naval strategy?
John Lehman: Well, my family has a naval tradition going all the way back to the revolutionary war where my fourth great grandfather George Lehman was a physician and a privateer. And my great grandfather was a physician’s assistant in the civil war, in the union navy. And my father was a captain of an LCS in the Second World War and the war in the Pacific. And I served as a naval aviator in reserves and on active duty. And my son served as a naval aviator on Theodore Roosevelt. So it was always an area that had really fascinated me. And when I was in high school, I got really interested in the way American foreign policy was made, and frankly, how badly it was being made in Vietnam, and elsewhere. So I really felt that this is an area that I was fascinated by and that I’d like to get involved in helping to straighten out the direction of American foreign policy.
So in undergraduate, I majored in international relations, and then I did a BA and MA at Cambridge University in England in international law and diplomacy. And then I came back to Penn and did a PhD in American foreign policy and national security. So that’s how I got involved. And I was involved with the Foreign Policy Research Institute at Penn whose principals were Robert Strausz-Hupé and Bill Kintner, and they were friends and advisers to Richard Nixon. And so, when Richard Nixon ran for president for the second time, I got involved as an assistant speech writer and researcher on the campaign and then worked on the transition. And then, was one of the first four employees that Henry Kissinger and Dick Allen hired for the National Security Council. And so, I served on the National Security Council staff for five years and then went over to the state department with Dr. Kissinger, and ended the Nixon-Ford administrations as acting director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, in charge of all the arms control negotiations. So that’s the short version of how I got involved.
Jonathan Movroydis: Looking at this subject of foreign policy, what is the fundamental task of U.S. naval strategy? What exactly is its mission?
John Lehman: Well, of course, the United States Navy has been the first bulwark of defense since the nation got its independence, and so, the seas are a great advantage compared to other world powers because we are protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific from potential attack. And they are our principal avenues for commerce with the rest of the world. So it became pretty clear early in the Republic’s history that we had to have a strong navy, first, to defend the country against evildoers and adversaries. And second, to ensure that American merchant ships would be secure in trading and commerce with the rest of the world. And so, our first foreign war was with the Barbary pirates who were attacking American commerce and American ships, and imprisoning, and enslaving American sailors. So that is a pretty good capsule of how the American navy became so prominent and important, and essential to the defense of the nation.
During the 19th century, after the Battle of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy commanded the seas and a great deal of the burden of ensuring the freedom of the seas for American commerce, it really was carried by the Royal Navy. But in the latter part of the 19th century, it became clear that it wasn’t enough for the Americans to maintain their dependence on the Royal Navy to keep the seas free because our…particularly when the civil war struck, it became clear that our interests were not the same. And so, our navy was steadily built up and it really wasn’t until the First World War that we really emerged as a world naval power. And while during the ’30s essentially disarmed our navy and built no capital ships under the arms control agreements of the 1920s and 1930s that failed to deter the growth of the Japanese ambitions. And that lack of preparedness helped to tempt the Axis powers into attacking Europe and the United States.
So after the Second World War, we had learned our lesson and maintained, essentially maintained the most powerful nation, navy in the world until we got bogged down in Vietnam. And then the navy was shifted from commanding the seas to being a power projector against North Vietnam. And so, that really kind of changed the nature of the U.S. Navy and its mission, until President Nixon came in and ended the war, and then rebuilt the navy, and started the rebuilding when President Reagan came in restored the maritime superiority of the United States Navy. And that has continued to the present time. But we have steadily disarmed since the end of the Cold War and the Cold War victory. And so, now, we face a myriad of threats and we’ve got to rebuild our navy to deter the troublemakers of the world.
Jonathan Movroydis: At the beginning of the book you talk a little bit about a key influencer in U.S. naval strategy, Alfred Thayer Mahan. Who was he and what sort of concepts did he bring to U.S. naval power?
John Lehman: Well, Alfred Thayer Mahan was a naval officer in the 19th, late 19th century. He was a theoretician as well as an operator and he wrote what was one of the most prominent and influential books of the 19th century called, “The Influence of Sea Power upon History.” And that really got everybody’s attention. And he then was professor at the Naval War College in Newport which had been set up by Admiral Luce and which became a major a forum and project of Theodore Roosevelt. And Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan were very close. And the theme of, “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” was the free world, the west and the United States particularly because of its geography had to have command of the seas. And command of the seas meant that they must have the naval power to defeat any potential aggressor or any potential alliance of aggressors against the free world and against the interests of the United States. And that really has been the underlying philosophy and culture of the United States Navy ever since Theodore Roosevelt basically built it into the primary doctrines of the U.S. Navy.
Jonathan Movroydis: In terms of the nation at large, we have World War I and World War II where there’s an expectation to, you know, to command the high seas. But in periods of peacetime, you know, after World War I and the post war, World War II, was there an expectation, national expectation to scale down and create some sort of peace dividend?
John Lehman: Well, this is the history of democracies, that democracy it is not the default position if you will or the natural state of affairs for democracies to maintain large military or naval forces in peacetime. But unfortunately, it always goes too far. Certainly, in the period immediately after World War I led by the United States and President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, there came to be a belief that war would no longer be possible because the horrors of World War I had demonstrated that there must be internationalism and there must be multinational organizations that would resolve any potential conflicts, and make warfare really a thing of the past.
And as a result of that there were a series of naval agreements starting in Washington in 1922 that agreed the formulas for the world’s navies, mainly the Royal Navy, the U.S. Navy, and Japan to disarm and reduce, and eliminate the expansions of navies. And to limit strictly in numbers the capital ships. And these restrictions were further tightened in the early ’30s, and trouble was that it was only the free democracies that observed those treaties. And Japan, and Germany, and Italy embarked on major building programs. And it really wasn’t until the first, the 1936 Shipbuilding Act that President Roosevelt and the Congress enacted that broke away from those restrictions of the Washington naval agreements and started building the ships that essentially defeated the Axis powers in World War II.
If they hadn’t started that major shipbuilding program in 1936 followed in 1938 and then 1940, and those three shipbuilding receives every capital ship that fought in the war, was authorized. So it was unfortunately too late to deter the aggression of the Axis, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the declaration of war on the United States by Nazi Germany right after Pearl Harbor. And if it had been known earlier, there is a very good chance it would have deterred a major part of World War II if not the whole thing, if it had been embarked on by our European allies as well.
So, and then after World War II, of course, we, having defeated the Axis with a navy that was close to 6,000 ships with over 100 aircraft carriers, that was not needed, navies that size. And so, there was a major disarmament program again that went too far in the early years of President Truman’s re-election. And that was drastically directed against the navy because it was felt by the theoreticians of the times and not the navy’s theoreticians, but the academics that strategic bombers could replace the whole navy. And so, the navy’s budget was severely slashed. The B-36 bomber was funded to replace a lot of the navy’s roles and the result was that the Korean War broke out and because it was believed by the Russians and the Chinese, and the North Koreans that the U.S. no longer had the capability to do anything about it because they were disarming their navy.
So President Truman immediately saw the error of his ways and tripled the defense budget, repealed all the previous orders to disarm and scrap the fleet, reactivated many of the carriers, and the fleet was rebuilt. And soon we had the Inchon amphibious landings and the navy played…the navy and marines played a very major role in pushing back the North Korean invasion. And so, then we had the post-Korean period. And so, we’ve already talked about that.
Jonathan Movroydis: Right. In that context, you know, there’s a period of time where there’s, you know, always a threat of nuclear war. How much did nuclear deterrence…how did that shape U.S. naval strategy?
John Lehman: Well, there was a belief that I mentioned earlier that nuclear weapons could deter conventional war, and hence the decision to disarm the navy and to build the B-36 strategic bomber, and to replace conventional deterrence with nuclear deterrence. But then it emerged that because of their very successful espionage with the American spies turning over so many of the secrets, the Russians were able to build their own atomic bomb, and then very quickly thereafter, the hydrogen bomb. And so, there became what was called the balance of terror with both superpowers having the massive retaliation capabilities of nuclear weapons. So that once more put the burden of deterrence below the nuclear threshold back on the conventional forces.
And, well, the balance that emerged when the Iron Curtain came down was very much in favor of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact with 180 divisions lined up along the Iron Curtain. And NATO never being able to muster more than 40, and so, with such an imbalance, NATO resorted to what was called flexible response which was to answer the preponderance of conventional power that the Warsaw Pact had on the central front with a tactical nuclear weapon. And so, yes, we couldn’t hold the Soviet Warsaw Pact divisions with enough conventional power, but we would use tactical nuclear weapons to counter that. However, that was a very not credible deterrent because the Russians didn’t believe and a lot of NATO supporters and leaders did not believe that when the decision point came that the western democracies would not pull the trigger to go nuclear and they would instead negotiate with the Warsaw Pact rather than sparking nuclear war, which is almost certainly true.
And so, there was a basic paralysis of thinking that led to a kind of defeatism in NATO. And this was something that was further intensified by the Vietnam War and the loss by the United States of the Vietnam War, and the restrictions that came after Watergate. And led to quite a period of despond and part of it was due to the fact that the navy was ignored, the navy was thought to be useful only in bringing beans and bullets across the Atlantic to the central front war. And NATO had ignored the fact that geography enormously favored the free world and NATO. That NATO had the navies, NATO had the geography. The Warsaw Pact was landlocked essentially having no warm water ports. And most of their agriculture, most of their land, their geography was north of the 50th parallel, which meant with lousy agricultural land. And throughout the Cold War, Russia depended on the west for 85% of its food.
And so, this geopolitics was ignored in shape and Brussels. And the navy started making noise in intellectual circles about, “Hey, don’t you people realize that command of the seas can essentially deter the land preponderance of the 180 divisions in the North German Plain? Because if they were to attack, we could use the navy’s offensive power from all directions to attack the weaknesses of the Soviet Union.” And nobody is even talking about that. In fact, they were prohibited. The navy was prohibited during this period from even having exercises above what was called the Greenland, Iceland, UK gap.
If you draw a line across the North Atlantic from Greenland to Iceland, to the U.K., to the continent, it was seen as a marginal line and the navies were forbidden, NATO navies couldn’t go up there and force, and hence, turning over the Scandinavians on the northern flank de facto to the Warsaw Pact in the event of the war. And as a result of that, the Soviets came to view the northern flank and particularly the Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea, and the North Pacific as their home waters. And that’s where most of their naval strategic weaponry and their command and control was. And from those areas including the Baltic navies, NATO navies could offensively strike deep into the Soviet Union and also directly support any forces that were attacked by the Warsaw Pact.
So essentially, when Ronald Reagan ran for president, he ran on that platform to restore the strength of the navy to stop just trying to contain them in the silly marginal line of the GIUK gap and move from containment to roll back and start rebuilding the naval force and using it offensively to exercise in the areas right up to the northern Soviet Union. And to run, and practice attacks into the Soviet Union to demonstrate to them that number one, they could not stop us from doing that in the event of a war. And number two, to demonstrate that we could use that to neutralize any advantages they could achieve in their tremendous preponderance of army forces in the North German Plain.
So that was the heart of the Reagan strategy. It was a forward strategy and it played a major role in bringing about when the Soviets realized after these exercises went on year after year under Reagan that they couldn’t stop us, that they couldn’t do anything about it. And the military demanded the trebling of the budget for the northern flank. And essentially that made it clear to Soviet leadership that they were…they could not compete along with President Reagan’s forceful support for Star Wars. And essentially, Gorbachev realized that they were going bankrupt and they could not compete. And that’s when he started negotiating seriously and that led to the crumbling first in Poland and Czechoslovakia. And soon there was no more Warsaw Pact and that was the end of the Cold War.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let me ask you for a brief moment to touch upon President Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s naval policy. You had mentioned that both were…believed in naval supremacy and building up the navy. What was their general philosophy at U.S. naval policy? You also mentioned that they were somewhat obstructed by Congress in the book, and they also had adopted a policy of detente which sometimes fit in their general policy, but sometimes, I guess, contradicted of what they were trying to do.
John Lehman: Well, it’s a very interesting period. Both Kissinger and President Nixon were very pro-navy and they were navalist, and geopoliticians. They were…in a more simplistic academic jargon, they were realists rather than idealists in power politics and they wanted a large navy. And they wanted one, and believed that a large navy could deter the Soviet advantages on the central front. And they fundamentally believe that the balance that could contain and then bring about the ultimate end of the Cold War was strategic nuclear parity which would make nuclear weapons unusable really unless there was some real breakdown of relations. That we could not match the advantages of the Warsaw Pact’s 180 active and 100 reserve divisions in central Europe. But we could balance that with naval, clear naval supremacy.
But unfortunately, they did not have control of Congress and Congress particularly as Vietnam went on, and after it’s winding down would not fund a larger navy. And in fact, the navy was grinding itself down because they weren’t able to maintain the ships. All the capital ships were used in this land war in Asia and Vietnam. There was no modernization to speak of. And the Congress would not support what was necessary after the end of the war. The Congress demanded as you rightly said, a peace dividend, not just a dividend, but the peace dividend which basically prevented any rebuilding of the naval force. And so, President Nixon and Henry pursued actively the attempt to ameliorate this through detente and through negotiations. You know, but they had a weak end because Congress was not backing them up in rebuilding the force that would make…provide any incentive for the Soviets to really negotiate and begin disarming.
So that was the tragedy, the real tragedy of Watergate because that removed the leverage from the executive branch and the legislation that followed the Watergate Congress elected in ’74, did lasting damage to our ability to deter the Soviets and greatly enhance the capabilities of the Soviet Union to use their growing military superiority to translate into a national liberation movement so called in Latin America. Their interference all over the world, the declaration of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet Union promulgated publicly that they had the right to intervene in any nation where communism was threatened. And it was a very dark period. And so, it was one of the things that helped to bring about the election of Ronald Reagan finally in 1980.
Jonathan Movroydis: And you talked about that. You talked about winning…building up the navy and winning the Cold War in the Reagan administration. Just as a final question, what do you hope current leaders and future leaders will learn from this history that you’ve written?
John Lehman: Well, President Nixon always liked to say, “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.” And today’s international situation rhymes a great deal with the threats that President Nixon and President Reagan faced. And so, it is the hope that the book in accurately recounting and factually recounting what actually happened, how the Cold War was won without fighting could lead to a better understanding of the need to restore our ability to deter the Chinese, to deter the North Koreans, to deter the Russians, and to deter the Iranians from carrying out their current temptations to take advantage of the weakness of the west militarily to shift the balances in each of those areas.
So it is to be hoped that by refocusing on how the Cold War was won will lead to an understanding of how we can restore deterrence and prevent other wars from breaking out which are threatening on a number of fronts today. And this can all be done as Reagan did it without breaking the bank or bankrupting the American budget. It is not gonna take Truman’s trebling of the defense budget to do that, and it can be done very affordably. And hopefully people will see that and draw the appropriate need for action from it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today was former U.S. Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman. His new book is “Oceans Ventured: Winning the Cold War at Sea.” Thank you so much, Secretary Lehman for joining us.
John Lehman: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcast at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify. This is Jonathan Movroydis, signing off.