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Deep Secrets

Simon and Schuster<a href="">Red Star Rogue</a><br>By Kenneth Sewell with Clint Richmond<br>Simon & Schuster<br>305 Pages. $25
In "Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine's Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S.," former American submariner Kenneth Sewell, in collaboration with journalist Clint Richmond, reexamines the 1968 loss of K-129, a Soviet Golf II-class missile submarine. Revisiting this well-known story and the CIA's aborted effort to recover the hull under the guise of the highly classified Project Jennifer, the author argues that K-129 actually attempted to launch a nuclear weapon against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. He portrays this as part of an effort by Politburo hardliners to arrest what they perceived as the beginning of a rapprochement with the United States and a liberalization within Soviet society under Leonid Brezhnev.

Sewell builds a fast-paced, circumstantial case for the existence of this political environment in the Politburo and for the plot it might have inspired under the direction of the conservative communist ideologue Mikhail Suslov. The open literature has long alluded to the activities of such anti-detente reactionaries. According to Sewell, a group of mysterious men joined the boat before sailing and eventually commandeered the vessel, taking the submarine out of its normal patrol area, toward Hawaii, and then dying with the rest of the crew when an explosion sent K-129 to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The author also suggests that Project Jennifer actually recovered the entire vessel for close examination and subsequently spread disinformation to the effect that billionaire Howard Hughes' vessel, the Glomar Explorer, had recovered only the forward third.

While the political context provides interesting reading, the revelations offered in "Red Star Rogue" depart completely from history and present a doubtful scenario based largely on surmise.

When I joined the project that eventually emerged, in 2003, as "Rising Tide: The Untold Story of the Russian Submarines That Fought the Cold War," I intended to record the full-career oral histories of Russian officers who expressed a willingness to speak with me. Those supporting my effort felt that these naval officers, formed by the Soviet system, would recoil at the sight of a digital voice recorder and prefer some measure of anonymity. Over many days, as I conducted interviews that lasted hours and exhausted two translators, the dreaded request for anonymity never came.

Given the revelations I received, I knew the story would be somewhat sensational. For a historian, regardless of the circumstances, history must rest on evidence that the writer can attribute to people and institutions -- evidence a reader can confirm. This has been a priority of my work in Cold War history over the last 20 years.

But I also needed to write reliable history because of the access and trust extended to me by the Russian officers and their families. As conversations progressed, I was frequently invited to look through family photo albums while sharing a meal, some vodka and a tour of one modest apartment after another. Wives asked me about my Catherine and what she prepared at mealtime and how. On my next visit to St. Petersburg I have to keep my promise to share Catherine's recipe for Southern fried chicken with Rear Admiral Lev Chernavin's marvelous wife. I owed these people a professional history, not a bit of sensation.

"Red Star Rogue" is plagued by sensation and lack of credibility. The most important historical problem involves the arrival of the mysterious 11 crewmen. The author offers no evidence that this took place. The best he can do is point to the number of medals awarded to the crew years later by President Vladimir Putin -- 11 more than the ship's usual complement. Yet ships of all sizes and types frequently go to sea with additional personnel, and at times these people fall victim to tragedy. In 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sent HMS Hood to the bottom and, with her, workers from a British shipyard. The American submarine USS Thresher also had additional personnel on board when she submerged for the last time.

Simon & Schuster

K-129, a Soviet nuclear submarine pictured here off the Russian coast, sank near Hawaii in 1968.

The author's description of this Golf II coming to the surface near Hawaii to launch its missiles only exacerbates the credibility problem. K-129 experienced an overhaul in 1967 modifying her according to Project 629A to fire R-21, system D-4, submerged launch missiles under an order dated July 2, 1962. The boat also received the Sigma 629A navigation system, and, in early 1968, a towed communications antenna called Paravan. For K-129, the first two modifications concluded on June 22, 1967 -- not in 1966, as the author claims -- and doubtless required repeated technical shakedown tests at sea after installation. This process would be completely normal in any navy and could very easily account for personnel onboard other than assigned crewmembers. It also discounts the assumption that K-129 surfaced to launch her missiles, a key component of the story. Sewell makes note of the technical conversion but never truly factors the upgrades into his story. He just tells us that the boat surfaced to launch in spite of the new capability -- a decision no submariner or conspirator would have made. Why fire in full view of probable American surveillance when one can stay submerged and unseen? This is the very reason for having submerged-launch capability in the first place.

An evaluation of Sewell's use of sources also raises questions. Fourteen interviewees requested anonymity, while the officers with whom I worked -- one of them only semi-retired and still serving on active duty -- never suggested withholding their names. This presents an issue of credibility. In addition, some sources claim less than this story suggests. The author mentions John Pina Craven, chief scientist for the American Polaris Ballistic Missile Project in the 1960s, noting the possibility of a rogue launch. However, an examination of Craven's book "The Silent War" shows that he immediately declared it unlikely and never qualified his conclusion. In addition, Soviet missile submarines were a relatively frequent occurrence off the American East Coast in the mid-1960s; I interviewed a number of their commanding officers. Having Soviet nuclear warheads within striking distance in 1968 could not have seemed new to the CIA or the Navy. At that point in time, the United States sought to keep close track of them, with the proper countermeasures at the ready.

In "Red Star Rogue," Sewell asks for trust but provides very little for the reader to lean on. Too much of the story is thin air. Barring the emergence of new documentation and verifiable oral histories, his book fails as history and offers only modest thrills for the imaginative.

Gary E. Weir heads the contemporary history branch of the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

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