Richard Pipes, RIP

Sad news today of the passing of Richard Pipes, the great scholar of Soviet affairs and many other subjects. He was the author of many fine books, including especially his large book The Russian Revolution, which is one of the very best accounts of that crucial event.

I only met the great professor once or twice very casually, in a large group at some Washington or New York dinner that I can’t recall precisely.  I did spend two days in the company of his splendid son, Daniel Pipes, last summer in Bulgaria, which I recalled here and here.

I’m most fond of his memoir Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger, which told some of the inside story of his his most important work at the National Security Council under Reagan.  Pipes was crucial in crystalizing what became known as the “Reagan Doctrine,” and he was the principal author of one of the most important documents of the Cold War, NSDD 75, which was a sweeping new direction for U.S. strategy toward the Soviet Union that Reagan approved on January 17, 1983. It could be said to be the blueprint for the endgame of the Cold War. Here’s how I described that episode in The Age of Reagan:

In August 1982 Reagan issued a formal request for a top-to-bottom review of American policy toward the Soviet Union.  Richard Pipes had long wanted to produce a background policy paper explaining a new strategy for Soviet relations, but the NSC’s dysfunctions and opposition from the State Department prevented much progress in 1981. Pipes, among others, had argued that the time had come to reorient America’s Soviet policy from containment to transformation.  The Soviet Union’s expansionism, Pipes wrote in an early NSC paper, would not cease until the Soviet system either collapsed or was thoroughly reformed.  Pipes discerned that Soviet economic weakness could be exploited, and that a reformist faction might come to the fore in Soviet leadership in the near future.  The Soviet Union was ripe for change, provided the West raised the cost of Soviet imperialism and actively encouraged internal reform. . .

Pipes was also the head of the famous CIA “Team B” exercise in 1976, in which the CIA (under director George H.W. Bush) allowed a team of outside experts to produce a rival assessment of Soviet strategy and capabilities. It dod not go well for the CIA’s “Team A.” Again, I have an account of this in the first volume of The Age of Reagan:

New director Bush . . . set in motion the infamous independent group that came to be known as “Team B.” Both the CIA’s regular analysts, “Team A,” and the independent “Team B,” would work independently and be given access to the same raw information.  At the conclusion of their work each team would exchange drafts, after which the President’s national security adviser (by this point Brent Scowcroft had replaced Kissinger as national security adviser) would evaluate the results of the “experiment.”

Team B examined more than just the number of missiles or their “throw weights” (which was a centerpiece of arms control controversies in the 1970s).  Team B thought Soviet missiles were more accurate than previous estimates, and that Soviet efforts at civil defense were more extensive.  Team B’s conclusions were stunning.  “The evidence suggests that the Soviet leaders are first and foremost offensively rather than defensively minded. . .  While hoping to crush the ‘capitalist’ realm by other than military means, the Soviet Union is nevertheless preparing for a Third World War as if it were unavoidable. . .  Within the ten year period of the National Estimate the Soviets may well expect to achieve a degree of military superiority which would permit a dramatically more aggressive pursuit of their hegemonial objectives. . .” (Emphasis in original.)

When Team B met with the official Team A at CIA headquarters in the fall of 1976, the result was a “disaster” for Team A, which emerged from the meeting “badly mauled” according to Team B’s leader Richard Pipes.  “The champion of Team A had barely begun his criticism of team B’s effort, delivered in a condescending tone,” Pipes recalled ten years later, “when a member of Team B [Paul Nitze] fired a question that reduced him to a state of catatonic immobility: we stared in embarrassment as he sat for what seemed an interminable time with an open mouth, unable to utter a sound.”

Pipes’ account has been criticized as partial and self-serving, but the result of the exercise was beyond dispute: Team A’s official NIE 11-3-8 was much tougher than previous NIEs.  In the final report appeared the judgment: ‘[T]he Soviets are striving to achieve war-fighting and war-survival capabilities which would leave the U.S.S.R. in a better position than the U.S. if war occurred.”  “I strongly suspect,” Pipes wrote, “that George Bush intervened to have Team A substantially revise its draft to allow for Team B’s criticism.”  Nevertheless it was the Team B report that made news (even though the report itself remained classified for 18 years, portions of it leaked to the press) and became a rallying point for anti-détente forces.  Some evidence suggests Bush was embarrassed by the Team B report and regretted having supported the exercise.  He opposed making outside competitive analysis like Team B a regular feature of CIA assessments. If true it was probably out of loyalty to his employees at the CIA. . .  Yet Pipes claimed that Bush privately agreed with Team B’s assessment: “I do recall attending a dinner somewhere in 1977 [by which time Bush was a private citizen again] at which Bush spoke to a large audience and fully identified with the Team B point of view.” Needless to say, one person whose embrace of Team B was unequivocal was Ronald Reagan. . .   With election of 1980, Team B would become Team A.

Thank God Pipes and people like him became Team A when they did. We could use more people like him today.


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