I was born in 1954 in an era when the temperature of the Cold War was below freezing. As a child I vaguely remember hearing of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a table at a U.N. meeting. I clearly remember the anxiety on my parents’ faces as they watched reports of the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” There was a very real fear of war between the two great powers wherein weapons capable of destruction like humankind had never seen could be unleashed. I began my academic career at Holly Springs Elementary School in Pickens, S.C. We may have been located out in the “boondocks,” but one never knew where the Soviets would strike. We had to be prepared! We practiced the drill that all of that generation remembers. The alarm would go off in school—that uniquely odd alarm—and we would quickly shove books or whatever inside our desks and then smartly drop under the desk for protection. We were very efficient. One never knew when it might really be “the Russians” (a term we used interchangeably with “Soviets”) attacking. Now, of course, the possibility that hiding under a desk was sufficient protection from a nuclear attack has been questioned. Some, such as my Russian wife, still giggle at the whole thing. One ought not underestimate, however, the feeling of security that desk brought to some of us who grew up living with the “background noise” of nuclear war. In one of those “blip” memories from childhood, I remember being outside playing and hearing the heavy yet shrill sound of a jet that was unusual in its power. Then I saw it! It was huge! We didn’t see many of those where I lived in those days. I recall thinking, “What if it is the Russians? I don’t have a desk!” It was an era of fear. The idea that one day I would be living in that far away fearsome land was not only not on my horizon; it was not even in the same galaxy.

As I grew into the teen years the threats seemed to relax somewhat. Of course, Vietnam was always a point of contention. And there were times when other tensions would flare up again (Czechoslovakia in 1968). By the time Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev formalized “Detente,” however, things seemed to be genuinely better. Still, both sides kept building more bombs, and accusations continued to arise over this or that violation of some agreement. As a high school student I was more worried about football on Friday night, but the threat of a war with the USSR was never really absent.

It was not until Ronald Reagan’s presidency that things really began to change. Now, it didn’t look like that at first. His speech in 1983 in which he called the USSR an “evil empire” surely did not make it look like things would go as they did. I think there are some things that folks have never understood about Reagan and his dealings with the Soviet Union. First, while Reagan was clearly anti-Communist and anti-Soviet, Suzanne Massie, Reagan’s advisor on cultural and religious aspects of Russian life, pointed out he was always interested in the lives of the people here and never held animosity toward those he felt had been exploited by their government. Second, others close to him speak of his growing fear of nuclear war and his belief that he had been put on earth to make sure such a war did not happen. In this blog I’d like to discuss what was so right about his diplomacy then and why a return to those principles are what at least a few of us still long for.

One of the persons most centrally involved with U.S.-Soviet relations over many years is Jack Matlock, who eventually became Reagan’s ambassador to the USSR. Matlock began working with the Foreign Service in 1956. He had grown interested in Russia by reading Dostoevsky as an undergraduate student at Duke University. He also read the works of dissidents who had emmigrated from the USSR and who had written on the underside of Communism. Matlock majored in Slavic languages and went on to Columbia to do graduate work studying Russian history, language, and politics. He knew very early on he wanted to be the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR.

Matlock served four terms in Moscow totalling eleven years. He started as a translator at the embassy in Moscow in 1961, so he was translating during the Cuban Missile Crisis and served in various capacities dealing with the Soviet Union before becoming Ambassador. Two of the most interesting books I’ve read on the Reagan-Gorbachev era were written by Matlock. Then I recently heard an interview with him by Pietro Shakarian wherein Matlock condensed the overall policy that shaped the relationship between the U.S. and the USSR. As I listened I thought that there are perhaps too few people who remember or understand the principles which fueled the policies that ultimately led to enormous reductions in nuclear arms and made the world a place where little boys and girls didn’t have to practice hiding under the desks.

Reagan brought Matlock back to Washington in 1983 as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of European and Soviet Affairs. George Schultz was Secretary of State. Shultz appointed a group of individuals at the State Department who specialized in Soviet relations, along with the Secretary of Defense, to meet regularly and come up with policies and an agenda for dealing with the USSR. Matlock was “executive director” of the group. First, there were three things they agreed not to do.

  1. They would not question the legitimacy of the USSR. The U.S. did not officially recognize the USSR until November of 1933. There were still some right wing voices urging that it no longer be recognized since it was a “revolutionary government.” The group decided not to consider that option.
  2. They would not seek military superiority. They all agreed that no one wanted war, so playing the “military superiority card” should also not enter into discussions with the Soviets. The goal was to reduce weapons being developed by both sides.
  3. They would not try to change the USSR internally or get involved in anything that could be considered a “regime change.” They would conduct affairs with the leaders whom the Soviet Union chose. They wanted to affect policies abroad, not change the internal structure of the government or persons in power.

Then they set forth a four point agenda for what they wanted to accomplish.

  1. The primary goal was to reduce armaments to the greatest extent possible. No one knew how far they could go in reducing arms on both sides, but that was the focus.
  2. They sought to withdraw from “proxy” conflicts. Matlock says they had not blamed the Soviets for starting them, but the reality was that after conflicts broke out in different places in the world the U.S. would move in to support one side, while the USSR moved to support the opposition. The goal had to be to resolve international conflicts not to use those conflicts as ways to undermine the other country.
  3. They wanted to emphasize the importance of human rights. They realized, however, that this was a delicate issue. How does one do this without interfering in the domestic affairs of the other country? They determined they would seek to cooperate and not publicly denounce or “preach” about the flaws in the USSR. They did not believe they would be able to move forward on arms reduction if they used inflamatory language or accusations.
  4. They wanted to convince the Soviets to “lift the Iron Curtain” as it were. By that they meant to seek better relationships through various cultural and diplomatic exchanges. The point they wanted to make was that it would actually be in the best interests of the USSR to take advantage of business, travel, and other forms of interaction with the West.

As the old saying goes, “The rest is history.” The policies, the diplomats, the President, and the Soviets all worked together in a way that did change the world. Nuclear arms were slashed, and eventually the “evil empire” disbanded. In the interview Matlock expressed regret that the policies of recent years have gone in the opposite direction. Regime change has become the “modus operandi” of our government. In a Senate hearing available on YouTube on September 29, 2015 (titled “U.S. Senator attacks Defense Secretary”) Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Gen. Dunsford “Do we still want to replace Assad? Is that the goal?” They both openly agreed this was clearly the goal in Syria. Later the Senator goes on a rant frustrated that Assad has not been taken down and hints he thinks we should try to get Putin out as well. Graham pretends he has inside information that the majority of Syrians want to get rid of the person they elected by a vote of 88% as their leader, and we should engage in military actions that will lead to that end. Graham believes that the United States has the right to send in our military to end the regime of an elected leader and also to engage in a “proxy war” with Russia in the process. Graham pretends his actions are motivated by trying to help the poor Syrians (who, I suppose Graham believes, voted for Assad but really didn’t mean it). Further, Graham’s profane language and the manner in which he refers to Putin, Russia, Assad, and Syria indicate that he completely disagrees with the policies of Reagan’s men and women on how diplomacy should be done.

Senator Graham obviously speaks for many in Washington and elsewhere. We have now seen the “neocons” like Graham and his soul mate John McCain from the Republican party join with the “Liberal interventionists” on the Democratic side who have no fear or reticence when it comes to war. The screeching coming from these groups could hardly be called diplomatic. It is as if they believe if they scream loudly enough, get profane enough, and make up “facts” as they go along, surely the other side will come to their collective senses.

An important point that is being overlooked is that Reagan and his “team” succeeded. The “final page of the Soviet Union” to which Reagan made reference in 1983 was finally turned. Further, it was done peacefully—but not just peacefully. It was done without the United States having to impose its will on a reluctant people. Why does Lindsey Graham and most others in Washington today believe Reagan was wrong?

Matlock concluded his interview with two important observations. One point he made has been made by almost everyone involved at the time, but it is still overlooked. They did not see themselves as “winning the Cold War.” Neither Reagan, Matlock, or Shultz saw things that way or used that kind of language. That phrase came years later when George H.W. Bush needed to sound “tough” in his election campaign. The men involved saw themselves as working together with the Soviet leaders to bring about a safer and more peaceful world through diplomacy and reduction in arms.

Second, Matlock makes the statement that many who have not followed things carefully will find surprising. He says they really did not even want the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They did want the Baltic States to be released because they had not willfully joined the USSR. Other than that, they believed they had reached a good point in the relationship with the Soviet leaders that they could build on. Second, they believed (rightly as it turned out) that if the USSR broke up the Republics would eventually be run by tyrants. Gorbachev no longer considered himself a Communist toward the end of his time as General Secretary. He referred to himself as a “Social Democrat.” The Americans who had dealt with him over the years did not believe he wanted to be an autocrat, much less a dictator.

What impresses me the most when I read Matlock or some of the others I have mentioned in my blog is how well they knew the countries they were dealing with. They trained for years in diplomacy. Matlock, again, went to Moscow in 1961 after having been fully trained in the language and culture of the country and how to do true diplomacy. He was in Foreign Service training for three years after graduate studies! Reagan chose men like that to serve under him. Now it seems those appointed get their positions either through financial donations to a successful campaign or other political connections. It is “who you know, not what you know” as the saying goes.

What we are seeing now in American foreign relations is not diplomacy. It is people in leadership making pronouncements about people, cultures and societies about which they know very little. First, we try sanctions, and if that fails we try more sanctions. As Stephen Cohen, another expert whom I frequently reference, recently stated, “Countries enact sanctions when they can’t think of a wise policy.” More seriously, we know that some stand to make great financial gains from war. When those like Graham and McCain, who know very little of the countries for whom they believe they are best qualified to choose leaders (e.g., Syria or Ukraine), then war becomes what looks like the only option. Graham is a Senator representing my home state of South Carolina. He sometimes tries to present himself as a conservative carrying on the legacy of Ronald Reagan. The truth is when it comes to foreign policy it appears Graham has no idea how Reagan accomplished what he did. Or, he does know, but the pay off from the Military Industrial Complex is just too great a temptation.

The big difference between the neocons and Reagan is not that Reagan was cowardly or had no convictions. The difference is Reagan’s motives were peace and security for the country he served. Then he was willing to reach out to persons he knew were thoroughly knowledgeable about the places of conflict and the delicate negotiations involved. The neocons and the liberal interventionists just don’t have that hunger in their souls or discipline in their minds. The unfortunate conclusion is that if the current coalition remains in charge, you better find an old desk and start practicing getting under it.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan 1986


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