Brink of the Abyss

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

Author Biography

Working at Livermore Labs in the early 1960’s Thomas Reed designed and tested nuclear weapons. At the beginning of his career, he served as Secretary for the Air Force as well as a National Reconnaissance Officer. He also served as deputy Secretary of Defense to President Reagan.

Interesting and informative, Thomas Reed’s At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War shows the Cold War and how it affected the world. Through unique perspectives and uncommon perception, Reed reveals the seriousness of how global nuclear warheads came into affect. From the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War, At the Abyss goes through the minds of historic leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev to John F Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. Reed constantly reviews the negatives of communism and the seriousness of nuclear war, as well as the Cold War itself.

A hectic time in the United States, the Cold War began after World War Two with the two main enemies being the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War got its name because both sides were afraid of fighting each other directly. In such a “hot war,” nuclear weapons might destroy both sides permanently. So, instead, they fought each other indirectly and they supported their ideological counterparts in external contests of democracy and communism. Over the years, leaders on both sides changed, yet the Cold War endured. It was the major force in world politics for most of the second half of the twentieth century. The United States and the Soviet Union were the only two superpowers following the Second World War. The fact that, by the 1950s, each possessed nuclear weapons and the means of delivering such weapons on their enemies, added a dangerous aspect to the Cold War. The Cold War world was separated into three groups: the United States and fellow countries with democratic political systems, and the Soviet Union from the East with other countries with communist political systems. The non-aligned group included countries that did not want to be tied to either the West or the East. The Western democracies, led by the United States, were determined to stop the spread of communism and Soviet power. While they were unable to stop the Soviets in Eastern Europe, the U.S. and Britain remained determined to prevent communist regimes from achieving power in Western Europe. During the Second World War, communist parties throughout Western Europe had gained popularity in their resistance to Nazi occupation.1

There was a great possibility the communist parties would be elected in both France and Italy in the 1950s and 1960s. Harry Truman was the first American president to fight the Cold War. He used several policies including the Truman Doctrine. This was a plan to give money and military aid to countries threatened by communism. The Truman Doctrine effectively stopped communists from taking control of Greece and Turkey. Another policy was the Marshall Plan, which provided financial and economic assistance to the nations of Western Europe. This strengthened the economies and governments of countries in Western Europe, and as the economies of Western Europe improved, the popularity of communist parties declined.2 This conflict extended to the future of Germany, and the Soviet Union blockaded all surface transport into West Berlin in June 1948. In June 1948 the Soviets blocked all ways into the western part of Berlin, Germany. President Truman quickly ordered military planes to fly coal, food, and medicine to the city. The planes kept coming, sometimes landing every few minutes, for more than a year. The United States received help from Britain and France. Together, they provided almost 2.5 million tons of supplies on about 280,000 flights. Gradually there was a massive build up of an airlift of supplies into that city through until September 1949, although the blockade was officially lifted in May 1949.3

Cold War tensions increased, then eased, then increased again over the years. The changes came as both sides actively tried to influence political and economic developments around the world. For example, the Soviet Union provided military, economic, and technical aid to communist governments in Asia. The United States helped eight Asian nations fight communism by establishing the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.4 In the mid 1950s, the United States began sending military advisers to help South Vietnam defend itself against communist North Vietnam. That aid would later expand into a long and bloody period of American involvement in Vietnam. The Cuban Missile Crisis easily could have resulted in a nuclear war but the threat ended after a week. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles if the United States agreed not to interfere in Cuba. Thomas Reed goes in depth to explore exactly how serious the nuclear threat became. Using his background working with nuclear warheads, Reed depicts how nukes sent into Cuba aimed at America as well as the 98 missiles China obtained came extremely close to being detonated and striking American soil, but conflict deterred from the level of nuclear war and it is still underestimated today the seriousness of nuclear war.

Some progress was made in easing Cold War tensions during the administration of John F. Kennedy. In 1963, the two sides reached a major arms control agreement. They agreed to ban tests of nuclear weapons above ground, under water, and in space. They also established a direct telephone line between the White House and the Kremlin.6 Relations between east and west also improved when Richard Nixon was president. . They reached several arms control agreements. One reduced the number of missiles used to shoot down enemy nuclear weapons. They also banned the testing and deployment of long-distance missiles for five years.5 A major change in the cold war took place in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev held four meetings with President Ronald Reagan. He withdrew Soviet forces from Afghanistan. And he signed an agreement with the United States to destroy all middle-distance and short-distance nuclear missiles.6 After about two months Warsaw Pact was dissolved, and two years later, after 45 years of protracted conflict and constant tension, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. At The Abyss concludes with insider accounts of Washington and the White House and the politics and insights of the Presidents during the Cold War. From the Cold War emerged future heroes such as Edward Teller, leading the world of science, Dick Cheney, the Vice President, and Colin Powell, the secretary of state.

Thomas Reed’s essential message in At The Abyss is the importance of how the Cold War was fought: without nuclear warheads. The author uses his background working with nuclear warheads to show the aggressive, power-seeking side of the soviet leaders, and how America was able to prevent nuclear war through president’s John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The author’s main point is how the United States was shaped through the outcome of the Cold War. The deterrence of nuclear warfare allowed a safer environment and from the Cold War emerged future heroes we see today.7 Thomas Reed affected history influence of the Cold War by depicting the events of the Cuban missile crisis to nuclear testing facilities. But unlike other books on the time period, Thomas Reed uses better literature and depicts the underlying causes of the Cold War, instead of resorting to its basic chronology.

Book reviews generally found Thomas Reed’s At the Abyss to be “a mix of personal memoir with a general history of the Cold War that does not fully succeed in either case." In the words of review Robert Stacy, it promises much and ultimately disappoints." Reviewers find Reed “discussing his career and assignments, he introduces a potentially interesting topic, discusses it briefly, and then drops it.”8 The topics he raises include the conduct of nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, “the life cycle of weapons procurements,and development of the World Wide Military Command and Control System (WWMCCS), which he claims to have had a significant role in developing.”11 Another topic of immense interest he mentions, but does not develop, is the institutional and personal factors that affected planning for national security during these years. However, Reed successfully integrates a few critical subjects. First, “he makes us aware of the concern on the part of both sides in the Cold War to avoid a nuclear confrontation; he at least introduces us to the organizational and technical aspects of this issue.”9 Also, the Cold War was a true conflict and Reed wants readers to know that there was “much sacrifice and personal bravery“, as weir as “courage and good judgment,” on the part of many individuals in this period. Reviewers however found the book as “rambling, unfocused, and disorganized. . .The writing is not always good; it is clichéd and an editor should have cleaned it up.” Ultimately they concluded that an “army officer looking for a good general account of the Cold War should look elsewhere.”10

While the novel is not perfectly organized and readers may find it hard to keep track of Thomas Reed’s complicated career path, it remained an enjoyable read. Solid, substantive, told in clear and simple prose, At the Abyss gives credit to many political figures, making it one of those books that will be listed in the bibliography of every competent book on the Cold War period published from now on. If you have any interest in the era, you should read it for yourself. It is highly unlikely that you have ever heard of Thomas C. Reed, but he has now given me a very interesting memory of his experiences during the Cold War. He was a man who popped up in a unusual series of senior jobs that gave him a front row seat at a remarkable number of important events. From the development of America’s early ICBMs to his stint as Secretary of the Air Force, from his acquaintance with the senior George Bush in Houston to his service on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, Reed saw a great deal and has a hundred stories to tell, all of them well worth telling.11 For its anedotal value, At the Abyss is well worth reading.

From the Cold War came many impacts in the world. Borders became changed for many European countries and for America, they benefited geopolitical, ideological and economically. America became involved in the Korean, Vietnam and Soviet-Afghan wars. America was drained economically but in the long run, America became he ultimate super power and became a big trader in world economy. The Cold War cycled through a series of high and low tension years. It ended in the period between 1989 and 1991, with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and later the Soviet Union. New policies protected America from foreign affairs and America became more prepared for nuclear outbreak.

The civilian population in America was subject to air-raid drills and encouraged to build personal bomb shelters in the 1950’s. This level of concern faded; however, awareness of the war was a constant, always present in fallout shelter signs in large buildings, protests over the placement of short-range nuclear missiles in Germany, the often quoted nuclear doomsday clock.12 The Cold War also inspired many movie companies and writers, resulting in an enormous number of books and movies, some more fictional such as 007 and James Bond, some less; in particular, Tom Clancy, who made himself a name as a master of vividly describing the agent and espionage war under the surface. Diverting so many resources into military also impacted economy. Because of this, America fell behind technologically and scientifically. Germany and Japan no longer needs to keep their military up so they are able to advance and spend the resources in other needed areas. America regains the resources but is still lagging behind Germany and Japan.13

In conclusion, I learned much from Thomas Reed’s At the Abyss. I learned of the struggles of the Cold War, as well as how close America was to coming into nuclear conflict. Unknown to me before, I learned I underestimated the seriousness of nuclear war and the Cold War in general. I like Thomas Reed’s book because it was easy to understand yet very informative. Unlike other Cold War novels, Reed depicts the actions of the Cold War rather than the violent war itself. Thomas Reed relates the facts of the Cold War into his own personal experiences to retell the story of the Cold War.

review by Samuel Lee

  1. Reed, Thomas. At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War. New York: House Publishing Group, 2005. 6
  2. Reed, Thomas 38
  3. Reed, Thomas 45
  4. Reed, Thomas 114
  5. Reed, Thomas 145
  6. Reed, Thomas 218
  7. Stacy, Robert. “At the Abyss: An Insider’s History of the Cold War.” Armor. Oct. 2005.
  8. Stacy, Robert
  9. Stacy, Robert
  10. Stacy, Robert
  11. Reed, Thomas 6
  12. Reed, Thomas 98
  13. Reed, Thomas 189

© 2006 Irvine High School

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