Code Warriors by Stephen Budiansky


These days we apply different terms to an important game heroes and villains play: Leaking. Hacking. Phishing. Today’s players are Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, numerous Russians, and anybody else with a computer who searches deeply into the files of others—in other words, spies at work. Back in the day, they called it espionage.

One of the world’s most interesting espionage battles took place during the Cold War—from the end of World War II to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Stephen Budiansky recreates this period in Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War against the Soviet Union (Knopf, 410 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).

The story extends back to before World War II and describes America’s espionage tactics that led to the 1952 creation of the National Security Agency, which in turn led to crypt-analysis techniques capable of deciphering “unbreakable” codes.

An historian and lecturer, Budiansky has written fourteen books about military and intelligence history, science, and the natural world. In this highly informative book Budiansky tells less than a complete story because, as he explains, NSA “continues to this day to be extremely chary of revealing any details of its successes against Soviet cryptology.” In writing Code Warriors, Budiansky primarily relied on archival sources and document collections.

Nevertheless, Budiansky—the former national security correspondent and foreign editor at U.S. News & World Report—presents fresh perspectives on NSA triumphs and failures against Germany and Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and, most of all, the Soviet Union. He shows how NSA evolved into an organization in which “what had been acceptable in wartime but anathema in practice became the norm for peacetime, too.” While reading about the tactics NAS used on foes and friends, foreign and domestic, I vacillated between love and hate for the agency and its leaders.

Budiansky’s summation of the early years of the Vietnam War could dredge up unpleasant memories for veterans of that conflict. He cites many cases of American “overconfidence” and “disdain for the intelligence capabilities of the enemy,” along with falsification and concealment of the truth by NSA. Much of the latter aimed to appease the White House and established precedents that eventually were used to justify going to war in Iraq, he concludes.

111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111The scientific problems of code breaking are inseparable from politics, Budiansky says, but his accounts “give a sense of what the code breakers were up against without assuming any special knowledge of cryptology or mathematics on the part of the reader.”

Budiansky does not ignore aficionados of code breaking, however. His five appendixes challenge the mind:

  • Enciphered Code, Depths, and Book Breaking
  • Russian Teleprinter Ciphers
  • Cryptanalysis of the Hagelin Machine
  • Bayesian Probability, Turing and the Deciban
  • The Index of Confidence

When I reached that point in the book, I signaled a time out that is still in effect.

—Henry Zeybel





Fighting the Cold War by John R. Galvin



Gen. Galvin’s highly interesting and informative autobiography, Fighting the Cold War: A Soldier’s Memoir (University Press of Kentucky, 517 pp., $39.95), easily could have been titled Winning the Cold War. While serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1987-1992, Gen. Galvin proved himself to be a master of high-stakes diplomacy with the Soviet Union’s leaders as they were coming to terms with the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, as well as the Soviet Union itself.

The book’s Foreword by retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus describes the high regard and respect that he and other military professionals and statesmen had for Gen. Galvin and his 40-plus years of service to his country. The son of an Irish bricklayer from a small town outside Boston, Jack Galvin—who died last September—loved working with a plasterer’s trowel alongside his father. One day, much to his dismay, his father forbid him to touch those tools, insisting that Jack attend college.

So he enrolled in college, but soon dropped out to become an artist and laborer. To avoid the draft in 1948, Galvin joined the Massachusetts National Guard and trained as a medic. He was selected for U.S Military Academy, and accepted the challenge, graduating in 1954. What followed were diverse assignments that preceded his service in Vietnam: Ranger training; leading a platoon  in Puerto Rico; serving with the U. S. Army Mission in Colombia, at Fort Campbell with the 101st Airborne Div., and at Fort Knox Armor School; and as an English instructor at West Point. While working on a Ph. D. in English, Galvin opted to forgo that goal to attend Command and Staff College at Leavenworth prior to leaving for Vietnam.

Gen. Galvin’s first of two of tours in the Vietnam War was from 1966-67. He was a major initially assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Div. at Phuoc Vinh as operations officer. Less than two months later, he was replaced because he and the Brigade CO were “not a good combination.” He was transferred to U.S. Army Headquarters in Saigon as a logistics officer.

What could have been a setback to Galvin’s promising military career soon turned around. After much persistence and arm twisting, Galvin wrangled an assignment at the 1st Cavalry Div. headquarters at An Khe, where he worked in the G-3 shop, Division Operations.

His next assignment was at the Pentagon, as the Military Assistant to the  Secretary of the Army. This is where Galvin really came into his own and proved that he had the right stuff to become a general. In 1969, Lt. Col. Galvin started his second tour in Vietnam, again with the 1st Cav. He went on to command the 1st Bn., 8th Cavalry, 1st Brigade  near the Cambodian Border.

From there, Galvin was given increasingly more challenging assignments. He was the commanding general of the 24th Infantry Div. at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Then he was given command of the VII Corps in Germany, the largest unit in the U. S. Army at the time. He achieved his fourth star and was assigned to Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone from 1985-87.


Gen. Galvin when he commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Europe (Galvin family photo)

The zenith of Gen. Galvin’s career came with his appointment as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, from 1987-92. He saw the Warsaw Pact dissolve, the Berlin Wall come down, and the Soviet Union’s sphere of domination begin to fragment. Gen. Galvin was the head of NATO, dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev and his high-ranking Russian generals, determined to facilitate that historical transformation without a war breaking out. He was the right general in the right place at the right time.

Upon his retirement, Gen. Galvin became dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He wrote three other books: The Minute Men: The First Fight; Air Assault: The Development of Airmobile Warfare; and Three Men of Boston: Leadership and Conflict at the Start of the American Revolution.

Those who knew Gen. Galvin have described him as a teacher, scholar, diplomat, statesman, and  warrior. He has even been called a true Cold War hero. President George H. W. Bush said: “General Gavin is one of the greatest soldiers this country has ever had.” This reviewer is in total agreement.

—James P. Coan



So Much to Lose by William J. Rust

In So Much to Lose: John F. Kennedy and American Policy in Laos (University Press of Kentucky, 376 pp., $40) William J. Rust offers a meticulous account of President John F. Kennedy’s vacillating actions toward Laos in the early 1960s.

So Much to Lose is a sequel to Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos, 1954-1961. In that 2012 book Rust examined how both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy attempted to deal with the rising threat of communism in Laos prior to the big U.S. build up in Vietnam.

Kennedy inherited Eisenhower’s policies, which grew out of President Truman’s decision to provide American support to the French effort to reclaim its Indochinese colonies after World War II. The French, of course, were defeated, and Eisenhower’s famous “domino theory” became American policy. The idea was to keep Laos neutral so that the widening war in South Vietnam—and American military involvement there—didn’t grow still wider.

To an extent, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed that the two superpowers had no interest in Laos, and supported neutrality. But even though North Vietnam was in some ways a Soviet client state, Khrushchev could not control Hanoi’s leadersship.

Kennedy might have wished that Laos was a problem that would go away. He found himself supporting the FAR (the Laotian army, or, from the U.S. point of view, the good guys), as well as the so-called “neutralists” in battles on the Plain of Jars against the North Vietnamese-supported Pathet Lao. But Kennedy had no thought of direct intervention for fear of widening the war and destroying entirely the idea of neutrality. This proxy war, supported by the State Department and the CIA, blew hot and cold during JFK’s shortened presidency until, with Kennedy’s assassination, the problem became President Johnson’s in 1963.

William J. Rust

Infighting among the American-supported factions, a coup, and increased pressure from the Pathet Lao combined to effect the primary communist objective: the security of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Said Trail, leading through “neutral” Laos and Cambodia, greatly facilitated the much bigger war in South Vietnam.

Kennedy was reluctant to commit American troops even though he was fiercely anti-communist and a believer in the domino theory. But he never had to deal with the increased power and ferocity of the North Vietnamese. Rust can’t say if JFK’s reaction to the North Vietnamese aggression would have been similar to that of Johnson who committed, at the height of the war, more than a half million American troops.

Rust’s diplomatic history provides plenty of details for speculation about what JFK would have done in South Vietnam (and Laos) had he lived. So Much to Lose, in fact, may provide too much detail for the general reader. But if you want to learn about how wars get started—and wobble out of control—this book will tell you.

—John Mort

The Ugly Secrets of Private Roy by Edward Roy

We’re told on the title page of Edward Roy’s The Ugly Secrets of Private Roy (CreateSpace, 480 pp., $16.53, paper) that this book is about “a young man’s struggle with his loyalty to America during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.”

The author (above) was raised in Harlem and went through Army Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He went on to Medical Corpsman School at Fort Sam Houston. Roy wound up serving most of his three-year Army hitch in Europe.

The title of the first chapter, “The Original Black Panther,” sets the tone of the book. One of the chapters is entitled “Blood on the Risers,” a familiar phrases in military works of that era.

I had hoped that this book would be an African American memoir or novel set in the Vietnam War.

Roy alludes to the Vietnam War in his novel, but he does not get there. The main character is out of the military before that war heats up to its hottest.

Many of the chapter headings signal the reader what the depth and coverage of this book are: “The Bitch of Buchenwald,” “A Date with Doctor Death,” “Chickens Come Home to Roost,” “Cries of Wounded Souls,” and “The American Praetorian Guard.”

Roy tells us that this novel “is based on true events and is written in the memory of millions of American soldiers of American slave decent whose unheralded sacrifices for America are buried in battlefields and in cemeteries on every continent of the globe.”

The book includes photographs which enrich the text. A couple of them make the book inappropriate for young adults.

All students of racial discord in the Army during this Cold War period in Europe will find this novel a good read.

—David Willson

JFK in the Senate by John T. Shaw

John T. Shaw ‘s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, 228 pp., $26) is a well-written, pioneering look at President John F. Kennedy’s 1953-60 tenure as the junior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. JFK’s time in the Senate, Shaw says, “was a period of remarkable personal and political growth in which an untested backbencher transformed himself into a man of substance and depth and a victorious presidential candidate.”

Kennedy “participated actively and sometimes boldly” during his time in the Senate “in the central policy debates of his time,” Shaw notes. On the international scene Kennedy spoke his mind on “the challenges posed by China and the Soviet Union, the icy armistice in Korea, France’s faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria” and “the appropriate defense posture for America during the Cold War.”

Kennedy had visited Vietnam as a Congressman in 1951 as part of a big fact-finding mission to Asia and the Middle East. The French at the time were enmeshed in a bitter war against communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap determined to shed the yoke of colonialism. After meeting with high-level French and U.S. military and political figures, JFK came away with a decidedly negative view of the situation.

Because of the strong American support for the French in their war against the Vietminh, Kennedy wrote in his journal, the United States was “more and more becoming colonists in the minds of the people.”

Kennedy stressed in a subsequent radio address that he strongly favored “check[ing] the southern drive of communism,” in Vietnam. But he stressed he did not want to do that relying “on the force of arms.” Rather, Kennedy called for building “strong native non-communist sentiment within these areas.”

In his first year in the Senate, Kennedy “took center stage” in the debate over whether or not the U.S. should continue to support the French, Shaw says. JFK spoke out in favor of sending U.S. aid, but also called on France to grant independence to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He even offered an amendment to the Senate foreign aid bill urging France to give more independence to those colonies. It was defeated.

John T. Shaw

Before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, JFK gave a Senate speech in which he warned that if the United States took over from the French militarily, the subsequent war would “threaten the survival of civilization.” He then spoke out against the U.S. pouring “money, materiel, and men into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory,” something, that “would be dangerously futile and self-destructive.”

Kennedy, in his search for a non-military solution to the problem of stopping communism in Vietnam, believed that Ngo Dinh Diem, the vehement anticommunist the CIA helped install as South Vietnam’s premier in 1954, would be the leader who could do so. JFK “began to speak of a ‘Diem miracle in South Vietnam,'” Shaw notes, “and urged American backing for his regime. He accepted, as did other American leaders, Diem’s decision not to go forward with national elections in 1956 as had been promised” in the Geneva Accords.

In a June 1, 1956, speech in Washington before the pro-Diem American Friends of Vietnam, JFK changed his stance on what America should do to support Diem. He no longer warned that the U.S. should not get heavily involved militarily in the effort to stop the Vietnamese communists, framing his argument in staunch, 1950s Cold War rhetoric.

Vietnam, he said, “represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia,” JFK said, “the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dyke.” South Vietnam, he said, “is our offspring. We cannot abandon it.”

Kennedy continued his strong support of Diem through his days in the Senate and into his 1,000 days in the White House. Calling South Vietnam “a brave little state,” in a 1960 speech, JFK said that nation was “working in a friendly and free association with the United States, whose economic and military aid has, in conditions of independence, proved to be effective.”

Shaw does not address the oft-debated issue of whether JFK would have withdrawn American troops from Vietnam had he lived. But Shaw does show that during his eight years in the Senate, Kennedy changed his thinking radically on what the U.S. should do to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists. He went from strongly advocating no American military action in South Vietnam to forcefully calling for strong American aid—including sending in thousands of military advisers—to try to help that country fight the communist insurgency.

The author’s website is

—Marc Leepson

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

The acclaimed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser brings the Vietnam War into play several times in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin, 632 pp., $36), his riveting, best-selling book that focuses on accidents and near-misses, as well as on more positive aspects of nuclear weapons technology in the U.S. since the end of World War II.

The subtitle alludes to what happened on September 18, 1980, when an unlikely accident in a Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas, came within a hair’s breath of detonating a nine-ton W-53 thermonuclear warhead. That bomb, “the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile,” Schlosser notes, contained “about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.”

Eric Schlosser

As for the Vietnam War, Schlosser gives disgraced Kennedy Administration Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara credit for his “tireless and sincere” efforts “to avoid a nuclear war” during his time in Washington, from 1961-68. He notes, though, that when he resigned in 1968 McNamara “left office as one of the most despised men in the United States” because he arrogantly dismissed the advice of the Pentagon’s military men and disastrously micromanaged the Vietnam War.

Then there was Gen. Curtis LeMay, the USAF Chief of Staff from 1961-68. LeMay, to his credit, opposed sending large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam. On the other hand, he was in love with massive air power, including nuclear weapons. LeMay’s “anger at how the Vietnam War was being fought—and his belief that both Democratic and Republican candidates Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon were willing to appease the Communists—persuaded him to run” as George Wallace’s vice presidential candidate in 1968.

At his press conference announcing his candidacy, LeMay “refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam,” Schlosser notes. That sounded “heartless and barbaric” as “images of Vietnamese women and children burned by napalm appeared on the nightly news.”

Speaking of heartless and barbaric, Schlosser covers Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” which he and his close adviser Henry Kissinger developed after Nixon took over the presidency in 1969. The idea was for Nixon to make it appear he was willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, in the hope that the “madman” image would convince the North Vietnamese to end the fighting.

How to show the world he was a “madman”? Nixon and Kissinger came up with a plan in 1969. They ordered the Strategic Air Command to go on airborne alert for two weeks. “Ignoring the safety risks,” Schlosser notes, “B-52s loaded with hydrogen bombs took off from bases in the United States and flew circular routes along the coast of the Soviet Union. Neither the Soviets nor the Vietcong was fooled by the bluff.”

—Marc Leepson