For fifty years after the end of World War II, the United States based much of its Cold War strategy on the principle that the Soviet Union thought nothing of nuclear annihilation. In order to counter the communist hordes from the east, the United States spent itself into insolvency building up its defense forces, both conventional and nuclear. American leaders spared no expense — in terms of taxpayer treasure or military conscripts’ blood — to counter the postwar communist threat. With 58,000 American lives wasted in Vietnam, thousands of troops stationed in Europe, Japan, and Korea for decades, and billions spent on nuclear weapons to scare the Soviet Union into tempering its imperialistic advance, how well did American leaders assess and respond to the Soviet Union’s threat? Not well at all, according to a study declassified by the National Security Archives on September 11, 2009. The newly issued assessment highlights just how bad American intelligence functioned over that time period despite the immense resources dedicated to its efforts.
The support for this thesis now appears in a two-volume study, undertaken between 1965 and 1985, on Soviet intentions. In the study, prepared by the BDM Corporation, readers learn from interviews with former Soviet military officers, strategy analysts, and industrial specialists, that American officials "[erred] on the side of overestimating Soviet aggressiveness" and underestimated "the extent to which the Soviet leadership was deterred from using nuclear weapons." Furthermore, the study claims that the American authorities’ ineptitude in judging Soviet military intentions "had the potential [to] mislead … U.S. decision makers in the event of an extreme crisis." Unsurprisingly, the study confirms the role of the military industrial complex in perpetuating the decades-long state of panic. The text shows how "the defense industrial complex, not the Soviet high command, played a key role in driving the quantitative arms buildup" and thereby "led U.S. analysts to … exaggerate the aggressive intentions of the Soviets."
Students of the Cold War are familiar with the iconic pictures of American schoolchildren ducking under their desks while their parents pored over blueprints for backyard bomb shelters. The American public knew, because their government constantly told them, that the Soviets had their finger on the button. Nuclear annihilation was just a matter of time. But now we learn that this "false consciousness" (thanks Herr Marx) runs counter to the reality. According to the BDM study, "The Soviet military high command understood the devastating consequences of nuclear war and believed that nuclear weapons use had to be avoided at all costs." Baby boomers, feel free to come out from under your desks. And with a little water and a handful of chlorine, your backyard bomb shelter might now work as a pool.
Readers of this new evidence have a choice. They can slander the BDM study as revisionist propaganda or they can interpret it like dispassionate historians. The new release of archival documents constantly changes our understanding of the past. That is how historical knowledge grows over time. The BDM report unhinges one of the basic principles underlying the historiography of the Cold War — the idea that only "mutually assured destruction" prevented nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Contrary to what our government and all its vendors wanted us to believe during the Cold War, evidence has now surfaced that the Soviet leaders feared dying in a nuclear conflagration, just as much as Americans did. While the most ardent Cold Warriors ran around screaming "Better Dead than Red," somewhere in the Soviet Union a communist subject might have been whispering "Nuclear annihilation — Nyet!"
This essay does not in any way support the actions of the Soviet regime during its existence. Throughout the never-ending 2008 election cycle, "conservatives" would be aghast when I told them I could not vote for McCain under any circumstances. They would typically respond, "So you want Obama???" But anyone who has studied logic at even the most elementary level notes the fallacy of their conclusion. Just because someone claims to love vanilla ice cream does not mean he hates chocolate ice cream. Unfortunately, such basic rules still need to be taught to the otherwise intelligent. The Soviet Union brutally murdered millions under its control. Those lucky enough to escape the gulag or the firing squad found themselves living in a morally bankrupt, economically ludicrous, totalitarian state, where the best option seemed to be some combination of vodka, abortion, and submission. That the United States government systematically overstated the Soviet nuclear threat in no way absolves the reprehensible Soviet leaders who ruined one of the world’s great countries. Falling from nineteenth century Great Power status to twentieth century basket case, Russia and its satellites suffered through one of history’s most inhumane eras. But by calling the United States government to account for its intelligence failures does not say anything positive about the evil Soviet regime.
The U.S. federal government today seems to exist purely for its own aggrandizement. Take over the banks. Nationalize the auto industry. Remake the health care system into something resembling the Cuban health care nightmare instead of anything based on free market principles or individual choice. And all the while, never say anything derogatory about the central bank, which lies at the heart of so many of the nation’s problems. For fifty years the U.S. federal government aggrandized itself based on a misreading of Soviet intentions and strategy. For fifty years legislators took from those who earned and gave to those who lobbied, all to counter the global Soviet menace. Defense contractors received taxpayer monies in multiples of the cash they used to grease the palms of their local congressmen. And for fifty years, our "intelligence" authorities pursued leads that now appear to have been more the products of their fertile imaginations than anything based on information gleaned in the course of their work. No crisis goes to waste in our current regime. It now appears that no false crisis went to waste for the duration of the Cold War.