By Patricia H. Kushlis
Kudos to the Foreign Service Journal for “When the USSR Fell: The Foreign Service on the Front Lines,” a special section of articles by several US government officials from longtime US-Russia specialist and Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock to Embassy Moscow Political Officer Thomas Graham. These individuals really did know what US government officials knew about the Soviet Union’s impending collapse and when they knew it.
As FSJ Associate Editor Shawn Dorman points out in his introduction to this special section:
“Conventional wisdom has it that the United States was caught off guard by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. “No one saw it coming” is a common refrain. But it is false.”
One FSJ account after another supports Dorman’s observation. Yet “The Excerpt from the Abyss Cable,” a cable drafted by Minister Counselor for Political Affairs Raymond F. Smith, transmitted to Washington on July 13, 1990 and subsequently declassified by the State Department entitled: “Looking into the Abyss – the Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should be Doing About It” (p. 37) is perhaps the strongest refutation of “the conventional wisdom” that I’ve read.
Smith’s “Abyss Cable,” by the way, would not have appeared on Wikileaks – it had been classified SECRET/Exdis – a far more restrictive classification to which the Wikileaks leaker would not have had access.
Last July, Leon Aron, a neoconservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote a scathing critique of the US government’s apparent lack of clairvoyance because, he claimed, American officials as well as everyone else - including Soviet dissidents - had failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was one problem with Aron’s article that had been featured front and center in Foreign Policy magazine on July 16: it was wrong.
Aron began that article entitled “Everything you Think You Know about the Collapse of the Soviet Is Wrong” by claiming that “in the years leading up to 1991, virtually no western expert, scholar, official or politician foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union. . . "
Oh, no really? That’s clearly not true.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Council director and specialist in Soviet nationalities issues, had predicted it by 1990 – and as the contents of Smith’s 1990 “Abyss Cable” demonstrate, the US Embassy in Moscow certainly considered the country’s impending collapse a possibility and was, by summer 1990, trying to figure out how to respond if it happened.
FP, which wisely advises prospective authors that it fact-checks, obviously hadn’t done enough in Aron’s case. Maybe it was the summer help – it was July after all. Or maybe the editorial staff simply failed to do its job. Or maybe it’s because AEI and its neoconservative stable of so called foreign policy experts are highly effective at promoting their own views - whether accurate or not.
Or maybe it was because Aron had not read Ray Smith’s book, The Craft of Political Analysis for Diplomats, Potomac Books, 2011 where Aron certainly would have come across the “Abyss Cable,” or maybe he had somehow fixated on James Collins (the chargé d’affaires at the time of the collapse) recollections’ as expressed on the Carnegie website which certainly could be taken to support the “conventional wisdom” argument. Or maybe Collins himself had simply forgotten about Smith’s “Abyss Cable” which he, Ambassador Matlock, or both would have approved before transmittal to Washington.
After all, memories are fallible. The written record, however, is not. The rest, as they say, is history. And Russia’s unique history has clearly not ended.
Patricia H. Kushlis, "Ballot Box Tampering Can Be Harzardous to the Health: the Russian Parliamentary Elections, 2011," WhirledView, December 16, 2011.
Patricia H. Kushlis, "A Remembrance of Moscow, December 8, 1991," WhirledView, December 8, 2011.
Patricia H. Kushlis, "What's Wrong with Leon Aron's Everything You Think You Know about The Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong," WhirledView, July 14,2011