REVIEW: America’s Strategic Blunders. Intelligence Analysis and National Security Policy, 1936-1991


By Willard C. Matthias. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. 367 pages, footnotes, index.


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..

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