How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped, and what we can learn from this

Summary: Histories of the CIA document its poor performance as an intelligence agency (e.g., Tim Weiner’s 2007 book Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA).  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 hyping 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.

Ministry of Truth


  1. Soviet records reveal decades of US intel failures.
  2. “Exaggeration Of The Threat: Then & Now”.
  3. Heinlein sees Russia long crash – in 1960.
  4. About the demographic collapse of Russia.
  5. Reforming the US intelligence apparatus.
  6. For More information.


(1)  New study: 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]

The Truth key

(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.

Robert Heinlein

(3) It was obvious in 1960 to Heinlein

Robert and Virginia Heinlein visited Moscow in 1960 and discovered Russia’s population crash, then in the early stages.  The CIA discovered this two decades later.  Excerpt from Robert Heinlein’s Expanded Universe (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 you 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 …{Virginia said} ‘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, but they were tasked with describing Russia’s great and growing power..  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.

Update: this was a great story, but it’s mostly false. See the details in Did Robert Heinlein in 1961 predict the fall of the Soviet Union?

(4) About the demographic collapse of Russia

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.

(5)  Articles about reforming the US intelligence apparatus

  1. The Secret History – Can Leon Panetta move the C.I.A. forward without confronting its past?“, Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, 22 June 2009.
  2. The U.S. Intelligence Community and Foreign Policy: Getting Analysis Right“, Kenneth G. Lieberthal, Brookings Institute, September 2009.
  3. 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

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see all posts about Russia, about Information and Disinformation, and especially these about the CIA…

  1. The Plame Affair and the Decline of the State.
  2. When will global oil production peak? Here is the answer! — Does the CIA know?
  3. A must-read book for any American interested in geopolitics — About Legacy of Ashes.
  4. Something every American should read — History of the CIA’s use of torture.
  5. Another urban legend that will not die: the CIA is the world’s major drug dealer.

33 thoughts on “How the Soviet Menace was over-hyped, and what we can learn from this”

  1. Thank you for mentioning the Heinlein’s observations. I read Expanded Universe when it first came out, and this is the first mention I’ve seen of it. I’d also add that Robert Heinlein also asked an Annapolis classmate to estimate Moscow’s transportation capacity-and the classmate’s estimate agreed with what they’d found. And nobody from the CIA, the NRO, or the rest of the alphabet soup ever looked at a satellite photo and did some elementary logistics calculations?
    I’d also like to point out that the “Brezhnev Generation” were all Great Patriotic War survivors -truly the definition of a Pyrrhic victory. James Dunnigan and Austin Bey also pointed out that if you looked at the world from the Soviet perspective, they were surrounded by hostile powers – a situation that the US did NOT (and does not) suffer from.

    And the Soviet/Russian population collapse started even earlier: the Soviet Census of 1937.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe Heinlein’s analysis was incorrect about Moscow’s population, and the annecote exaggerated. But the Heinleins’ observations and insights could have proved valuable to a trained analyst, giving pointers to Russia’s population dynamics and economic growth.

  2. I am not really sure what these recent revelations prove except provide us with some more details on the motives and thinking of the Soviet leadership. The main point is apparently “the Soviet threat was overblown”. But if the Soviet leadership was desperately afraid of any US moves wouldn’t that fear itself risk causing nuclear destruction? It is today well understood that the Soviet leadership in the early eighties was deeply scared that the United States was preparing a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, that the Soviets ordered the KGB to look out for signs of a coming attack (operation RYAN – Raketno-Yadernoe Napadenie) and was even considering launching a pre-emptive strike if there were certain indications that an American attack was coming.

    According to some sources the Soviet leadership put 300 of their ICBM’s in the Soviet Union in increased readiness and put planes armed with nuclear bombs on runways ready to fly in East Germany during a NATO exercise Able Archer 83 in November 1983. Since no one in the West was contemplating a surprise attack it is hard for me to see why this makes the Soviet threat any less real. While this kind of thinking hardly was the thinking of an expansionist power hell-bend on world domination it was still very dangerous and you really have to ask yourself if it would have made any difference in the end. As a matter of fact I can easily imagine it would have intensified a risk of a war if the United States leadership understood exactly how paranoid the Soviets really were.

    It is important to understand what weakness means for a superpower like the Soviet Union. Weakness and vulnerability might result in appeasement like the Soviet foreign policy toward Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941. But it might also result in the opposite: A reckless and dangerous foreign policy. The world actually witnessed some signs of that when the Soviet inferiority in strategic nuclear missiles lead the Soviet Union to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles on Cuba in 1962. Luckily the Soviet response in the late eighties – when the situation was far worse – was actually appeasement and this time there was no Hitler around. Surprisingly the Soviet Union was allowed to collapse without a fight which is unique in world history.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Do you have any citations showing that the Soviet Union considered a pre-emptive attack on the US?

    “wouldn’t that fear itself risk causing nuclear destruction”
    That does not make any sense to me. Do you have anything supporting such speculation?

    “The world actually witnessed some signs of that when the Soviet inferiority in strategic nuclear missiles lead the Soviet Union to deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles on Cuba in 1962.”
    If that was a “reckless and dangerous foreign policy”, would our prior depoloyment of such missiles in Turkey be the same? Does that mean that we felt “weak and vulnerable”?

    This kind of reasoning can prove anything, as it has no logical constraints other than the author’s imagination. Strength and weakness can cause the same result. Our actions are fine; the Soviet Union doing the same is reckless. Etc, etc.

  3. In the early seventies, I wrote a piece about the Soviet regime as more defensive than offensive. A note can back to me on my analysis that it was important to err on the side of caution. As the note concluded, ” best be overprepared in such matters than underprepared.”

    While I don’t fully accept that logic, it has some salience. Intelligence is a probability game…you have two possible errors, type 1 and type 2. What is important to understand is that because you made one type of error on one occasion, it does not mean that you will continue to make the same type of error again.

    Errors in intelligence assessments are often linked as in the case of the Soviets with the mindset with which one approaches the data.

    The important question is does the Soviet assessment have any applicability to Afganistan? For those that approach the Afghan situation with the mindset based on the Soviet experience can be making a different error or may be correct, however it is generally better to approach the current situation with as few preconceptions as possible.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A standard trope of US analysis is the presumption (as seen in the previous comment) that our actions were reasonable, our opponents’ evil. Our pattern of irrational escalations suggest otherwise, from the bomber gap and missile gap to the invasion of Iraq to remove its non-existent WMD’s. The occupation of Afghanistan to prevent it being used as a base for 9-11 attacks is consistent with this pattern — as 9-11 was not used as a base for 9-11, nor was it used as a base for the smaller attacks in the UK and Spain.

  4. You asked for some sources regarding the Soviet war scare in the eighties and signs of a pre-emptive nuclear strike. This is actually old news well known since around 1990. Robert Gates even mentions the Soviet war scare in his memoirs (“From the Shadows” page 270-277) as a CIA director and mentions that there was unsual Soviet military activities in November 1983 during the Able Archer 83 exercise.

    The only point I am trying to make is that it makes very little sense to make to claim that there was no Soviet threat or that it was very overblown when there is growing evidence that Soviet paranoia regarding US intentions made the Kremlin considering a pre-emptive strike in the early eighties. The main point – I suspect – is that we misunderstood the reasons: It wasn’t a Soviet Union hell-bend on world domination like the early neo-cons in Team B believed but a weak and fragile Soviet Union on the brink of collapse and the Soviet Union understood well how weak they were. But again: Would it have made any difference at all if we were killed by a expansionist Soviet Union or a weak and paranoid Soviet Union?

    * Wikipedia entries about Able Archer and Project RYAN.
    * “Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare“, Benjamin J. Fischer, CIA website
    * “Operation RYAN, Able Archer 83, and Miscalculation: The War Scare of 1983“, Nathan Bennett Jones, for the UC International Graduate Student Conference on the Cold War, April 2008
    * War Scare, by Peter Vincent Pry (1999)
    * From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War, Robert M. Gates (2007)
    Fabius Maximus replies: I see nothing in your sources that provides meaningful support for your theory.
    * Neither of the Wikipedia entries mention such a thing,
    * nor does the CIA report, which contains only the usual US intel guessing at what the Soviet leadership was thinking (at which they had a poor track record).
    * Jones’ student paper has a brief and unsourced allegation on page 19.
    * “From the Shadows” on page 273 say exactly the opposite: Soviet preparations were “likely due to military prudence and precautionary measures to ensure that proper readiness levels were maintained.”
    * You give no page citation for Pry’s book; the results from looking at your other sources give me no enthusiasm to bother with it.

    “The only point I am trying to make is that it makes very little sense to make to claim that there was no Soviet threat”
    This is bizarre. Who on this thread claims such a thing?

    “Soviet paranoia regarding US intentions made the Kremlin considering a pre-emptive strike in the early eighties”
    You have not shown any evidence of this.

  5. ” best be overprepared in such matters than underprepared.”

    huh? To “err on the side of caution” makes sense only if you are actually making policy. Analysis is neither over nor under preparation. Analysis is simply analysis, it is not preparation of any kind.

  6. We will never stop over-hyping crises. WWII remains in our minds as something we reacted too late to. Politicians gain support by over-hyping crises, or ignoring politically uncomfortable ones, who then pressure government agencies (the CIA should operate like the census, just the facts) to give them the evidence they need. Sometimes the agencies find evidence to justify funding increases.

    We will never learn, because mistakes which leave large scars (WWII) are remembered more than the less memorable burdens. And politicians rely on what the public wants. War is too important to be left to soldiers. War is also too important to be left to politicians. Perhaps the creation of a supreme court-like entity?

    Somewhat related: The Martian Way by Asimov illustrates my point. Something insignificant is over-hyped (a naturally abundent fuel for rockets), and leads to a pointless crusade.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree with the first paragraph, but hope that we will learn. Eventually. However, I think you have given the wrong Asimov title.

  7. “Would it have made any difference at all if we were killed by a expansionist Soviet Union or a weak and paranoid Soviet Union?”

    Pardon my french, but this is absolute nonsense! You are saying that your opponents intention is not worth knowing? That thinking you have an aggressive opponent, when you actually have a fearful one, would make no difference? If i were trying to prevent war, i would certainly like to know the difference.

    It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
    — sun tzu, The Art of War

  8. Monty (Field Marshal Montgomery and one of the founders of NATO) also said that the Soviet Union was a limited threat easily deterred by Europe. And I’ll easily trust his judgement over just about everyone else’s.

    His own analysis just after WW2, and who would have been better qualified to judge, was that the SU was not a threat to Europe until the 1960’s! And if Europe could get its act together (I know like heading cats) then it was pretty easy to create a sufficient deterrence.

    Likewise he thought there was no threat from China, unless they were threatened themselves.

    Both countries he actually visited and talked to all the political and military big wigs (famously swam in the Yangtze with Mao). His status as the most successful military leader in WW2 (and number 2 in NATO for decades) meant he had access to the highest levels.

    So it was hyped. Heck I knew that as a kid in the 1960’s. Keep an eye on them, manage their paranoia about being attacked (well deserved I might add) keep your defences reasonably strong and your diplomacy firm but reasonable and the threat level was minimal.

    He worked out that they were opportunistic and cautious, if the West had showed weakness then they might take advantage (as per the end of WW2 when, inexplicably Eisenhower stopped our troops going to Berlin and Czechoslovakia), but if we were firm and in reasonable military shape then we had nothing to worry about.

    Plus he was almost alone in noticing that the SU was economically exhausted by the war, they had lost a huge percentage (mostly young male) of their population for one thing. Their economy was toast and they struggled to even produce enough food.

    A huge opportunity was lost when Stalin died and Khrushchev cam into power. The USSR did actually try, in their turgid and clumsy way, to start to make rapprochement with the west..

    Blown when the west pushed the ‘cold’ (very nearly hot) war to the limit. Firstly by the so called ‘missile gap’ (remember Kennedy the ‘hawk’ vs ‘peace loving’ Nixon?) and a massive expenditure by the west on nuclear missiles (including subs), but the key was the missiles in Turkey .. which caused the USSR to respond by putting them in Cuba … and the rest was history.

    A lot of actual history is ignored now, as the agreement between the US and USSR meant that, after an agreed face saving period, the US removed the Turkish missiles. Thus taking out the thing that caused the Cuban Missile crisis in the first place.

    At each step the USSR responded to Western escalation… nuclear bombers, nuclear subs, ICBMs, MIRVs (remember that one that was a time that a lot of people thought the balloon was getting near to going up). Yep, we were the ones that ramped it up at every go (setting the scene for wrecking our economies much later .. idiots).

    Plus remember all the nutjob US military people, LeMay, Macarthur, et al, all advocating, in public no less that the US should nuclear attack the USSR and China! All the plans to ‘win’.

    Dr Strangelove wasn’t a satire it was a documentary. Fortunately there were some cooler heads at the critical moments. Though it got so very, very close sometimes … ah lah 1983.

    To look at how ridiculous and dangerous it all was (and still is) remember the issue over the nuclear attack codes? After finding out that just about anyone in the US military could launch a nuclear attack McNamara then instituted a system so that a launch could only be made with the correct codes issued by the President. The response? The system was set up but all the codes were set to 000000, so just about any Admiral, Army or air force General could start WW3 for decades, thank God no one got too worried about bodily fluids.

  9. Soviet demographic collapse started with the cities, sure, but the mechanism was also largely linked to the soviet drive to provide cheap minimal housing for the citizens. This was realized as the “Khruschovkas” of the 1950s and all the soviet standardized prefab concrete block apartment atrocities thereafter. Since they never caught up with demand they kept building minimal standard aparments, and raising families in a two room apartment 50 m square is not at all appealing. There was then a compound effect : mass state constructed housing was concentrated in the ethnic Russian big cities and new industrial towns, and the Russian village countryside was affected by wholesale emmigration to the better serviced towns. The non-Slavic ethnic minorities were by and large left in small towns and villages with comparative poverty but healthier demographic conditions. End result? Crashing population of ethnic Russians, but .growing population of other ethnicities, to the extent that the overall population of the USSR was growing in the 90’s. The proportion of ethnic Russians had declined to a fraction over 50% in 1990 ….

    This effect, as well as the alcohol mortality boom, should have been blatantly obvious country-wide by the 70’s. Incidentally the dynamic has not stopped but strongly continues inside Russia even now.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for this background! For more about this see “Demography and development in Russia“, UN Development Program, 28 April 2008. I’ve added an excerpt to the post.

  10. The main claim on this page is that there was no or only a very little Soviet threat toward the Western world during the Cold War. This comes from the title itself “The Soviet Menace Was Over-hyped” and the articles cited makes a point of stating that the Soviet threat was hyped by the early neo-cons for their own political gain. Since this is title you also have to take a good, honest look at any evidence that point to a different direction including the evidence regarding the crisis year 1983. It is very hard for me to understand why you even remotely refuse to consider the possibility that the leadership of the Soviet Union – understanding that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse in the eighties – was trapped in its own paranoid thinking and as a response to a perceived possible American surprise attack launched operation RYAN (documented in several books, including “The Mitrokhin Archive” by Christopher Andrew and Visili Mitrokhin) to find signs for a possible nuclear surprise attack. In that book they even mention that chairman Yuri Andropov in 1982 ordered the KGB to prepare a terrorist campaign by sending letter bombs to several leaders in Great Britain, the United States and NATO (page 512 in “The Mitrokhin Archive”). That sounds pretty menacing to me and not really hyped at all.

    If you accept the existence of operation RYAN (and I have not yet seen you debunk it or the Able Archer crisis for that matter) for real you will also have to answer the question how the Soviet should respond if they really believed that the United States was considering a surprise attack. Do you really believe that the proper response by the Soviets would be inaction? Just to wait until Moscow and Leningrad was gone? It is true that there is no smoking gun showing that in November 1983 so and so many planes and missiles were being made prepared to be launched. Considering the level of secrecy in such matters (especially in the Soviet Union) and the fact that you can prepare an ICBM for launch almost without detection until you open the hatch on the silo I don’t consider that to be surprising and you will have to do with even less information in a future crisis with Iran or China. Robert Gates mentions on page 272 extensive Soviet military activities in Eastern Europe between November 2 and November 11, but it is true that this necessarily doesn’t mean it was preparation for a Soviet pre-emptive strike. Since I have no access to the Soviet archives I can’t deliver the smoking gun and I admit that. In the documentary “1983: on the brink of apocalypse” ( it is mentioned that 300 ICBM’s were readied and SSBN’s were send out with their missiles, but since it is a TV documentary their sources aren’t mentioned although they interview one of the Soviet missile officers from this period and he makes it clear they were preparing themselves for a nuclear attack.

    I am really sorry that I am boring you with my “weak” sources, but I am also astounded that you out of hand refuse the growing historic evidence that the Soviet Union was deeply scared that the United States would hit them first and should consider to hit the Americans before it was too late. Why is that kind of thinking so odd for you or is it simply just because it contradicts your point that the Soviet threat was “over-hyped”? Robert Gates has a more open mind to this question and writes on page 273 (which I can see you have read) in his memoirs. Since you critize the poor level of Western intelligence gathering during the Cold War I think he deserves to be quoted:

    “We wrestled with this controversy for another year, with our experts divided. The issue was terribly important. Had the United States come close to a nuclear crisis the preceding fall and not even known it? Was the Soviet leadership so out of touch that they really believed a preemptive attack was a real possibility? Had there nearly been a terrible miscalculation? (…) Information about the peculiar and remarkably skewed frame of mind of the Soviet leaders during those times that has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union makes me think there is a good chance – with all the other events in 1983 – that they really felt a NATO attack was at least possible and that they took a number of measures to enhance their military readiness short of mobilization.”

    Fabius Maximus replies: NO! To say that the threat was hyped does not imply that there was no threat. This is a bizarre strawman argument, constructing a false assumption and attack it.

    Your quote at the end refers to the danger of a first strike by the US, not Russia. As does most of your evidence. The rest is just chaff: speculation and (much worse) misrepresentation of the evidence.

    No more comments like this. Either cite actual evidence or stop. I’ve lost patience with people coming here with fringe theories that have no evidentiary support. More comments like this will be deleted.

  11. I’ve nothin’ intelligent to offer at present but this seems relevant from an associate of ours in Deutschland –“Warmonger tactics“, posted at Defense and Freedom, Sven Ortmann, 4 October 2009.

    Well, the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment (MIME) Complex ALWAYS needs at least one bogeyman & jus ad bellum, if not several in order to justify its being. Whether the threats be overrated or otherwise.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank you for posting this link; the article looks interesting. Ortmann’s blog’s title is one of the best!

  12. Amazing we were able to contain, deter, and live past the collapse of an empire with tens of thousands of strategic and tactical weapons / forces with both means and capability to deploy and use them against US but exhaust themselves against an “enemy” in their backyard terrority. [or was it the Gipper’s StratComms and SDI deception?] Assumptions based on future worst-case scenarios from Bedouin territories do not seem as menacing as the Evil Empire’s true value, assessment, or even ‘surprising’ collapse to US. The analysis and hindsight has parallels for today; would be nice if our analysts would embrace some of Corbett’s concepts of war strategy (specifically Economics / finance and defense / deterence).

  13. A good bit of data on the probably-defensive nature of Soviet planning is in this Wired Article: “Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine”, which described the purported nuclear command-and-control setup the Soviets employed, specifically so they could launch a retalliatory strike, so they would not need to employ a first-strike attack.

    “The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.”

    Fabius Maximus replies: Great quote, thanks for posting!

  14. One of my motivations for coming to Australia (it wasn’t the only one, but it definitely affected my timing) was that I (yes lowly me) picked that 1983 was going to get very, very close.

    The Thatcher and Reagan Govt’s had hyped the Soviet menace to absurd levels (“Evil Empire”, “I have solved the Soviet problem, I pushed the button a few minutes ago”), plus whole new ‘first strike’ Western weapons were coming on line, Trident and Pershing were the 2 key issues (‘peace loving’ Cater had initiated them). With the SU still having a proponderance of liquid fueled ICBMs then the window was open for a first strike by the West.

    The rhetoric was intense, anyone who lived through that time thought we we were in the ‘madness zone’. The SU leaders, as we now know, were frantic with fear. KGB officers were ordered to look for anything that might indicate an attack, build up of blood banks in the UK, etc.

    Then September 1983 and ‘the man who saved the World” Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, who kept a cool head. If he had sent his report then the Soviet leadership, already dangerously paranoic and fearfull would had just 2 minutes to make a decision, whether an, as they expected, US attack was a false reading or not. I am real glad that they never had to make that decision.

    To give him credit, when Reagan heard about it, in his second term, late ‘intelligence’ as usual, he was, as quoted by many at the time, went white as he realised how close it had come. And to give more credit the 2nd Reagan term saw great breakthoughs in nuclear arms treaties and coopration with the SU. IRBM out the door, Start 1, etc. The western rhetoric became far more muted. Other cooperation (trade, etc) came through as well.

    But it was a really, really near thing, arguably far closer than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    And we caused it, and had absolutely no idea the effect it was having on the other side. So much for all our Kremlin watchers and ‘experts’ and ‘intelligence’.

    Now we are repeating our past mistakes even to the point of US soldiers actually being involved in fighting with Russia (that is now pretty confirmed by a multitude of sources) … you have got to wonder.

    Which, as a rhetorical question, is the US ‘Grand Strategy’ been so hijacked by the ‘end of Worlder’s’ (your religeous nut jobs amaze and scare the life out of the rest of the World) that it is actually the ‘Grand Suicide’?

  15. “Now we are repeating our past mistakes even to the point of US soldiers actually being involved in fighting with Russia (that is now pretty confirmed by a multitude of sources) … you have got to wonder.

    Which, as a rhetorical question, is the US ‘Grand Strategy’ been so hijacked by the ‘end of Worlder’s’ (your religeous nut jobs amaze and scare the life out of the rest of the World) that it is actually the ‘Grand Suicide’?”

    OldSkeptic, Could you please link to some of those sources on the first item?

    Your second point is interesting but not in the way you intended. The so-called grand Neo-Con strategy towards the rest of the world was initiated by people you would consider to be religious nut jobs rather than being hijacked by them. The PNAC (People for the New American Century) mission statement essentially identifies the US as a unique and divinely inspired nation that should use all means available, including military, to spread our ideas and influence to the rest of the world.

    History shows us that all attempts to create an everlasting Empire (which was the essential goal of the PNAC mission statement) end sooner or later in ruin. The leaders who initiated the current US strategy were considerably more optimistic and clueless than most people who attempt this sort of thing and so we are going down more quickly than usual.

    Barring some sort of incredible last-minute save by some as-yet unidentified leader, we are going to go down in flames without bothering the rest of the world too much.
    Fabius Maximus replies: No matter who initiated the current drive for Empire, the project is now in cool, deliberate hands. Like the folks at the Center for a New American Security — Nagl, Kilcullen, Exum, etc.

    (2) The “statement of principles” for the People for the New American Century (PNAC) does not read as if written by “religious nut jobs”, nor “identifies the US as a unique and divinely inspired nation.” Their policies, however …

  16. Once again, they looked down into the abyss, but stepped back. How many more times will we let that happen?

  17. Yes, the so-called Soviet menace was over-hyped. Ronald Reagan was paranoid and delusional at best – and disingenuous and dishonest at worst. I lean toward the former – and not the latter.

  18. Anyone like the nuclear fuel bank idea? “Obama-backed nuclear fuel bank plan stalls at IAEA“, Reuters, 18 Jun 2009.

    A uranium fuel supply plan hailed by U.S. President Barack Obama as a way to stem the spread of nuclear arms stalled in talks at the U.N. atomic watchdog on Thursday after resistance from developing nations.

  19. #14 I presume you read Nevil Shute’s novel ” On the Beach ” , published ?1969.
    (I think this book rates with ” Lord of the Flies ” .)

  20. >Anyone like the nuclear fuel bank idea?

    Unworkable, irrelevant and counterproductive.

    Certain to become the centreplank of US non-proliferation efforts.

  21. So the Soviets weren’t as aggressive as thought but were prepared to go preemptive on us? Let’s see:

    1949 – Berlin airlift
    1950 – Material support for North Korea
    1956 – Invasion of Hungary
    1962 – Cuban missle crisis
    1960s – Material support for North Vietnam
    1979 – Invasion of Afganistan
    1981 – Crackdown on Solidarity; martial law in Poland
    1980s- plans to supply MiGs to Sandinistas (backed out in 1987)

    That’s not to mention monetary, material and moral support to Marxist groups around the globe during that period. By any reasonable assessment they were aggressive.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I dont’ believe you have read this carefully. It’s not that the Soviet Union was not agressive, but that they were cautious about direct confrontation with the US (like sharks). They backed down in the only two incidents you list that involved direct confrontation with the US: Berlin and Cuba. The first was technically within their rights. The second was a response to a provocation by the US — our missiles in Turkey.

    As for your mention of proxy wars — we did those just as agrressively as did the USSR (how bizarre that conservatives on this site so frequently mention those of the USSR, oblivious to ours). That was the primary form of conflict during the cold war, adopted expressly as it had a low risk of atomic war.

  22. Aggressive at some times. Not at all times or in all places. It is important to understand the changes in their behavior. Andropov and Kryuchkov, during the RYAN period, seemed paranoid and frightened.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Andropov and Kryuchkov had reason to believe the US might make nuclear first strike. That’s hardly paranoid (US leaders have responded strongly to far lessor threats). And I believe that justifies being frightened.

  23. Pluto, Mark Emes in the TheExiled is one source. Unlike many western ‘journalists’ he actually went there. Saw the Russian troops with all their ‘prizes’. Hoo boy, has Israel been nice to Russia ever since.

    But very early on there, when the war was happening, there was a photo, lost the reference (I’m usually very careful about saving these things, but missed saving this one) of a US officer actually in South Ossetia as reported in the Russian media (they were quite blunt about it).

    Given the proponderence of US and Israeli ‘advisers’ in Georgia’s armed forces, I’m not surprised were deeply involved in the planning and that at least a few were in the actual fighting (and a lot more in the running away as well).

    The ‘mystery’ of the whole battle, was not the Russian response. Geogia was so obviously penetrated by Russian agents that I usually joke that they knew when Saakasvilli went to the toilet, how long he took and how smelly it was .. and the report was on Putin’s desk 30 mins later. Which is why Russia had put in some of its crack troops long before the war.

    The ‘mystery’ was the Roki Tunnel. Even to the most moronic military intelligence, taking it out would have caused the Russian’s tremendous problems. Therefore we are left with some tantalising theories:

    (1) The Georgians, with all their Israli and US ‘advisors’ were that moronic (which given their record over the last few years is possible).
    (2) They tried to take it out somehow (missiles, planes, special forces, whatever) and failed, blocked by the Russians. Wiki has it that there was fighting with Georgian saboteurs (probably from Russian media), but why not missiles (cruise whatever) or bombs, I’m sure the US and/or Israel would have given them what they needed (unless they were really that incompetent, which should never be ignored as a possibility)?

    The US’s desire, which I’ve argued before, was that Georgia getting control of Abkhazian would deny an alternate base for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, if the (western influenced) Ukraine then later kicked them out and with the new Russian base not ready .. then game over for Russian preponderance in the Black Sea (and if Ukraine invited the US Navy into their now derelict bases .. heaven on a stick …and the end of any dreams of Russian alternative pipelines for one thing).

    Now that is an interesting story to come out some day in the future.

    But, in all this we were lucky, just imagine of the Bush Govt had managed to get Georgia into NATO before they attacked, would that have deterred Russia … nope, this was an existential threat to them. But it would have meant that the World would have gone right to the very brink. And since Putin called Bush on the ‘hot line’ … and was ignored .. then it might just have past the brink .. thank you Germany for blocking their entry into NATO, the UK as always was in favour (as was the push for the Ukraine into NATO, now that could potentially get very ugly).

    Will they try again in Georgia? Possibly. Biden has been there and mouthing off about the Russians, Clinton hasn’t found a war yet she doesn’t like and has some ideas for even more ones. Exercises have been held recently .. so who knows, plus Ukraine is ramping things up nicely. Interesting times as they say.

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