Jeffrey LewisLies, damn lies and statistics: Reagan and the Cold War

The American Forces Press Service published a Reagan retrospective, entitled “Reagan/’s National Security Policy Targeted Soviet Threat”, that closes with this comment:

History shows that 1980s Soviet military expenditures made in an attempt to keep up with the Americans eventually broke their bank. In 1989, within a year after Reagan had left office, the Berlin Wall did fall. That event was followed two years later by the disintegration of the Soviet system.

The ridiculous idea that the United States spent the Soviet Union into the ground is a persistent myth in American political culture with dangerous implications. Here is how an actual historian describes the relationship between United States an Soviet spending:

As CIA analysts discovered in 1983, Soviet military spending had leveled off in 1975 to a growth rate of 1.3 percent, with spending for weapons procurements virtually flat. It remained that way for a decade. According to later CIA estimates, Soviet military spending rose in 1985 as a result of decisions taken earlier, and grew at a rate of 4.3 percent per year through 1987. Spending for procurements of offensive strategic weapons, however, increased by only 1.4 percent a year in that period. In 1988 Gorbachev began a round of budget cuts, bringing the defense budget back down to its 1980 level. In other words, while the U.S. military budget was growing at an average of 8 percent per year, the Soviets did not attempt to keep up, and their military spending did not rise even as might have been expected given the war they were fighting in Afghanistan. [Fitzgerald, Way out there in the blue, 2000 pp.474-475]

Fitzgerald cites Garthoff and Firth & Noren. You can read essays prepared by Garthoff and Noren for a CIA conference, Watching the bear: Essays on CIA/’s analysis of the Soviet Union.

Weinberger, himself, used to argue that the Soviet Union was driving our spending increases (i.e. we needed to keep up) rather than the other way around. In fact, he used this extremely misleading chart to justify a particulary large defense budget, arguing that the Soviets had programmed in massive spending increases prior to U.S. decisions. So, Cap: Were you lying then or are you lying now, when you say we bankrupted the Soviet Union? Just wanted to check.

And while we are kicking Cap and the hacks at the American Forces Press Service, let/’s look at this little paragraph: “/’Soviet nuclear offensive capabilities now exceed by far our most pessimistic forecasts of 15 years ago,/’ Weinberger said in his congressional report. The Soviet Union, he noted, had /’steadily increased its investment in nuclear strategic forces even though we reduced ours./’”

So, did Soviet nuclear offensive capabilities in 1982 exceed the most pessimistic forecasts of 1967? First, there were no fiften year estimates in the NIE. A CIA analysis of their own predictions admits the 1964-1968 NIE did underestimate Soviet deployments over 10 years, but the difference was trivial (a few hundred warheads out of a force approaching 3,000–well under a ten percent difference). As for Soviet nuclear offensive capabilities in 1982, those fell short of the most pessimistic forecasts of the early 1970s, contrary to the impression left by Weinberger.

What about the quality, rather than quantity? The CIA noticed a “tendency to substantially overestimate the rate of force modernization … in every NIE published from 1974-1986, and it was true for every projected force – whether it assumed high, moderate or low levels of effort.”