Ambassador J. William Middendorf is quite a guy. He served in the Pacific in World War II then became a successful and admired figure in the financial world, but that was just the beginning. He entered public service in the late 1960s as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, secretary of the Navy in the ’70s, and President Reagan’s ambassador to the Organization of American States in the ’80s.
Mr. Middendorf’s leadership in developing and implementing the Navy’s modernization plan served the nation well in the closing days of the Cold War. Then, he was in the Soviet Union as Communism collapsed in the 1990s and now, at age 95, he has written a book that should be read by policymakers and the public alike. “The Great Nightfall: How We Can Win the New Cold War” details the deterioration of our forces in recent years even as a new and potentially far more dangerous threat than Moscow ever posed is rising inexorably in the East.
In this book and in interviews, op-ed pieces and speeches, Mr. Middendorf has spent years arguing that we are being left behind by a newly aggressive Communist regime in Beijing dedicated to changing the world, supplanting the U.S. as the dominant strategic power on the planet and building an empire that threatens freedom and independence on a worldwide scale.
He details not only China’s rise as a potentially dominant military and economic power, but the fact that its military and political leaders openly brag about their plans. These plans have been largely ignored or dismissed by Western businessmen lusting after the money to be made in the Chinese market and political leaders who naively believe that China poses no real threat to the existing world order.
The audacity of the Beijing regime in the South China Sea, its growing propensity to bully and threaten neighbors and the inroads it is making in Africa and elsewhere through what Beijing calls its “Belt and Road” initiative were seen by experts as troubling, but it was the crushing of freedom in Hong Kong along with repeated threats directed at Taiwan and the attempts to undermine Western institutions that have given rise to a more realistic view of the nature of the Chinese Communist regime and its goals.
The willingness to lie in the wake of the outbreak of the current pandemic in Wuhan and decision to force its own citizens into slave labor camps that has underscored the true nature of the Communist regime in Beijing and the threat it poses. Mr. Middendorf argues that we had better prepare for a long struggle on the economic, diplomatic and military fronts if we are to prevail in what he describes as a new Cold War.
This is not to suggest that he ignores other problems facing us. Instability in various parts of the world, a renewed threat from Russia, and the continuing problem anchored in Middle Eastern terrorism are all troublesome, but it is China that represents the greatest threat because of its determination, size and wealth.
Mr. Middendorf is better positioned to suggest what must be done than most who have warned of the Chinese threat. While Beijing is modernizing its ground forces and missile capability, it is the navy that China hopes to use to banish us from Asia and dominate the sea. As this book circulates, Beijing is building a defensive and offensive navy bigger and perhaps better than what we or any of our allies possess. China’s navy is threatening its neighbors as it declares its intention to control the seas around it. The daily news supports Mr. Middendorf’s warnings.
The nation faced a similar challenge when Mr. Middendorf was Navy secretary in the ’70s, but his dogged determination led to the development of new weapons systems and a revitalized navy. Soviet leaders later claimed that U.S. naval superiority was instrumental in leading them to the conclusion that they could not compete let alone defeat U.S. forces in any military confrontation. That realization, in turn, led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Mr. Middendorf coolly lays out the challenges we face today but doesn’t stop there. He has always been a problem solver and goes on to outline reforms to cut waste in defense spending and steps that will lead to the modernization of our forces. To prevail, according to Mr. Middendorf, will require commitment, work and resources, but it can be done … if we heed his warning and begin now.
As always, his advice is sound and anyone who takes the time to read “The Great Nightfall” will realize that the consequences of failing to heed his warnings and advice would be catastrophic for us, for our allies and, ultimately, for the freedoms for which we stand. One hopes that someone will give a copy to Mr. Biden, that he will read it and conclude that Ambassador Middendorf knows more about what needs to be done than, say, his son Hunter.
• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.
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