The Devil’s Alternative
The Fifth Horseman
The White House is going to be a crowded place for the next couple of years, if these three novels—laboriously positioned on the borders between fiction and “real life”—are any guide to what lies ahead. At one end of the Oval Office, in Frederick Forsyth’s vision of 1982, we have President William Matthews, a decent sort of fellow with “down-home personal tastes in clothing, food, and creature comforts.” At the other, in the Collins/Lapierre scenario which seems to be taking place in December, 1981, we have someone austerely described as “The President,” who is clearly a re-elected Jimmy Carter. And running between them is the Borchgrave/Moss version of the commander-in-chief, a populist type from Mississippi called “Billy Connor.”
Office space will be in short supply in the West Wing too, since Matthews’s Assistant for National Security Affairs is Stanislaw Poklewski, “variously referred to…as ‘the Doctor’ or ‘that damned Polack.”’ Poklewski will presumably be on friendly terms with Connors’s NSC director, another hawkish chap by the name of Professor Milorad Yankovich. I suspect that neither of them will care much for the director designated by Collins/Lapierre, Jack Eastman. He is “a former Air Force major general who had taken the place of Zbigniew Brzezinski in the corner office of the White House’s West Wing made famous by Henry Kissinger.” Compared to the two Eastern Europeans, Eastman is a pallid functionary, devoid of geo-political vision, and we may safely conclude that at least by the end of 1983 Poklewski and Yankovich will have engineered his downfall.
Eastman had better hang on through 1982 all the same, if only to monitor paper flow in the frightful crises that lie in store. Gazing into their crystal ball, Collins and Lapierre envision the following: on December 13 of next year the president will get a letter from Muammar Qaddafi, president of Libya, announcing that unless the Israelis withdraw from the West Bank and from east Jerusalem he will detonate an H-bomb hidden in Manhattan in forty-eight hours. Within twelve months of this emergency, Forsyth’s man in the Oval Office will be apprised that a faction in the Kremlin is proposing to overrun Western Europe and that a consequent thermonuclear exchange seems entirely probable.
Connors, Borchgrave and Moss’s version of the president, will have problems too numerous for concise iteration. His vice president, CIA director, and varying advisers are all victims, witting or unwitting, of Soviet penetration. These same Soviets have accomplished a takeover of Saudi Arabia and terminal Finlandization seems just around the corner.
None of the three novels seems to suggest that Ronald Reagan will be in charge. Perhaps, since we may assume that they were completed and sent to the publishers before the New Hampshire primary, all five authors thought that such a possibility transcended the bounds of plausible forecast. Borchgrave and Moss are indeed so distraught at the decline of the West that Carter has, in their view, already been evicted by the Democratic convention in Madison Square Garden, and succeeded in office by our friend Connors, “another Southern Democrat of more radical persuasions,” from Mississippi.
It’s hard to think whom they have in mind. John Stennis, senior senator from Mississippi, may still at the age of seventy-nine yearn for supreme office, but he is scarcely more radical than Jimmy Carter. Even the junior senator, Thad Cochran, seems to the right of Carter, with an ADA rating in 1978 of zero. We had better check into Cochran’s past all the same, since his biography shows that he was once a Rotary fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and may therefore have fallen beneath Soviet control while strolling in St. Stephens Green. There’s always the possibility too that Borchgrave and Moss, conservative journalists feverishly certain that every bed has a Red under if not in it, regard the ADA as a communist front, with ratings designed merely to lull suspicion.
The purpose of the kind of scenariothriller under review is to alert the reader to the fact that a Diabolical Plot is in the offing, or is under way, and then keep him turning the pages until the DP is satisfactorily thwarted. Nothing new here, of course. Diabolical plots, aimed at subverting Western civilization, have been going strong throughout the literature of our troubled century.
Back in 1903, in a popular thriller, When It Was Dark, which excited the admiration of the Bishop of London, Guy Thorne proposed that a Jewish financier called Schuabe would induce his pawns, including a high official of the British Museum, to forge an inscription from Joseph of Arimathaea announcing that he had faked Christ’s rising from the dead. The DP, in this case, succeeds for a while. Mankind comes to believe that Christ never rose, that Christianity is a lie. Moral codes are abandoned, and, says Thorne, “The terrible seriousness of the situation…cannot be more vividly indicated than by the statement of a single fact—CONSOLS ARE DOWN TO SIXTY-FIVE.” Furthermore, “The state of the lower parts of Chicago and New York City has become so bad that even the municipal authorities have become seriously alarmed. Unmentionable orgies take place in public. Accordingly a bill is to be rushed through Congress licensing so many houses of ill-fame in each city ward, according to the Continental system.”
In the end the DP is exposed by a plucky curate and Schuabe ends his days in a loony bin. Just over three-quarters of a century later we can laugh heartily at Thorne’s fantasy, and the credulity of those consumers who made it an enormously successful best-seller. Such a sense of late-century sophistication seems somewhat misplaced. From being safely ensconced in fiction Diabolical Plotters have now infiltrated the frontier between fantasy and life, with the scenarists going to prodigious amounts of trouble to convince their readers that they are drinking reality straight from the bottle. Hence, Collins and Lapierre keep Harold Brown on as Secretary of Defense in the second Carter administration, and of course center the entire DP on Qaddafi, who is unlikely to sue for libel and may indeed have already been informed by Billy Carter or his own men in New York that in a US court of law he would be unlikely to prevail.
The reek of research in Forsyth’s book is almost overpowering, and Borchgrave/Moss have spent much time asserting that only the merest gauze separates The Spike from the brute facts of Soviet subversion. In Washington their novel is indeed treated as something of a roman à clef, with much interested speculation afoot about the actual identity of the congressional staff director who is described as a Russian agent.
Collins and Lapierre, though they may not know it, have at least one foot planted in reality. They suggested that the enemy, in this case Qaddafi, could successfully insinuate a nuclear bomb into Manhattan. Recently declassified documents in the National Archives in Washington (modern military section) indicate that this is a contingency that has long bothered the governing apparatus.
In a memorandum for General Norstad, dated September 20, 1945, and titled “Amendments to General Fair-child’s Atomic Bomb Study,” Colonel Vandevanter addressed himself to the security implications of the atomic bomb which the US had dropped on Hiroshima a month before:
The present bomb is composed of parts of such weight and size that a strong man can handle any one of them alone. A quantity of these bombs could be distributed and assembled stealthily throughout the major cities of the United States….
Vandevanter indicated that the bombs could be fitted with time or radio controlled fuses, and that prevention of their arrival and surreptitious assembly “would require a regimentation of individual freedom of action to a degree which would be repugnant to the American people.”
This report, written four years before the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear device, was declassified in March, 1978, and—so far as I know—is published here for the first time. (Thanks to Mr. Fred Kaplan, defense scholar and writer, who unearthed it and the one which follows, and passed them on to me.) In the envisioning of diabolical plots, the executive branch was well ahead of Collins/Lapierre.
Considerable thought was given to the problem over the following decade. I have at hand another (also unpublished) document, labeled Top Secret and declassified in 1978. It is dated March 26, 1957, and entitled “Review of Basic National Security Policy: Military and Non-Military Aspects of Civil Defense” (National Security Council 5707/4). “With reference to US vulnerability to Soviet bloc clandestine attack,” the report begins, “it is important to invite attention to certain aspects of the report and briefing by the NSC Net Evaluation Subcommittee.”
Then the author gets down to business:
Studies submitted for the 1956 net evaluation report demonstrate a possible capability of clandestine nuclear attack on a selected group of 15 tactical and command Strategic Air Command bases at H-hour, designed to disrupt “Quick Strike,” which would not necessarily be prevented by the specific physical security precautions now in effect or programmed for an emergency. Such an attack could seriously curtail SAC [Strategic Air Command] operations, with a possibly decisive effect on the outcome of the [!] nuclear exchange, which constitutes a strong motivation for the USSR to accept the marginal risks involved in the delivery of such an attack.
Under existing practices with respect to diplomatic immunity, the USSR would incur no appreciable risk of detection in assembling a 10-megaton nuclear device in the Soviet embassy in Washington. The detonation of such a device would obliterate Washington as a govermental and military command center. If detonated at H-hour in circumstances of “Strategic Surprise” it would probably wipe out the established political and military leadership of the United States.
Similarly, a 10-megaton nuclear device could be detonated in the offices of the Soviet UN delegation in New York. Detonation at H-hour would deprive the city of any warning time whatever. This form of attack would also avoid the cost of penetrating New York’s relatively strong defense against air attack. Neither existing nor programmed port security measures would prevent the detonation of multimegaton nuclear devices in the holds of fishing vessels or similar small craft in major ports. Inasmuch as such ports are also population centers, the resultant damage and casualties would be heavy.
There are indeed reasons to believe—though the archival material does not indicate such—that US government technicians tested some of the conclusions of the document quoted above by successfully demonstrating that the components of a nuclear device could be smuggled into the US without detection. The sober conclusions of the National Security Council’s Net Evaluation Subcommittee do open up some interesting vistas on strategic planning and the various declensions of Mutual Assured Destruction. If both the White House and Kremlin were secure in the secret knowledge that their respective embassies in the opposition’s capital city contained broom cupboards in turn containing ten-megaton bombs, then talk of pre-emptive first strikes and silo vulnerability might seem somewhat beside the point, unfortunate though the consequences might be for foreign service employees. If indeed the public had been alerted to the contents of NSC 5707/4 back in 1957 it might have had its mind marvelously concentrated on the necessity for disarmament and, in the words of Jimmy Carter in 1976, the urgent need to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal to zero.
But Diabolical Reality was suppressed, and now erupts as the Diabolical Plots of the fiction writers who are in business to scare the hell out of their readers, and feel no need to throw in an appendix outlining their plan for arms control and the reduction of nuclear tension worldwide. These same fiction writers are nonetheless alert to the fact that the reading public, seesawing between the headlines about OPEC prices, interest rates, and the throw-weight of the SS-18, needs very persuasive evidence to induce it to believe that anything in fiction could possibly be more diabolically menacing than everyday life, or that—as these three books propose—Diabolical Plots will be satisfactorily resolved by politicians up to and including the president of the United States and the general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR.
The persuasive technique adopted by the authors consists largely of a zeal for apparent precision that would be touching if it were not so tedious. Both The Fifth Horseman and The Devil’s Alternative are structured like railway time tables, with hours, days, and months solemnly displayed at the start of each chapter. (Borchgrave and Moss, possibly impatient with even the emblems of accuracy, stick to years only, before surrendering in the latter portion of The Spike to “The Near Future.”)
In The Fifth Horseman the President sits down to dinner “precisely” at seven o’clock. His crisis meeting with his advisers begins at “precisely” eight o’clock. The effect of all this is somewhat destroyed when they—and the reader—fall to examining Qaddafi’s blackmailing message which announces that he may have to blow up the city of New York at precisely 1500 hours EST the following Tuesday, December 15, 1981. Neither the usually reliable Eastman, nor anyone else present, nor evidently the authors observe that Qaddafi dates his dispatch “6th Jumad Al Awal, 1,401 Year of the Hegira.” This, in the Julian calendar, falls in early March, 1981, which means that either the message had taken nearly ten months to get from Tripoli, or that Qaddafi should fire his secretary, or that such pretensions to accuracy and temporal verisimilitude are hokum from the start.
Actually Collins and Lapierre seem to like Qaddafi. His concern for the Palestinians is presented in a generally dignified light, and the authors only get mushy when they start writing about the desert. “Qaddafi was alone with the oneness of the desert and the stillness of his soul. Here, he knew, there was neither the time nor the place for the useless or the complex…. Since time immemorial the intensity of that struggle had made the desert the incubator of the spiritual, its inhuman solitude the catalyst that had driven men to the extreme….” There’s something about a desert that makes writers reach for the purple. John Buchan, one of the century’s handiest practitioners of the Diabolical Plot, fell into the same vein in Greenmantle: “The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces and they have the desire of them in their bones…. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert…the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay…. It isn’t inhuman. It’s the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn’t ours, it isn’t as good as ours, but it’s jolly good all the same.” Rather in the same spirit, Collins and Lapierre give the impression, maybe involuntarily, that there is something “jolly good” about Qaddafi, even though his techniques of international negotiation and diplomacy tend to the abrupt.
He fails of course, foiled by some last minute spinelessness on the part of one of his Palestinian agents in the field, and by the diligence of a New York detective. The Israelis stay on the West Bank, and President Carter/Matthews braces himself for the next crisis, outlined in The Devil’s Alternative, which is the threat by a bellicose faction in the Kremlin to alleviate the effects of a disastrous harvest by invading Western Europe. This act will of course prompt President Matthews to reach for the N-button (though the reckless faction predicts the contrary), and thus civilization as we know it stands in peril.
Both Forsyth and Collins/Lapierre are so preoccupied with maneuvering their immensely complicated plots toward the finishing line that there’s very little time to relax, have the characters just look out of the window and scratch their behinds for a paragraph or two. Not much time for sex either. Linda Nahar, a Palestinian in The Fifth Horseman, shows early promise (“Before stepping into the tub, she gave herself an approving glance in the mirror: the taut, flat stomach, her firm buttocks, the defiant thrust of her breasts…”) but in the end only gets some very understated ecstasy after a night on the town at Studio 54. The nearest we get to sensuality in The Devil’s Alternative is the indication that Ivanenko, head of the KGB, is a homosexual. For one thing he has “a lengthy bath, redolent of an expensive London bath oil,” which is always a bad sign. He “wrapped himself in a silk robe,” which is another. And, “using the affectionate diminutive of Vladimir,” he calls his valet “Volodya,” which proves the case conclusively. Filthy beast, even though he is part of the dovish faction led by General Secretary Rudin which opposes thermonuclear holocaust as the best way to advance the interests of the Soviet Union.
Forsyth’s plot is terrifically complicated, but rests on some dubious assumptions, among them the supposition, important to the narrative, that a Swedish ship owner will, in 1982, commission a tanker with a million-ton capacity. This notion arouses hollow laughs in the tanker business today and the situation seems unlikely to change in the near future. The second dubious assumption is that any faction in the Kremlin, confronted with a catastrophic short-fall in the harvest, would construe the solution to be prompt invasion of Western Europe, with the conviction that the United States would not respond aggressively to such a move.
Here’s where the Diabolical Plots of the fiction writers merge with the Diabolical Plots detected with increasing zeal over the last five years by threat mongers too numerous for individual mention, but widely deployed through the executive, legislative, and opinion-forming branches of government, and most memorably evoked in recent times by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal remarking that to all intents and purposes the United States is on the verge of being Finlandized by the Soviet Union already.
The Spike displays this type of paranoia in its ripest form, and it’s something of a relief to find such well seasoned threat mongers as Borchgrave and Moss shifting their activities into something which will be clearly labeled “fiction” in the library catalogues, rather than “fact” as proposed by Borchgrave (formerly) in Newsweek and Moss in The Daily Telegraph. The overall Diabolical Plot is here called “The Plan,” a Kremlin “blueprint for achieving Soviet domination of the West by a certain date. The deadline has been revised once or twice already. The current deadline…was 1985.”
“The Plan,” as reported by Borchgrave and Moss, is rather a frail-looking schedule for world conquest, since it seems partly to consist of suborning journalists to print stories favorable to the Soviet Union and discreditable to the United States, and partly in making the “Institute for Progressive Reform” in Washington “the controlling center for a network of Soviet agents of influence who fanned out into Congress, the media, the academic world, and even the White House.”
It’s hard to know what Marx or Lenin would have made of all this. I imagine they would have blackballed it as voluntarism and cultural Blanquism of the most scandalous sort, and sent its authors back for six months solitary study of Capital, productive relations, the falling rate of profit, and the theory of inter-imperialist competition.
The nastier aspect of The Spike is that the authors plainly intend such outfits as the Institute for Progressive Reform to be identified by the witting with real life equivalents: witch hunting by fictional means, secure from legal writs or factual rebuttal. One answer should of course be for the victims to compose yet another novel, insinuating that the actual executives of “The Plan,” Soviet agents of influence of the basest description, are none other than our authors, blackening the reputation of the Institute for Progressive Reform to distract attention from the true vehicle of Soviet sabotage, the American Enterprise Institute. In the AEI, it will be recalled, lurk many of the men who have brought the US economy to its knees over the last two decades. Are we so naïve as to assume…etc., etc.
In the end the Diabolical Plot is exposed by a Soviet defector. A senator strongly resembling Daniel Patrick Moynihan assumes the vice presidency, eyeballs the Russians out of Saudi Arabia, and prepares to enter the Oval Office in 1985. In a simultaneous cleansing of the Augean stables, the CIA, State Department, Congress, and New York Times are purged of the hordes of Russian agents who, since the mid Sixties, have been stalwartly, if often unknowingly, carrying out the commands of their Russian masters.
It’s a dark vision all right, at least until Moynihan puts things to rights. The chaps in the Kremlin must be reading The Spike with huge enjoyment and satisfaction, always assuming that they have managed to stop fighting over the one copy of The Devil’s Alternative in the Kremlin lending library. Amid the merriment we may assume that there are recriminations, too. Why, if executives of “The Plan” have penetrated every nook and cranny of Washington, have they so signally failed in their designated function as “agents of influence” or “moles”?
After all, the SALT Treaty has been shelved, “theater nuclear” weapons are being dispatched to Western Europe, the MX is going forward, the US defense budget is going up and not down. So far from promoting the spirit of appeasing co-existence, the US press and television seem more alert than ever to Diabolical Plots and Soviet malfeasance. As they ponder these developments in the Kremlin, the Russians must surely be debating whether full consummation of The Plan will have to be postponed yet again, past the designated P-day in 1985.
They are having their minor triumphs along the way, to be sure. The State Department confessed the other day that no one in the US Embassy in Kabul could speak Russian, and therefore a temporary Soviet defector had to communicate with his hosts in sign language. Are we to be so simple-minded as to assume that this astounding dereliction should be attributed to inefficiency rather than to one more subtle motion of The Plan that threatens us all?