How intelligence is gathered, which intelligence is gathered, and how that intelligence is used in a decision-making process can significantly influence a series of events.
During the Cold War, there was certainly a great deal of attention paid to military intelligence. But other types of intelligence, including economic, were also important: information about a country’s industrial base and manufacturing capacities.
Herbert Meyer was Special Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence, and also served as Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. He writes:
From the end of World War II until 1981, every president’s objective had been not to lose the Cold War. If things were no worse when a president left office than when he took office, he’d done a good job. But President Reagan didn’t want to tread water - he wanted to win the Cold War. In other words, he switched from defense to offense.
Although various interpretations are possible, one view of the Cold War is to see it as ‘stalemate’ situation from the end of WW2 until around 1980. Historians embracing this understanding of the Cold War argue that the United States and the USSR achieved and maintained an approximate parity with each other.
Under such a view, of course, the parity would not be exact, but the two superpowers are thought to have been close to each other. For example, the USSR got the first artificial satellite, and later the first man, into earth orbit, but the United States got the first man onto the surface of the moon.
President Reagan, however, rejected the goal of maintaining parity, or of maintaining a slight superiority. He sought rather a convincing and significant superiority. This would include other factors in addition to military advantages:
So Reagan’s great director of Central Intelligence, William Casey, ask the CIA’s Soviet Division two obvious questions: Where is the Soviet Union weak? and Where is it most vulnerable? The answer he received was: We don’t know. No one’s ever asked this before.
The USSR’s chief weakness, it turned out, was economic. But this was not understood until the intelligence agencies refocused their efforts. The reconceptualizing of the intelligence, intelligence gathering, and interpreting intelligence reframed the Cold War.
In the end, the Cold War was not a military conflict, but an economic competition. President Reagan realized that by developing and building expensive weapons systems, he was forcing the USSR to try to keep pace. But the Soviet economy was feeble, and the effort to maintain parity crashed it.
The end of the Soviet Union was, more than a military event or a political event, an economic event. Once the United States intelligence agencies clearly understood the weakness of the Soviet economy, they could provoke its collapse. Herbert Meyer continues:
Our spies had been so focused on Soviet strengths - infantry divisions, nuclear missiles, tanks, submarines, and so forth - that we had no intelligence on Soviet weaknesses, such as its imploding economy. Under Casey’s leadership, we refocused our collection efforts and, not surprisingly, found all sorts of Soviet vulnerabilities that hadn’t been grasped because no one had bothered looking for them.
As the USSR scrambled maintain weapons parity, it attempted to strengthen its economy by faint efforts to emulate certain features of western-style capitalism. The program of “Perestroika” proved to be too little, too late.
President Reagan used these weaknesses and vulnerabilities to put more and more pressure on the Kremlin. Eight years later the Berlin Wall came down, and two years after that the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
It is, of course, an oversimplification to give President Reagan all the credit for winning the Cold War. Other leaders played indispensable roles: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Lech Walesa of Poland, and Pope John Paul II of Poland.
Beyond individual leaders, there were mass movements of people who wanted individual political liberty and economic freedom. In the East German city of Leipzig, two pastors led a movement of thousands of people who peacefully but determinedly protested against communism. Polish shipyard workers formed a powerful resistance group.
In the end, both high-profile personalities and large gatherings of ordinary citizens exerted an influence which was powerful enough to bring down the Soviet Socialist tyranny.