It was 20 years ago this summer that the final disintegration of the Soviet Union rapidly unfolded. In June 1991, Boris Yeltsin was freely elected president of the Russian Republic, with Mikhail Gorbachev clinging to power atop the precarious USSR. In August, Communist hardliners attempted a dramatic coup against Gorbachev, prompting a stunning succession of declarations of independence by Soviet republics, with seven of them breaking away in August alone, and four more following through mid-December.
The writing was on the wall — not the Berlin Wall, which had collapsed two years earlier, but the graveyard of history, which would soon register the USSR as deceased. It was December 25, 1991, the day the West celebrates Christmas — a celebration the Communists had tried to ban — that Gorbachev announced his resignation, turning out the lights on an Evil Empire that had produced countless tens of millions of corpses.
Historians debate the credit that goes to various players for that collapse, from Gorbachev to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel, to name a few. These are the people who get books written about them. But there were many behind-the-scenes players who performed critical roles that have never seen the light of a historian’s word processor. Here I’d like to note one such player: Herb Meyer. Specifically, I’d like to highlight a fascinating memo Meyer wrote eight years before the Soviet collapse.
From 1981 to 1985, Meyer was special assistant to the director of central intelligence, Bill Casey, and vice chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council. In the fall of 1983, he crafted a classified memo titled, “Why Is the World So Dangerous?” Addressed to Casey and the deputy director, John McMahon, it had a larger (though limited) audience within the intelligence community and the Reagan administration, including President Reagan himself. Later, it would earn Meyer the prestigious National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal. Even so, the memo has eluded historians, which is a shame. It ought to rank among the most remarkable documents of the Cold War.
Meyer began his eight-page memo of November 30, 1983, by describing a “new stage” that had opened in the struggle between the free world and the Soviet Union. It was a “direction favorable” to the United States. He listed positive changes in America that suddenly had the USSR “downbeat.” Not only was the U.S. economy “recovering,” but Meyer foresaw a “boom” ahead, “with the only argument” having to do with its “breadth and duration.”
Meyer listed seven signs of America’s surge before providing even more symptoms of Soviet decline — a decline that was unrecognized by most pundits and academic Sovietologists. His insights into what he saw as an imminent Soviet collapse were prescient. After 66 years of Communist rule, the USSR had “failed utterly to become a country,” with “not one major nationality group that is content with the present, Russian-controlled arrangement.” It was “hard to imagine how the world’s last empire can survive into the twenty-first century except under highly favorable conditions of economics and demographics — conditions that do not, and will not, exist.”
“The Soviet economy,” Meyer insisted, “is heading toward calamity.”
Meyer nailed not only the Soviet Union’s economy but also its “demographic nightmare.” Here, he was way ahead of the curve, reporting compelling information on Russian birthrates, which were in free-fall. He recorded an astounding figure: Russian women, “according to recent, highly credible research,” “average six abortions.”
As for the Soviet Bloc, Meyer didn’t miss that either. “The East European satellites are becoming more and more difficult to control,” he wrote, emphasizing that it wasn’t merely Poland that was in revolt. “[O]ther satellites may be closer to their own political boiling points than we realize.”
“In sum,” concluded Meyer, “time is not on the Soviet Union’s side.”
He summed up with two predictions, nearly identically worded, as if to let the reader know he knew the magnitude of what he was saying: (1) “if present trends continue, we’re going to win the Cold War;” and (2) “if present trends continue we will win.” He quoted President Reagan’s May 1981 Notre Dame speech, where Reagan proclaimed that history would dismiss Soviet Communism as “some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” Meyer felt that Reagan was “absolutely correct,” adding that the USSR was “entering its final pages.” His memo projected a window no longer than 20 years.
Herb Meyer was dead on. I know of no other Cold War document as accurate as this one.
I recently talked to Meyer about his memo. He had no idea it had been declassified until someone sent it to him last month. “I was astonished,” Meyer wrote me in an e-mail, “and it’s a weird feeling to read something you’d written decades ago and hadn’t seen since.”
Meyer remembered well certain elements of the memo, particularly the Cold War predictions. He also had not forgotten the memo’s reception. Within the intelligence community, there was a general feeling that Meyer had lost his mind. That was just the start of the backlash.
The memo was leaked to syndicated columnists Evans & Novak, who devoted a column to it. There was subsequent uproar throughout Washington, which made Meyer very nervous. He was summoned to his boss’s office.
“Herb, right now you’ve got the smallest fan club in Washington,” Bill Casey told him grimly. As Meyer turned pale, Casey laughed: “Relax. It’s me and the president.”
Today, Meyer says with a chuckle: “If you’re going to have a small fan club — that’s it.”
CIA director Casey, like President Reagan, was committed to placing a dagger in the chest of Soviet Communism. He was pleased, and he encouraged Meyer. Meyer recalls: “My orders were, in effect, to keep going.”
Meyer particularly remembers Reagan’s being shaken by the statement about Russian women averaging six abortions. To Meyer’s knowledge, Reagan “never went public with that astounding statistic. . . . Come to think of it, no one — except some Russians — ever talked about it.”
Of all the items in the memo, that one remains the most far-reaching. Demographers today foresee Russia plummeting in population from 150 million to possibly 100 million by 2050. Meyer’s memo is a prophetic warning that isn’t finished. For Russians, the internal implosion isn’t over.
When we look back at the Cold War, we remember big names and big statements and documents. There’s nary a college course on the Cold War that excludes George Kennan’s seminal “Long Telegram,” sent from the U.S. embassy in Moscow in February 1946. Kennan’s memo prophetically captured what the free world faced from the USSR at the start of the Cold War, forecasting a long struggle ahead. Herb Meyer’s November 1983 memo likewise prophetically captured what the free world faced from the USSR, but this time nearing the end of the Cold War, uniquely forecasting a long struggle about to close — with victory.
George Kennan’s memo is remembered in our textbooks and our college lectures. Herb Meyer’s memo merits similar treatment.
— Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.