How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped – and what we can learn from this
Histories of the CIA document its poor performance as an intelligence agency (e.g., Tim Weiner’s 2007 book Legacy of Ashes). While incompetence certainly plays a role in degrading its performance, obedience to its political superiors probably plays a far more informant role. Such as the relentless overhyping of the Soviet Union’s capabilities and hostile intentions during the cold war.
This post looks at some new evidence (adding to the overwhelming pile), and provides a contrast — showing how easily the truth could be seen. If only the CIA had looked.
- New Study: Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades, Posted at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, 11 September 2009.
- “Exaggeration Of The Threat: Then And Now“, Melvin A. Goodman, The Public Record, 14 September 2009 — Summary of the above study.
- Robert and Virginia Heinlein visited Moscow in 1960 and discovered Russia’s population crash, then in the early stages. The CIA discovered this 2 or 3 decades later.
- Articles about reforming the US intelligence apparatus
- For More information on the FM website and an Afterword
(1) Powerful new study gives more evidence about exaggerating the Soviet threat
New Study: Previously Classified Interviews with Former Soviet Officials Reveal U.S. Strategic Intelligence Failure Over Decades — 1995 Contractor Study Finds that U.S. Analysts Exaggerated Soviet Aggressiveness and Understated Moscow’s Fears of a U.S. First Strike. Edited by William Burr and Svetlana Savranskaya. Posted at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, 11 September 2009. Opening:
During a 1972 command post exercise, leaders of the Kremlin listened to a briefing on the results of a hypothetical war with the United States. A U.S. attack would kill 80 million Soviet citizens and destroy 85% of the country’s industrial capacity. According to the recollections of a Soviet general who was present, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev “trembled” when he was asked to push a button, asking Soviet defense minister Grechko “this is definitely an exercise?”
This story appears in a recently released two-volume study on Soviet Intentions, 1965-1985, prepared in 1995 by the Pentagon contractor BDM Corporation, and published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. Based on an extraordinarily revealing series of interviews with former senior Soviet defense officials–“unhappy Cold Warriors”–during the final days of the Soviet Union, the BDM study puts Soviet nuclear policy in a fresh light by highlighting Soviet leaders’ recognition of the catastrophe of nuclear conflict, even while they supported preparations for fighting an unsurvivable war.
BDM’s unique interview evidence with former Soviet military officers, military analysts, and industrial specialists, reproduced in volume 2 of the study, covers a wide range of strategic issues, including force levels and postures, targeting and war planning, weapons effects, and the role of defense industries. Using this new evidence, the BDM staffers compared it with mainly official and semi-official U.S. interpretations designed to explain Soviet strategic policy and decision-making during the Cold War. While the BDM analysts found that some interpretations of Soviet policy were consistent with the interview evidence (e.g., the Soviet interest in avoiding nuclear war and Moscow’s quest for superiority), they identified what they believed to be important failures of analysis, including:
- “[Erring] on the side of overestimating Soviet aggressiveness” and underestimated “the extent to which the Soviet leadership was deterred from using nuclear weapons.” [I: iv, 35]. Recent evidence from oral history sources supports this finding. The Soviet leadership of the 1960’s and 1970’s suffered from a strategic inferiority complex that supports its drive for parity with (or even superiority over) the United States. All of the strategic models developed by Soviet military experts had a defensive character and assumed a first strike by NATO (See Document 3 at pages 26-27, Oral History Roundtable, Stockholm, p. 61)
- “Seriously misjudg[ing] Soviet military intentions, which had the potential [to] mislead…U.S. decision makers in the event of an extreme crisis.” For example, the authors observed that the Soviet leadership did not rule out a preemptive strike option, even though U.S. officials came to downplay the “probability” of Soviet preemption. This misperception left open the possibility of U.S. action during a crisis that could invite a Soviet preemptive response and a nuclear catastrophe. [I: iv, 35, 68, 70-71]
- “Serious[ly] misunderstanding … the Soviet decision-making process” by underestimating the “decisive influence exercised by the defense industry.” That the defense industrial complex, not the Soviet high command, played a key role in driving the quantitative arms buildup “led U.S. analysts to … exaggerate the aggressive intentions of the Soviets.” [I:7]
(2) Summary of the above study
“Exaggeration Of The Threat: Then And Now“, Melvin A. Goodman, The Public Record, 14 September 2009 — Excerpt:
A recently declassified study on Soviet intentions during the Cold War identifies significant failures in U.S. intelligence analysis on Soviet military intentions and demonstrates the constant exaggeration of the Soviet threat.
The study, which was released last week by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, was prepared by a Pentagon contractor in 1995 that had access to former senior Soviet defense officials, military officers, and industrial specialists. It demonstrates the consistent U.S. exaggeration of Soviet “aggressiveness” and the failure to recognize Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike. The study begs serious questions about current U.S. exaggeration of “threats” emanating from Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan.
In the 1980s, long after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signaled reduced growth in Soviet defense spending, the CIA produced a series of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) titled “Soviet Capabilities for Strategic Nuclear Conflict,” which concluded that the Soviet Union sought “superior capabilities to fight and win a nuclear war with the United States, and have been working to improve their chances of prevailing in such a conflict.”
… The Pentagon study demonstrates that the Soviet military high command “understood the devastating consequences of nuclear war” and believed that the use of nuclear weapons had to be avoided at “all costs.” Nevertheless, in 1975, presidential chief of staff Dick Cheney and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld introduced a group of neoconservatives, led by Harvard professor Richard Pipes, to the CIA in order to make sure that future NIEs would falsely conclude that the Soviet Union rejected nuclear parity, were bent on fighting and winning a nuclear war, and were radically increasing their military spending.
The neocons (known as Team B) and the CIA (Team A) then wrongly predicted a series of Soviet weapons developments that never took place, including directed energy weapons, mobile ABM systems, and anti-satellite capabilities. CIA deputy director Gates used this worst-case reasoning in a series of speeches to insinuate himself with CIA director Bill Casey and the Reagan administration.
In view of the consistent exaggeration of the Soviet threat throughout the 1980s, when the USSR was on a glide path toward collapse, it is fair to speculate on current geopolitical situations that are far less threatening than our policy and intelligence experts assert.
About the author
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. He spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.
Don’t let them fool us again! See “Conservatives’ ‘Team B’ Revisionism“, Matt Duss, ThinkProgress, 15 January 2010.
(3) Was it obvious to any skilled observer visiting Russia?
Robert and Virginia Heinlein visited Moscow in 1960 and discovered Russia’s population crash, then in the early stages. The CIA discovered this 2 decades later. Excerpt from Expanded Universe, Robert Heinlein (1980):
For many days we prowled Moskva — by car, by taxi, by subway, by bus, and on foot. Mrs. Heinlein, in her fluent Russian, go acquainted with many people — drivers, chambermaids, anyone. The Russians are delightful people, always happy to talk with visitors … She was able to ask personal questions by freely answering questions about us and showing warm interest in that person — not faked; she is a warm person. But buried in chitchat, she always learned these things:
- How old are you?
- Are you married?
- How many children do you have?
- How many brothers and sisters do yo have? What ages?
- How many nieces and nephews do you have?
Put baldly, that sounds as offensive as a quiz by a Kinsey reporter. But it was not put baldly — e.g., “Oh, how lucky ou are! Gospodin Heinlein and I didn’t meet until the Great Patriotic War … and we have no children although we wanted them. But we have lots of nieces and nephews.” Etc, etc. She often told more than she got but she accumulated the data she wanted, often without asking questions.
One day we were seated on a park bench, back of the Kremlin and facing the Moskva River … I haven’t found even one family with more than 3 children. The average is less than 2. And they marry late. Robert, they aren’t even replacing themselves.”
Trained analysts could have made much of this observation. Population crashes start in the cities, whose fertility rate is usually less than that of rural areas. Moscow is the heart of Russia, and it’s likely the rot started there. By the 1990’s it had spread so that Russia’s total population began to decline.
Train analysis could have spotted this, but they were tasked with describing Russia’s great and growing power.
Update – For more about Russia’s demographic collapse see “Demography and development in Russia“, UN Development Program, 28 April 2008 — Excerpt:
Russia is one of the few countries in the world where life expectancy has decreased in comparison to 1960s levels. Russia is behind developed countries in terms of life expectancy by 15-19 years for men and 7-12 years for women. … The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations: compared to the majority of countries that have similar level of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women.
(4) Articles about reforming the US intelligence apparatus
- “The Secret History – Can Leon Panetta move the C.I.A. forward without confronting its past?“, Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, 22 June 2009
- “The U.S. Intelligence Community and Foreign Policy: Getting Analysis Right“, Kenneth G. Lieberthal, Brookings Institute, September 2009
- “One More Feckless Study On Intelligence Reform“, Melvin A. Goodman, The Public Record, 17 September 2009 — Analysis of Lieberthal’s proposals.
(5) For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the following:
Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.
Some of the posts on the FM website about the CIA:
- The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State, 25 October 2005
- When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer!, 1 November 2007 — Does the CIA know?
- A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics, 5 March 2008 — About Legacy of Ashes.
- Something every American should read, 25 March 2008 — History of the CIA’s use of torture.
- Another urban legend that will not die: the CIA is the world’s major drug dealer, 11 July 2009