Few fictional texts are as redolent of the global Cold War as Tom Clancy's novel of east-west submarine intrigue and confrontation, The Hunt for Red October, first published in 1984. For those who have the benefit of hindsight it may appear that the mid-1980s was a period in which the Cold War was clearly coming to an end, but at the time the east-west confrontation was firmly embedded in geopolitical reality and western culture. The threat to the west from the Communist Bloc seemed as real as ever, and appeared likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Hunt for Red October may appear now as a relic of a lost age, but that judgement is only possible retrospectively and has no meaning for the significance of the book as it was received at the time.
The book presents itself first and foremost as an exciting story in the 'technothriller' genre, focusing on the revolutionary submarine 'Red October' and the high-tech military confrontations brought about by the planned defection of its commander and his officers. Beyond this level however, it is a patriotic, flag-waving book with its feet firmly in the Cold War bunker, on the western, U.S.-led, side. Throughout, Clancy expresses support at varying levels of explicitness for active confrontation of the U.S.S.R., particularly by western navies, who along with Jack Ryan are the heroes of the story. Given this standpoint it is hardly surprising that the book was originally published in the U.S.A. By the Naval Institute Press. The story is told in the fairly black and white terms of good guys and bad guys, with few shades of grey; it resembles perhaps the more simplistic 'Western' books and movies, telling stories of cowboys and Indians on the frontier -- with the North Atlantic, the new Cold War frontier, standing in for the deserts of the American West.
The depiction of the Soviet Union in Hunt for Red October is straightforward: it is the 'evil empire' of Cold War rhetoric. It follows the pattern of many such depictions in representing the U.S.S.R. As simultaneously backward, primitive and inefficient, and as technologically-advanced, all-powerful and threatening. There is no ambiguity about its evil as a system, however. The opinion of the renegade Soviet captain, Ramius, is clearly expressed and the reader is invited to share it: the Soviet Union murdered his wife. Indeed, Ramius's whole family history and personal life is blighted by the oppressiveness, inhumanity, brutality and inefficiency of the Soviet system. His father was a high-flying Communist functionary who had savagely repressed the people of his native Lithuania and risen in the Soviet hierarchy as a result of these crimes (37-8); his son rejected him, as he rejected the system he represented. Ramius's wife died because of medical incompetence and uncaring Soviet inefficiency, and he was left unable to take action against those responsible because they were protected by the system (47-8). The contrast with Jack Ryan could hardly be starker. The first time we encounter him he is at home with his family, playing with his daughter and looking forward to Christmas (30-1). Even in their personal lives, Clancy's characters reflect the ideological confrontation between good and evil that drives his plots.
The fact that Ramius is a Lithuanian gives Clancy the opportunity to enlarge on the unhappy relationship between the Lithuanians and their Soviet masters. Its is clear throughout the book that the relationship between the Soviet Union and her allies is that of imperial power and subject peoples -- and, furthermore, that it is full of resentment and mistrust. Petrov, medical officer on the 'Red October', 'didn't trust the [East] Germans, Marxists or not' (158); Cuba is seen as by the enlisted men as a paradise of beaches and beautiful women, but Ramius and the other officers know differently and regard the 'fraternal socialist comrades' on the 'beautiful island of Cuba' with contempt (25); the Poles are suspected of tricking their Soviet 'allies' (314-5). On the western side, the relationship between the United States and her chief ally, Great Britain, is very different. The original intelligence material on 'Red October' came via British sources, and it is because of Jack Ryan's excellent connections in Britain (he is on familiar terms with lords, ladies and admirals) that he has access to it and is able to take it to Washington. British ships, notably the carrier 'Invincible', play a vital part in the 'Red October' and a British seaman, Williams, is Ryan's comrade-in-arms during his climactic struggles aboard the Russian submarine. Throughout the book British naval officers show themselves to be tough, professional, highly competent, and entirely at one with their U.S. partners over the operation.
The USSR as Clancy depicts it is a corrupt, backward, inefficient place -- a superpower despite itself. Workers are cynical and do not care about their work; and the account of a sorter in the Central Post Office at Severomorsk stands for Clancy's image of the entire Soviet economy and the culture that shapes it:
There was no sense in hurrying. It was only the beginning of the month, and they still had weeks to move their quota of letters and parcels from one side of the building to the other. In the Soviet Union every worker is government worker, and they have a saying: As long as the bosses pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work ... The sorter tossed the envelope with a negligent flick of the wrist towards the surface mailbag for Moscow on the far side of the work table. It missed, dropping to the concrete floor. The letter would be placed aboard the train a day late. The sorter didn't care. (29-30)
The judgement is clear: the state-controlled economy of the Soviet Union leaves every worker unmotivated, uninterested, unenterprising. The free markets of the United States produce a very different situation, as Jack Ryan tells the eager crew of the 'Red October':
Nearly everyone has a car. Most people own their own homes. If you have money, you can buy nearly anything you want ... The fact of the matter is that in our country if you have some brains -- and all of you men do -- and you are willing to work -- and all of you men are -- you will live a comfortable life even without any help. (419)
The United States encourages and rewards energy and enterprise. It also encourages free thinking and initiative -- the basis of Jack Ryan's own life story of wealth, intellectual achievement and service to his country. Ryan 'knew how to make a decision and was not afraid to say what he thought, whether his bosses liked it nor not' (61); whereas Ramius has had to shape his career around the necessity of saying only what he knows his superiors want to hear. In the U.S.S.R. naval officers 'learned that the price of advancement was to prostitute one's mind and soul, to become a highly paid parrot in a blue jacket whose every Party recitation was a grating exercise in self-control' (49). American submarine crew members, by contrast, are valued for their specialist knowledge and given encouragement to develop initiative and independence; thus Sonarman Ronald Jones of the U.S.S. 'Dallas', a 'young college dropout', becomes a key man in the hunt for the Russian submarine because of his uncanny talent for interpreting sonar echoes -- a talent cultivated and respected by his superiors (77-9). Within the Soviet system, military professionals have no autonomy but are under the thumb of a politicized bureaucracy at all times. It is highly symbolic, as well as a matter of necessity, that the first act of Ramius's plot is the murder of the submarine's political officer, Ivan Putin (10, 21).
Every aspect of the Soviet system comes in for criticism and unflattering comparison with the west in this novel. Soviet cities are 'full of ramshackle buildings, dirty streets, and ill-clad citizens' (11). The contrast with the pristine, ordered environments of the western settings -- the White House, the Pentagon, CIA Headquarters, the comfortable homes of Jack Ryan and others -- is clear. The view the Russian sailors get of Washington as they are flown in is used by Clancy to emphasize the superiority of the American way of life:
The interpreter explained that they were flying over middle-class homes that belonged to ordinary workers in government and local industry ... American officers ... apologized for the traffic jams, telling the passengers that nearly every American family has one car, many two or more, and that people only use public transportation to avoid the nuisance of driving. The nuisance of driving one's own car, the Soviet seamen thought in amazement. Their political officers might later tell them that this was a total lie, but who could deny the thousands of cars on the road? Surely this could not be a sham staged for the benefit of a few sailors on an hour's notice? Driving through…