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Playboy Interview: Tom Clancy
  • October 01, 2013 : 07:10
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[Editor's Note: Spy novelist extraordinaire Tom Clancy passed away on October 1 2013 at age 66. We are reprinting our Playboy Interview with him, which first appeared in the pages of the April 1988 issue of Playboy Magazine.]

Ronald Reagan reads his novels, then invites him to the White House. Cap Weinberger reviews his newest book and gives it a rave. The Secretary of the Navy debriefs him. Our top war colleges cede him the lectern. The CIA has him over for lunch for a "chat." From the Pentagon to the Kremlin, men in uniforms hung heavy with brass ask one another, Who is this author who's selling millions of books by popularizing the technosecrets of modern warfare? More than that, they want to know, who is his source? Who's feeding him the latest dope on both sides' subs, satellites, tanks and lasers? Isn't that stuff supposed to be...classified?

The subject of all this celebrity and suspicion was, just four years ago, an obscure Maryland insurance broker who had a thing about the U.S. Navy and turned his hand to writing novels. Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October, which surfaced from uncharted publishing depths in 1984 to float to the top of the best-seller lists, invented a literary genre: the technomilitary thriller. The story of a Soviet submarine crew racing to defect to the West before being cornered by the pursuing Russian fleet, Clancy's first novel was a huge success. While at first glance, Hunt reads like a standard C. S. Forester submarine adventure, it soon becomes clear that it is not the psyche of the battle-stressed commander Clancy is interested in laying bare as much as the inner workings of the submarine's tracking and firing systems. The machine as hero.

Conjuring up a superpower war scenario and describing in real, accessible detail the complexities of the world's most sophisticated combat weaponry, Clancy, at the age of 40, has come upon a winning formula. He has mined the ethos of the Reagan era and struck the commercial mother lode with two other best sellers, Red Storm Rising and Patriot Games. In an era when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have built so many weapons that it has taken a summit just to discard a few, a popular writer has found a compelling way to explain what all that hardware is about--and manages to show both the glittering menace in a nuclear submarine and its high-tech steel-hulled sexiness.

Not that Tom Clancy takes all of this quite so seriously. It's also fun and games. Inside his cramped book-lined study in southern Maryland, Clancy sits five or six hours a day, tapping at his Macintosh word processor. As he rolls his mouse over the desk pad, another Soviet regiment rumbles over the German border. A tap on the keyboard and the invaders are crushed by a surprise NATO counterthrust. And while Clancy's troops conquer the Soviets, his hardcovers and paperbacks are mass marched right to the cash register. Not only does he get to play war all day but he's making millions doing so.

For a guy who spent his childhood in Baltimore's Jesuit schools--and then couldn't make it past Loyola College's ROTC because he was so nearsighted--this is quite an advance. A long way to come for a salesman of homeowner policies who dreamed of writing but had published only one article--something technical on a new system for basing the MX missile--and one letter to the editor. It wasn't till just last year, long after Clancy had been catapulted to wealth and notoriety, that he finally stopped "going into the office" of the insurance business he had run with his wife, Wanda.

In 1982, Clancy started writing a novel, loosely based on the real-life attempt of a Soviet frigate crew to defect to Sweden in 1975, using a research paper, some newspaper clippings and technical data gleaned, in part, from a $15 software strategy game. Six months later, he lunched with an editor at the U.S. Naval Academy's Naval Institute Press. So impressed was the editor with Clancy's manuscript that he offered to buy it, even though his press had never before published any fiction. The agreed-upon advance was a meager $5000. When the book appeared in 1984, ecstatic reviews soon depleted the initial 14,000-copy press run. After climbing the New York Times best-seller list, Red October sold 250,000 hardcover copies and more than 4,000,000 paperbacks, becoming that rare item--a book that is a simultaneous soft and hardcover best seller.

His next book, Red Storm Rising, appeared in 1986 and sold an astounding 1,000,000 in hardcover and more than 3,000,000 paperbacks, lodging itself on the national best-seller lists for more than 80 weeks. His third, Patriot Games, with 900,000 copies in print, has inhabited the best-seller list for 24 weeks as we go to press. Apart from the $3,000,000 guaranteed book deal he has with Putnam, Clancy has further advances from Paramount Pictures for the film rights to Red October.

This past winter, as Clancy was completing his most recent book, as yet unreleased, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Playboy asked free-lancer Marc Cooper to interview the author. Cooper conducted several long sessions with Clancy at his home in Prince Frederick, Maryland. Cooper's report:

"It was only natural that this man who makes his living idealizing the soldier's life should greet me during our first interview wearing a sort of uniform: sharply pressed khaki pants, a dark-blue shirt emblazoned with the insignia of the U.S. Naval War College, and officer's parka over that and a gold-braided cap inscribed with U.S.S. Pharris riding low over extra-dark aviator shades.

"And given his unabashed fascination with all that is gadgetry, it was appropriate enough that the first session began as Clancy drove to pick up a new computer keyboard, answering my questions as he piloted his new Mercedes 420 through a Maryland rainstorm. 'Don't worry about tape-recording me in here,' he boasted. 'This is the world's quietest car. Perfect for an interview.'

"And while the soundproofing of the car was remarkable, our first couple of hours together were awkward, if not tense. Clancy stared straight ahead at the road and spoke in precise, clipped, dispassionate phrases. I thought he simply distrusted me and Playboy, which he perceived as a military-bashing pacifist rag. And I had a good reason to believe so.

"A few weeks earlier, when I had first phoned Clancy to set up the interview, he told me he was surprised by the request. 'You caught me at a weird time,' he said. 'It wasn't but a couple of days ago that I had come across the Playboy Interview with Daniel Ortega [November 1987] and I shook my head and said, "When is Playboy gonna stop giving so much space to all the bad guys and start doing some good guys?" And now you call. It's spooky.'

"But by our second meeting--this time in his study jammed with reference books, a couple of empty tank shells and framed pictures of carriers, subs and combat jets--I realized I had misjudged the man. Clancy was no stiff. He was simply an enormously unpretentious, humble and shy father of four who had been thrust into a prominence that he enjoyed but did not altogether know how to handle. He graciously answered every question put to him, spared no time in explaining the most arcane of technical contraptions and kept our discussion percolating with his disarming sense of humor.

"I didn't share his unshakable faith in technology in general and in U.S. military preparedness in particular. But interviewing Tom Clancy was an opportunity to strip away the political mystifications that shroud our national defense apparatus and take a sober--and entertaining--look at the nuts and bolts underneath."

Playboy: Through your best-selling novels, you've become a popular authority on what the U.S. and the Soviets really have in their military arsenals and on how war may be fought today. You've described American and Soviet military technology in such realistic detail that experts wonder how you do it. President Reagan is supposedly a big fan of yours. You do have sources at the CIA, don't you?

Clancy: Not true. I've never had any official help from the intelligence community. Nor unofficial help.

Playboy: How about help from the manufacturers of your favorite characters--submarines?

Clancy: No, I never talked with anybody from General Dynamics. I didn't ever get aboard one of their submarines until after The Hunt for Red October was finished.

Playboy: Where did you get your technical data?

Clancy: [Laughs] From three books right here on my shelves: Ships and Air Craft of the U.S. Fleet, Guide to the Soviet Navy, Combat Fleets of the World, all from the Naval Institute Press. My current net investment is about $150. OK? And, you know, the Russians are asking the same questions as you are.

Playboy: Pravda slammed you in a review titled "Caution: Poison" and warned that you were a mouthpiece for the Pentagon.

Clancy: Yeah, but mainly, they wanted to know, "Who is that masked man?" They think I was elevated to my current affluence by the military-industrial complex; that General Dynamics needed an official minstrel, so they hired me instead of James Michener or something. There is no way a Russian could come to grips with the concept that I'm just a small businessman who reads a lot.

Playboy: Maybe, maybe not. Our readers should know that this interview has already been interrupted by a call from a CIA agent.

Clancy: That call? That was a guy whose department sponsored me when I gave a talk over at the CIA, that's all. I repeat: No one, but no one, has ever given me classified information of any kind. I've been told, however, that I made up material that turned out to be correct and very, very highly classified--but I don't know what it is. They tell me it's right but not what it is. Security spooks are very humorless people who have trouble believing that somebody can make a good guess. So do you guys in the media. Why can't you just give me credit for being smart?

Playboy: We'll take your word for it, then. All your research is there on your shelf.

Clancy: Yes. And for The Hunt for Red October, about nuclear subs, I also relied on a software war game called Harpoon. That's how I got my information on how weapons and ships and military lanes operate: how you maneuver a ship, how the radars work. There's a useful appendix in the manual; so it was easy. If you buy that game--and I guess it now costs $20 or so--you can spend maybe two hours a day with it for two weeks and you'll know as much about the Navy as some admirals.

Playboy: That's a chilling thought.

Clancy: And for sure you'll know more than anybody in Congress.

Playboy: Shouldn't we be a little terrified that your fictional stories are being used as texts in our war colleges?

Clancy: Not exactly as texts, but as case studies. What I do is paint in very broad strokes. I call it connect the dots: If you know this fact and that fact and that fact, you can figure out how they're connected. Evidently, I'm pretty good at that, or so a few generals and admirals tell me.

Playboy: This has been an important year for summit talks and arms reduction, so let's get your thoughts on the current state of the military in our country and in the Soviet Union. As an avowed naval chauvinist, do you believe that a powerful navy is as crucial to the Soviets as to the U.S.?

Clancy: America is primarily a maritime power. The Navy has always been our first line of defense. The Soviets are a continental power, going right back to the czars. The main threat to the Russians has always been invasion by land. To get to us, on the other hand, you've got to cross the ocean. For this simple reason, the Soviet navy doesn't have the primacy ours does.

Playboy: Give us a thumbnail sketch of the size and power of the U.S. submarine fleet.

Clancy: There are about 100 of the fast attack subs of the Red October kind--they run about a half billion dollars each, but they're the best subs in history.

Playboy: What sort of weaponry do those attack subs carry?

Clancy: Considering their cost, each could carry a heck of a lot more weapons than it does. Normal weapons load-out is 22 Mark 48 torpedoes and six Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles. Anyway, it's an awfully expensive submarine to carry only 28 weapons.

Playboy: The U.S. also has subs that carry long-range nuclear missiles.

Clancy: We've got about three dozen boomers--those are the Trident-type Ohio-class subs equipped with ballistic nuclear missiles. The boomer's mission is hopefully to deter war. Or to just sail around and say, OK, Ivan, if you blow up America, we'll blow up the Soviet Union. If anything gets close to them, they go the other way.

Playboy: What's your over-all assessment of Soviet military power?

Clancy: It's less than what it seems. The biggest problem the Soviets have is not their hardware, it's their software, their people. In the navy, they don't have professional sailors, the way we do. Same thing with the Soviet army. A guy goes into the Russian army, he's in for two years and he goes home. In the navy, it's three years and he goes home. Nobody re-enlists.

Playboy: Not even the officers?

Clancy: The officers do. The officers are professionals, but there's a big difference between us and them. Look, on a U.S. 688-class submarine, you've got a crew of 120, only about 18 or 20 of them are officers, the rest are enlisted men. Chief petty officers, petty officers, that sort of thing. If a machine breaks, an officer doesn't fix it, some 21-year-old kid fixes it. On a Russian sub, an officer has to fix it, because the kids don't know how. They're not around long enough to learn. And there isn't a chief petty officer to teach him. As a result, the Soviet navy simply is not as proficient in using the equipment it has, because it's afraid to use it. So their philosophy, very often, is to use it once to make sure it works, and then turn it off and save it for a rainy day. Well, the problem is that when it starts raining, if nobody knows how to open the umbrella, you're going to get wet.

Playboy: And when you get wet----

Clancy: When you get wet in a sub, mister, you're in big trouble!

Playboy: Yet those are the guys whose subs we chase and whose subs chase us around the world in a perpetual war game.

Clancy: No, we're chasing them, they're not chasing us.

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