Inside The Great Thaw


How the Cold War Ended

By Jack F. Matlock Jr.

Random House; 363pp; $27.95

Give Jack F. Matlock Jr. credit: He turned Ronald Reagan into a detail man. On the eve of the first summit between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1985, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane was struck by Reagan's poor command of the facts on the Soviet Union. That's when Matlock, the National Security Council's Soviet expert, ordered up a series of reports by Administration experts, dubbed "Soviet Union 101." Reagan read the 21 papers carefully, scribbling notes and grilling the authors. He also met with specialists on Soviet culture and finally held a mock summit -- with Matlock playing Gorbachev. It paid off: Reagan was better prepared than Gorby was.

The education of Ronald Reagan is one of many absorbing recollections in Matlock's Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. A career diplomat and Russia expert first posted to Moscow in 1961, Matlock served in the NSC from 1983 to 1986 and then as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union until 1991. Having overlapped with him as a Moscow correspondent in the mid-1980s, I found his book an intriguing insider's look at superpower diplomacy in a period featuring high-stakes arms-control negotiations, numerous spy flaps, and four summits.

The author excels in his descriptions of U.S. policymaking, infighting and all, and also in giving the Soviet side of events, based in part on interviews with Gorbachev and other Kremlin officials. His portrait of Reagan as a moderate is particularly surprising. But Matlock doesn't provide enough insight on complex economic problems that were forcing Gorbachev to make sweeping arms-control proposals and political reforms.

Matlock portrays Reagan as deeply committed to improving relations with Moscow, despite his talk about the Evil Empire and his resolve to resist Soviet adventurism. As early as 1983, Reagan pushed for a more constructive negotiating stance with the Soviets and maneuvered to create conditions for a summit. The President, Matlock startlingly suggests, was aligned with the moderates in his Administration.

The hard-liners of both camps take their lumps in this account. When Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger opposed a particular decision, he was prone to leaking "distorted" information to the press, says Matlock. Reagan tolerated such leaks and those of others, although they sometimes "infuriated" him. Reagan "understood that he would need the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the hard-liners...if he was to implement a positive agenda with the Soviet Union," Matlock says. On the Soviet side, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko -- better known as "Mr. Nyet" -- plays the heavy. "On policy issues," writes Matlock, "he was as rigid as his public image suggested." Early on, Gorbachev ousted Gromyko, telling his replacement, Eduard Shevardnadze: "Our foreign policy needs a fresh eye, courage, dynamism, innovative approaches."

Gorbachev's motives for that sort of change get obscured by Matlock's tight focus on diplomatic maneuvering. Most significant, Matlock places too little emphasis on Russia's dismal economics. Forty pages from the book's end, he states that "domestic reform had become Gorbachev's prime concern" by 1988. Actually, the domestic economic crisis was Gorbachev's prime concern when he took power in 1985: It propelled him to cut arms deals with the U.S. and to try to thwart Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.

Matlock's judgment is also clouded by his irritation with the U.S. media. He singles out The Washington Post for ignoring "official statements that failed to conform to their preconceptions." And during a 1984 White House photo op of Gromyko and Reagan, he's irked by the press attention. "I watched the process with growing impatience...but neither Reagan nor Gromyko seemed to mind. Both wanted as much publicity as possible," he says. Matlock is blind to the power of publicity, while both Reagan and Gorbachev were pros at using it to push their agendas.

To his credit, Matlock admits his own failings. He tried without much success to create informal channels for discussion with the Soviets. His ideas on how to solve a 1986 spat over spying were dismissed by the State Dept. And in 1983, when Reagan requested a speech to unveil a new initiative, Matlock gave him a draft that the President called "pedestrian." Reagan gave the speech anyway, writing the most memorable part himself -- an appeal to "Ivan and Anya" for peace.

Matlock recognizes one central truth: Neither Reagan nor Gorbachev could have accomplished as much as they did without the other. "Gorbachev cooperated with Reagan to end the Cold War," concludes Matlock, "and Reagan cooperated with Gorbachev to legitimize the democratic process with the Soviet public." Both took risks. As Matlock says, "they didn't always get things right, but on the most critical issues, they finally did." We're all better off for it.

By Joyce Barnathan

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