The great still unanswered question left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war is what military power had to do with it. When Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985 the Soviet Union possessed the world’s largest military establishment, including thousands of nuclear-armed missiles acquired at great expense in the twenty-some years since Nikita Khrushchev’s humiliating backdown in a confrontation with the United States over Soviet nuclear forces in Cuba. The details of the surrender had been negotiated by Vasily Kuznetsov with the American official John McCloy, at the latter’s home in Connecticut. “Well, Mr. McCloy,” Kuznetsov said, “we will honor this agreement. But I want to tell you something. You’ll never do this to us again.”

Despite this plain warning, according to Robert M. Gates in his memoir of a life spent watching the Soviet Union for the CIA, “the Agency did not foresee this massive Soviet effort [beginning in the mid-1960s] to match and then surpass the United States in strategic missile numbers and capabilities.” One hesitates even to sketch in the background of this seemingly simple statement. Any attempt to explain Soviet and American nuclear policy during the cold war threatens to become overwhelmed with detail. But it is impossible for anyone to understand why so much money was spent on the arms race for so many years without making it clear why the strategists on both sides never believed for long that ten bombs, or a hundred bombs, or a thousand bombs, were “enough.”

By the mid-1960s each side had nuclear forces in plenty to prevent an unprovoked attack on its cities by the other. Any such attack would have brought a devastating response. What the Soviets hoped to achieve was a level of strategic forces great enough to inhibit the United States from ever using, or threatening to use, its own nuclear weapons for any purpose except retaliation against all-out attack. As a practical matter, that would have meant no first use, which meant no threat by the US to use nuclear weapons to defend American forces in Europe in the event of a conventional military attack. This meant, in turn, that we would extend only a feeble military guarantee to our NATO allies, since our combined ground forces never equaled, or came close to equaling, those of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact nations. The result of any change in US willingness to defend NATO with nuclear weapons, if necessary, would be, in Washington’s phrase, “de-coupling” the defense of the United States from that of Europe.

US leaders were intensely concerned to prevent de-coupling, and they steadily assured their European allies that they would respond with nuclear weapons to an attack on Brussels just as they would to an attack on Kansas. Nuclear policy throughout the cold war always involved terrifying numbers of weapons and strategies for their use which seemed to get crazier by the decade. But readers will be able to understand why things unfolded as they did, and why policy-makers debated these issues with such relentless, mind-numbing exactitude, if they will keep in mind that US policy required a credible threat—one the Soviets really believed—to use nuclear weapons in the event of purely military necessity, and especially to defend against an attack on Western Europe.

The Soviets meanwhile endeavored to establish a true nuclear stand-off—a counterbalancing of forces that would make American first use “impossible”: they wanted to ensure that the Americans would not use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances, even to rescue American ground forces in Europe from imminent defeat. Readers may think that point was reached years ago, and that American threats of first use in the case of a Soviet conventional attack were completely crazy; but the fact is that American planners believed these threats were credible, and the Soviets believed so, too. There is no sign that the Soviets ever doubted for a moment that the Americans could and would use nuclear weapons to protect American military forces and their European allies. So there was a standoff, but it was on American, not Soviet, terms.

It was this standoff that the Soviet Union challenged after the Cuban missile crisis, and according to Gates the all-out Soviet bid for an intimidating nuclear supremacy was not the only thing missed or muddled by the Kremlin-watchers in the CIA. The burden of military spending on the Soviet economy was at least twice as heavy as calculated in CIA estimates of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, ethnic minorities in “the prison house of nations” (Lenin’s phrase) sincerely hated the Russians’ guts, Soviet client states in Eastern Europe were seething with discontent, and Soviet adventures abroad were costing a mint and going badly. Cynical careerism had replaced communism as the state religion, and the aging members of the Politburo spent their active hours basking in the sun like pink walruses along the shores of the Black Sea.


Frequent references throughout the 1980s to these and other signs of terminal decay in the “homeland of socialism,” Gates insists, are to be found in the never-ending river of paper which is the CIA’s principal product. He quotes liberally, often from papers he wrote himself, to prove that the Agency was on the ball. But Gates confesses he was amazed by the breakdown of the USSR and rests his defense on the entirely fair observation that virtually no one in the defense or intelligence business predicted that the Soviet Union was bound for the dustbin of history until it hit bottom.


The collapse of the Soviet Union and what the United States did to hasten its demise are the twin themes of From the Shadows. Gates resents the needling of critics who claim that he was among the last to see what Gorbachev was trying to do and where it was leading. But while Gates is at pains in his book to argue that Gorbachev’s frantic waving of the olive branch left him skeptical and cautious but not blind, it is explaining the last half of the cold war—from the American failure in Vietnam through the Kremlin hardliners’ last-gasp coup of August 1991—that is really on Gates’s mind. Of two things he is sure: the fifty-year struggle really was a war, and we won it.

Gates is not the first to make this claim, which has already sparked vigorous argument. The cold war has roots stretching back to World War I and ended, as it began, with a change of course by the man in charge in Moscow. As Gates describes the final phase the cold war was a good deal like a prizefight in which a sudden flurry of hooks and jabs in the ninth round put the big guy down on one knee for the count.

But Gates’s version cannot be dismissed out of hand; “war” is not too strong a word for a quasi-military struggle which sometimes threatened to end civilization in a day, and the military and political challenges raised by President Reagan in the 1980s were not easily countered by a Soviet Union in continuing economic difficulties. The United States and the Soviet Union were indisputably toe-to-toe throughout the decades of the cold war, and the collapse of the Soviet Union resembles a military defeat in every respect save one—very little blood was shed in the final round. Gates thinks American foreign and military policy—where we drew the line, the weapons we bought to defend it—explains the way things turned out, and we cannot fairly reject the prize-fight analogy unless we have a clearer interpretation to offer in its place.

Gates himself arrived on his corner of the battlefield in August 1968, when he joined the CIA’s intelligence directorate as a Soviet analyst the day before Warsaw Pact armies marched into Czechoslovakia to quash a challenge to Communist rule. That confident projection of naked military power by the Soviet Union perfectly embodied the character of its policy for two coming decades, including repression of criticism at home, all-out military support for North Vietnam in its victorious war against the United States, funding of Cuban armies in Africa, deployment of a sophisticated new generation of nuclear missiles targeted on Western Europe, military and financial support for a leftist regime in Nicaragua which was actively trying to subvert its neighbors, a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, tireless military innovation, the bullying of world opinion to recognize and acclaim the Soviet state as legitimate. The serious question at the heart of Gates’s book is how these ventures could all fail, and the state that sponsored them collapse and disappear without being forced to undergo the tragedy of a great war, which typically marks the demise of empires.

Credit for the outcome, in Gates’s view, goes largely to the United States, which did three things right. First, it resisted Soviet military initiatives wherever they appeared. Once the Soviets’ runaway strategic weapons program was recognized for the challenge it was, the United States embarked on modernization efforts of its own—new missiles with more warheads and more accurate delivery systems, new command and control systems which would allow the United States to fight a nuclear war by stages, and, under Reagan, an ambitious program of space-based anti-missile defenses which the technologically deficient Soviets could never hope to equal. These efforts were intended to maintain a credible US threat to use nuclear weapons in the event of war, and they worked. For all the billions they devoted to strategic forces the Soviets exacted very little advantage in return. American nuclear policy in 1985, when Gorbachev came to power at the head of an impoverished state, was pretty much what it had been fifteen years earlier.


The expensive new round of American spending on strategic forces was accompanied by a willingness to challenge Soviet friends, allies, and clients on the ground in Africa, Central America, and Afghanistan. Gates has little to say about the cruelty of these proxy wars; what interests him is the fact that American support for the Contras and the Mujahedeen increased the financial and political pressure on the Soviet Union, already hard-pressed to meet the ballooning defense budgets of Presidents Carter and Reagan. Strategic forces are not nearly as expensive as conventional armies, but they cost plenty, and by the time Gorbachev assumed control in Moscow in the mid-1980s the Soviet budget-makers knew the well was dry. Reagan and some of his aides—especially Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, and Richard Pipes—sometimes hinted (it was not a popular policy) in the early 1980s that they were deliberately challenging the Soviets to spend themselves into bankruptcy. Gates is not quite convinced that any of them believed it, but he thinks that is in fact what happened.

Whether this is really so is hard to say. No sovereign state can go bankrupt in the usual sense of the term. But by the middle of the 1980s the Soviet economy was in crisis, spending on the military was at unsustainable wartime levels, and apparently no one in the Kremlin believed that more expenditures, tightening the belt just another notch or two, would deliver genuine military advantage at last. The US may not have spent the Soviets into literal bankruptcy—and at great cost to its own domestic economy—but it had certainly proved that it had the money and the political will to meet any Soviet challenge. The result was Gorbachev’s entirely sensible decision to try something radically different.

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.”

The elusive quarry of investigators in the Iran-Contra affair, the Moby Dick sought by Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh for seven years, was the person who conceived and ran the operation. It is not my intention to sort this out here, just to observe that not only the great whale but most of the lesser whales escaped the seven-year pursuit of Captain Ahab, played by Walsh, whose three-volume, twenty-five-hundred-page report includes ten pages devoted to the case of Robert M. Gates (Volume I, Chapter 16). In these pages the reader may unmistakably hear in the counsel’s voice the angler’s anguish over the escaped fish as he confesses he “found insufficient evidence to warrant charging Robert Gates with a crime.” Without the threat of conviction and jail time Walsh could not hope to win Gates’s “cooperation” in his march up the chain of command toward indictment of the eminence behind it all, whoever that might have been. But the independent counsel has the dignity of his post to consider, and limits himself to the dry observation that “the statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid.”

Less circumspect was Gates’s one-time colleague at the CIA, Tom Polgar, a veteran of the OSS and numerous posts abroad, who had spent a lifetime in the clandestine service followed by a stint in 1986 on the Senate Select Committee on Iran-Contra. Total immersion in the details of the case convinced Polgar there was no way Gates could have held the posts of authority he did without knowing perfectly well every nuance of every detail of what was going on, an opinion Polgar felt compelled to share with the Senate Intelligence Committee at a hearing on Gates’s nomination to become DCI held on September 19, 1991. If Walsh’s report is a lawyer’s brief on what the evidence says about the role of Gates in Iran-Contra, then Polgar’s testimony is the case with the bark off—a careful detailing of Gates’s passage through many meetings and encounters when even the furniture, Polgar argues, must have grasped what was going on.

Polgar concluded:

His proposed appointment as Director also raises moral issues. What kind of signal does his renomination send to the troops? Live long enough, your sins will be forgotten? Serve faithfully the boss of the moment, never mind integrity? Feel free to mislead the Senate—Senators forget easily? Keep your mouth shut—if the Special Counsel does not get you, promotion will come your way?1

More painful still were the charges brought against Gates by Mel Goodman (“one of my oldest friends in the Agency”) and Harold Ford (“another old friend and colleague”) that he had pressured CIA analysts to exaggerate Soviet involvement in the plot to kill Pope John Paul II and in international terrorism and that he had suppressed and ignored “signs of the Soviet strategic retreat, including the collapse of the Soviet empire.”

Intelligence wars are notoriously fierce but usually hidden; this one took up days of hearings and nightly newscasts and “degenerated,” in Gates’s words, “into an intellectual and bureaucratic food fight.” Details of the argument can be found in Volume II (740 pages) and Volume III (318 pages) of the Senate hearings on Gates’s nomination. The essence of the argument is that they said he did and he said he didn’t. Gates arranged for the declassification and release of numerous documents to support his case. The testimony and documents suggest that Agency disputes about the Soviet Union were often heated, and that Gates pressed hard for evidence and argument when he thought analysts were wrong. But Gates’s critics are far from having proved their case that he slanted estimates dishonestly to curry favor with superiors. In any event, the Committee accepted his defense and his further promise to hold no grudges and run the CIA fairly. The full Senate voted to confirm 64-33 on November 5, 1991, a close victory which came just a year and a bit before he was forced to retire along with his defeated friend, George Bush.


“Did we win,” Gates asks at the end of his book, “or did the Soviets just lose?”

Gates does not strike triumphalist attitudes, but he is a team player, he thinks his side deserves credit, and he makes a reasonable case that the “arms race,” broadly conceived to include the clash of proxy armies in the Third World, cost more money than the Soviets had. But Gates’s argument really has two parts—that the failure of Soviet military, political, and economic policies (no advantage from heavy military spending, no end to the bloody and expensive war in Afghanistan, no growth of the economy) precipitated a crisis, and that Gorbachev’s impetuous efforts to meet the crisis undermined so many props of state and society that collapse became inevitable. From a little distance it does not appear much different from what happened to the ancien régime in 1789 after Louis XVI called upon the Estates General to raise new taxes. More specifically, Gates believes that the failure of Soviet strategic policy, faced with a hideously expensive new round of military spending to match American programs—and especially Reagan’s favorite, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars”—was the biggest single drain on financial resources and may be fairly considered the straw that broke the camel’s back. This interpretation predictably has run into a lot of resistance, notably from Gorbachev himself, who has insisted that Star Wars was not the big problem. In an unusual meeting in Colorado last fall of late cold war leaders, Margaret Thatcher pressed the Star Wars case succinctly:

There was one vital factor in the ending of the Cold War: Ronald Reagan’s decision to go ahead with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)…. The first nation that got it would have a tremendous advantage because the whole military balance would change. So it was of supreme importance. This was a completely different level of defense. It required enormous computer capability, which he knew at the time the Soviet Union could not match. And that was the end of the arms race as we had been pursuing it. I told Mr. Gorbachev when he first visited me that Iwas all for President Reagan going ahead with SDI and that some of our scientists would help if needed. From that particular moment, everything was not so easy in my relationship with Mr. Gorbachev.2

That the Soviet Union was indeed obsessed with SDI for several years after President Reagan’s speech announcing it in March 1983 is well known to students of the arms race; I myself later that year heard a well-placed Soviet official (Fyodor Burlatsky) threaten a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States if we ever tried to deploy Star Wars hardware in near space. Gorbachev himself repeatedly attacked Reagan’s policy head-on during his first years in office. But in Colorado last fall Gorbachev told Lady Thatcher that it simply wasn’t so. He said:

The first impulses for reform were in the Soviet Union itself, in our society which could no longer tolerate the lack of freedom…. In the eyes of the people, especially the educated, the totalitarian system had run its course morally and politically. People were waiting for reform. Russia was pregnant. So the moment was mature to give possibility to the people. And we could only do it from above because initiative from below would have meant an explosion of discontent. This was the decisive factor, not SDI.

And Gorbachev is far from alone in denying the argument of Gates and others that Reagan and Star Wars won the cold war. In the United States as well many longtime critics of American reliance on nuclear weapons have been loath to conclude that military hardware tipped the balance. It is not a question ever likely to produce an exact answer, and fully nuanced, considered answers will be impossible until historians can study the official Soviet files.

But one thing is clear already—with the exception of the frantic weeks of 1989, when the Communist governments of Eastern Europe fell in rapid succession, and the autumn of 1991, when the seventeen republics of the Soviet Union all went their separate ways, the last half of the cold war, like the first, unfolded with glacial deliberation. Gates arrived at the CIA in 1968 in what might be called roughly the middle of the war in Vietnam. Another seven years passed before the last Marines left Saigon. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and fought the Mujahedeen for ten years. Beginning at about the same time the Americans fought an on-again-off-again war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for ten years.

But even the slow-motion struggles of what Gates calls the “Third World War” did not unfold with quite the slow inexorability of the competition in strategic arms—that is, in delivery systems for nuclear weapons. The Soviets promptly began to make good on Vasily Kuznetsov’s promise to John McCloy that they would never again allow themselves to be outgunned in a nuclear confrontation. But the CIA’s experts stubbornly went on insisting for ten years that the Soviets were only trying to catch up. This was Gates’s special field of expertise, and he cites the milestones on the CIA’s journey toward an alarmed view of what the Soviets were trying to achieve: a special national intelligence estimate of 1973 (“much more aggressive Soviet Union”), a 1976 national intelligence estimate (“a starker appreciation”), a 1978 national intelligence estimate on “Soviet Goals and Expectations in the Global Power Arena” (“sobering, a cold shower”).

The Soviet emplacement of multi-warhead intermediate range missiles in Europe in 1975 was the subject of eight years of argument within NATO countries and diplomatic arm-twisting before counter-missiles were put into the field. Meanwhile “modernization” programs begun under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (the “missile experimental,” or MX; “multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles,” or MIRVs; the Trident submarine system; a “follow-on bomber” to the B-52; terrain-hugging cruise missiles; and on and on) made their ox-cart-like progress through development toward procurement and deployment. Some of these behemoths with a gestation period measured in decades are slouching our way still. Whether these weapons were all really “necessary” was debated at the time and is open to question still. But they were all largely intended to back up the credibility of American nuclear threats, and they “worked” in the sense that, so far as we know, no Soviet leader ever doubted the credibility of those threats.

Good intelligence officers develop a sense of audience. Gates notes early that “four of the five Presidents I worked for were bored to tears by the details of arms control” and he presumes much the same will be the case with readers of his book. The arguments over Soviet military capacities and intentions were discussed in the annual series of CIA national intelligence estimates. They must have absorbed man years of Gates’s working life, but we hear very, very little about those ancient quarrels in From the Shadows. But those we do hear about ought to remind us of the importance of the decision taken by the United States under President Harry Truman, as confirmed by President Dwight Eisenhower, to base the defense of the Western allies on superiority in the numbers and versatility of nuclear weapons. From scattered passages in Gates’s book we may piece together one chilling story of what could have been the awful consequence.

By the middle of the Carter administration the American government had reached general agreement that the Soviets were mounting a major effort to achieve strategic nuclear superiority, including an ability to disarm the United States in a first strike. Perhaps most alarming was the discovery in the 1970s that the Soviets were rapidly improving the accuracy of their ICBMs and that more than “enough” of them were actually targeted on US missile fields in the Midwest—“enough,” that is, to target each US missile with a Soviet warhead. No strategic planner would aim something as powerful and expensive as a missile at another missile unless he expected to find it there when his own arrived—that is, in a first strike. But the details are of secondary importance. It is the mood of threat and runaway growth in hardware that defines the moment.

The American response to the Russian challenge included not only new weapons of our own but a new war-fighting strategy (Presidential Directive 59). It further included hardened command and control systems, elaborate new warning mechanisms, an ever-tighter loop between early warning and any decision to retaliate. A major change in military strategy, like the moment an ocean liner begins to pull away from the dock, is a public event, impossible to hide. The Soviets knew all about it, but far from calming themselves with the reflection that after all the Americans were bound to respond eventually to the Soviet buildup, they began to fear the worst.

It was in this climate of heightened fear and apprehension late in the Carter administration that the Amer-ican nuclear command and control structure was upset by a series of false alarms—erroneous reports from technical systems that an attack was underway. In the most dramatic of these episodes the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), from its bomb-proof post deep beneath Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, informed Colonel (later General) William Odom, military assistant to Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, that the Soviet Union had launched 220 missiles targeted on the United States.

Odom, at three o’clock in the morning, called Brzezinski, who prepared himself to notify the President in time for the US to retaliate—that is, within three to seven minutes after the Soviet launch. Soon Odom called again to confirm the bad news, adding that the revised, now-correct number of attacking Soviet missiles was 2,200—the long-dreaded, all-out, Pearl Harbor-style first strike intended to destroy American missiles in their silos. Brzezinski did not wake his wife; he was convinced everyone would soon be dead. But just before he was about to call President Carter, Odom called a third time to say it was all a mistake—someone at NORAD had loaded the computer-controlled warning system with exercise tapes used for simulating war games. Nothing to worry about! Brzezinski went back to bed.

The Soviets quickly learned of the incident and ought to have been angry that some glitch in American technical wizardry nearly destroyed their country. But they took the danger one step further, adding a paranoiac spin. “CIA later learned” (Gates’s code phrase for knowledge secretly obtained) that the Soviets had concluded the false alarms were nothing of the kind, but rather part of a diabolical plan to lull Soviet watchers and lay the ground for an eventual surprise attack.

The rhetoric of the early years of the Reagan administration only exacerbated Soviet fears. Some of Reagan’s closest advisers, reportedly including Vice-President George Bush, had expressed public confidence that even a nuclear war would have a winner; “with enough shovels” to dig homemade shelters, one theorist suggested, most civilians would pull through. In office, Reagan slashed domestic spending and devoted uncountable new billions to defense, especially to strategic programs. In March 1983 he delivered two speeches that made the hair rise on the back of Soviet necks; in the first he condemned the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and three weeks later he outlined an ambitious program for building space-based defense systems, soon called Star Wars. Civilians debated whether anybody could afford such a system or whether it could ever work, but defense theorists all knew that space-based defenses were well-suited only to one job—mopping up the ragged retaliatory missiles that would be fired by strategic forces devastated by a first strike. The tough talk in Washington was actually aimed at rallying Congress to support politically difficult cuts in domestic spending to free up funds for Star Wars; but the Soviets did not appreciate such nuances.

Few in Moscow took a darker view of the bomb talk than the chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov; according to Gates, he warned a KGB conference in 1981 that the United States was actively preparing for nuclear war. In the fall of 1983, when Andropov had succeeded Leonid Brezhnev at the head of the Soviet Union but was himself already dying of kidney disease, his fears focused on a NATO command post exercise called “Able Archer” scheduled for early November. Its purpose was to test NATO’s ability to meet a military challenge requiring a nuclear response—that is, to run through the communications drill, from warning through decision to response. Of course, no actual nuclear weapons would be involved, but the electronic signature of the exercise—the crackle of messages over wire and airwaves, what the Soviets would see and hear—would naturally look just like the real thing.

NATO and the Warsaw Pact both routinely conducted military exercises and had learned to treat them calmly, but in this case, according to Gates, other technical factors contributed to the state of alarm. The following March the British, drawing on reports from their ace Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, informed the Americans that the panicked Russians had seriously feared that Able Archer was no exercise but a genuine prelude to war. It was crazy—but not so crazy; this is how complex systems fail. When Gorbachev brought a new style and tone to the Kremlin a couple of years later even the CIA was relieved, “feeling,” according to Gates, “that the U.S.-Soviet confrontation had gotten a bit too hot in recent years.”3

Able Archer was about as close as the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war accidentally, just as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which resulted in Khrushchev’s humiliating backdown, was about as close as the two sides ever got to war in the usual way, through confrontation and miscalculation. In neither case was war all that close. The Soviets never went on nuclear alert during the Able Archer episode, and the 3:00 AM false alarm was not backed up by other warning systems. The computer-generated report should have been preceded by satellite detection of hot missile launches and followed by confirming radar reports; the fact that neither occurred meant that a presidential order to retaliate was never close. But those nearest misses were sobering all the same, because the commanders of strategic forces on both sides understood in their bones that nothing could stop an authorized execute order, once given, short of an act of God. “Theologians of deterrence”—another nuke-speak phrase of yesteryear—might talk of “exchanges” of thousands of warheads, but the political leaders of both sides knew that even one bomb on one city, as McGeorge Bundy once observed, would be an unimaginable catastrophe.

It is in this fact that we may locate the central paradox of the cold war, the fact that catastrophe was never far, and war was never close. In retrospect it seems clear that it was the political not the military relations of the United States and the Soviet Union that were unstable. The initial onset of the cold war, the “spirit of Camp David” under Eisenhower, the Berlin and Cuba crises, détente under Nixon and Kissinger, Reagan’s renewed rhetorical assault on “the evil empire”—the mood of the relationship swiveled violently from one decade to the next. But the face-to-face nuclear confrontation at ever higher levels of potential destructiveness was nevertheless astonishingly stable; neither side was ever in a position to push the other around, and neither treated the military power of the other with less than sober respect.


“Is it really big enough?” the Danish physicist Niels Bohr asked J. Robert Oppenheimer in December 1943, the day he arrived at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the Americans were secretly inventing the new bomb. Oppenheimer understood him immediately—Bohr meant, was it big enough to make war impossible? The answer to this question hung in suspense until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Gates’s account of the last half of the cold war shows the importance of luck—mostly good luck as it turned out. But if Brezhnev’s successor, the hard-nosed commissar Yuri Andropov, once known as the butcher of Budapest for his part in putting down the 1956 rebellion, “had been younger and healthier,” Gates writes, “the odds are great that we would still be face-to-face with the Soviet Union, still militarily powerful.”

This is true, but it would not have made much difference in the long run. Andropov’s brightest idea for restoring the vigor of the Soviet state was to send the KGB into the streets to round up AWOL citizens standing with their string bags in food queues instead of “working.” Andropov might have kept the lid on for another few years, but the factors that precipitated the Soviet collapse under Gorbachev were not the sort simply to go away. Now that the Soviet Union has disappeared Gates, along with everybody else, can see that it was doomed to disappear. It was only a question of time.

What gave us the time was not the flurry of anti-Soviet hooks and jabs of the Reagan-Casey years, which was only cold war business as usual with a modest increase in vigor. What gave us the time was the bomb. Gates spent a big part of his working life keeping track of Soviet weaponry and making sure that the American threat to use nuclear weapons remained credible. Throughout the cold war there were many occasions, especially in the early years, when the two sides might have gone to war. Just what stopped them can never be established with certainty, but one important factor surely was fear of the consequences. Hiroshima left no mystery about that. But what would happen to that fear if the threat to use nuclear weapons were removed? Many critics (of whom I was one) believed that the arms race itself, extended over decades, would make war inevitable, but that is not the way things turned out. It is Gates’s purpose to convince us that official American nuclear policy, despite the many criticisms that seemed convincing at the time, in fact helped bring the cold war to a peaceful conclusion. This is a hard point to admit for those of us who spent years defending opposing views, and it may never be established conclusively, but I believe that Gates is right.

In 1947 George Kennan, writing as “Mr. X” in Foreign Affairs, argued that war with the Soviet Union was not inevitable; if the United States could only “contain” the natural expansionism of the Soviet Union then the process of time would gradually alter and soften the Soviet state. Kennan has often written in subsequent years that he did not intend an exclusively military form of containment, and that he certainly would never have proposed such a dangerous American reliance above all on nuclear arms. But time is what containment took and time is what the fear of nuclear war gave us. All other factors in the outcome of the cold war fade beside that one. So the answer to Gates’s question is not the Americans, not the Russians, but the bomb. The bomb won.

This Issue

June 20, 1996