The second thing that Americans did right, according to Gates, was to trade recognition of the frontiers of Europe for Soviet agreement to what was technically known as “Basket III” of the Helsinki Accords of 1975—that is, the free movement of people and ideas, or human rights. President Ford was vigorously criticized by conservatives for thus legitimizing Soviet rule in Eastern Europe in return for empty persiflage about human rights, which the Soviets, it was predicted, would sneer at and ignore; and President Carter was criticized just as vigorously for pressing the cause of human rights when it only irritated the Soviets, cast a pall over arms-control talks, and jeopardized growing business relationships.
But far from being an irrelevant distraction, according to Gates, Western pressure for human rights encouraged dissidents throughout the Soviet empire and alarmed Soviet leaders that their right to rule was being called into fundamental question. The Helsinki Watch groups which sprang up in Eastern Europe, and in Moscow itself, attracted merciless attention from the secret police, but jail, exile, and brutal maltreatment in “psychiatric” facilities became the subjects of a robust underground literature. Publicizing such persecution steadily chipped away at Communist pretensions that the Party’s rule was based on anything besides the power of the army and police. When Gorbachev, seeking a constituency for reform, embraced glasnost, or openness, he summoned to public life a class already schooled in freewheeling debate and disenchanted with the legacy of Lenin.
The importance of the Helsinki Accords was not foreseen by the CIA or anyone else. Human rights issues were always treated by intelligence analysts and propagandists alike as a wild card in the game of international politics. The common practices of many American allies—the death squads in El Salvador or the bush justice of Jonas Savimbi in Angola or the “disappearance” of leftists in Chile and Argentina—could not easily be distinguished from the methods of social discipline imposed by the KGB. But the United States lucked into a winning hand when it agreed in 1975 to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) meetings, which included the Soviet bloc, and wrote human rights into the final document. Gates writes:
The Soviets desperately wanted CSCE, they got it, and it laid the foundations for the end of their empire. We resisted it for years, went grudgingly, Ford paid a terrible political price for going—perhaps reelection itself—only to discover years later that CSCE had yielded benefits beyond our wildest imagination. Go figure.
Standing up to the Soviet Union militarily, and insisting that it respect the human rights of its subjects, together pushed the system to the breaking point. Credit for the fact that it broke peacefully, without a war or a die-hard phase of red terror as the Communist Party fought for its life, belongs to the United States and to President George Bush, according to Gates, for exercising restraint during the years when Gorbachev’s increasingly frantic restructuring (perestroika) could have ended in an explosion rather than a dying sigh. Bush was much criticized during this period first for failing to embrace Gorbachev’s peaceful gestures and then for bending over backward to accommodate Gorbachev during the diplomatic prelude to the Persian Gulf War. Bush was accused of failing to criticize Gorbachev vigorously for his erratic and bloody attempts to hold on to the Baltic states and of continuing to support Gorbachev when he replaced reformers in his government with hard-liners.
Above all Bush was attacked by US hard-liners for his mealy-mouthed speech delivered in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, in August 1991, when the bonds holding the Soviet Union together had clearly frayed to the breaking point. Gorbachev’s reforms had run out of steam and rumors of a hardline coup were sweeping Moscow. Loss of Ukraine—breadbasket of the Soviet Union, oldest of the captive nations, loud in its demands for independence—would be the final straw for the man Bush saw as his partner in keeping the peace. Any modest tip of the hat to Ukrainian hopes would have won Bush applause at home. He declined. To the Ukrainian Parliament, in the final weeks of the life of the “evil empire” (Reagan’s phrase, a winner in Gates’s view), Bush delivered a finger-wagging lecture on knowing your place: “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred.”
It was not one of the bolder moments in the history of American diplomacy. But it is hard to argue with Gates’s view that Bush’s policy of accommodation, understanding, and circumspection was well suited to the Soviet Union’s last two years of life, when a moment’s surrender to crowd-pleasing bluster or triumphalism could have sent a chill of panic throughout the Soviet state, resulting in tragic civil strife. As Gates describes him, Bush was a gentle hospice worker attending the death of the Soviet Union, mopping the brow of the fevered state and whispering words of reassurance whenever the patient motioned to rise for one last battle. Gates admires Bush, is personally grateful to him, and lays the praise on thick. But it’s only fair to admit that Bush did, in fact, perform his role without a major stumble, and even did it twice—first in 1989, when the Communist governments of the Warsaw Pact collapsed, then in 1990 and 1991, when the Soviet regime followed. Gates writes:
George Bush’s contribution to the success of the “Velvet Revolutions” in 1989 was in what he did not do as well as in what he did. He did not gloat. He did not make grandiose pronouncements. He did not declare victory…. He did not threaten or glower at tense moments. He did not condemn those who were under pressure to let go the levers of power.
What he did was play it cool….
As the communist bloc was disintegrating, it was George Bush’s skilled, yet quiet, statecraft that made a revolutionary time seem so much less dangerous than it actually was.
Robert Gates is an unusual figure in the history of American intelligence, the first Director of Central Intelligence to come out of the analytical side of the organization, which had been dominated for its first thirty years by the ethos of the covert operators of World War II. Gates tells us hardly anything about his family or background, except that he was brought up in Kansas and that he was recruited for the CIA at Indiana University in 1965. But before joining the Agency, which offered no escape from the draft, he spent two years in the Air Force. There his job was giving intelligence briefings to ICBM missile crews at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. “This was still Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command,” Gates notes, adding that one of his commanders thought it a “goddam outrage” that 80 percent of the missiles in his command were targeted on Russian missile silos instead of Russian cities—“I want to kill some fucking Russians, not dig up dirt.” With this introduction to the world of nuclear deterrence Gates moved on to become a Soviet analyst and sometime arms-control expert for the CIA during early rounds of the SALT talks in Vienna.
But Gates’s rise did not come from knowing more about the Soviets and their missiles than anyone else. He was young, well scrubbed, well spoken, bright, hard-working, reliable, loyal, discreet, and a bit of a hard-ass when it came to the Russians—just the sort of fellow who flourishes as an anonymous adviser to the fully mature egos who lead the rough-and-tumble policy-making battles of the White House. As with his predecessors Colin Powell and Alexander Haig, whose careers were likewise accelerated by White House service, the most important episodes in Gates’s career “with” the CIA were actually spent across the river—on the staff of the National Security Council (1974-1976) briefly under Nixon and then under Ford, then during the Carter administration under Zbigniew Bzrezinski and David Aaron (1977-1980). He had a third stint at the NSC under Bush’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft (1989-1991). The only extended period Gates actually spent at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, was during the 1980s, most of it holding positions of ever-increasing responsibility under the notoriously activist William Casey, who arrived at the CIA as President Reagan’s DCI, in Gates’s words, “to wage war against the Soviet Union.”
It was questions about Gates’s role in Casey’s war, and especially Casey’s relentless campaign to maintain military pressure on the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, that blocked Gates’s first nomination to the top job in 1987, when Reagan floated his name after Casey was felled by a brain tumor. The same questions nearly blocked Gates again four years later, when his nomination by Bush was fiercely contested, mainly by fellow officers of the CIA, in four weeks of public hearings. The problem the first time was the aura of what was already being called “Iran-Contra”—the host of open questions about the CIA’s (and inevitably Gates’s) involvement in the rogue White House operation to fund the Contras in Nicaragua with money diverted from illegal arms sales to Iran. He had to face that favorite question of prosecutors unwilling to call it a day without at least an indictment for perjury, namely:What did he know, and when did he know it. In Gates’s case, as it unfolded in 1991, the question was what did he know about Ollie North’s illegal support for the Contras and when did he know about the illegal diversion of funds.
The problem, of course, is that Gates, working for Casey, North’s enthusiastic backer, was in a very good position to know about both and a great deal else besides. Gates clearly liked Casey, and the feeling was mutual; one colleague of both said Casey was stricken by “love at first sight.” It was Casey who made Gates his chief of staff in March 1981, promoted him to deputy director for intelligence in January 1982, and then pushed for his nomination to replace Admiral Bobby Ray Inman (not a fan of Casey’s war) as Deputy Director for Central Intelligence in April 1986.
One of the strengths of Gates’s memoir is its lively portraits of the men with whom Gates worked, none described with greater energy than the restless, driven Casey, who sometimes in the heat of conversation went beyond the nervous twisting of paper clips (a trait shared with the CIA’s activist architect of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Richard Bissell), even in polite company, to pick up and chew on the end of his tie. Casey wanted to carry the war to the Soviets, and Gates was his man. In September 1981 he outlined an activist program in a memo to Casey concluding, “CIA is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture.” But willing as Gates was to take a hard line toward the USSR in most parts of the globe, he never shared Casey’s conviction that the most important battle was the one closest to home, in Nicaragua. “For reasons I never fully comprehended,” he writes, “Bill Casey became obsessed with Central America.”