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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.1 (2002) 101-103

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Book Review

Cold War at Sea: High-Seas Confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union

David F. Winkler, Cold War at Sea: High-Seas Confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2000. ix, 263 pp. $38.95.

This is a very interesting but also very frustrating book. Contrary to the title, the book is not about the large-scale naval confrontation between the two superpowers; instead, it focuses on the ultimately successful attempt to limit dangerous naval incidents through an explicit bilateral agreement. The Incidents at Sea Agreement, which served as a model for a later U.S.-Chinese accord, showed that navies could limit their aggressiveness despite continued enmity between the two sides. The negotiations that led to the signing of the agreement in 1972 may provide an instructive lesson for an increasingly fractious post-Cold War world. Winkler has laid out the development of U.S. policy on this matter in considerable detail; readers who suspect that the making of U.S. foreign policy is a horrifically ponderous process will find their worst fears amply confirmed. It is also interesting to see how both sides worked to preserve the agreement and to maintain a consultative process even as the Cold War intensified in the late 1970s and 1980s. It seems clear that Soviet naval officers decided that they had a very real political interest in maintaining this limited but rather special relationship with the U.S. navy.

The regulation of U.S.-Soviet naval contacts was important. Unfortunately, readers interested in this topic are likely to be put off by the much grander title of the [End Page 101] book, and those looking for a general history of the naval side of the Cold War are likely to be infuriated by what they get here.

Now for the frustrating part: Winkler presents incidents at sea, such as buzzings and near collisions, as isolated and unfortunate events. He implicitly contrasts them with the much more lethal military incidents of the early Cold War years when the two navies did not collide but the Soviet air defense forces frequently opened fire on U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, killing their crews. Winkler says in his introduction that he did not include submarine incidents, because the relevant records are not available and probably will not be released anytime soon. Yet the information now in the public record strongly suggests that there were submarine equivalents to the reconnaissance flights of the 1950s, and that the Soviet Navy refrained from attacking the intruders. What was there about a submarine, or a warship in general, that made Soviet commanders think twice, whereas they were quite ready to shoot down aircraft, even airliners such as Korean Air Lines 007?

The Cold War was largely about deterrence, shadowed by the sort of war that would have been fought had deterrence failed. Most of us think in terms of nuclear deterrence, but war might well have gone a different way. A key factor was whether the average Soviet naval officer thought he had a chance of surviving (or winning) at sea. One might argue that aggressiveness on the U.S. Navy's part was crucial in convincing Soviet officers that their efforts would be fruitless. It is entirely possible that Soviet interference with peacetime air operations was a dry run for planned attempts in wartime to delay carrier air strikes against the Soviet Union. In either case, it would seem important for Winkler to think about why Soviet officials provoked these incidents. That in turn would help explain why the U.S. and Soviet governments were willing to seek particular restrictions and not others. One might speculate that Soviet leaders finally agreed to limits when they began to deploy a large surface fleet, which would be vulnerable to these kinds of incidents. It suddenly paid to have rules. These are examples of the sort of analysis that the incidents at sea seem...


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