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America’s Strategic Blunders: Intelligence Analysis and National Security Policy, 1936-1991
Willard C. Matthias
University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
$35.00, 367 pages, ISBN 0-271-02066-0 (hardback).

Annick Cizel
Université Sorbonne nouvelle - Paris III


Accidentally released as 9/11 brought to the fore painful political questioning about the failure of intelligence analysis and communication breakdown within the United States national security apparatus, Willard C. Matthias’s America’s Strategic Blunders features a red-hot issue indeed. The book is essentially devoted to the Cold War decades of Intelligence Analysis and National Security Policy, with most of the volume dedicated to the years 1950-1973 Matthias experienced as a CIA insider, and focuses on the elaboration of successive US assessments of the Soviet and Chinese political, military, and nuclear threats as formulated in the Agency’s National Intelligence Estimates (NIE), for which Matthias was partly responsible. Cast against the general context of the Cold War in Europe, Cuba, Vietnam, and secondarily, the Middle East (Arab-Israeli conflict) and Africa (Angola), he systematically reviews major CIA NIE’s (listed as “References” at the end of the book) that appraised “Trends in [the] World Situation”, and the probability of Moscow “initiat[ing] general war.” (108) Willard Matthias thus emphasizes top secret behind-the-scene paperwork and intellectual probing, meant to “discern trends and possibilities before they became threats and crises, to deflate any apparent threat that could not stand up under careful analysis, and to reduce waning dangers to fading ‘blips’ on the warning screen.” (195-96)

When reading about Matthias’s professional background one indeed expects the perfect combination of scholarly research and insider’s experience, derived from a short academic spell in the Government Department of the University of Miami, coupled with WWII experience in “Ultra” decrypting, and over two decades’ work with the Board of National Estimates (1950-73*) of the Central Intelligence Agency. This volume was therefore not intended simply as personal memoirs but also as freelance research into previously classified archives—the author quotes several of his articles and reports published since he left the CIA—supplemented with presidents’ and state secretaries’ memoirs, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project series, and a brief selection of secondary publications. While one can regret the deliberate disregard for reference works by landmark historians of the Cold War period (there is no general bibliography, and footnotes solely elucidate quotations), the detailed account of the security apparatus’ operational machinery and frequent at length quoting from declassified Intelligence Estimates and Memoranda nevertheless make the book an exceptionally valuable source for prospective in-depth analysis by diplomatic historians. Recent secondary literature on the USSR similarly proved beneficial in providing Matthias with first-hand material from Soviet archives.

This partial (i.e. incomplete and biased) use of archival material—CIA documents other than Intelligence Estimates available in presidential libraries or in the Foreign Relations of the United States series are also overlooked—and disregard for a wider range of literature on general and specific United States foreign policy inevitably leads to unbalanced concluding statements (for want of a general conclusion, scattered over the last three chapters), even strongly opinionated at times, and unfortunately not always supported by appropriate evidence. As the title of the book prefigures it (“blunders”), Matthias remains bitterly critical of government policy and individual policymakers, presidents and assistants alike: since US troop withdrawal from South Korea in June 1949 amounted to writing a blank check to the North Koreans for the subsequent invasion, he reckons that “[t]he Truman-Acheson reaction was based more upon emotion and careless historical analogy than upon reasoned policymaking procedures.” (74) Defending the thesis that Washington was indeed responsible for escalation in the Cold War, he brushes aside the revisionists’ and post-revisionists’ studies of economic interests and democratic mission to focus… on human incompetence: “The really difficult analytic judgments about the intentions and outlooks of Communist leaders in Europe and Asia were being made by amateurs—often with their own axes to grind—while those qualified to make them in the CIA were ignored and those qualified to do so in the State Department were mistrusted or shunted aside.” (92) At the other end of the chronological and political spectrums, the Reagan administration hardly fares better: “That harshness and thoughtlessness within the Reagan administration is difficult to fathom,” says he (334). Refuting the defensive rationale of the containment doctrine, he presents his superiors as warmongers, with “no interest [in] even exploring the possibilities of a peaceful resolution of the [Korea] conflict.” (85) Indeed, “if it was Stalin’s bad judgment that set off the Cold War, it was also the ill-informed response of the U.S. leaders that continued it and that militarized it beyond realistic requirements.” (122)

As can be expected in memoirs, the references to his own legacy to the Agency conversely bring forth clear-sightedness and moderation, and he never refrains from passing judgment on alarmist advisers and wobbly or hawkish decision-makers:

But even without the damage done to détente by Kissinger’s fellow countrymen, his decision to link agreements on arms control, trade, and other matters to Soviet behavior in the Third World was fatally flawed. […] I pointed out that the world was no longer simply divided between Communist world and free. I explained: […] A loss of U.S. influence or position in one arena is not necessarily a gain for the USSR, China, or whoever our competitor may be. Our loss may be his loss too. It is not a two-sided poker game; it is multilateral. (285)

Even if one may agree that third world nationalism often had little to do with communist ideology—such was rightly the case with Nasser’s Egypt for instance (131)—, Angola and the Horn of Africa in the mid-1970s (and, for that matter, Mozambique, strangely overlooked in this “Renewal of the Cold War” by proxy studied in chapter 12), which harbored Cuban military intervention and revolutionary influence, may have been the very counter-examples that invalidated Matthias’s over-simplified rhetoric. He nevertheless has a point when he blames the arms race on US anticommunist paranoia:

Once engrossed in an estimate, and sometimes even without being openly included in it, the U.S. Air Force, Army, or Navy used these overestimates to justify new procurement programs and to develop new weapons systems. Such new programs in turn frightened the Soviet military planners and Party Presidium members into initiating new programs in response. As this process went on, and as these new Soviet programs were discovered by sophisticated U.S. collection systems, U.S. overestimates became in effect self-fulfilling prophecies. Critics of the CIA and especially of the Board of National Estimates then looked at the enhanced Soviet capabilities which had been prompted by the U.S. overestimates and asserted that the Pentagon had been correct all along and that the board had consistently underestimated Soviet strategic intentions. (299-300) (emphasis in original)

If one leaves aside the somewhat liberal crusading tone of the monograph, Matthias successfully highlights the schism between intelligence-gathering and field operations as organized by CIA, Pentagon and State Department, and more generally between civilian and military staffs, a lack of policy (political?) coordination at the inception of the so-called “strategic blunders” dramatically symbolized by the 1961-62 Cuban crises. CIA inner compartmentalization for instance enabled a (Richard) Bissell-(Allen) Dulles-(John F.) Kennedy invasion plan to go unnoticed among members of the Intelligence Directorate, who, Matthias claims, “learned about the [Bay of Pigs] operation [on] read[ing] about it in the newspapers.” (146) Of particular interest notably are the sparse references (93, 136, 298) to the brainstorming sessions which regularly brought together the cream of academia and CIA analysts: “The membership roster over the years reads like a who’s who of diplomatic historians and directors of international studies programs throughout the United States.” (298) As presented here, this idyllic and fulfilling university-government collaboration seemed however to veer off course by the end of the 1980s, with the Reagan-Bush reforms leading Matthias to lament the “loss of intellectual integrity,” as “it was no longer a rational research and analytic process, but a political-bureaucratic arena dominated by the military services and anti-Communist ideologists […]” (314)

Even if an ambiguous book, hard to categorize and possibly too ambitious as a study of the Cold War yet not enough in its narrow approach to CIA activities, America’s Strategic Blunders is still an important supplement to earlier accounts of the pioneer years of the Agency, characterizing how red tape and politics came to smother the more dynamic spy game revived out of WWII’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It for instance constitutes a welcome addendum to Richard Bissell’s Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs, with Matthias concentrating on the high-brow homework and Bissell of the Operations Directorate on undercover military interventions and corporate decision power, thus enabling their readers to get a fuller grasp of the heyday of the CIA.

* Established as the Office of National Estimates in 1950, the subsequent Board was dissolved in 1973, and replaced by “a system of intelligence officers, each in charge of estimates for a particular region of the world or on a functional subject related to world affairs.” (294)

** Richard M. Bissell, Jr., with Jonathan E. Lewis and Frances T. Pudlo, Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1996). In researching for his book, Matthias paid attention to Robert M. Gates’s From the Shadows (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [R. Gates was appointed Director of Central Intelligence by President Bush in 1991], but does not mention R. Bissell’s memoirs.


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