How Our Guys Won the Cold War : VICTORY: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, <i> By Peter Schweizer (Grove/Atlantic: $22; 284 pp.)</i>
For this book, author Peter Schweizer has received unique access to some top Reagan Administration foreign policy officials (Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Bill Clark, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Richard Allen) plus, even more impressively, some high-level Central Intelligence Agency operatives (Alan Fiers, Herb Meyer, Vincent Cannistraro, Dewey Clarridge) and a few other former high-level power-wielders. Most of these guys don’t open up easily for interviews.
Considering that the 1980s saw the most dramatic shift in international politics of our lifetime, maybe of any decade in history, Schweizer had a unique opportunity to produce a journalistic and historical landmark. Sadly, this book is neither journalism nor history. Its many valuable revelations and insights have been spun into a polemic so unchecked and, for the reader, often un-checkable, that we can’t tell the fact from the fiction.
The book yields no indication that Schweizer accepted his new data as leads and went back to where the action happened--Afghanistan, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Central Russia and elsewhere--to talk to the people involved. Such reporting might have humbled, at least a bit, his thesis. He says a handful of people in Washington by their mere resolve and willingness to work long hours and spend tax money unflinchingly were able to turn Communist success into the destruction of Communism around the world. He knows this because they told him.
President Reagan did change policy and help change history. The size of the accomplishment is all the more reason this story should have been accorded the respect of good research.
Where Schweizer quotes from previously undisclosed diaries and documents, he contributes a useful sense of the chronology of Reagan’s thought processes. But he doesn’t connect this to results through any real reporting. Instead, Schweizer’s book settles for stories, mostly not attributed, about former CIA director William Casey’s dropping out of the sky here and there in his private jet and working quickie miracles. Casey, a fly-by-night operator in both the literal and figurative senses in this book, drops in on a Pakistani general for two days every couple of years, barks at startled underlings that the weapons previously supplied were “pure crap. . . . The General knows what he wants, get it for him,” and thereby wins the Afghan war. I spent a month with the Afghan underground in Afghanistan, not Pakistan) before Reagan was even elected, and these accounts shortchange the situation.
Moreover, as important as the Afghan war was in bringing down Soviet tyranny, it’s worth considering also how little the Afgh ans have enjoyed of the freedom they died for.
There is evidence available that Americans, based on their single-minded zeal to kill Russians, made policy decisions that unnecessarily enthroned local tyrants and continued a fratricidal carnage with American arms long after the Soviets had slunk away. But Schweizer’s sources don’t want to talk about that, and so he doesn’t talk about it either.
Schweizer writes page after unattributed page purporting to lay bare Casey’s thoughts and emotions seven years after his death. But he scarcely mentions Central America, which was Casey’s main passion according to his biographer, Joseph Persico, and purported confidante, Bob Woodward.
Schweizer seems to think that since the Contra war didn’t work out as planned, he needn’t bring it up now. Nor does he bother mentioning Casey’s pal and protege Oliver North. Sic transit gloria mundi. On the other hand, Poland, which was a side issue in previous books about Casey, but which turned out to provide the big victory the Administration sought, is made by Schweizer to seem a No. 1 all along. One can’t avoid the suspicion this is Soviet-style history--rewritten to suit the current propaganda need.
Though Schweizer’s source list includes some honorable men, some others have clearly used him to skewer their enemies and embellish their own spots in history. He includes occasional footnotes, but mostly doesn’t say who told him what. And he evidently doesn’t believe in picking up a phone to check their various assertions.
Schweizer quotes a Soviet secret police (KGB) letter suggesting that Senator Edward Kennedy was undercutting President Reagan’s arms negotiations with his own secret gambits to the Russians through former Democratic Senator John Tunney, whom Schweizer also names. Schweizer doesn’t mention that Kennedy and Tunney angrily deny this--or that Reagan’s own disarmament negotiator, Max M. Kampelman, wrote a memoir lauding Kennedy for serving, at the Administration’s request, as a confidential “back channel” to the Soviets, who wanted to talk to him because of his celebrity. Contrary to Schweizer’s charge, President Reagan personally approved.
When I asked AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland about Schweizer’s descriptions of his work (generally, Schweizer portrays Kirkland, the CIA and the Vatican as plotters together), Kirkland’s denial was so vigorous as to be unprintable in a family newspaper.
The Pope himself is depicted vaguely as some sort of covert operations conspirator, with no verifiable documentation, no recognition of his spiritual dimension, and no denial, which would surely be forthcoming from the Vatican press office if Schweizer bothered to ask. Schweizer even asserts that the Pope thought the Soviet Union was responsible for the attempt on his life, suggesting that’s what led the Vatican to cooperate with Casey. Whoever told this to Schweizer (he doesn’t say), I’ll bet it wasn’t the Pope.
Schweizer reports that former Pakistani strongman Zia ul-Haq was killed in a midair plane explosion linked by circumstantial evidence to the KGB; he footnotes that statement, citing an interview with Mohammad Yousaf, a Pakistani intelligence officer who is heavily relied on throughout this book.
In fact, investigations I’m aware of into the Zia crash didn’t show any evidence of a midair explosion or the KGB, but showed considerable evidence that Zia’s plane crashed because of cockpit sabotage most likely arranged by Pakistani rivals. The U.S. government never pressed the case in public even though the American ambassador died in the crash with Zia, probably because the guilt of Pakistani officers would have been politically embarrassing. If Schweizer’s source is biased and wrong about this, what about the other material from the same source, attributed and not attributed--maybe stuff about Casey?
Schweizer is such a sieve for fiction mixed with fact that he even includes a reference to “Captain Quigg and his steel balls in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty.’ ” (Captain Quigg, a fictional character in Herman Wouk’s novel “The Caine Mutiny,” rolled steel balls in his hand as a nervous sign of his insanity two centuries after the real-life Bounty mutiny.)
Given all that, what are we to think when Schweizer reports daring, successful covert operations overseas, based not on Schweizer’s personal inspection or even on sworn testimony but on the word of “one official involved in the program?” (“Sure, Mr. Schweizer, let me tell you how my secret team really won the Cold War. Of course, it has to be off-the-record, but. . . .”)
Did Reagan and Casey, as Schweizer says, without telling Congress, take the risk of arming and training Afghan teams that they sent on sabotage raids deep inside the Soviet Union? Apparently so, though it’s hard to gauge the extent of it without clearer sources; even Schweizer says the program was delayed, then scaled down, because of cold feet. It was, of course, an act of war against a nuclear superpower. But, then, Schweizer says American bombers persistently flew almost into Soviet territory, then turned back at the last second, to psychologically destabilize Soviet commanders. (Did I, at home in New Jersey with two little girls, really want the USSR’s nuclear triggermen to be psychologically destabilized?)
Did Casey secretly agree to pay bills for Israeli intelligence and supply satellite photos of the Iraqi nuclear facility Israel eventually bombed, in exchange for access to Israeli-developed spies in Poland? Schweizer says so, but, as happens more than once in this book, the agreement consists of a detailed proposal made by an American, responded to with a reported nod--no quotable words--by a foreign national, and no confirmation. (The Vatican is said to have entered such a plot when the Pope “subtly nodded.”)
Did Casey also, with Reagan’s approval, make a similar wink-and-nod deal to guarantee a U.S. troop invasion if needed to protect the Saudi monarchy, even against its own subjects, in exchange for a Saudi promise to hold down oil prices so the Soviet Union would earn less from its oil exports?
Did Casey double-cross our NATO ally Greece by secretly offering satellite coverage of Cyprus to Turkey in exchange for Turkish help sabotaging the USSR? (The only footnote for this assertion leads to an anonymous “U.S. intelligence official.”)
And did Casey promise racist South Africa he would “help you in Washington and with intelligence,” in possible violation of international sanctions, in return for South Africa’s pledge to restrain gold prices to hurt “the gold-rich Soviets?” Schweizer says so, but his only apparent source, Casey, was a corpse.
Was Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev murdered by agents of his successor, Yuri Andropov? That’s how Schweizer writers it, with a footnote to a vaguely identified publication and “one former KGB official.”
Did Al Haig get fired as secretary of state because he sided with our Western European Allies who favored a natural gas pipeline from the Soviet Union that Reagan wanted stopped? Schweizer says so, on the word of “a senior NSC (National Security Council) staff member.” Reagan opposed the pipeline because, Schweizer says, Casey and Weinberger gave him economic analyses showing how desperately the Soviets needed the money from the gas sales. Schweizer pictures Casey and Weinberger as go-get-'em policy twins who were constantly opposed by naysayers Haig and George Bush. On the other hand, Persico in his biography, and Shultz in his memoir, say Casey was Haig’s best friend in the administration; they suggest Haig resigned over personality clashes with Reagan’s less-worldly California staff. My gut assessment of the personalities tells me Schweizer is probably right on this one.
But that’s not the point. The point is that to judge what is right in these weighty and controversial matters, a reader needs from an author a candid accounting of the various possibilities. Readers are not well served by the unsupported boasts of former officials who would like to take credit for a famous victory, and certainly not by the unsubstantiated purported thoughts of long-dead CIA directors.
On the other hand, if Schweizer was much of a digger, maybe he wouldn’t have been given all these interviews and documents in the first place.