Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended
by Jack F. Matlock, Jr.
Random House. 384 pp. $27.95

We are far enough removed from the cold war to take its sudden, peaceful conclusion for granted. It is easy to forget how tense superpower relations were in those decades, when the prospect of nuclear confrontation was an ever-present concern. The political battles entailed in waging the cold war have also receded into memory, if we are to judge by the Democratic presidential contender John Kerry’s poll-tested praise for Ronald Reagan as the man who won the cold war by “working with allies” instead of threatening war.

It is always good to be reminded, therefore, of how much was at stake in the great rivalry and how it actually ended. Jack Matlock, a career diplomat who served on Reagan’s National Security Council from 1983 to 1987 and then went on to become the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, is uniquely qualified to perform this task, having observed developments from inside perches in both Washington and Moscow.

Frustrated with one-sided polemics that “do not square with the events as I remember them,” Matlock sets out in Reagan and Gorbachev to restore equal billing to both statesmen in the peaceful termination of the conflict. To this end, he has supplemented his own memory of the period with interviews with key figures on both sides, and has also consulted an array of secondary and primary accounts, including transcripts of presidential summits.

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Matlock’s story begins early in Reagan’s first term, when establishment Washington wags were infuriated by the President’s seemingly obstinate refusal to negotiate with the Kremlin. Behind Reagan’s intransigence, Matlock informs us, lay a principled strategy to overturn the accommodationist diplomacy of the détente era. The key principle was an insistence on reciprocity, or, in layman’s terms, no longer giving Moscow something for nothing.

As Matlock shows, the one-sidedness of superpower relations of the previous three administrations extended to matters small and large. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter had all relied almost exclusively on the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, as a “special channel” for sensitive communications—even as U.S. ambassadors in Moscow were not allowed to talk to senior Kremlin officials. This “made about as much sense,” writes Matlock, “as it would to hire an opponent’s lawyer to represent both sides in a litigation.” Similarly, Soviet officials were regularly interviewed on American television news shows, while the U.S. ambassador in Moscow needed special permission to appear on tightly controlled Soviet broadcasts.

The same lack of reciprocity, as Matlock also shows, extended to far weightier issues. In 1972, Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev had signed a “Declaration of Principles” in which both powers pledged not to seek “unilateral advantage.” But in the ensuing years, the Soviet Union managed to establish a clear superiority in land-based heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s) and also had begun to deploy highly accurate nuclear-tipped missiles (SS-20’s) aimed at European capitals.

By the time Reagan took office in 1981, the strategic balance was beginning to tilt in Moscow’s favor. Reagan, who had made the looming danger a leading theme of his presidential campaign, had to overcome a series of major obstacles to reverse the trend. Congress, to begin with, rejected his proposal to develop a new heavy ICBM, the MX. Reagan’s deployment of the famous Pershing missiles to counter the Soviet SS-20’s set off waves of protest in Western Europe.

Unable fully to match Soviet offensive programs, Reagan proposed the defensive shield of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI): like the Pershing missiles, this too unleashed a political firestorm. Still, despite the hand-wringing in Western capitals, Reagan’s ambitious approach made it plain to the Soviet leaders that they would not be negotiating with a timid adversary and that they could not outstrip the U.S. in an arms race without breaking their own bank.

As the Soviet Union entered a visible economic crisis in the second half of the 1980’s, Reagan gave no quarter, refusing to offer concessions until the Kremlin made significant headway toward meeting the four-part agenda he had articulated: the Soviet Union had to demonstrate respect for human rights, open its hermetically sealed borders, reduce its nuclear arsenal, and disengage from armed conflict in third-world countries like Afghanistan. If the fundamental aim of diplomacy, as Matlock writes, “is to convince the other fellow that what you want him to do is what he needs to do,” this was Reagan’s achievement in dealing with the USSR.

Evidently Gorbachev agreed. Through his policy of glasnost, he began to ease restrictions on the press and on cross-border travel, satisfying the first two demands in Reagan’s framework. And by accepting lopsided reductions in intermediate-range missiles, an area where the Soviets had enjoyed a clear advantage, Gorbachev mostly gave in on the third demand (though ICBM reductions would come only later).

As for the fourth, beginning in May 1988 Gorbachev “frontloaded” the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, just as Reagan insisted, with “larger numbers leaving early rather than later.” In that same year came Gorbachev’s public renunciation of the Brezhnev Doctrine; the Kremlin had finally jettisoned the right to keep Communism in power in satellite countries by force of arms, effectively dismantling the ideological underpinning of its entire foreign policy. For Matlock, this represented the “end of the cold war.”

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Does this mean that Reagan won the great superpower conflict? Matlock’s account, evenhanded to a fault, becomes even more so when he turns to this question. In the face of evidence that he himself has already presented, he insists that “everyone, including the Soviet Union, won.” It would be “wrong to think,” he adds, that Reagan “had forced his agenda on an unwilling Gorbachev.” Rather, “as Gorbachev wrestled with the problems the Soviet Union faced, he came to see, not all at once, but over time, that many things Reagan had proposed were not unreasonable.”

But evenhandedness here as elsewhere sometimes blinds Matlock to the obvious. Thus, the USSR’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes in his telling a courageous act of strength. Gorbachev could show his colleagues in the Politburo that “the Americans could no longer keep them bogged down in Afghanistan,” and present himself as “the leader who had eased international tension and restored Soviet prestige in the world.”

That is hardly how the Afghan mujahideen and Osama bin Laden saw the humiliating Soviet pullout, or the leaders of national resistance movements from the Caucasus to the Baltic who soon declared independence from Moscow. By denying that the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, Matlock stretches evenhandedness to the point of absurdity.

In similar fashion, Matlock obscures the battles fought in Washington over Reagan’s policies. Although he served in the Reagan White House for three years before being posted to Moscow, he seems to have scarcely noticed the State Department’s resistance to the administration’s more forceful approach. We can hardly blame Matlock when he tells us that he “detest[s] the Washington bureaucracy,” but, beyond offering a few mild asides about its unhelpful “leaks,” he never says why.

In his epilogue, Matlock takes a swipe at the Bush Doctrine and its elaboration in Iraq. Policy-makers today, he suggests, should examine “the way Reagan dealt with the mortal danger the Soviet Union’s weapons posed: not by threatening military action or demanding ‘regime change,’ but by patient diplomacy backed up by economic as well as military strength.” This critique, calling to mind John Kerry’s curious commendation of Reagan’s diplomatic acumen, seriously underplays the element of coercion involved in Reagan’s efforts to induce Gorbachev to disarm and dismantle the Soviet empire. The story of how Reagan helped to break this adversary, despite sometimes ferocious opposition, including from inside his own government, would make a great book. This is not it.

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