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Inside Reagan's bid for detente

Reagan and Gorbachev How the Cold War Ended Jack F. Matlock Jr. Random House: 366 pp., $27.95

August 22, 2004|Richard Pipes | Richard Pipes is Baird professor emeritus of history at Harvard University and author, most recently, of "Vixi: The Memoirs of a Non-Belonger."

The author of this book is a retired Foreign Service officer, specializing in Soviet affairs. He holds a master's degree from Columbia in this subject and has served four tours of duty in Moscow, the last, from 1987 to 1991, as U.S. ambassador. He was thus in a unique position to observe firsthand the evolution of American-Soviet relations from intense hostility to gradual thaw, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union that ended the Cold War. Having described the last phases of this historic process in his 1997 book, "Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union," Jack F. Matlock Jr. now focuses on the years immediately preceding the collapse of the USSR (1983 to '87) when he occupied the post of director for European and Soviet Affairs in President Reagan's National Security Council.

When Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, I served as Soviet specialist in the National Security Council while Matlock was charge in the Moscow embassy. I recall being impressed by his dispatches, which displayed a realistic grasp of Soviet behavior, quite different from that prevalent in the State Department. But Matlock soon transferred from Moscow to the embassy in Prague and thus found himself removed from the day-to-day course of relations between Washington and Moscow.

This absence accounts for his rather misleading picture of Reagan's Soviet policies in the first two years of his presidency. Matlock minimizes Reagan's visceral hostility toward communism and the USSR, depicting him as someone consumed with the desire to negotiate with Moscow. In fact, as I can testify from personal experience, during this period Reagan was determined not to negotiate with the Soviet leadership. He was convinced -- not quite correctly -- that in negotiations with the Soviets, the United States had made all the concessions, and he insisted on getting some concrete quid pro quo from them before resuming diplomatic talks.

I was present at a meeting in March 1983 between the president and Secretary of State George Shultz when the latter, ignoring National Security Decision Directive 75, which the president had signed only two months earlier and which called for the U.S. to use all means at its disposal to try to change the Soviet system, urged him to engage in talks with Moscow. Reagan listened to him with growing impatience and then testily replied, "It seems to me that in the previous years of detente we always took steps and got kicked in the teeth." It was up to the Russians to take the initiative. And indeed, soon after they had done so under Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan extended to them a hand of friendship.

Matlock also misconstrues Reagan's relationship with his first secretary of State, Alexander Haig, which he could observe only from a distance, by portraying it as a political partnership. In fact, their association was one of unremitting tension caused partly by Haig's distaste for Reagan's ideological antagonism to Moscow and partly by his insistence on running foreign policy. The tension led to Haig's dismissal before Reagan's first term was halfway through.

Friction between the White House and Foggy Bottom in the early phases of Reagan's presidency was a constant. The State Department resembles a gigantic firm of international lawyers who perceive their mission to be the elimination of all conflicts through negotiation. Refusal to engage in talks, let alone resorting to force, is to them a mark of failure. Viewing themselves as consummate pragmatists, they intensely dislike anything that smacks of ideology.

Now, negotiations are a fine thing, provided that the parties to them agree on fundamentals, the most basic of which is recognition of one another's right to exist. Where this recognition is absent, negotiations are an exercise in futility. Such is the case in the Middle East, where the Arabs continue to reject Israel on the grounds that it occupies Palestinian territory and hence has no right to be.

Since seizing power in 1917, the Soviet government proceeded on the premise that all capitalist regimes were doomed. Every treaty with these regimes was, therefore, an armistice in force only as long as Moscow found it convenient. Reagan sensed this and felt that it was his duty, by word and deed, to convince Moscow it had no chance of relegating the United States to the "dustbin of history." Once it had reached this conclusion and demonstrated it by making concessions, no matter how small, he was quite prepared to negotiate with it. But not before.

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