Reagan admin ‘hyped Soviet failures into threats,’ documents show

By Daniel Tencer
Thursday, April 29, 2010 13:38 EDT
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In its efforts to keep Congress funding huge military budgets in the 1980s, the Reagan administration exaggerated the threat from the Soviet Union’s military projects, newly published documents show.

Documents posted online Thursday at the National Security Archives chronicle a Soviet physicist’s efforts to dispel claims about the USSR’s secretive weapons programs by bringing US officials to Russia to examine top-secret weapons sites.

Those tours, which took place around 1987, “showed that the Reagan administration had exaggerated Soviet capabilities and also that the Soviet military machine was not as technologically advanced as had been thought,” the National Security Archives stated in a press release.

Those documents were first brought to light in a recent book by David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand. The book chronicles the Soviet effort to build a system for an “automatic retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States.”

But, as the released documents show, that effort, as well as other weapons programs, were never near fruition. The National Security Archives states:

The Pentagon published a glossy annual booklet, Soviet Military Power, a propaganda piece designed to help boost congressional support for Reagan’s military spending. The fourth edition, published in April, 1985, contained the claim that the Soviets had “two ground-based lasers that are capable of attacking satellites in various orbits.”

In Soviet Military Power, the Pentagon included an artists’ conception, a black-and-white pencil sketch, showing what purported to be the Saryshagan proving ground. A building with a dome on top was shown firing a white laser beam into the heavens [see picture above].

“In fact, the long, expensive search to build laser weapons against targets in space had, up to this point, totally fizzled,” the Archives press release states. “The Soviets had not given up hope, but the glossy Pentagon booklet took old failures and hyped them into new threats.”

Many historians argue that the Reagan administration’s hyping of the Soviet threat and its efforts to build the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) amounted to a “bluff” that was nonetheless successful in pushing the Soviet Union into backing off from the Cold War.

The newly-released documents show just how truly incapable the Soviet Union was of matching US military power, despite its ambitious projects.

The documents show that Soviet physicist Yevgeny Velikhov, who had brought US officials to a number of Soviet military sites, had tried to persuade the central committee of the Communist Party to allow Americans to tour the testing facility at Saryshagan, which was at the heart of US claims about a Soviet space missile plan.

The documents show the Soviet government rejected the request, but not because it was trying to hide a major new military capability.

Rather, “the American visitors would quickly realize the Soviet equipment was really quite old,” the National Security Archives state. “The only thing to hide at Sary Shagan was the painful truth: Soviet technology was way behind.”

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