Ambassador Jack Matlock had a front row seat for the final days of the US-Soviet Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. After serving two tours (as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d Affaires) in the US Embassy in Moscow, in 1980 he was appointed Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. In the summer of 1983, he moved to the National Security Council, as Senior Director for Europe and the USSR. He served in that position until April of 1987, when he was appointed US Ambassador to the USSR, where he served until August 1991. His 2004 book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, relates his insider’s view, and his newest book, Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray--And How to Return to Reality, debunks the popular idea that Reagan brought about the collapse of the USSR. While working on his article, 1983: The Scariest Year (Mar/Apr 2013), Russian Life Publisher Paul Richardson conducted an email interview with Matlock, which is produced here in its entirety.
Would you not agree that the early 1980s were one of the most challenging and potentially dangerous times for US-Soviet relations in the postwar era? I remember a very heightened sense of fear and anxiety. People of course had no idea the Soviet Union would implode before the decade was out, and were instead very focused on the danger of the superpowers' massive nuclear arsenals; the nuclear freeze movement was gaining in strength. As 1979 turned to 1980, we had the Iranian hostage crisis, followed closely by the Soviets' Afghan invasion, a grain embargo, the Olympics embargo, unrest in Poland... And then in November 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected, promising to increase military spending to reassert American stature on the world stage, and delivering very strident, anti-Soviet rhetoric. Plus he brought into office with him some very arch-conservative advisers (i.e. Alexander Haig, Richard Pipes, Richard Allen) who reinforced his sort of Manichean, confrontational world view. Do you remember things this way? That this was a time of fear and foreboding in US-Russian bilateral relations?
It may have been a challenging time but it was not dangerous. Both governments were determined to avoid any direct military conflict. The public perception you cite was the result of media hype and, by 1983, a Soviet effort to use the peace movement to block INF deployments in Europe. Instead of coming to an agreement regarding intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the Andropov leadership placed its bet on supporting the peace movement in Europe. When Paul Nitze tried (during his “walk in the woods” with Kvitsinsky) to reach a compromise on the issue, Kvitsinsky was unable to get a response out of the Soviet leadership. In fact, much of the hype about the threat of war came out of Moscow in an effort to bolster the peace movement. Soviet propagandists ended up frightening their own people without effectively intimidating the “West.” The fact was that the Soviet Union was better off with zero intermediate-range weapons than even an imperfect balance between the Soviet SS-20 and a smaller number of less capable Pershings and cruise missiles.
Besides, the deployments were not a Reagan idea but the result of a NATO decision taken during the Carter administration. It was an alliance decision to deploy American missiles in Europe unless an agreement could be reached regarding the Soviet SS-20s, the deployment of which violated a general understanding during the détente of the 1970s that neither side would seek a unilateral advantage over the other (the 1972 “Declaration of Principles”).
It was clear to Reagan that a freeze of nuclear weapons would perpetuate a dangerous situation. He wanted to get on a path to eliminate them entirely, but that could not be done with both sides sitting on mountains of weapons. Once the INF deployments occurred, he was convinced that the Soviet leaders would understand that the Soviet Union was more secure without intermediate-range missiles than it was with them. Gorbachev finally understood that, and we got the INF agreement for total elimination. It was a triumph of common sense and was clearly in the interest of both countries.
So far as Reagan’s “rhetoric” is concerned, there was media attention to some things he said and very little to the balancing comments he made. Yes, he thought he had to build up U.S. military strength in order to obtain fair agreements to reduce arms. He said all along that he did not think the Soviet leaders wanted war. He feared they were using a perception of military superiority to derive political gains and he knew that if that continued, it would lead to dangerous tensions. You will find in the first chapter of my book Reagan and Gorbachev an extensive list of Reagan’s comments during the first year of his presidency. In none of them did he issue any threats. He also never attacked the Soviet leaders by name, even though they were calling him a warmonger and worse. Then Soviet ambassador Dobrynin commented in his memoirs that the Soviet leaders routinely lambasted American politicians as imperialists or worse, but had unusually thin skins when Reagan began to pay them back in kind—though he refrained from the sort of personal invective routinely directed at American presidents from Truman on.
The media generally ignored or downplayed Reagan’s statements that the U.S. and USSR shared the planet and needed to settle their differences in peace.
In fact Reagan went out of his way to signal his willingness to deal with the Soviet leadership. One of the first things he did was to drop Carter’s grain “embargo,” without seeking anything in return. While he was recovering from the assassination attempt during the first year of his presidency, he wrote a spontaneous handwritten letter to Leonid Brezhnev, appealing for cooperation. As Dobrynin noted in his memoirs, Reagan received in reply a cold, bureaucratic reply that could not possibly have helped establish personal rapport.
Those who refer to Reagan’s advisors ignore the fact that the president makes the decisions, not his subordinates. Reagan routinely rejected the advice of those advisers (such as Caspar Weinberger) who argued that we could not reach acceptable agreements with the Soviet Union. Reagan’s slogan, “Trust but verify” was directed more at them than at Gorbachev.
You will find many more relevant details in Reagan and Gorbachev if this subject interests you. In sum, despite the belligerent tone of Soviet propaganda in the early 1980s, we were never anywhere near a military confrontation. The Reagan administration was preparing to deal with a new generation of Soviet leaders who were capable of understanding that Soviet policy in the early 1980s was damaging to the Soviet Union itself. When the generational change in Soviet leadership occurred, in 1985, with Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascendancy, the tensions of the 1970s and early 1980s were quickly reduced, and by the end of the 1980s, almost completely eliminated.
Unquestionably it is the president who makes the final call. But surely it matters a great deal from whom the president is getting his advice, who is providing briefings and who is advocating for different options. For instance, I gather that it had some influence on Reagan's Soviet policy when George Shultz replaced Alexander Haig at State and when you replaced Richard Pipes at NSC. The history I read indicates that now Reagan was getting a new kind of advice, one that favored a more business-like, nuanced policy of tit-for-tat engagement. Yet of course the strong rhetoric continued, as in the famous March 8, 1983, "evil empire" speech not "cleared" by State (which few people still realize was directed at American pro-freeze Christians, and not at the Soviets).
Of course it matters who the advisers are, but important to understand that the president does not always take their advice. Or, rather, that most administrations will have advisers of varying views, not all of which coincide with the president’s. I have heard people say, for example, that Reagan had no interest in negotiation with the Soviet Union until his second term. When I ask where they got that, they would say, “Well, that’s what Cap Weinberger said, and he was Secretary of Defense. He must have been voicing Reagan’s view.” Absolutely wrong. I was in several meetings when I heard Reagan contradict Weinberger on this point.
I read in the New York Times today (February 8, 2013) that Secretary of Defense Panetta testified yesterday that he, Secretary of State Clinton, and the CIA Director had advised President Obama to supply arms to the rebels in Syria but that the president had overruled them. This is a contemporary example of why it is important not to think that any group of subordinates necessarily represents the president’s view.
As for Reagan’s staff, it was always divided and this, I would argue, was healthy. Initially, most of the White House staff was dubious that the Soviet Union could change and therefore thought most negotiations a waste of time. Not all agreed. For example, Mike Deaver, who was close to Nancy Reagan did not agree. Reagan himself did not agree. Haig was not against negotiating with the Soviet Union. In fact, he would have been less demanding than Shultz because he really was not interested in human rights. He was prepared to be very forthcoming in negotiating a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the Soviet leadership did not even respond to his effort to consult privately on the topic. His problem with the White House staff had nothing to do with policy toward the Soviet Union but his attempt to speak for the president. As Reagan wrote in his personal diary, Haig sometimes forgot which one of them was president.
When I was offered the job on the National Security Council as Senior Director for Europe and the USSR (not, by the way, the position Richard Pipes had held, which concerned only the Soviet Union) I was told that President Reagan had felt that he was too weak to negotiate effectively when he took office, but now that he had some increases in the defense budget, he was eager to engage the Soviet leaders. (See Foreword to Reagan and Gorbachev.) From then on he endorsed virtually everything Secretary Shultz and I recommended. My recommendations, of course, went through the national security adviser, but almost always Clark, McFarlane, and Poindexter agreed with me and sent the recommendations forward without change.
I would not have advised Reagan to use the term “evil empire” in a public speech, but I would not have objected to its use in the context he used it. (I was not consulted.) The Soviet Union had certainly been an evil empire, a “prisonhouse of peoples” in which Stalin was able to kill more than twenty million of its citizens. Even in Brezhnev’s day, dissenters were exiled or confined to insane asylums or convicted to prison terms on trumped-up charges. Most citizens were forbidden to travel abroad and even to many areas of their own country. Would you call that a benign empire?
It should also be noted that Reagan’s willingness to call the Soviet Union an evil empire before Gorbachev became General Secretary of the CPSU strengthened the impact of his endorsement of Gorbachev’s perestroika. When he visited Moscow in May, 1988, and was asked if the Soviet Union was still an evil empire, he said, “No, that was another time, another era.” And when he was asked who was responsible for the change, he said, “Why Mr. Gorbachev, of course. He is the leader of this country.”
Reagan was not one to claim (as some of his supporters have) that he forced the Soviet Union to reform. In fact, he never claimed “victory” in the Cold War because he felt that he and Gorbachev were acting as partners in creating a better world. (Note the comments in his memoirs on his meeting with Gorbachev on Governors Island in December, 1988.)
Also it is important to remember that in the early 1980s Soviet media routinely lambasted the United States as an aggressive, imperialist power, even when no U.S. forces were fighting abroad and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. Furthermore, they were characterizing Reagan as an aggressive warmonger intent on unleashing a nuclear war. Reagan never personalized his criticism of the Soviet system by attacking publically any of the Soviet leaders. As I point out in the first chapter of Reagan and Gorbachev, he also made clear in his various statements that he wished to negotiate with the Soviet Union and believed there were many areas where we could cooperate to mutual advantage. The problem was that our media generally harped on his criticism and ignored the positive side of his statements.
So let's look at the year 1983. In your book you note that "Though few disagreed with his [Reagan's] harsh words about the Soviet system, many felt that it was unwise to voice them, and suspected that they revealed a willingness to risk war." This you say about the American public. About the Soviet public, you note, "What worried most Soviet citizens was not Reagan's condemnation of communism, but the fear, assiduously promoted by their Communist bosses, that his words might be a prelude to an American nuclear attack on the Soviet Union."
I think these quotes give an apt sense of the heightened tension that existed in 1982-3. On the one side you have an American president who is talking about the Soviet Union in a new, strident, unrestrained way. And on the Soviet side you have a system that was very much in crisis, hobbled by an aging, highly conservative leadership, and one, once Andropov came to power, that was vehemently anti-Western and hugely suspicious (the RYAN project being a signal reflection of this).
My question is how was this reflected in the White House and in your tenure at the NSC? Was there a sense that things were more dangerous than they had been in years past?
We tend to look back at history and think that the way it came out was a natural progression of things. Yet given the heightened tension at that time, the great changes underway, and the level of misunderstanding each side had of the other, to say nothing of the events that unfolded over the course of 1983, things could well have turned out very differently.
There was definitely a sense of heightened tension in 1983 among the public, both in the U.S. and Western Europe on the one hand and, especially, within the Soviet Union on the other. There was absolutely no feeling on the White House staff that the tension represented a real threat of war. We knew very well we were not preparing for a nuclear (or any other) attack and we saw no evidence the Soviet leaders were. We knew it would be utterly crazy and suicidal and we did not believe that, whatever our differences, the Soviet leaders were either crazy or suicidal.
We thought that the Kremlin was deliberately raising a war scare in order to fuel the peace movement in Europe and block the deployment of INF missiles. If they had succeeded—and they nearly did—we would not have gotten the INF agreement. It was only with the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe (particularly the Pershing II’s) that convinced Gorbachev he had to make a deal. Eliminating these missiles was in the strategic interest of both countries, but until the American missiles were deployed, the Soviet leaders did not grasp this fact.
Did we actually fear that the Soviet Union would attack Western Europe with its SS-20s? No. What we feared was that they would use their perceived advantage to undermine NATO and to extract political concessions. This would have resulted not in war but in an accelerated nuclear arms race that already had reached absurd proportions and was a heavy weight on both economies, though much more proportionately on the weaker Soviet economy than on the American.
Reagan himself only gradually realized that the Soviet leaders might be drawing the wrong conclusions from his speeches. He would ask Thatcher, Mitterrand, and Kohl when he met them, “Can it really be that they are afraid of us?” It was hard for him to believe. After all, Soviet leaders routinely attacked the U.S. as led by aggressive imperialists. How could they be so thin-skinned when we turned the tables? They were fueling insurgencies in many places and actually occupying Afghanistan. They still adhered to the Marxist-Leninist theory of the international class struggle and saw nothing wrong with sending arms and financing Cuban mercenaries wherever there was a potential for armed insurgencies in Africa and Latin America.
When he asked the question, beginning in 1983, the Western leaders told Reagan that perhaps the Soviet leaders did have unfounded fears. Thatcher sent Gordiyevsky to Washington to brief us on KGB paranoia. Reagan began a push the staff hard to arrange a summit meeting, saying that he needed to convince the Soviet leader that he was not the sort of person “to eat his grandchildren.” Given the infirmity of both Andropov and Chernenko, there was never any possibility of doing so, but we really tried.
Your final question, whether the atmosphere in 1983 did not make an accident more likely, is hard to answer. I actually suspect that the public apprehensions, based on misunderstanding what was actually happening, made serious accidents less likely. Overreaction and escalation, which can get out of control, is more likely when tension is low and something unexpected happens. Carter overreacted to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If Reagan had been president, he would have condemned it, of course, but would have said something like, “There they go again. Shows why we need a stronger defense budget.” He probably would not have boycotted the Olympics or restricted grain sales and almost certainly would not have allowed our exchanges agreement to lapse. He knew that refusing to talk and and negotiate could not solve problems.
Reagan was overwhelmingly a man of peace, and he never threatened war to achieve his ends. But he also knew that if the Soviet Union continued using military means to fan unrest in what was called the third world, and continued to keep exploitative, Communist governments in power in Eastern Europe, to divide Germany, to occupy and annex the Baltic countries, there could be no real peace. So in his view his task was to convince the Soviet leaders not to try to occupy and control other countries. As he put it, “I must tell them that we don’t want an arms race, but if they insist on one, they will lose it.”
Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko never got the point. By 1987, Gorbachev did—but probably not earlier. As for the “hostile rhetoric” (which, in fact, was not gratuitous), that helped him, when the time came, to outflank those powerful though minority forces on the American political scene that were convinced that the Soviet Union could not change and that no acceptable agreements were possible. If Reagan had talked nothing but peace from the beginning of his administration, he never could have gotten 67 senators to vote ratification of the INF Treaty. Too many would have assumed that he was negotiating out of weakness and would have listened to those people arguing (as Kissinger did at one point) that we really needed those Pershing IIs in Europe even if there were no SS-20s.
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