Three short-story anecdotes that illustrate what it was like
I'm sorry to say I never got to meet Ronald Reagan. However, as a member of the Joint Staff from 1986-89, I had the privilege of working on and helping to negotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), ultimately one of Reagan's most important "weapons" in defeating the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War. My "toys" were ICBMs, SSBNs/SLBMs and strategic bombers/ALCMs. At one point my task was to keep Tomahawk cruise missiles out of the START treaty (Mikhail Gorbachev badly wanted them in).
Reagan never liked the 1970s-era SALT Accords, which merely sought to limit the number of strategic delivery vehicles on each side. He proposed a new treaty, one that would actually reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the Soviet and American arsenals. START negotiations began in Geneva in 1982, but were suspended the next year when the Soviets walked out in protest over U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. Negotiations resumed in 1985 and were finally concluded 1991. On May 23, 1992, a protocol was signed between the U.S. and the four Soviet successor states that have weapons covered by START -- Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
Reagan caught us by surprise when, during an October 1986 Summit Meeting with Gorbachev in Iceland, he proposed that both sides eliminate all their nuclear weapons. The proposal had not been staffed in advance, so for the next several months, the Joint Staff was in scramble mode studying the hell out of a world without nucs. The bottom line was that it would be a very expensive proposition to try to meet all our national security requirements with only conventional weapons. The study showed just how relatively inexpensive nuclear weapons are and how effective they are as deterrents.
At the White House there were two "gatekeepers" for arms control matters -- one Air Force and one Navy, both 0-6s. They would spell each other so that whenever one wasn't around, the other was. If the various agencies of the USG could not agree on a treaty provision (which happened frequently), one of these two gents -- whoever was in the "seat" at the time -- would summarize the issue in dispute and take the matter to the president for decision. The standing joke was that Reagan would be presented with three alternatives -- (a) nuclear war; (c) surrender; or, (b) the decision desired by our friendly gatekeepers. They wielded a great deal of power and, by and large, tended to side with us on the Joint Staff.
With that as background, here are several short stories from C-C-Cold War Syndrome (right) that reveal what it was like working on the Joint Staff and the START Treaty to help end the Cold War for Ronald Reagan. Two other stories posted elsewhere on this web site -- KGB and Coffee at the White House -- are similarly related.
The Cold War had reached its crescendo. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were playing a game of high-stakes poker, calling and raising each other’s wagers at a frantic pace. The winner got the world.
While the stakes were high, the chances of an American loss were virtually non-existent. Reagan held the aces. He simply pressed down a little on the accelerator of defense spending and set a pace the Soviets could match only at the cost of economic collapse—a fate that was close even without the arms race. At the same time, he provided the Soviets a face-saving way out of their quandary by offering them arms control negotiations, open dialogue and personal contacts between senior government officials.
My boss at the time was Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While the United States and the Soviet Union were actively engaged in arms reduction talks, Admiral Crowe became a prime mover in what I would call the art of tension reduction.
When Sergei Akhromeyev, Chief of Staff of the Soviet armed forces, accompanied Gorbachev to Washington to sign the INF Treaty in December, 1987, Crowe invited the general to meet the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, probably the ultimate target of Soviet nuclear war strategists. At that unprecedented session, he extended an invitation for the general to return for a longer visit the following year. Not only did Akhromeyev accept, ultimately he decided to bring along the vice-chiefs of the Soviet Army, Air Force and Navy as well as their marine commander.
I was working the arms control side of things, spending the majority of my time in Washington representing the JCS at inter-agency meetings chartered by the National Security Council to resolve START issues, and the remainder on occasional two-month stints in Geneva where the negotiations were taking place. I happened to be in the Pentagon on the day the Soviet General Staff arrived.
There was a formal military reception for them on the parade grounds that lay between the Mall Entrance and the Potomac River. Honor guards, a cannon brigade and a band were in position. Admiral Crowe and the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stood outside awaiting the arrival of the motorcade transporting their high-ranking Soviet guests. A few of us had gathered in an office whose window provided a perfect view of this historic event.
When the senior Soviet officers stepped out of their black limousines with cannons firing in the background, the first thing you noticed was how short they were. Their uniform hats were huge, though, which only served to emphasize their diminutive stature.
Now Admiral Crowe was a big fellow. So were most of the other members of the Joint Chiefs (with the exception of General Gray, the Marine Commandant), each of whom had to stoop to make eye contact when greeting his smaller Soviet “counterpart.”
We watched the proceedings, stunned by the mismatch in height between the American and Soviet military officers as they paraded side-by-side before the assembled troops in a symbolic inspection. When the ceremonies were completed, the Joint Chiefs escorted their visitors up the steps of the Mall entrance and into the Pentagon.
It was an odd sight, the tall American military leaders towering over their much shorter Soviet adversaries in the big hats—people we’d come to think of as being ten feet tall when budgeting, equipping and training to defend against the growing Soviet threat.
As they ascended the Pentagon steps, I turned to the others watching through the window and offered a suggestion certain to advance the cause of peace on earth. “To hell with the arms race,” I said. “Let’s spot ‘em twenty points and challenge ‘em to a game of basketball for the world!”
“He’ll see everything! He’ll see the Big Board!”
—General Buck Turgenson
(George C. Scott)
in Dr. Strangelove
“You can’t fight in here—this is the War Room!”
—President of the United States
in Dr. Strangelove
PURPLE PEOPLE EATER
If one had only six months to live, he should spend it as a member of the Joint Staff...where every day can seem like an eternity.
So stated one of the “JCS Golden Rules of Thumb,” my personal list of irreverent and cynical—though not altogether inaccurate—observations on life as a member of the Joint Staff, the organization that supports the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The list first appeared in the Pentagon in late 1987 as a “back channel” communication on Joint Staff office computers.
One of the more telling Golden Rules made note of the fact that: Resolving inter-service issues is like trying to nail Jello to a tree.
That one was particularly meaningful to me. I was an action officer, and later a branch chief, on the Chairman’s staff and my job was to obtain a consensus on issues related to the Strategic Arms Reduction (START) Treaty. The first step was to achieve a common position among the military services at the action officer level, then brief the issue to the Chairman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the “tank” to get their official blessing. After that, I would advocate the Chiefs’ position in interagency planning sessions managed by the National Security Council. It was a squishy, frustrating process, not unlike nailing Jello to a tree.
On the Joint Staff, the name of the game was purple. Regardless of your service affiliation, you were supposed to forget the color of your uniform and think purple, a euphemism for joint, which in that context, meant the opposite of parochial.
You had to walk a very fine line. While every Joint Staff member at least went through the motions of thinking purple, none ever forgot that, some day, he would return to his parent service. If he ever turned so purple as to forsake his service loyalty while a Joint Staffer, he might face a dismal future after going back. He might become a victim of the career-ending Purple People Eater Syndrome (as I explained to future National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice over lunch one day when she was interning at the Pentagon).
The Joint Chiefs didn’t have to worry about PPES. They had less to lose by thinking purple than did their juniors. And the individual whose very mission was to think and act purple, the one man with no official service affiliation, was the JCS Chairman, at that time Admiral William J. Crowe.
Crowe was a big bulldog of a man, a crusty, often impatient boss who was especially tough on Navy officers who were sent into the tank to brief him and the Joint Chiefs. I liked him. And he must have thought my briefings were acceptable, because in 15 trips into the line of fire, I suffered his wrath only once and that was a relatively mild reproach that left me with just a barely discernable Crowe scar, hardly worthy of a “Purple Heart.”
During one particularly esoteric briefing after he’d been up all-night tending to some crisis, I even evoked a laugh from him by means of this cartoon which I’d slipped into my overhead slides. For this apparently unprecedented act, I was later chewed out by my Air Force division chief, a humorless geek who’d almost fainted when the cartoon appeared on the screen. But I didn’t care; it was worth it.
Admiral Crowe was a strong leader functioning in strategically tumultuous, yet delicate circumstances. After decades of secrecy and intense Cold War competition between the United States and Soviet Union, things were changing at a breakneck pace. Under Ronald Reagan, comprehensive arms reduction treaties were steadily taking shape. Political-military diplomatic interaction was the name of the game. Information previously considered secret was being shared between the two sides to demonstrate good faith.
High-level delegations from each country visited the other and were shown things never before divulged. Crowe led such a delegation after first hosting the entire Soviet General Staff in the Pentagon, where they met in the tank with their American counterparts—the ultimate purple session.
Within this context, I don’t know whether Admiral Crowe ever had time to read my “JCS Golden Rules of Thumb.” If he did, I’m sure he appreciated most of them, such as these:
-- If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway;
-- The half-life of the number one priority is about nine minutes;
-- If it can be Xeroxed—or even if it can’t—it will be;
-- Reorganization changes nothing;
-- Reorganization is inevitable;
-- The time allowed is the time required;
-- When the going gets tough, it’s 1700 on Friday;
-- They say Washington is a two-income town. In addition, your wife may have to work; and
-- If the old adage “There’s no such thing as a dumb question” is ever disproved, it will be done by a flag or general officer on the Joint Staff.
Several months after I left the Joint Staff, while I was in training for my upcoming attaché assignment, I ran into Admiral Crowe on the Metro, the Washington subway.
By then he’d left his post as Chairman and had retired from the Navy. Both of us were wearing civilian suits. We chatted awhile as the train wound its way along its route. Approaching the Pentagon Metro station, I stood up and said, “Here we are.”
Crowe just sat there. Then that big, forceful, surly fellow—formerly the nation’s senior military officer and the man who had played such a central role in orchestrating the end of the Cold War—looked up at me with the most forlorn expression on his bulldog face, shook his head sadly and said, “I don’t get off here any more.”
You’d have thought he had only six months to live.
“There is no such thing as C.O.B.”
“No job is ever complete.”
“A decision that can be postponed will be.”
“Postponing a decision is different from not making one.”
—More JCS Golden Rules
(Click here to read author's footnote to this story)
Fawn Hall was the tall, Kim Basinger look-a-like who gained both notoriety and celebrity status when her role in the Iran-Contra affair was exposed.
Ms Hall, Oliver North’s secretary when he worked as an assistant to the President’s National Security Advisor, aided North in his attempt to cover up the mess by shredding some classified documents and smuggling others out of his office in her bra. Her movie star looks lent spice to a dull subject and made her a regular feature on network news programs. Fawn Hall was hot.
After the scandal broke in the press, Fawn left her job at the White House and took another in the Pentagon, where she worked as a receptionist for the head of Navy logistics, a three-star admiral. She remained there until shortly before the Senate Iran-Contra hearings were to begin.
The admiral’s office suite was located on the E-Ring, fourth floor, in one of the five corners of the Pentagon. Ms Hall occupied one of several desks in the admiral’s reception area. Facing the door through which all visitors arrived, hers was plainly visible to passersby.
Word spread quickly among the thousands of red-blooded military males then serving time in the Pentagon that the sexy Fawn Hall, subject of magazine covers and national television news reports, could be observed in the flesh in “Navy country.”
The admiral’s office door soon became a popular tourist attraction. Uniforms from all the services began showing up in the corridor outside. Guys would go out of their way to pass by. Many would take a daily lunchtime stroll around the E-Ring just to steal a glimpse—actually to gawk—at the infamous blonde, the presumed-to-have-been-duped accomplice in the bungled cover up of Olly’s Folly.
One day not long before the beginning of the Iran-Contra hearings, yours truly was in Fawn’s neighborhood—on legitimate business, I assure you. Approaching the open doorway, I slowed my pace to a shuffle and employed my most inconspicuous sneak-a-peek technique. But any subtle pretense I had achieved gave way to a clumsy double take when I spotted something completely unexpected.
Fawn was gone! A male sailor now occupied what had been her desk. Rats!
What caught my attention, though, was a sign resembling a long, brass nameplate that had been placed strategically across one corner of the young man’s desk, one whose words could be discerned easily at a glance from the hallway.
Seems the clever sailor, weary of the hordes of Fawn watchers streaming steadily past his workplace, had taken it upon himself to answer the question that appeared on their faces (and mine) but was never verbalized—where’s Fawn?
His sign let us know. It read:
“TEMPORARILY REMOVED FROM EXHIBIT.”
Two other Reagan-era stories you might enjoy
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