by Paul Forsythe Johnston
Curator of Maritime History
National Museum of American History
I stopped talking after about three minutes. Dead silence and utter stillness greeted my proposal to a sizeable gathering of retired U.S. Navy admirals, former submarine captains, experts in naval intelligence, nuclear propulsion engineers, and current submariners of various ranks. Eventually, peoples' eyes began to slide around the table, gauging each others' reactions to what I had said. Maybe they thought I was joking or deliberately provoking, but I wasn't.
Nobody said a word, so I started in again, detailing my special interest in the subject and describing its lowly 19th century origins. Finally, one of the Pentagon representatives at the other end of the table raised his hand rather tentatively, cleared his throat and voiced the collective expert opinion I had already anticipated, "Excuse me sir, but all that's classified." Others around the table immediately and unanimously confirmed his appraisal of the situation.
I suspected I would have only one chance to sell my idea, and the time was now. We were in the early planning phase of a proposed exhibit on nuclear submarines at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History—a joint venture between ourselves, the Navy Submarine League and the Navy—and at this meeting, we were discussing various possibilities. At that point in time, all ideas were worthy of consideration, however preposterous they might appear on the surface.
We had been told that the Navy might be willing to declassify certain aspects of submarine technology and operations just for our exhibition. Details were vague, but the offer was straightforward and sincere. However, they'd had other things in mind when making that offer, and I had unexpectedly taken aim at one of the most secret aspects of modern nuclear submarines. It had never before been seen by the public and was even hidden at restricted-access submarine bases worldwide, and now I was proposing that we share it with the five million visitors that come to our museum each year. Hence the quiet.
Hoping the chap at the other end of the table who'd spoken knew the most about my subject, I directed my next question to him. "Is there any way we could look into this a bit further before giving up?" He smiled, gracefully acknowledging he'd been hooked. I got his name, and we went on to other topics. I was very pleased, as I had a fallback plan and an alternative to that, and I hadn't needed to bring up either one.