Even today it is widely believed that the unraveling of Communism was due to the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet party boss; that only marginally, if at all, did the evil empire's collapse result from revitalized U.S. resistance. Many supposed experts still hesitate to write of America's victory in the greatest geopolitical drama of the last two generations. As America enters another era neither fully at war nor at peace, we ought to recall how we defeated a far more fearsome totalitarian foe less than fifteen years ago.
The atrocities of 9/11 have not brought about a "different world," altered though it may be by an intensified form of the Middle Eastern terrorism that has been felt for 30 years. The Republic's ideals remain undilutedindeed, are being asserted with renewed determination. Technology and science have not ceased to work their daily revolutions on business. Nor did the atrocity make any mark on the greatest trends underway, such as China's compounding growth and commensurate ambition. Yet not so long before, Americans faced the fact that most of them could be seared into nuclear ash within hours, and that the country had lost 100,000 lives over 40 years just in seeking to contain totalitarian power on its peripheries. All the world's terrorists would not be able to do what the Soviet empire would have been able to inflict on a bad day.
President Ronald Reagan "armed to parley," to borrow Churchill's phrase, with an unprecedented military buildup, and a fairly painless one as well, given America's newly booming economy. While squeezing the Soviet Union on all fronts, by 1984 Reagan was ready to offer a constructive path out of the conflict. Jack Matlock, a Foreign Service Officer who ran the somnolent Moscow embassy during most of 1981, understands the outlines of the drama. But in this old-fashioned diplomatic account, he seeks to explain how the Cold War ended by addressing merely the "action plans" and seating charts of the summits that the decisive moves of 1981-1983 finally brought aboutthe tele-spectacles of Geneva (1985), Reykjavik (1986), and Washington, D.C. (1987).
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, time was by no means on the side of the West, as conventional wisdom now has it. The Red Army and KGB were at the peak of capability, honed to execute an unambiguous Soviet doctrine of fighting, and winning, a nuclear war should worse come to worst. In the aftermath of Vietnam and of OPEC's embargoesand amid the morale-sapping stagflation of the bleakest economy since the DepressionAmerica seemed cornered.
Backed by his huge computer-intensive quantification of the "correlation of forces"the entire balance of political, economic, military, and cultural trends between the Soviet Union and the WestKGB director Yuri Andropov might worry that trends appeared to be going against "progressive" forces worldwide. The Kremlin's eagerness to undermine the West was surpassed only by its ability to feed off it. Riding on the tide of President Richard Nixon's delusory détente, the Soviet empire was being reinforced by pervasive KGB penetration of U.S. corporations, high-tech startups, national laboratories, and universities. Stolen technologies brought home by KBG director Yuri Andropov's Directorate T and its operational arm Line X were fueling roughly half of all major Soviet defense industry projects. Throughout the 1970s, the CIA denied any such operation existed.
In late winter 1981, I was in Moscow on a trip arising from belated U.S. efforts to trace to the source one of these penetrations. The intelligence community was busy quarreling among itself about even how to handle a domestic investigation begun in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I taught, that then seemed to spin back to the Lubyanka. During my weeks in Moscow, Foreign Ministry officials, various KGB front men, and research institute directors offered confident opinions about Soviet and American prospects: surely, in the face of well-orchestrated popular outrage, "NATO will collapse should America try to deploy its Pershing missiles in Europe"; and "the Russian people will eat grass rather than let you win any arms race." The apparatchiks still believed that they would soon be cutting deals with President Reagan as they had with Nixon: the President's defiant, conservative rhetoric would drop away once he acknowledged the obviousthat the Soviet Union was here to stay as at least an equal superpower.
During that winter, George Kennan appeared in Moscow as a private citizen, regarded by the Soviet elite (behind the times, as usual) as the preeminent authority on his country's foreign policy. In an impromptu debate before Soviet officials, the characteristically overwrought Kennan saw fit to denounce the new U.S. administration as "dangerous," "stupid," "childish" and "reckless" people who "might do anything." His view was shared by many of his countrymen, not to mention countless Europeans (recall the movement for a "nuclear freeze"). Over the next two years, as America rearmed and deployed its enhanced intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Britain, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, this view helped set off alarm bells in the Soviet Union about the likelihood of preemptive U.S. attack.
As for the U.S. Embassy in 1981, it was utterly frozen out of significant contact with Soviet officialdom; no ambassador would be in place for ten months. Moscow had become accustomed to dealing directly with the White House on most important matters through the secret back channels begun under Robert Kennedy and naively pursued by Henry Kissinger, Nixon's security assistant and secretary of state. Moscow intended to keep playing bureaucratic politics in Washington through labyrinthine back-channels, and now sought to establish one to President Reagan.
Instead, for four years, Ronald Reagan spared no time to encounter any Russian official. There would be no back channels, let alone the eager summitry that had done so much to legitimize the Soviet Union as a partner in arms control, trade, and world order. Reagan focused on economic recovery, and on using such revitalized American strength to transform the U.S.-Russian antagonism forever. A five-part strategy, put in place during 1981-1983 by the National Security Councilwith the president's hands-on involvement, as we know from annotations on NSC fileswould block much of the Soviet room for maneuver by the time Gorbachev arrived at the top in March 1985. Under the pivotal leadership of William Clark, assistant to the President for national security affairs, the multifaceted endgame was finally reflected in January 1983's National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 75, easily the most influential document of the Cold War. This directive stated that it was the policy of the United States to cut off low-interest Western loans to the U.S.S.R.; to confront the very claim of Soviet legitimacy; invest heavily in broadcasting and public diplomacy; stem the eastward technology flow; bleed the Soviets in the third world, e.g., Afghanistan, Central America, and Angola; and, not least, to let Moscow know that the U.S. would come out ahead in any accelerated arms race.
The U.S.S.R.'s "costs of empire" would be raised severely as the United States moved not only to "reverse Soviet expansionism" but also to diminish "the power of its privileged ruling elite." The contest would be won by applying the breadth of American power, not by attempting to "manage" the Soviets or to seek "equilibrium."
Although Reagan instructed that the term "economic warfare" never be used, outright economic warfare assured that the correlation of forces would shift fatally against the Soviets. But like other well-known diplomats of the Cold War, Jack Matlock is oblivious to the world-altering influences of finance and technology. In Reagan and Gorbachev, he claims that Washington's unilateral embargo on oil and gas equipment meant for a large Soviet gas pipeline project "turned out," in Matlock's words, "to be futile."
Facts show otherwise, as for the first time in the Cold War, a U.S. administration began looking at its opponent from the perspective of cash flow. Under Clark, a long overdue instrument had been created in 1982the Senior Interdepartmental Group-International Economic Policy. Strange as it may sound, this was the only time during the Cold War that the heads of the CIA, NSC, and Department of Defense met as a top policy-formulating organization tasked to integrate international economic and financial matters with national security. The group reported through Clark to the President, and, despite howls from Europe that surpass any ill-feelings today, the President refused to modify his decision to prohibit equipment exports (under U.S. licenses) to Russia by British, French, German, and Italian industrial giants. Reagan relented only when the policy had born fruit: an increase in the cost of the first strand of the Yamal pipeline (plus a maiming two-year delay, during which world oil and gas prices fell); effective cancellation of the second strand (it would not be completed until 1999, ten years later than planned); contraction of European and Japanese credit relations with the Soviet Union and its satellites; in sum, curtailment of the Soviet financial lifeline, and a deepening of the Soviet economic and financial crisis.
One of the delights of writing Washington memoirs is making assertions about matters about which one knows nothing. Matlock asserts that key officials who have confessed their intent, at the outset, "to bring the Soviet Union down" are making "rationalization[s] after the fact." Yet William Caseywho, as CIA director, would show how keenly he understood what could be accomplished by curtailing Soviet access to subsidized Western credits and windfall energy earningsmade precisely this intention clear to me a month before Reagan's first inauguration. Harvard historian Richard Pipes, who preceded Matlock in running Soviet affairs on the NSC staff during those initial years of decision, spoke identically to CBS reporter David Andelman on the night before the inauguration. The chief of French intelligence, Alexandre de Marenches, who ably assisted the effort, repeatedly offered his own plans and commitment for "takedown." As for the Line X technology lifeline that has escaped nearly every account of Cold War historycertainly including this volumeit too began being cut off in 1981, in this case by the largest U.S. counterespionage enterprise ever staged, replete with sting operations and sabotage. In light of what we know about CIA shortcomings circa 9/11 and what we have seen recently of French cooperation, it is worth noting that it was France's socialist president, François Mitterrand, not agency bureaucrats, who handed Reagan the evidence that made the rollup possible.
Matlock admits that only after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan did he realize that "the Soviet leaders were more interested in using force for geopolitical gain than in reducing arms"rather late in the day for such awareness. By contrast, Reagan came to office, as he himself explained, ready to "break the deadlock of the past." He had no inclination to strive for that "degree of interdependence" that Kissinger had hoped would add "an element of stability" to superpower concord. Interdependence between the dying and the living usually implies that the living get sick, too.
Gorbachev was a proud and alert product of the police state, groomed by Andropov as the only Politburo member likely to be able to contend with the American president. In March 1985, he vowed in his initial speech as general secretary to maintain a firm grip on the "socialist camp"meaning, at a minimum, domination of half of Europe. He promptly approved a 45% boost in military spending for the last half of the decade. He ordered the intensification of the Afghan war. Moreover, he signed, "in his characteristic scrawl," according to the deputy director of the covert Soviet germ warfare program, a five-year plan that brought the Soviet Union to the full development of an arsenal of deadly pathogens, including plague, brucellosis, tularemia, anthrax, and smallpox. Yet in the end, despite this buildup, the Soviet Union had no alternative but to make the starkest concessions.
These are among the facts of power that elude Matlock, who in 1987 returned to the Soviet Union as U.S. ambassador.
Like so many new arrivals in Washington before and since, Matlock believes little had been accomplished before he turned up. In fall 1983, he left a diplomatic posting in Prague to direct Soviet and European affairs on the NSC staff. In his book, we encounter the tedious score-settling endemic to the Washington memoir: the author's "positive agenda" for the president was resisted by Pentagon "ideologists"; his good work impeded by "preachy, confrontational, anti-Soviet" presidential speechwriters and "self-styled hardliners." While promoting his book, Matlock was asked who among its cast would he most enjoy spending an evening with? "George Shultz, [Soviet foreign minister] Shevardnadze, Gorbachev" was the answer. It is a revealing one, especially since he decries "excessive claims for Reagan's policies" in ending the Cold War. Having worked in U.S. and Russian archives, and having seen a very different side of the contest than did Matlock, my own conclusion is that Reagan's achievement will come to be recognized as even greater than many of us now perceive.
After the Soviet empire disappeared, Gorbachev remarked that Reagan had genially led him to the edge of the abyss, then calmly asked him "to take one step forward." There was an element of goodwill in Reagan that Gorbachev understood, and responded to, though only in Matlock's world do "partners" march each other off cliffs. It is profoundly foolish to confuse Reagan's superb good manners with any sentiment whatsoever towards Gorbachev. As with FDR, there was an iciness at the core of Ronald Reagan's being, never melted by the general warmth of his nature. Reagan had the apparently effortless cunning to get himself into place after desired placeultimately as the organizer of America's Cold War "victory," a word Matlock never applies to the drama's end. Gorbachev did the best he could to put a good face on the changes he was forced to accept. He at least had the wit to give up. Soon after the hammer and sickle came down from atop the Kremlin on Christmas Day 1991, he would be doing a Pizza Hut commercial on television, while America advanced into the 21st century as Emerson's "country of tomorrow."