Learning from Reagan & Gorbachev’s Relationship

Ambassador Jack F. Matlock’s new book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (Random House, New York, 2004), is a fascinating study of presidential leadership and international diplomacy. Matlock’s distinguished career as Special Assistant to the President (1983-1986) and Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-1991) gave him access to the highest levels of power in both countries. His perspectives are grounded in the experience of helping to shape U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the tumultuous 1980s.

Matlock notes that some observers give President Ronald Reagan all of the credit for ending the Cold War and causing the collapse of the USSR, while others argue that he had little to do with these events and that Mikhail Gorbachev is the real hero of the story. In Matlock’s judgment, neither of these two positions is accurate. His book documents how the policies that Reagan followed were in place before Gorbachev came to power in March 1985, how the two presidents skirmished over these policies for two years, and how from 1987 on they engaged each other in serious negotiations that led to the dramatic changes that ended the Cold War.

Reagan’s Policies Toward the USSR

Matlock believes that President Reagan did not change his approach toward the Soviets between his first and second administrations, as some critics have argued. According to Matlock, Reagan had a consistent set of objectives in mind from the start, though they were not always coherently articulated in the early years. His goals could be summarized in this fourfold strategy: tell the truth about the Soviet Union, restore U.S. and allied strength, deter Soviet aggression, and work toward reciprocity in agreements with the USSR.

This study makes the argument that Reagan was an advocate of dialogue with the Soviets from his first days in the White House, despite his harsh condemnation of their policies. In his first speech on this topic as President, he said, “I’m optimistic that we can build a more constructive relationship with the Soviet Union . . . The Soviet union is faltering because it is rigid . . . in the end, this course [of constructive dialogue] will undermine the foundations of the Soviet system.” Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, summarized the administration’s policy with these words: “Strength and realism can deter war; but only direct dialogue and negotiation can open the path toward lasting peace.”

Building Trust Between Two Leaders

Despite repeated efforts to initiate meaningful negotiations with Leonid Brezhnev and his two immediate successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, President Reagan had limited success on this front, and U.S.-Soviet relations were adversarial throughout the early 1980s. Despite hopes of change with the new leadership team assembled by Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985, the two leaders initially mistrusted each other. After two years of carefully assessing each other, the two slowly began to build a friendship.

While the results of the summit meetings in Geneva (November 1985) and Reykjavik (October 1986) were disappointing, they laid the foundation for increased trust between the two leaders. The biggest breakthrough came when Gorbachev visited the United States in December 1987: the cheering crowds impressed him and convinced him that there was a real constituency for improved relations between the two countries. For those of us who lived here then, this trip was remarkable; I will never forget the way Americans were drawn to the Soviet leader. During his final lunch in Washington, D.C., Gorbachev told Reagan he would never view the United States again the way he had before his trip. It is Matlock’s judgment that Gorbachev left the States bolstered in confidence that internal reform of the USSR was the right course of action.

In a similar way, Reagan’s trip to Moscow in 1988 confirmed his convictions that the two countries could build a constructive relationship. The highlight of this visit was Reagan’s address to the students at Moscow State University, during which he talked about freedom and, according to Matlock, “electrified his audience with a vision of how their future would be brighter as the shackles of totalitarianism were dropped.” The Ambassador noted that “the prolonged standing ovation he received was probably the most enthusiastic he had witnessed since the demonstration that followed his nomination at the Republican convention” (p. 302).

Who Gets the Credit?

Ambassador Matlock concludes his study with this observation: “Gorbachev cooperated with Reagan to end the Cold War, and Reagan cooperated with Gorbachev to legitimize the democratic process with the Soviet public. But it was Mikhail Gorbachev, not Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush, who ended Communist rule in the Soviet Union” (p. 318). Matlock reflects the view of President Reagan, who was always careful to give Gorbachev credit for the changes in the USSR, never taking any of the credit for himself or his administration.

This book has deepened my appreciation for the leadership of President Reagan. I was critical of his “evil empire” speech and what appeared to be a confrontational approach to relations with the Soviets. But since I began working in the USSR in October 1990, I have seen how this speech encouraged democratic leaders in the USSR and gave them hope. President Reagan was telling the truth about Communist rule and the truth needed to be told. Yet, he was serious about cooperation with the Soviets if the benefits of this relationship were mutual. When trust was “verified” between these two leaders, they became good friends and changed the world.