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Playboy Interview: Tom Clancy
  • October 01, 2013 : 07:10
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Playboy: Why not?

Clancy: Nuclear weapons are the only legitimacy the Soviet government has to be a world power. The Soviet Union is a third-world country in every real sense--but a third-world country with 10,000 deliverable nuclear warheads. The country cannot feed itself. You cannot drive from one side of the country to the other on a paved road. In America, we have superhighways. Even the crummy little road that you drove down to get here for this interview is better than any rural highway in the Soviet Union. Ivan's not going to give up his missiles unless we give him a good reason to.

Playboy: But it's the Soviets who proposed a 50 percent cut in the long-range strategic missiles.

Clancy: That would cut deliverable warheads from about 10,000 down to 5000. Does that actually mean anything?

Playboy: You don't think it lessens the threat of a nuclear war?

Clancy: I want you to assume for a moment that I extend my hand to you. In this hand is a nine-mm Browning high-power automatic pistol. In fact, I own one of those. It has a 13-round magazine, you put one in the chamber, it's got 14 rounds. I point it right at your chest at a range of about ten feet. And I promise you I will hit you from this range. Let's say that I don't really hate you as much today as I did last week. So I pop out the magazine. I take out seven rounds. I put the thing back in. I point it at you again and say, "OK, now there're only seven rounds pointed at your chest from a range of ten feet." Don't you feel twice as safe now?

Playboy: We take your point.

Clancy: If the Russians can deliver 5000 nuclear warheads on U.S. soil, we're just as dead as if they delivered 10,000. Now, if you were to reduce the deliverable number on both sides to 1000, you might actually start talking about saving some lives.

Playboy: If war ever broke out, and it began in Europe, whoever used nuclear weapons first would probably use the smaller, tactical weapons first, right?

Clancy: Probably. If the Soviet forces broke through NATO lines.

Playboy: What are tactical nuclear weapons, anyway?

Clancy: I have Nigel Calder's book Nuclear Nightmares on the shelves here. And he has a particularly black joke that goes, "What is the definition of a tactical nuclear weapon?" Answer: "One that explodes in Germany." As a joke, that's really evil. Consider that the weapon that destroyed Hiroshima--it wasn't really the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, it was the fire that resulted from it--was a 20-kiloton weapon. The warhead on a single Pershing missile--a so-called tactical weapon--that the I.N.F. agreement is going to remove from Europe is up to 400 kilotons. Twenty times greater than Hiroshima! So the difference between tactical and strategic weapons depends on how close to you it explodes.

Playboy: Yet U.S. nuclear policy makes a big distinction between the two types of weapons.

Clancy: We think there is an actual difference. We plan walls and firebreaks and other defenses against these so-called small nukes. But Soviet military doctrine regards all activity as part of a continuum. And I think they're more correct than we are in that respect.

Playboy: One of your protagonists in Red Storm Rising is a Soviet general who says to the Politburo, when they are debating, that it's madness to consider the use of even the smallest battlefield atomic weapon.

Clancy: Thank God, someone noticed! The best line in the whole book, for an insider, is when General Alekseyev says, "The Politburo is talking like those NATO idiots." That's the Soviet view of NATO tactical nuclear strategy--that it's idiocy.

Playboy: So here we have one of President Reagan's favorite novelists calling NATO's nuclear strategy idiotic?

Clancy: Yep. Look, the Russians are right. Soviet nuclear strategy makes a hell of a lot more sense than Western nuclear strategy.

Playboy: Why, exactly?

Clancy: The NATO idea is that we can fight a limited nuclear war in Europe under gentlemen's rules. OK? We'll kill your soldiers and you'll kill our soldiers, but we won't nuke each other's cities. It's been part of NATO doctrine for 30 years that we can use nuclear weapons on the battlefield without eliminating large civilian or economic targets. They feel that we can limit the use of the nuclear weapons to military activities and not to strategic activities. That's lunacy.

Playboy: Why?

Clancy: Because, most likely, both sides would keep upping the ante until, all of a sudden, Paris isn't there anymore. And the French are probably going to take great offense at that and take out Moscow. And the Russians are going to be a little bit peeved and, next thing, New York, London and Washington are gone. At which point the whole world goes slightly nuts.

Playboy: How do you know for sure that the Russians have a more logical view of the dangers of nuclear war?

Clancy: I know from their open source material. The way they write to each other in Red Star, the daily paper of the Soviet military. You can subscribe to it in the United States if you speak Russian. Their writings on nuclear war are very different from ours.

Playboy: Then do you think it more likely that a nuclear war in Europe would be started by the U.S. than by the Soviets?

Clancy: Probably, yes.

Playboy: That's another surprise, coming from you. Even your novel Red Storm Rising assumes that the Soviets will use nukes before the U.S. does.

Clancy: In my book, NATO was holding a good hand. The use of nuclear weapons in the tactical environment would be an act of some desperation. If the Soviets do their job right, if they can achieve strategic surprise on the battlefield and get their breakthrough, the NATO countries are going to say, "We can't let the Russians have Europe. We have to stop them somehow." And the only choice they're going to have is to go nuclear.

Which is why I've been saying for quite some time that the primary mission of the United States and the West in general is to make sure we have sufficient conventional arms to stop the Soviets cold. Because if we don't, we're risking a global nuclear war, and that is not something that I look upon with enthusiasm.

Playboy: Whose fault, then, is the West's flawed nuclear strategy? We think we know.

Clancy: Right: politicians'. Armies do not start wars. Generals do not wake up in the morning and say, "Shit, let's go kill somebody. I haven't had a good killing rush for a while. Let's go take out a regiment of Frenchies today." That doesn't happen. What happens is that the politician says, "The French have something I want. Or the Russians have something I want. Or the Nicaraguans, or the Cubans, or the Vietnamese have something I really want. They're not going to give it to me, so I gotta go take it. And you, General Smith, go take that country."

"Yes, sir."

Playboy: Don't you think the policies of a man like Gorbachev can reduce the chance of a superpower confrontation?

Clancy: I spoke recently at Quantico, the FBI academy, to a bunch of counterespionage people. And I posed the question, "What if a nice guy took over the Soviet Union--how would we know? How do we tell the difference?" Because he still has to act within the context of his own society. He's not going to change the Soviet Union into a liberal democracy overnight. He would probably be doing all the things that Gorbachev is doing now. And Gorby is moving forward quite rapidly in some areas. Now, the question emerges: "Is he a good guy or is he a guy who's trying to act like a good guy?"

Playboy: And the answer is?

Clancy: You can't know! Personally, I think that Mikhail Gorbachev is a good guy, within the context of his own society, of course. So you give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, we should encourage him in every way. But not without a quid pro quo.

Playboy: In all of your books, but most notably in Patriot Games, there is constant reference to good guys and bad guys. Is the world really that simple?

Clancy: A lot of the good-guy, bad-guy stuff in Patriot Games is a technical designation. That's the way cops talk. It is, nevertheless, the way I think in a lot of cases. The world is not so simple as to lend itself to people's falling into one of two categories. But those two categories do exist and quite a few people do fall into them.

Playboy: Do you reject the notion of other writers, such as John Le Carré, that there might exist some moral symmetry between "our side" and "theirs"? That, ultimately, we're all up to the same thing?

Clancy: That's an absurd notion. Today, in Afghanistan, the Russians are deploying a munition, a bomb, that's completely new, unique in the history of warfare. It is an antichild bomb. Dan Rather showed a clip of it on TV. It has to be real. It's a bomb that's in the configuration of a toy--a truck or a doll. A kid picks it up and it blows his hand off. There is no moral symmetry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Certainly, we've never deployed anything like that. In our darkest hour--and some of the things we did in Vietnam we don't have to be especially proud of--we never have done anything like that.

Playboy: Some would say that your faith in the good guys is wishful thinking. Like your faith in technology.

Clancy: Let me ask you a question. In what kind of airplane did you fly from Los Angeles to Washington to interview me?

Playboy: A 747.

Clancy: Did you feel safe?

Playboy: Most of the time. Not as much as some years ago.

Clancy: Well, the 747 is a pretty good bird. The only times they ever broke have been the crew's fault. If it weren't for technology--let's say, for example, if you took away fertilizers, which are chemically manufactured, and just eliminated them worldwide--50 percent of the people alive today would be dead in 12 months.

That's what technology does for us. It keeps us alive. I'm driving a car with German engineering. You're using a Sony tape recorder, Japanese engineering. You couldn't make a living without it. We get our information that way. Business could barely function today without computers. Technology is part of life, and always has been. Ever since we stopped using our muscles to poke holes in the ground to plant seeds, technology has been important. After it's been around for 20 years or so, it just recedes into the woodwork. There was a time when nails were high-tech.

Playboy: When did your great romance with technology begin?

Clancy: I've always been a gadget freak. When I was back in first grade, I think it was the first year that the Walt Disney show was on TV. There was a one-hour show of how the space race was going to start. I saw that and I said, "Yeah, that's the way to go." And I've been a technology freak ever since. I supported the space program before there even was one! That's where the future is. The future is in doing things that we don't know how to do yet.

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