Heretics in the CIA: Predicting the Sino-Soviet Split + Oxford Meetup Thurs
How one ragtag group of analysts called the greatest geopolitical shift of the Cold War
ChinaTalk meetup in Oxford on Thursday night, RSVP here.
Policy predictions often flatten into creeds. And so, we have the Truman Doctrine, which placed America in 1947 in opposition to a new postwar authoritarian bloc. Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union updated the idea. David Frum produced for George W. Bush the brilliant description of an “axis of evil” opposed “free markets and free trade and free societies.”
These binary antagonisms — freedom versus tyranny, good versus evil — are difficult to argue with: one might risk being tarred as an enemy of the light side. But seeing the cracks in these binaries is a great way to see the future more clearly. It can be the first step in changing the world.
Recent remembrances of Henry Kissinger give us an example of that. He was celebrated chiefly for his decision to bust out of binary Cold War foreign-policy logic to build an alliance with the Chinese against the Soviet Union.
Kissinger, though, comes in only at the very end of today’s story. In reaching out to China, he was not taking a leap into the unknown: he had plenty of evidence that the Chinese were ready to make a deal to bury the USSR. More than a decade before Kissinger arrived in Beijing in 1971, a small group of researchers and analysts within the CIA were challenging the model of a world bisected by ideology. The experience and expertise of the analysts on the Sino-Soviet Studies Group (SSSG) on the socialist bloc gave them confidence — even before the width of the split became clear in 1958-1959 — that the alliance was going to falling to pieces.
Deep in the guts of a Cold War intelligence community (IC) then recently rocked by anticommunist purges, the SSSG exploited the magnificent futurological possibilities of hunting for the contradictions papered over by popular doctrine.
The early Cold War was a time when it seemed impossible to defy the description of the world as two opposing blocs, with America and her allies facing off against the Soviet Union, supported by China and satellites in Eastern Europe.
Indeed, it was also how the rival socialist bloc described the state of international relations. As they came together for the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in 1950, both China and the Soviet Union broadcast images of the personifications of their respective masses in embrace. Harry Truman in 1947 spoke of a showdown between two spheres, but albeit with more revolutionary zest. Mao Zedong did, too, describing how his country had to ally with socialist allies against the imperialists.
There was limited debate over the idea of a world bisected by ideology. Though certainly true in Soviet and Chinese propaganda departments, it was also taken as gospel in the State Department and the CIA, as well as with US-government partners in think tanks (like the Council on Foreign Relations and the RAND Corporation) and elite universities. The idea of China in alliance with the Soviet Union in a scheme for global domination went unchallenged.
People wanted to believe. To break with the binary antagonism would require coming up with a new vision for the world.
On the US side, those who might have counseled for a more nuanced approach were purged from the State Department and intelligence community. Those purges were motivated by the “loss of China” in 1949 or perceived softness on Chinese communism. These staffers were replaced by more hawkish experts who held to the line promoted by the China Lobby, the boosters of Chiang Kai-shek in Washington — and they used the threat of a global communist alliance to make their case that the People’s Republic of China had to be resisted at every step.
Unsurprisingly, then, few acknowledged publicly that the fraternal relationship between the Soviet Union and China was fragile. Yet it was falling apart, even as Mao and Stalin met in Moscow in 1950. the Communist Party was never unable to overcome a deep mistrust of the Soviets, who, it seemed, would have been just as happy to have the Nationalists win the civil war. Meanwhile, the Soviet leadership feared potential Chinese duplicity and a descent into a deformed national socialism that they termed “Titoism” (after the Yugoslavian leader). While loans from the Soviet Union were taken by the outside world as a sign of commitment, the Chinese leadership — and Mao in particular — bristled at their stinginess.
After Stalin’s death, any warmth between the two socialist brother states had faded. When Nikita Khrushchev arrived in Beijing in 1959 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the nation’s founding, the Sino-Soviet relationship was beyond saving. When the Soviet Union proposed schemes to knit the countries together through a shared currency and naval fleet, Mao’s suspicion turned into full-blown paranoia. Further disagreements over Tibet, Sino-Indian relations, and arms transfers all turned rancorous.
Western observers took the publicly available statements from Beijing and Moscow as proof of only a rebalancing of the relationship, or, at worst, a temporary rift. That was true in the Washington establishment, the larger IC, and even in academia. For example, in an article for Far Eastern Survey in 1955, Allen S. Whiting — who did eventually come around to the reality of the split — listed disagreements that had cropped up in the half-decade since the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, but nonetheless concludes that “criticisms of Soviet Russia and Soviet assistance are too distant from the policy-making center of the Chinese Communist Party to threaten the Peking-Moscow alliance.”
The SSSG was among the earliest proponents of the idea that the Sino-Soviet relationship was doomed. The late Harold P. Ford, former CIA analyst and chronicler of IC history, described their predictions as a “heresy” within the IC. Ray S. Cline, the founder of the group, described the SSSG as renegades, battling upstream against “furious opposition” to the idea that the Sino-Soviet bloc was not monolithic.
Who exactly were these heretics?
We know Cline started the group, since that is what is recorded in his memoir — Secrets, Spies, and Scholars: The Essential CIA — as well as in official CIA histories. As an operator who worked alongside Office of Strategic Services agents in China while on leave from Harvard, and then as an analyst at the CIA, Cline put together the SSSG in 1956 while Director of the Office of Current Intelligence under the Directorate of Intelligence.
The group was led in its early years by Walter P. Southard, a former Navy intelligence officer with experience in China (he recalls in an interview meeting future PRC diplomat Huang Hua 黄华 in 1948 and never forgetting his vicious remarks about Russians). Southard was joined by Donald S. Zagoria, an expert at deciphering the official language of the Soviet Union, and Philip L. Bridgham, another former Navy man and East Asia expert.
We also have these names: Harry Gelman, a former student of Vladimir Nabokov, Army veteran, and Soviet expert, who later went to RAND; Setrag Mardirosian, a sharp Kremlinologist; and Arthur A. Cohen, recognized as one of the chief American experts on East Asian communism.
Though incomplete, the list gives an idea of the type of man who fit within the SSSG program. These men often had recent on-the-ground experience — but more importantly, they were area experts. As Cline, who selected the core group, said in his memoir, the CIA of the early Cold War was unparalleled in its ability to select and nurture genius in research and analysis, to which the Agency owed its “marked superiority” over rival intelligence agencies.
The operation of the group itself seems to have been more important than personnel. The SSSG was allowed to operate more like an area studies department than a typical intelligence shop. That model was first developed for Project CAESAR in 1952, conceived as the IC’s “first all-source, in-depth research endeavor.” The intention was not to deliver conventional intelligence products, containing guidance for policymakers, but rather to create knowledge for consumption within the IC. Project CAESAR, which focused on Soviet leadership, was followed by Project POLO a few years later, analyzing Chinese politics. As official CIA history has it, these projects “sought to develop a comprehensive knowledge base on select political issues that could contribute to building analytic capital for intelligence specialists throughout the community.”
The SSSG also drew heavily on reports produced by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) and Foreign Documents Division (FDD), who published the first dissenting opinions on the durability of Sino-Soviet relations based on analysis of state media broadcasts in both countries. A joint FBIS and FDD effort, “Propaganda Evidence Concerning Sino-Soviet Relations” sounded a skeptical note as early as 1952. This method of sussing out statements from the interpretation of ideologically coded propaganda broadcasts became important to the SSSG.
The SSSG team was tasked with figuring out, from the reports of CAESAR/POLO and FBIS/FDD, the implications of an ideological rift between China and the Soviet Union. They were also given leeway to propose novel research questions, which often came from their shared skepticism over the durability of the Sino-Soviet relationship. This relative freedom meant that they could pick up on debates going on within the Agency, the larger IC, and academia. They were energized by what official CIA history calls “creative tension” — or, in other words, their need to justify consistent departure from IC orthodoxy.
Since many of the documents produced by the SSSG, as well as those from CAESAR and POLO, were declassified in 2007 (and can be found in the CIA’s online archive), we can get a good idea of what precisely their heresy was.
The SSSG reports were codenamed ESAU — not an acronym, but a reference to a Biblical allegory they had in mind to describe the Sino-Soviet relationship. The Soviet Union was Esau, the eldest the son of the patriarch Isaac, and China was Jacob, the younger brother, who tricked his father into granting him the inheritance that was the birthright of Esau.
Several of the early ESAU papers — including “Origins of the Chinese ‘Commune’ Program,” credited to Bridgham, “The Commune: Conception and Experimentation, Spring 1958,” credited to Southard, and “The Soviet Attitude Toward ‘Commune,’” credited to Zagoria — highlight the contrast between Chinese enthusiasm for and Soviet displeasure with the program of collectivization underway in China. These studies were proof of an idea that was still controversial in the IC: China and the Soviet Union were divided, rather than united, by ideology.
The SSSG chalked all of this up to, essentially, the Soviet side pulling right, trying to normalize its economy and relations with the wider world, while Mao drove left, resulting in the collectivization drive of the Great Leap Forward and an orientation hostile to the West. While other analysts saw this, they were not willing to entertain the idea of a prolonged divide. This was the source of the “‘furious’ opposition.”
Public debate within the IC must be pieced together from declassified material and analyst memoirs — but the same dynamics are easier to see in academia, where Zagoria, publishing sanitized versions of ESAU papers between 1958 and 1961 (“The Spectre of Revisionism,” “Strains in the Sino-Soviet Alliance,” “The Future of Sino-Soviet Relations”) was also swimming upstream. And whatever his later conclusions, Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1961, directly answering Zagoria, still termed talk of a prolonged or worsening Sino-Soviet split “naive.” Abraham M. Halpern, who analyzed East Asian communist foreign policy for RAND, though acknowledging in a 1961 paper the Sino-Soviet split, struck a cautious note, too, arguing that however irrational the “native radicals” became, they would be guided by the “persistent belief” that the only “permanent, inevitable and decisive” conflict was the one between the socialist and imperialist blocs. When Zagoria’s The Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1956-1961 was published in 1962 by Princeton University Press, even a review that termed it “an accomplishment in modern political science” still seemed unconvinced by its conclusions.
As the split between the Soviet Union and China dragged on, the conclusions of the SSSG became hard to deny. As Ford put it, “the heretical views long held by many of the Agency’s analysts had at last begun to become canon.”
The CIA, which had been loath to pass along SSSG analysis to policymakers, finally detailed the Sino-Soviet split in a December 1960 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) (“National Intelligence Estimate Number 13-60”), noting a “sharp dispute between Moscow and Peiping” over foreign affairs, arms transfers, and economics. They hedged their bets early on, predicting that the “alliance against the West will hold together,” and that there would be no possibility of deals with the Chinese side, noting a “‘hate-America’ campaign within China which at times has reached a near-frenzied pitch.”
The NIEs and other IC policy guidance through the early 1960s were more cautious than might now seem warranted by the conclusions of the ESAU papers, but it seems clear that the SSSG was having an impact. Ford sums up the influence of the SSSG like this:
the causes and depths of Sino-Soviet discord these CIA authors had decoded, especially their insistence that the root issue was the clash of state interests were later confirmed by events, particularly Soviet-Chinese combat. Those early CIA analyses cannot take credit for having killed the long-held certainty of so many officials that the United States confronted a united Communist bloc. In showing the way before 1963, however, CIA’s heretics did help stir the beginnings of policy movement in the Department of State. And, at a minimum, they demonstrated the validity of patient analysis and the courage to contest conventional wisdom.
The SSSG ceased to exist in its original form by the time Kissinger requested intelligence on the Sino-Soviet relationship, but their work paved the way for the analysts working in the Office of Political Research (OPR) at the time, who were tapped to provide heretical futurological assessments of China.
The research and analysis methods of contemporary intelligence shops have advanced since the time of the SSSG in the 1950s and the OPR China shop of the 1970s. Lessons from their work are incorporated into government manuals for structured analytic techniques. And so we have some idea how to go about predicting events that will, like the Sino-Soviet split or a Chinese-American alliance, seem obvious in hindsight.
But the story of the SSSG’s heresy is intended as inspiration. New tools for predictions require thinking that pushes far beyond popular understandings of foreign relations and domestic political situations. History can progress for a time according to the simplistic narrative, but great changes will arrive to tear them apart. To predict that moment requires dissent from the orthodoxy.
What is the modern equivalent of the SSSG predicting right now?