- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004



By Jack F. Matlock Jr.

Random House, $27.95,

363 pages, illus.


This is the story of a global miracle and how it happened. It’s been told before by other historians, but not with the same insights and almost burdensome inside information as are contained in Jack F. Matlock Jr.’s new book, “Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended.”

Mr. Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-1991), was President Ronald Reagan’s adviser as Russia moved from its inhuman totalitarian system to the beginnings of a genuine thaw. Historians of the Cold War will find this book indispensable.

Mr. Matlock tells the story in so pedestrian a fashion that there are times you want to stop reading. But then, perhaps when you get right down to the nitty-gritty technical details of miracles — say, the parting of the Red Sea or how Balaam’s ass got talking or the loaves and fishes — such information might become over-detailed.

It is a fascinating memoir, and as I read it I kept thinking about the two men who made the miracle possible.

The miracle? A Cold War that ended cold, without missiles and megadeaths.

The miracle workers? Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who as late as 1986 said in an interview with the French communist daily, L’Humanite, “Stalinism is a concept thought up by the enemies of communism to discredit socialism as a whole.” (Somebody should ask Mr. Gorbachev whether he still believes that particular piece of tripe.)

Three years later the Berlin Wall came down and with it the whole kit and caboodle called “socialism.” For a little while longer, Mr. Gorbachev continued to believe that the bloody-minded V.I. Lenin had been a great leader.

President Reagan, says Mr. Matlock, had no such problem about changing his mind or his ideas about communism. He came to the White House animated by one idea: The Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” Or as he put it succinctly, “We win, they lose.”

Mr. Matlock minimizes Reagan’s anti-communism and anti-Sovietism, which is a mistake. In fact he blames Reagan’s speech writers for pushing their — not his — anti-Soviet agenda. He forgets that it was Gov. Reagan who insisted at the 1976 Republican convention on passage of a resolution in favor of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to counteract President Ford’s refusal (thanks to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) to receive the Russian dissident novelist.

What becomes clear from Mr. Matlock’s account is that Reagan’s anti-communism changed dramatically with the arrival on the scene of Mr. Gorbachev.

There was no way of knowing that Mr. Gorbachev would become the great reformer. After all, he was the protege of KGB chief and later Soviet General Secretary Yuri V. Andropov, the hard liner of hard liners.

But Reagan knew something, and acted on what turned out to be a sagacious hunch.

What Reagan did in his first term was to obliterate the Kissinger detente policy: trade agreements, phony summit meetings, loss of U.S. strategic nuclear superiority, casting a blind eye on Soviet violations of arms control agreements and legitimizing as a permanent Soviet sphere of influence Central and Eastern Europe.

In toto, what Kissingerism or Nixonism meant was graciously accepting second place in the world of nations. In fact, in a half-hour TV broadcast on March 31, 1976, Reagan quoted Mr. Kissinger as telling Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, “The day of the United States is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available.”

Thirteen years later, when Reagan left the White House in January 1989, Mr. Matlock writes, “the Cold War had ended in principle.” And with it, two years later, the Soviet Union ended in fact.

Reagan was fortunate in having at his side the masterful Secretary of State George Shultz, whom Mr. Matlock describes as “one of the most effective statesmen of the twentieth century.”

No man is better equipped than Mr. Matlock, who speaks fluent Russian, to tell the story of the Soviet implosion. In 1981 he had been charge d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, then was ambassador to Czechoslovakia, and then a member of the National Security Council until his ambassadorial assignment to Moscow in 1987.

In a piquant touch, the research assistant for this memoir was Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the sociopathic ruler of Russia from 1957 to 1964.

“Reagan and Gorbachev” has its flaws. One of them is Mr. Matlock’s view, which borders on the metaphysical, of how the Cold War ended. As he puts it, “as for winners, everyone including the Soviet Union won.”

Why is it that, when you ask who won World War I, World War II or the war in Vietnam, the answers are easily forthcoming (the Allies beat the Kaiser and Adolf Hitler, the United States lost to North Vietnam), but when it comes to who triumphed in the Cold War, a great smog immediately blankets the question?

The response, if you’re Mr. Matlock, is simple and utterly inaccurate. Everybody did not win the Cold War. This is the ahistorical George Kennan position.

In 1969, Mr. Kennan wrote: “The retraction of Soviet power from its present bloated and unhealthy limits is essential to the stability of world relationships.” Twenty-seven years later, there was no Soviet power; its “bloated and unhealthy limits” had been retracted. There wasn’t even a Soviet Union.

So didn’t the democracies win the Cold War? Didn’t the once Soviet-satellized countries of Central Europe and the Baltic “win” the Cold War? When the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989, without bloodshed, wasn’t that a victory? Shh, mustn’t gloat in front of the children.

The problem is that Mr. Matlock, like Mr. Kennan, doesn’t tell you how he defines victory. It is playing with words to say everybody won the Cold War.

Clearly Mr. Matlock is a Reagan admirer. He tells us that Reagan “had no secret strategy but described every element of his policy to the public,” that “he saw both the arms race and geopolitical competition as symptoms of an ideological struggle, not its causes.

” … His greatest asset was his character. He dealt with others, whether friends, adversaries, or subordinates, openly and without guile.”

A slow read but worth the investment.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times. An updated version of his biography “Herman Wouk, the Novelist as Social Historian” will be published next month.

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