If biographer Edmund Morris was frustrated about his inability to fathom what made Ronald Reagan tick, he may be consoled to know that he had lots of company. Soviet intelligence tried for years to read the intentions of this smiling conservative who joked in a microphone warm-up about unleashing a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
The KGB's preoccupation with "the main adversary," as America was called, emerges from a new book, "The Sword and the Shield." It's drawn from voluminous files spirited out of the KGB archives by Vasili Mitrokhin, who worked at Lubyanka headquarters for 30 years and defected in 1992.
From this treasure trove of top-secret papers we learn that Communist boss Leonid Brezhnev, in a secret speech to a KGB conference in May, 1981, denounced the policies of the new president as "a threat to peace." KGB chief Yuri Andropov announced to the spymasters a global operation intended to penetrate what the KGB believed were plans for a nuclear first strike at the Soviet Union.
Georgi Arbatov, the head of the Soviet institute studying the United States - identified in this book as a KGB agent - was sent to Washington. He managed to get invited to a White House dinner where, he reported, he observed Reagan close up for an hour-and-a-half.
And what did he learn? That Reagan played president, but with genuine emotion, tears in his eyes when honor guards with the four armed services flags came into the room. What else? That Reagan's speech was "exceptionally shallow," but that he played perfectly the role of "father of the nation."
To learn that, you need a spy?
A KGB psychological profile of Reagan speculated on whether his health as a young man had been affected by his father's alcoholism. The report spoke of Reagan's "weak intellectual capacity."
But the KGB never did find the "mad bomber" plan, and in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a KGB officer acknowledged that station chiefs had supported the theory because they thought that was what the Kremlin wanted to hear.
He said, "In order to please our superiors, we sent in falsified and biased information.... That's not intelligence; it's self-deception."
I think Mr. Morris would enjoy meeting some of these KGB people who shared with him a preoccupation with Reagan and a failure to read him.
To please superiors, Soviet spies sent false information. That's not intelligence; it's self-deception.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society