Keeping an Eye on Communism

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

When a young analyst of Soviet affairs named Melvin A. Goodman started work at the CIA in 1966, he was ushered into a room to read special collections of reports on the Soviet Union and China. His bosses "thought this was the best work the CIA had produced at the time," Goodman said yesterday of the documents, which dated to the early 1950s.

Yesterday, many of those Cold War-era papers were suddenly available to the public on the CIA's own Web site, at But what impressed Goodman 40 years ago looks more mundane today, because the agency's analysts had little hard information about the major communist powers in the two decades up to 1972.

The 11,000 pages released yesterday appeared to contain no startling revelations and a number of goofs. For example, in a 1962 paper called "The Decline of Mao Tse-Tung," agency analysts predicted the demise of Mao as China's leader 14 years before he finally declined into his grave.

At the same time, said Fritz W. Ermarth, a former senior CIA analyst, the documents show how well agency analysts understood the major issues of the day. He pointed to a study called "Soviet Military Thought on Future War" that touched on "all the issues that dominated the next 30 years" of debate about Soviet intentions.

Most of the reports were produced by the CIA's Special Research Staff (SRS), long defunct. It was largely staffed by academic specialists whose findings were frequently at odds with judgments by senior CIA officials and policymakers. For example, several papers accurately described the 1960's Sino-Soviet split when senior CIA officials were telling others that the countries' tensions were insignificant.

Analysts who wrote these reports relied mainly on the same public clues that journalists and scholars read: Which order did the senior Soviet leaders enter the Hall of Columns at the opening of the Party Congress? What terminology did Pravda use to describe a rising figure?

"The West was completely dependent on the Soviet radio and press for all news on this development," a 1953 report on Premier Joseph Stalin's death said bluntly. "It is impossible therefore to determine whether Stalin had been dead for some time, whether he was murdered, or whether he died in the way the medical bulletins said he did."

The dearth of better sources meant that CIA analysts sometimes misinterpreted events. A 1960 report on possible successors to Nikita Khrushchev barely mentioned Leonid Brezhnev, who would organize Khrushchev's ouster four years later and replace him as leader.

-- Robert G. Kaiser and Peter Baker

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