United in a fervent desire to praise Reagan, not bury him, the pundit class seems to have agreed that, no matter what else they might say about him, Reagan won the cold war by outspending the Soviets and forcing them into bankruptcy.
It's a neat story, except that it's not what happened.
In fact, the Soviet Union was already economically crumbling and in severe decline by the 1970s, barely able to keep its economy functioning let alone surpass the United States militarily or economically. The Soviets were doing a pretty good job of bankrupting themselves and did not even try to keep up with the United States' insane levels of military spending in the eighties. Reagan's policies helped bust the United States' budget, provided massive corporate boondoggles to the military-industrial complex, such as the missile defense systems which did not work then and do not work now. If anything, emerging memoirs and interviews suggest that Reagan's aggressive policies impeded and delayed Gorbachev's efforts at reform.
And in contrast to the current political rhetoric that portrays the Iraq war "intelligence failures" as mistakes and shortcomings resulting from unprecedented pressure on intelligence agencies, the CIA of the time was also heavily pressured, and in the end instrumental, in exaggerating the threat posed by the Soviet Union in order to justify belligerent policies.
No amount of falsehood was enough for some just as it wasn't this time around. So, remarkably enough, one can trace the first policy victory of the neo-conservatives to the creation of the infamous "Team B" in the seventies where a panel authorized by the then-CIA chief George Herbert Walker, whose members included Daniel Pipes and Paul Wolfowitz, whose architect was Richard Perle, and whose backers included Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, trashed the CIA for not exaggerating the Soviet threat sufficiently.
In its 1976 report, "Team B" argued that the Soviet leadership was achieving "military superiority," that there was a "missile gap" in favor of the Soviet Union, that "Soviet leaders are first and foremost offensively rather than defensively minded" and that the Soviet Union was involved in an "intense military buildup in nuclear as well as conventional forces of all sorts, not moderated either by the West's self-imposed restraints or by the [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT)]." They derided all those who argued in favor of arms treaties and detente as "appeasers" and clashed with the State bureaucracy for not being aggressive enough.
Their methods of "intelligence" production have remained fairly constant, as the Boston Globe noted last year: "At times, Team B performed logical somersaults that eerily foreshadowed Bush administration statements on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Just because superweapons like a 'non-acoustic anti-submarine system' couldn't be found, Pipes's report argued, that didn't mean the Soviets couldn't build one, even if they appeared to lack the technical know-how."
All of their arguments and conclusions were, of course, hogwash -- as we know even more clearly since the fall of the Soviet Union. Their "estimates" were wrong and their "analysis" widely off the mark
But the nation needed to be scared in order to go along with the policies that were later instituted by Ronald Reagan. Reagan purposefully stirred up people's worst fears by evoking a military threat posed by an irrational, evil enemy that simply hated us for who we were, bent on our destruction, an enemy which could not be negotiated with and hated freedom. It all sounds familiar because the people that put their stamp on that rhetoric and those policies are still roaming the halls of power, this time under Bush's presidency.
Most of the intelligence reporting from that era was as false as, if not more than, the pre-war reports about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed in 45 minutes, mobile biological labs capable of producing deadly pathogens on the run, unmanned drones capable dispersing those agents over the United States, and so much more. And just as the pre-war reports about Iraq, they were deliberately and purposefully wrong -- and all those who told the truth at the time were mercilessly attacked as unpatriotic appeasers and weaklings.
The 1977 National Intelligence Estimate made claims such as "the Soviet leaders were now thought to no longer accept the concept of mutual assured destruction even though they did recognize mutual deterrence as a 'present reality' that would be hard to change." Later, under Reagan, the CIA presented conclusions like "Moscow was now more willing to risk a military crisis with Washington (whose power, it asserted, Soviet leaders saw declining) in pursuit of its goals." Reagan famously characterized the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," one that posed a great threat to the United States and to freedom-loving people everywhere.
The resulting increased American spending on military expenditures did not result in a change in the Soviet Union's defense spending -- a fact that has been publicly known as early as 1994, but seems to have been forgotten in the current climate of national amnesia:
"Revised estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that Soviet expenditures on defense remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. Neither the military buildup under Jimmy Carter and Reagan nor SDI had any real impact on gross spending levels in the USSR. At most SDI shifted the marginal allocation of defense rubles as some funds were allotted for developing countermeasures to ballistic defense."
The CIA kept producing false and misleading reports under Reagan. As late as 1986, CIA was arguing that Gorbachev would not move on arms control:
"'In the next two years or so,' the September 1986 special estimate declared, 'neither the domestic situation nor the foreign policy outlook of the regime obliges Gorbachev to compromise substantially on central arms control or security issues in dispute with the United States.'"
Which Gorbachev did very soon after; massively and unilaterally.
Gorbachev's attempts at reform pushed the crumbling Soviet system over the edge which apologists for Reagan era policies quickly moved to take credit for in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. And they have succeeded brilliantly in re-packaging deliberate "intelligence failures" and a strategy of outspending the already bankrupt enemy as the brilliant move that won us the cold war.
Unfortunately, the myth of good past intelligence versus bad current intelligence is spread by the media with hardly a peep. Even the New York Times, supposedly biased towards the liberals, recently reported on how in the past analysts in the Eurasian division headed John McLaughlin, current head of CIA as George Tenet's replacement, would try to understand the strength of the Soviet Union by using "every conceivable way," even "canned goods specialists" to try to gauge the Soviet food processing industry by examining Soviet cans of peas. "The agency was not as successful at gaining insights into another closed society, Iraq," the Times reported, implying that we were essentially successful in our assessments of the Soviets, unlike with Iraq.
The first step in making sure that the evil men do does not live after them should be a frank understanding of what actually happened. It's natural for journalists and pundits to try to find some way to speak well of the dead, and I would say, "so let it be with Reagan," except that there is a higher obligation to the truth -- especially since the policies being misrepresented are still so influential and the stakes still so high.