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Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S, by Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. Pp. 305. Illus., maps, notes, index. $25.00. ISBN:0-743-26112-7.

The opening of Soviet archives has led to many new revelations. One of the incidents – and controversies – that has received new light is the loss of a Golf-class submarine under unknown circumstances in 1968. In Red Star Rogue, authors Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond have attempted to cast this incident in a new light, much in the way that Shattered Sword has done so for the American victory at Midway. Sewell is a former submarine officer who served on the USS Parche – a special missions submarine that carried out a number of operations in the Cold War, including at least one of the “Ivy Bells” missions. This is someone who is in a unique position to sort out truth from smoke. The new light on this incident, acquired through research (including access to recently declassified files) and interviews with retired Russian and American officers leads to a shocking conclusion that would send chills up the spine of any person; that K-129 sank while attempting to launch a nuclear attack on Pearl Harbor – and in the process, frame China for the attack. The alleged perpetrators: Some of the highest officials in the Soviet government, including Mikhail Suslov and Yuri Andropov.

This conclusion is shocking and used to explain a number of things, including Nixon’s successful efforts towards improving relations with Communist China and détente – in essence, Nixon blackmailed the Soviets. It also explains why the CIA was determined to get the submarine. However, the scenario presented is incredibly hard to believe. Andropov was willing to do some things that would shock the conscience (he reportedly once asked if it would be possible to get “physically close” to Pope John Paul II). Still, the chance that Suslov and Andropov would have gone so far as to risk the end of the world is extremely slim (the reviewer considers it more likely he will have Jennifer Love Hewitt as his date to a Potomac Nationals baseball game). The book raises new questions about the loss of the USS Scorpion – questions that do not seem to have much basis in fact.

All of these criticisms aside, this is a book that reads like a best-selling novel written by Tom Clancy, only differing from one of those superb works in that this is a story that allegedly actually happened. Perhaps the scary part is the future implications, particularly the relative ease with which the plotters set up this attack. This book is must reading, for those seeking background on Project Jennifer. This CIA operation was the subject of significant criticism at the time, but this book reveals new details about the operation. If Sewell’s theory holds, the decision to raise the sub seems to be a very good one. It also appears that Project Jennifer was far more successful than admitted at the time (in essence, a successful operation was covered up by having it revealed as a failure costing $500 million in 1970). There is one very compelling piece evidence on that front: The recovery of the bell from K-129 bell suggests a lot more of the Golf-class submarine was raised than the CIA has admitted. The other fact that seems to backup this book is the fact that the Russians admitted losing 98 men – a number that is far higher than the normal complement of a Golf-class SSB (the reviewer’s copy of Guide to the Soviet Navy indicates a Golf has a crew of 85).

Despite the flaws, this book is worth reading, particularly for those who have an interest in Cold War history. In one sense, one of the last lines in the book are the most important, as they discuss the risks today of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. In essence, the story of K-129 as told here is a reminder of many of the stakes that exist today should terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction. Reviewer: Harold C. Hutchison   

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