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Cold War at Sea: High Seas Confrontations Between the United States and the Soviet Union, by David F. Winkler, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2000, $38.95

It is a truism that the Cold War was a long era of mutual deterrence. Both superpowers were embroiled in proxy wars involving their allies, most notably in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. There were occasional incidents and airplane downings, which over the years added up to more than 100 Soviet and American airmen killed, but no tank invasion streamed across the German plains, and no nuclear weapon was ever unleashed.

As sea, however, the Cold War was quite different. Drawing on documents recently declassified by the U.S. State Department and the Navy, and information obtained from discussions with many of the officials involved, David Winkler’s Cold War at Sea examines eye-to-eye confrontations between lethally armed military units that were fraught with the potential for disaster.

In the early stages of the Cold War, the Soviet presence on the high seas was limited to intelligence-gathering ships, including its notorious trawler fleet. After the Cuban missile crisis and the humiliation of being subjected to a U.S. Navy embargo of Cuba in 1962, however, the Soviet Union developed a potent blue-water navy. By 1970, the U.S. Navy’s World War II-vintage warships found their control of certain parts of the sea challenged by newer Soviet vessels. Winkler provides a 38-page chronology of hundreds of incidents at sea between the two navies, including actual collisions.

All that chronology, however, is only the backdrop for what Winkler discerns as the key development of the Cold War at sea. Outside conventional diplomatic channels, the two superpowers’ seamen carried out negotiations that culminated in the Incidents at Sea Agreement, which then-Secretary of the Navy John Warner signed for the United States in 1972. That agreement effectively lowered the danger levels of ship meetings at sea. Moreover, the process of arriving at and continuing discussions through annual reviews established a working relationship between the two navies that was never established between the respective armies and air forces.

In Cold War at Sea, Winkler has provided a fine guide to a Cold War success story.

Roderick S. Speer