A review essay for Peacehawks, based on Gorbachev – His Life and Times, by William Taubman

by Jamie Arbuckle


We learn from history that we do not learn from history.

- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831






Mikhail S. Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 11 March 1985. He was 53 years of age.  In the previous three years his three predecessors had died in office, aged 76, 80 and 79 (respectively). The 12-Member Politburo, when he first joined it in 1980, averaged over 70 years of age.  The winds of change were blowing, and Gorbachev was to be of that wind.

With his inaugural acceptance speech he launched his nation on a dual program of “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness).  These two concepts, long debated and refined among his closest advisors, introduced profound changes in the governance of the Soviet Union. Among the entirely unintended consequences of this were that, within five years, communist governments throughout Eastern Europe were swept from power.  The Paris Summit of the Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe (19-21 November 1990) adopted the Charter of Paris for a New Europe and drew the Cold War, which had against all odds remained cold for forty-four years, to a peaceful close.[1] The Soviet Union imploded into 15 individual republics.

This story, which will be broadly familiar to most of you who lived it, is well and skillfully told in Taubman’s book. But we are learning that it is not enough that we tribal elders know the history of our times; it is worthwhile, indeed necessary, that such stories are retold in each generation, so that they not slip away from us under pressure of no less alarming and urgent events of these succeeding days.

I joined the army as the missile gap was being touted and dire warnings sounded; I became a non-commissioned officer in the year of the Berlin Wall; I was commissioned an officer in the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Like many of you, I lived those times, and I can never forget.  But our succeeding generations must not be condemned to relive our times. The key for their future is knowledge: of what happened, the whys, what worked, what didn’t, what might have been avoidable, and what probably wasn’t.  Theirs is an age of clear and present dangers, and knowledge is the only thing that might deliver the society of your children, and your grandchildren, from a repetition of our past mistakes and failures.

The Cold War lasted from 1946 to 1990, and dominated the world as did the two World Wars which preceded it.  And what are our successors to make of all this? More importantly: what are the Trumps and the Putins, products of as well as successors to those times, making of them now? It seems to us that sabre-rattling has replaced diplomacy, and zero-sum games have replaced negotiations.  So books like this are important, and this one is a particularly well written record of what we must not forget, for “those who do not study history are condemned to relive it.”

But I want in this review essay to get beyond an appraisal of this book, excellent as it is.

The striking thing about Gorbachev’s “challenge” (as Time called it in their issue of December 19, 1988) was not that it was not welcomed by the audience for which it was intended- that was natural and was foreseen, but rather how negatively it was greeted in the West, whose fondest hopes for a peaceful end to the Cold War were being realized. And it is this reception of glasnost in the US, in NATO and generally by western analysts, on which I want to focus this article.

Western defense strategy was based on two pillars: the missile gap, and the conventional force gap. Because of these mythical gaps, western defenses were to be for a  half-century based on a threat of first use of nuclear weapons by NATO.  This highly dangerous policy is still in place today, but the bases for it, the famous gaps, were never more than worst-case imaginings, and they are even less valid today.

We now need to mind those gaps.




Although Time called it “a sweeping vision of a ‘new world order’ for the 21st Century … compelling and audacious … suffused with the romantic dream …”,[2]others in the West were not so welcoming. The then SACUER, General John Galvin, said that

 … although the rhetoric seems less bellicose, Soviet objectives seem to be the same as before.  … the USSR needs a pause in the political-military competition with the West … as Lenin sought a tactical pause in the 1920s, the current Soviet leader hopes that a temporary lull will allow him to modernize the Soviet economy –  an essential prerequisite to remaing a military superpower.[3]

General Galvin’s deputy, the German General Eimler, seconded his boss:

 We are being bombarded by initiatives in the field of arms control, which arrive at our doorstep at an increasing rate, and which must be most carefully examined after peeling away the coverings of the overtures of glasnost and perestroika.  … In conventional forces the Warsaw Pact outnumbers NATO significantly in most major categories. … the Soviet challenge to peace and freedom in the West remains undiminished.[4]

Time, ever alert to fresh winds, altered course quickly, warning that

The announced cuts are substantive enough to lure the West toward complacency, yet they are too small to dent significantly the advantages in men, materiel and geography that the Soviet bloc has over NATO.[5]

The Stuttgarter Zeitung headlined it as “Scarcely More Than a Cosmetic Operation”. [6] The Canadian Minister of National Defense, speaking to the Conference of Defense Associations on 27 January 1989, said that the “Soviet military policy has been to maintain armed forces well in excess of their need to deter attack,”… and that “Soviet forces vastly outnumber ours.”[7] And, as Taubman recalls,

As late as the autumn of 1989, Bush administration skeptics still questioned Gorbachev’s credentials as a reformer. He was “still a Communist,” National Security Advisor Scowcroft believed, and hence “quite prepared to take advantage of us whenever the opportunity arose.”  Scowcroft deputy Robert Gates feared Gorbachev’s reforms could be “easily reversed.”  Dick Cheney, according to Scowcroft, thought it was “premature to relax Cold War-style pressure.  The Soviet system was in trouble and we ought to continue the hard-line policies which had brought us and it to this point.  Why give up what appeared to be a winning hand?”[8]

There was also a “purloined US intelligence estimate by Gates, Deputy Director of the CIA (as  he had by then become): ‘Soviet economic modernization was not to make Soviet citizens more prosperous, but to strengthen the USSR at home and further consolidate and expand Soviet power abroad’ … Gorbachev intended to make the USSR ‘a more competitive and stronger adversary in the years ahead.'” (page 400).

So the prevailing Western reaction to Gorbachev’s initiative was to view it as a sort of reverse Clausewitz: peace is a continuation of war, intermingled with other means.  Lenin, who has seldom been proven right, is supposed to have said as much.[9]  And Cheney was just beginning his long career of mis-advising American presidents.


The creation of a perception in 1959 that the Soviet Union had gained dangerously in the state of their intercontinental ballistic missile armoury was not entirely a creation of the JFK presidential campaign, but it was a gift they were not slow to unwrap. An Eisenhower-commissioned report, chaired by Horace Rowan Gaither, contained warnings that, among other things, “the Soviet Union could have a significant ICBM capability by the end of 1959″, and that the US Air Force bomber fleet would be vulnerable to a surprise attack. [10] The Gaither report was classified top secret, but the bulk of its conclusions were soon leaked.  And no one could ignore Sputnik, bleep-bleep-bleeping across the skies.  Democratic politicians soon took up the theme that this lamentable and seriously dangerous state of affairs was due to Republican neglect of the nation’s defences, and truth became once again an early casualty.

The facts, as they eventually emerged, were that the Soviet Union did not deploy its first ICBM until January 1960, and only one more was deployed that year. The first US ICBM, the Atlas, was operational in September 1959.  But the American presidential election, and the myth, ran their courses and served their purposes.  Safely in office in February 1961, the Defense Secretary, Robert S. McNamara, stated that there were “no signs of a Soviet crash effort to build ICBMs”, and he admitted that “there is no missile gap today”. It is now clear that the number of deployed US ICBMs was never less than that of the Soviet Union; the US superiority in missiles was maintained until 1968.[11]  As Christopher Potter has recently written in his fine book The Earth Gazers, “Even at the height of its powers the Soviet Union would have only a twentieth of the air power of America.”[12]

But the myth was never entirely dispelled; it was found useful by diverse actors, and for diverse reasons.  It should have been an early warning of how robust and persistent disinformation could be.

One who found the myth especially profitable was Wernher von Braun, the brilliant and charismatic former builder of V-weapons for Adolf Hitler, now cleansed and refurbished as America’s preeminent rocket scientist, and a prominent member of NASA. Von Braun was actually little interested in weaponry, but in the early days of the Cold War that was what the big bucks were for. Von Braun was really a scientist, and was like most of his kind principally interested in space exploration. But the science and the challenges were roughly the same, and von Braun was of course familiar with the saying, “whose wine I drink his song I sing”, and thus he worked for many years with military weapons development. For both civilians and the military the “missile gap” was the chorus line of that song.  In 1957 von Braun wrote that “I am convinced that, should the Russians (sic) beat us to the satellite punch, this would have all kinds of severe psychological repercussions not only among the American people, but also among our allies.”[13] Von Braun was an especial favourite of the Vice-President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who often circumvented the Director of NASA, James Webb, to consult him directly.  The mythical missile gap was always humming in the background of these deliberations; Kennedy succeeded in raising the NASA budget from $1 to $5 billion in a discussion lasting just one hour; he had not expected the measure to pass at all.  As Potter has observed, “It seems highly unlikely that the American public of the time would have so readily funded such a costly enterprise without the motivating force of fear.”[14]

How welcome, then or at any subsequent point in the Cold War, might have been a full disclosure of the Soviet defense armouries, structures and capabilities?  And Gorbachev had promised just that, along with significant and verifiable across-the-board reductions in Soviet forces, including the total elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2000! – do you even need to ask how the Western leaders would greet that news? or how they might reciprocate, as surely they would be required to do?  This threat of an outbreak of peace needed to be contained.  

The mythical missile gap in the end was not especially dangerous. During the Kennedy administration missile weaponry was essentially diverted into the civilian “space race”, as civilian scientists pursued space exploration. Of course rockets intended for space could be and were weaponized, but that was a secondary and not the main aim of rocket science in the US in the 20th Century.


The most dangerous of the Cold War myths was the illusion that the Warsaw Pact maintained a large preponderance of conventional forces, whose superiority was so overwhelming that it could only be countered with nuclear weapons. As the destruction of the inferior NATO conventional forces would occur so quickly – the figures we used then were 100% casualties in thirty days of high intensity operations – nuclear weapons would have to be used very quickly – hence “first use”.   That policy obtains today.

But what were the real force ratios?  In 1989, I decided to find out.  I did not of course have access to the internet, but I did have access to good libraries and I knew how to use them. I had access to some classified sources, but I knew to stay away from them, and I didn’t trust them anyway.

It had been since Napoleon’s time a maxim that an attacking force required a 3:1 superiority, while a successful defense could be maintained with a 1:3 inferiority. The various wars in the Middle East had caused those figures to be revised for modern wars, and it was by the 1980s considered that at least a 5:1 superiority was required for a successful offensive operation.  But there was already ample evidence that even that might not be enough.

In the fall of 1943, the Red Army was on the general line of the Dnieper River, pursuing their offensive begun that summer. The front was about 1000 kms, and lay about 1000 kms east of Berlin. The Red Army of 5.5 million was deployed to a depth of about 200 kms behind that front, coincidentally covering an area approximately that of West Germany.  There was an average force ratio of just under 3:1 in favour of the Red Army, which nevertheless did not reach Berlin until 17 months later.

The battle for Berlin lasted from 16 April to 2 May 1945. In that time, less than three weeks, the Red Army sustained over 300,000 casualties, and lost more than 2000 tanks and guns and over 500 aircraft,[15]  and they were winning.  They had taken 17 months to advance 1000 kms, and the last 500 kms of their advance had taken five months, by which time the force ratios had improved (for them) to about 13:1. 

So we need to have a very good look at just what were the opposing force ratios in Europe at the end of the 80s.

The magazine Soldat und Technik  is the demi-official professional journal of the Bundeswehr. Contributors and readers are officers, civil servants, politicians, diplomats. The magazine is closely edited and carefully read by knowledgeable people in all these walks. It can have no reason to exaggerate its reporting nor its findings.

In 1989 Brigadier General Raimund Max Rothenburger published an article on, inter alia, the force ratios in Europe.  General Rothenburger recorded figures for both NATO and the Warsaw Pact as before and after mobilization reinforcement.[16]

The figures presented showed that, prior to reinforcement, NATO forces had 70% of the WP personnel, 84% as many divisions, 55% of the WP tanks, and 53% of their artillery. The aggregate force ratio showed NATO at 58% of the WP.  Post-reinforcement figures for both forces showed NATO with 75% of WP personnel, 60% as many divisions, 40% of their tanks and 37% of the WP artillery; the NATO aggregate was 52% of the WP.  NATO, whether mobilised or not, in contrast to the WP (mobilised or not), had in no case less than a 1:2 force ratio.

Figures released by the Warsaw Pact in January 1989 were based somewhat differently, but surprisingly were not markedly dissimilar.  The Pact claimed mere parity in manpower, but admitted to a 2:1 superiority in tanks and 1.25:1 in artillery[17].  NATO’s own figures, from November 1988, showed a WP superiority in personnel of 1.3:1, 2.3:1 in tanks, 3:1 in artillery. The International Institute for Strategic Studies showed similar ratios: NATO personnel superiority of 1.1:1; Pact superiority 2:1 in tanks and 3:1 in artillery.[18]

All of the above figures for the Warsaw Pact of course included the satellites’ forces of Eastern Europe, of whom the essential judgement was that while they might fight to defend their own countries, they could not be relied upon to join in offensive operations against the West.

The force ratios here shown were thus far from an overwhelming Soviet superiority which would threaten a surprise attack; they in fact showed the Warsaw Pact with only the forces needed to maintain an effective defense in Eastern Europe.  “Openness” of these force ratios could only have indicated that nobody was planning to attack anybody – nor had the sustainable means to do so – and which ultimately proved to have been the case.

That conventional force imbalance was thus also largely mythical, but it was far more dangerous and enduring, and it is with us today. Because of it, as John Issacs has written, the US,

with an inferior conventional force, would have been free to respond with a nuclear attack against the invading Soviet forces or the Soviet Union itself …  (In 1961, faced with a Soviet threat to occupy West Berlin) the Joint Chiefs of Staff had determined that the US could not defend West Berlin with conventional weapons alone … “.[19]

Daniel Schneider, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, said that “The United States, along with other Western nuclear powers, has always reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to respond to a massive Soviet conventional attack on Europe, or elsewhere.”[20]

Finally, Zhenqiang Pan, writing for the Carnegie Endowment:

 … as the Soviet Union’s nuclear forces gradually caught up with those of the United States, in addition to its superior conventional forces in Europe, the United States and NATO could no longer suppress their rival with a large-scale nuclear first strike. However, the United States and NATO were still prepared to use nuclear weapons first as the most powerful tool to retaliate against a strong offensive attack (sic) by the Warsaw Pact’s formidable tank columns.[21]

As I have said, myths, especially those that have been deliberately planted, die hard, and this one shows every sign of outlasting us all.


William Taubman’s Gorbachev: His Life and Times is the one book that everyone interested in understanding where we are today, should read – to know where you are, you need to know whence you have come.  This book will be a long haul – with index, it’s 852 pages. Nevertheless, it is clearly, simply and entertainingly written. Even knowing how most of the events related here were to be worked out, I found it hard to put down.

I have two slightly less positive criticisms of the book.

There is in my view inadequate reference to Western skepticism of Gorbachev’s policies. Surely that was known to his opponents at home, surely they made use of it, surely there was glee among his domestic opponents with every American and NATO expression of doubt that Gorbachev was sincere, or that he could deliver.  It seemed that “openness” was no more welcome in the West than it was in the Soviet Union; I have quoted Taubman on the reactions and the advice of Scowcroft, Cheney and Gates, but they were far from the only ones who derided Gorbachev’s offerings.  This was an important issue, and deserved much more coverage and context than is afforded here.  A more extensive enquiry into this issue might also have led to asking why this was so.

And those “gaps” were to cause still more damage.  That story is encapsulated in the course of the Regan-Gorbachev Summit at Reykavik, in October 1986.

In the background to the summit was still the received strategic wisdom:  “Given Soviet superiority in conventional weapons, Washington still counted on strategic weapons for deterrence, pending trouble in the Senate for any SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement reached before the conventional imbalance was rectified.” (page 419 – italics added)

Preparing for the summit, both sides felt that they were near breakthrough on arms reductions.  But the Americans had been insisting that they would press ahead on the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an anti-ICBM missile system to be stationed in space as an anti-missile missile system. Taubman says:

The prospect of SDI, like a science-fiction phantom with magical powers, brought the agreement within reach and then vaporized it.  For Reagan, it was SDI which rendered nuclear weapons obsolete.  For Gorbachev, SDI rendered an agreement to abolish them impossible. (page 301).

The tragedy of this was that almost no one except Reagan even believed that SDI would work. The American media ridiculed it as “Star Wars”, and most tests had been failures.  The Soviets didn’t believe in it either: the Chief of the KGB said that “We concluded that SDI was unrealizable and that the US was bluffing.”[23]

The Reykavik Summit ended in bitterness, disappointment and without issue, all over an imagined weapon system in which almost no one believed, which was intended to counter a force imbalance in which no one should have believed.  The phantom was not science fiction, it was rather the persistent myth of a conventional forces imbalance.

Gorbachev tried once more.

At the United Nations General Assembly on 6 December 1988, Gorbachev announced that “the Soviet Union would unilaterally reduce its armed forces by 500,000 soldiers; 50,000 of these, along with six tank divisions including 5,000 tanks, assault troops, and all their weapons and combat equipment, would be withdrawn from Eastern Europe.” (page 423)

But it was too late for that; the caravan was moving on and it was moving faster than had been thought possible.  In the next year Eastern Europe was freed of their Communist governments and their Soviet satellite status, largely peacefully and popularly, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was moving rapidly to reunification within NATO, the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the Soviet Union itself began its implosion.  Gorbachev resigned his offices in 1991.  The Group of Soviet Forces in Germany was withdrawn in stages; all were gone from the new Germany by mid-1994.

This is a history book, and Taubman is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, yet he appears to have subscribed to the Gap Myths. And, it seems, so did Reagan and Bush.  But why didn’t Taubman confront the mythology?  Having done so, he could then have addressed its origins, and he could have asked why the myths had so persisted, despite all the open-source evidence to the contrary. Had he done that, he might have been led back to the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower warned us, two generations ago.  And then the next question:  cui bono?  Partial answer: the US spends over one third of all the world’s defense expenditures: $611.2 billion, of a world total of $1,686 billion[24]. But if we don’t get those questions right, we won’t usually get any right answers to them, either, and it seems that in this book we are to be content with that. Well, we are not.

Notwithstanding my reservations, this book would be an ideal Christmas gift for you, and for your grown children, who might in their turn, having read it, find your grandchildren’s questions a little easier to answer.


The Cold War mythology which shaped our lives and our present, is still very much with us. For example, David Sinclair for the Telegraph on 20 April, 2015:

During the Cold War, Nato assumed that a Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap could only be defeated by nuclear weapons. But the permanent presence of 200,000 US troops in Germany – along with 55,000 soldiers from the British Army of the Rhine – would slow down the onslaught and buy a few days, or perhaps weeks, for cooler heads to prevail before the terrible moment of decision arrived.

Today, no such safety margin exists.  If Russia were to invade the Baltic states, Nato would probably have one option – and one alone – to defend its members. America, Britain and France would need to decide almost immediately whether to use nuclear weapons. If they opted to abandon the Baltics, then Nato would be finished.[25]

The Cold War “gaps” are an early example of the disinformation that is now becoming a new norm in communications, and especially in public information. In the year the “missile gap” was invented, 1959, the Soviet Union had not one operational ICBM;  the “overwhelming conventional forces” of the Soviet Union never existed at all. Information is not to inform, it is used deliberately to mislead. Donald Trump will rejuvenate fossil fuel systems in the US; Nigel Farage will return vast sums to the National Health Service – none of this is true, and the untruths were known almost as the words were spoken. Yet Trump remains literally wildly popular among the ex-miners of Appalachia; Farage is still the darling of the Brexiteers.  In the United States, as in the United Kingdom, things were never what they used to be.  New myths are being planted, and will, despite copious information to the contrary, take hardy root.

You really should read this book, and so should your children. And, when you read, you need always to ask “why”: why the deep Western skepticism? And why the pervasiveness, even unto this day, of the myths of the Cold War?  Those answers are out there somewhere – it is only a pity these questions have not been asked in this excellent book.



[1] “The era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended.”  CSCE, Paris, 21 November 1984.

[2] Time, December 19, 1988, p 16

[3] Galvin, General John R., “Transatlantic Partnership for Security: Canada in NATO”, Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol 18, No 1, Summer 1988, Toronto, Ontario, p9

[4] General Eberhard Eimler, “The Way Ahead for NATO Forces”, Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol 18, No 2, Autumn 1988, p 33

[5] Time, op cit

[6] “Kaum mehr als eine kosmetische Operation,” Stuttgarter Zeitung, 24 January 1989.  Stuttgart was then home to the Commander and HQ of the United States Army in Europe.

[7] The Honourable Perrin Beatty, P.C., M.P., Address to the Conference of Defence Associations, Ottawa, Ontario, 27 January 1989.

[8] Taubmann, William, Gorbachev – His Life and Times, Simon and Schuster, London, 2017, page 494

[9] E.M. Earle, Makers of Modern Strategy, “Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin”, Atheneum, New York, 1968, pp 324-5

[10] The Missile Gap Myth and Its Progeny, by Greg Thielmann, in Arms Control Today, Arms Control Association, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2011_05/Thielmann#bio (accessed 19.11.2017)

[11] Thielmann, op. cit.

[12] Christopher Potter, The Earth Gazers, Head of Zeus, Ltd, United Kingdom, 2017, page 161.

[13] Potter, op. cot., page 156

[14] Potter, op. cit., page 190

[15]  Those Soviet losses amounted to nearly the entire strength of the Bundeswehr in  989

[16] Brigadier General Raimund Max Rothenburger, P.Eng., “Die Rustungsfuehrung und ihr Ziel, die Einsatzreife des Wehrmaterials, am Beispiel des Heeres”, Soldat und Technik, January 1989, p 14. During the Cold War, both sides relied for immediate operations on “stationed forces,” ie those permanently stationed in the putative operational area. These were to be reinforced/replaced by “earmarked forces”, in the case of NATO, forces in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, which were “earmarked” for rapid deployment to a European theatre. Deployment of “earmarked” forces was practiced regularly, as in the autumn NATO maneuvers often referred to as REFORGER exercises, for Return of (US) Forces to Germany. Analysts with something to prove would often compare pre-reinforcement figures for one side with fully reinforced strengths of the other. By reporting both, General Rothenburger meant to keep the record straight.

[17] Sueddeutsche Zietung, “Warschauer Pakt: Annaehhernde Paritaet mit der NATO”, 31 January 1989

[18] ibid

[19] “No First Use vs. First Strike”, by John Issacs, Senior Fellow, Council for a Livable World, Oct 4, 2016, https://medium.com/@jisaacs/no-first-use-vs-first-strike-275af7124fe1 (accessed 16.11.2017) Italics added.

[20] Russia Drops No-First-Use Pledge on Its Nuclear Weapons”, By Daniel Sneider, Staff writer, The Christian Science Monitor November 4, 1993. (https://www.csmonitor.com/1993/1104/04011x.html, accessed 16.11.2017) Italics added.

[21] “China’s No First Use of Nuclear Weapons”,  by Zhenqiang, Pan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – Reports, 28 Oct 2016 (https://www.questia.com/magazine/1P3-4285520441/china-s-no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons (accessed 16.11.2016) Italics added.

[23] In 1987 the American Physical Society concluded that SDI was not practicable with the then current technology, and that at least another decade would be required just to study feasibility of such a system. After repeated budget cuts and dwindling support, the programme was cancelled in 1993.

[24] https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex (accessed 26.11.2017)

[25] David Blair, “Would we really go nuclear to protect Estonia? ” The Telegraph, 20 April 2015:  see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11548412/Would-we-really-go-nuclear-to-protect-Estonia.html (accessed 22.11.2017)


  1. Ben Hoffman says:

    Wonderful review Jamie especially because you digressed to not only inform us but to sharpen your critique. Had the author run a draft past you I have to assume he would have embraced your suggestions which would have taken the reader into another level of inquiry. 800 pages of excellent writing to give us insights into Gorbechev and the “gaps” is appealing but I have more than once thought we could use a book from you. Would love to hear you take on the prevailing myths that drive so much destructive behaviour.

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