‘Oceans Ventured’ Review: A Bold Plan to Make Waves

Two major shifts in military strategy allowed the United States to win the Cold War with the Soviet Union. One was the Strategic Defense Initiative launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It convinced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S.S.R. couldn’t compete in a high-tech weapons race without major economic and political changes—changes that ultimately backfired and led to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The other shift, less heralded, was Sea Plan 2000, a bold new idea for reviving American sea power in the face of a Soviet bid for naval supremacy. Reagan would be the president to put the plan in motion, and his secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, would be the man to implement it. As Mr. Lehman tells us in “Oceans Ventured,” the strategy was first conceived in Newport, R.I., roughly three years before Reagan’s election—at a June 1977 dinner with Mr. Lehman, Graham Claytor (the Navy secretary), James Woolsey (counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee) and the military-affairs author Bing West. Mr. West served as amanuensis, recording the gist of the plan on a napkin. Over time, it grew into a full-blown proposal and led, not long after, to the rebirth of the U.S. Navy’s global dominance, often summed up as “the 600-ship Navy.”

In fact, as Navy secretary Mr. Lehman never quite made it to 600 ships—594 was as far as he got. The ships that the Navy did build, however, included a new generation of warships like Aegis cruisers and destroyers with advanced antimissile systems, and Ohio-class nuclear submarines of the sort that the novelist Tom Clancy would make famous in “The Hunt for Red October” (1984). There was as well an increase in the number of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers.

Even more important than the ships was a change in how the Navy planned to use them. Mr. Lehman’s “Command of the Seas” (1988) detailed the arduous process of expanding the Navy despite congressional opposition and a cumbersome Pentagon acquisition system. “Oceans Ventured” describes the men and events that enabled the Navy to snatch the strategic initiative from a Soviet navy determined to challenge the U.S. around the globe. Photo: WSJ Oceans Ventured

By John Lehman
Norton, 330 pages, $27.95

The Carter administration’s response to the Soviet challenge was to go into a defensive crouch and deploy the Navy’s dwindling assets, after years of budget cuts, to protect the Mediterranean and Atlantic approaches. Sea Plan 2000, from its conception, proposed instead an aggressive strategy. It was based, as Mr. Lehman relates, on recent naval war games in which “the Red Team [Soviets] had no credible counter to a Blue offensive”—even in places where the Blue Team was outnumbered or outclassed.

When Reagan’s election gave Sea Plan 2000 a chance to become reality, Mr. Lehman found that he had valuable helpers inside the Navy. One was Adm. Thomas Hayward, chief of Naval Operations from 1978 to 1982 and the former commander of the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific. Adm. Hayward had decided early on that […]

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