5. The Uncrackable Cracking Wall of the USSR
The CIA was largely created in response to the growing specter of Communism around the world. Throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was, by far, the biggest communist threat. So the CIA’s main job, in many respects, was to keep an eye on the Soviet Union.
Yet when the Union collapsed at the end 1991, the CIA was caught off guard. Again, the failure to predict the collapse wasn’t just about pride. Instead, the United States was caught flat footed and didn’t know how to react, or how to help ensure a smooth transition.
So what happened to this great power? The Soviet Union had more citizens than the United States, a much larger landmass, and was rich in natural resources. For a period in the 1950’s and 60’s, Soviet advances in science and technology were out-pacing American developments. The Soviets were the first to reach space, and their advances in nuclear physics, chemistry, and other fields were groundbreaking.
For a time, the Soviet economy was growing so rapidly that some feared it would overtake the United States. In 1928, the Soviet Union was a poor agricultural economy. By the end of the 1950’s, it was an industrial power on par with the United States. The Soviet Union also regularly took home the most medals at the Olympics.
Yet by the end of the 1970’s cracks were starting to appear in the facade. The Soviet economy, as well as science and innovation, was falling behind. Support inside the bureaucracy was also beginning to splinter. Many viewed the war in Afghanistan as a last ditch effort to shore up support.
The CIA, however, continued to over-estimate the strength of the Soviet economy. While the facade of the empire was beginning to falter, the CIA still believed that the Soviet Union was far from collapse. In the late 1980’s the CIA was still arguing that the Soviet Union was in the midst of expansion, and that it would, if anything, grow in size and power.
When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, many began to doubt the viability of the Soviet Union. Many within the CIA, however, believed that even if the satellite states were weakening, the USSR itself was still stable and coherent. When the Soviet Union did collapse, the CIA and consequently the American government, was caught off guard.
The CIA’s failure was so immense that Congress began pushing for a complete overhaul of the CIA. The CIA defended itself by noting that it had foreseen many of the underlying weaknesses in the USSR’s economy, as well as its over investment in military technology.