What Did Intelligence Do for Us during the Cold War?

September 6, 2011

Mark Stout, SPY Historian

Last week I had a pleasant chat with a customer down in our bookstore and he posed a really interesting question.  He said that he understood the importance of intelligence in wartime, but he asked “what did intelligence do for us during the Cold War?”  After all, we weren’t fighting a real war then, at least not against the Soviets.

I responded that there were many greater and lesser intelligence successes during the Cold War, but that the two greatest intelligence contributions of that era were rather undramatic and not really on the public’s radar.

 First, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) educated the American policymakers about the world.  Forget crises, surprises, and major policy initiatives; just keeping foreign, defense, and economic policy on an even keel requires a lot of information.  Is now a good time to accept a Soviet invitation to a summit meeting?  Should the US Ambassador to Poland have dinner with a particular Polish dissident? Does the U.S. Army need to buy a new type of ammunition for its tank guns or will the existing ammunition still penetrate Soviet tank armor?  Should the U.S. sell wheat to the Soviet Union this year?  Policymakers can’t reliably come up with good answers to these questions without intelligence.

 Second, and most important, the IC told the U.S President every day, in effect, “Mr. President, the Soviets are not preparing to attack us with their nuclear weapons today.”  (The Soviet intelligence agencies said the same to the Soviet leader almost every day, with a few alarming exceptions that intelligence historians have unearthed.)  If the President had had to guess every day whether war was impending or if the IC had erroneously told him that the Soviets were preparing a nuclear first strike, the “balance of terror” would have been much less stable; we or our parents could easily have ended up dead.

 We all thrill to a good spy story and it’s interesting to read about crises defused by good intelligence, but the day to day—dare I say mundane—intelligence work is important too.

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