The Collapse of the Soviet Union
Conventional wisdom holds that the U.S. intelligence community failed to predict the Soviet Union's demise in 1991, presaged as it was by President Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, the deteriorating Soviet economy, the collapse of communism in east-central Europe, and the moves toward independence by several Soviet republics. As the BBC recently noted, "the Soviet example illustrates the problem that intelligence gatherers are great counters: they can look at missiles, estimate the output of weapons factories, and so on. But the underlying political and social dynamics in a society are much harder to read."
Indeed, in Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1980-1990, David Arbel and Ran Edelist argue that the intelligence community often catered to the preconceived notions officials in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had of the Soviet threat, producing a "rigid conceptual conformity between the analysts and the decision-makers." But former CIA official Douglas MacEachin adds that while the CIA did not forecast the breakup of the Soviet Union, it did "predict that the failing economy and stultifying societal conditions it had described in so many of its studies would ultimately provoke some kind of political confrontation within the USSR ... What actually did happen depended on people and decisions that were not inevitable."
Above, Gorbachev reads his resignation statement in Moscow on Dec. 25, 1991, before appearing on television to cede power to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and effectively dissolve the Soviet Union.
Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images