Fighting on the Streets of Berlin
Most people today credit the fall of the Soviet Union to Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies “perestroika” and “glasnost”. And although these policies permitted the free flow of ideas which eventually led to the Union’s demise, these actions were the byproduct of “a sequence of steps that involved intense negotiations” between American President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev1. In the book Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, Jack F. Matlock, Jr., offers an incisive study into the series of events that brought the end of an ideological clash between the two superpowers.
The Cold War started in the wake of WWII when the two superpowers at the time found their ideological gap too big to abridge. Events along the way escalated tension: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U-2 plane, and the Bay of Pigs landing, to name a few. Our focus, however, rests on the Reagan presidency, which began at the end of the Carter presidency. Though Carter and Brezhnev have already drafted a SALT II treaty, it was rejected by the Senate for Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Ironically, it was not the Soviets who were at fault but rather Carter for choosing to ignore the military buildup near the Afghan border. Consequently, the rejection prompted Soviet outrage as they saw the US for using such a trivial reason to repudiate an arms limitation agreement. Reagan, in turn, inherited a strained relationship right from the beginning. Unlike many of his predecessors, Reagan felt that the military reduction (obeyed by the U.S. but ignored by the Soviet Union) to be damaging not in terms of strategy but rather in terms of bargaining chips. He felt that “U.S. weakness left him without much to trade when it came to negotiations on arms reduction”2. The Soviets developed powerful yet accurate nuclear warheads dubbed SS-20s while US obediently reduced its military spending treaty by treaty. This would prompt the American President, one, to propose the development of ICBMs to match Soviet’s SS-20s, while two, to initiate a Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly known as “Star Wars”, to shield the American population from a nuclear attack. The American Public, understandably, took Reagan’s proposals as unnecessary provocations of nuclear warfare. But this was clearly not so when Reagan proclaims that “nations don’t fear each other because they are armed. They arm because they fear each other.”3 Simplistic? Yes, but there’s a degree of truth in saying such a statement. Perhaps Reagan’s plan might be best expressed through the summary of National Security Decision Derivative No. 75, which composes of three elements: external resistance to Soviet imperialism, internal pressure on the USSR, and negotiations to promote peace and stability.
However, since most Soviet leaders preceding Gorbachev were hardline conservatives, most negotiations returned fruitless and acted more as propagandas than as serious legislature. Gorbachev, from the beginning, embraced new ideas and Western thinking whilst clinging on to Marxist ideals. Gorbachev and Reagan could not have been more different in their family backgrounds. Reagan, born in the American Midwest, was “better at athletics” than at “his studies”, became a “film actor” before entering politics at a relatively late age4. On the contrary, Gorbachev entered the political establishment immediately after college and slowly rose among the ranks on his ability “to please his superiors” while also “to avoid seeming a threat to those in power” (109). Bent on reforms, Gorbachev intentionally appointed an outsider Shevardnadze in the place of the prior foreign minister Gromyko. Like his friend, Shevardnadze, “an unknown in diplomatic circles”, was impatient with the Soviet system and was eager to change it5.
Realizing the burden heavy military spending Soviets have imbued on themselves, Gorbachev decided that a meeting with Reagan was inevitable for the continuation of Soviet economy. Consequently, a mutual meeting place was decided at Geneva. In preparation for the Geneva summits, both leaders educated themselves on his counterpart’s nation histories, though Gorbachev’s was a little bit spotty with the distortions emplaced by Party members. Although Reagan proposed that a 50% arms reduction be implemented, Gorbachev refused to acquiesce into any agreements without the abandonment of the SDI. Reagan insisted that with the eventual elimination of nuclear warheads, SDI would become futile in a world free of nuclear weapons. But Gorbachev, influenced by Party Generals, was convinced that SDI served more “as a first-strike capability” than a defense mechanism6. It allowed the US to strike the Soviet Union while guaranteeing its safe being. However, unfortunately, tensions never resolved as both sides were suspicious of the other, thus talks were held off for more than a year and a half.
Reykjavik. Having been general secretary for over a year and realizing the ineffectiveness of his domestic policies, Gorbachev realized that the advancement of foreign policy was essential to the improvement of Soviet economy. Consequently, Gorbachev proposed that they covertly meet at Reykjavik, Iceland. Free from public scrutiny, they were free to explore options that their respective governments would not have granted had they been in a more public venue. The lack of media distortion relieved Reagan and Gorbachev the pressure of having to make an agreement. For two intense days, the pair talked of INF, ABM Treaty, space arms (more specifically, SDIs), and nuclear testing. Gorbachev proposed that the INF, referring to the SS-20s, Pershing IIs, and GLCMs, be brought down to a zero-zero in Europe. However, Reagan wanted a global zero (one not just in Europe but also in Asia) and refused. As a result, Gorbachev counter offered to a zero-zero in Europe while imposing limitations in Asia but necessitated, again, the abandonment of the SDIs. Reagan refused and paralleled the defense initiative to that of “gas masks”7. “Nations that pledged not to use poison gas didn’t object if others had gas masks”. Gorbachev, frustrated, took Reagan’s stubbornness as a disingenuous desire to cooperate, causing both to storm off. However, Matlock here recognized the breakthrough both had in the meeting and knew that such an intense discussion would not be the end.
“The ultimate collapse of the Soviet system was probably inevitable, but it was not inevitable that the Cold War would end when it did, or that it would end peacefully”8. Reagan’s honesty, dedication, and firm resolve with Gorbachev’s fearless break from Soviet tradition helped America maintain its economic security and social standing while slowly adapting the Soviet Union to the modern world. Although Secretary of State Shultz and foreign minister Shevardnadze were the ones who organized the summits, both Regan and Gorbachev made indispensable contributions to ending the Cold War, thus preserving the human race.
Jack F. Matlock, Jr., graduated from Duke University in 1950. He earned his master in Russian language and literature at Columbia University. He taught at Dartmouth from 1953 to 1956. His encounters with these American universities and his American origins have often made him more criticizing of Gorbachev. For instance, in the end of Reykjavik summit, Gorbachev was the one that “refused...screamed…yelled” while Reagan “continued to plead”9. Such bias, however, was not common.
His position as the assistant director of the NSC European Branch allowed him to be in the concurrent room with Reagan and Gorbachev during arms control agreement, offering him primary accounts of these summits. In addition, his numerous “interviews” with “President Gorbachev” allowed him to develop a better picture of the “evolution of Soviet policy during the Reagan administration”10. Together, with his American background and Russian studies, Matlock was able to provide a comprehensive study to the ultimate end of the Cold War.
Matlock wrote the book in the period 1990s, which was marked by the “cultural turn”. The cultural turn was a period known for its contemporary focus on societal values and the trends of the masses. Such attitude is apparent when Matlock repeatedly references to the conditions of the Soviets. Time and time again, President Reagan was noted for his deep interest “in the fate of individuals in trouble”11. Reagan’s request that the Pentecostals be granted exit visas from Soviet Union to America exemplifies his intense for those in need. This extra attention to the livelihood of individuals can be paralleled to the cultural turn of the nineties when historians were more concerned of the little rather than the big.
Matlock’s insistence that both Reagan and Gorbachev ended the Cold War for the prosperity of mankind is a corrective to accounts that proclaim one side as victor over the other. As Reagan's adviser on Soviet affairs and ambassador to the Soviet Union, Matlock was crucial in drafting recommendations in opposition to the president's hardline advisers. He depicts Reagan as pragmatic and flexible, deficient in knowledge but quick to absorb Soviet history. But Matlock's support for Reagan's mantra of realism and strength skirts the question of how suitable the administration's arms buildup was, and his account of the “endless wrangling over SDI” unwittingly gives support to critics of Reagan's attachment to the initiative12. Matlock's focus on the diplomatic events of the 1980s also neglects the historical precedents to both men's policies and the economic and cultural dimensions of the Cold War, which many scholars view as decisive. Nonetheless, this is a valuable addition to college and university collections on the Cold War.
Unlike many of its competitors, Jack Matlock’s intensive study on Reagan and Gorbachev’s evolving relationship that brought the end to the Cold War is appealing to the average readers and scholarly historians alike. His experience as an ambassador to Moscow and his Russian literature major does balance out the obvious favorability of Reagan’s decisions serving as his security advisor. Not to mention, the many interviews he had conducted with not only Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary, but also with Reagan’s secretary of state Shultz and his foreign minister “Gromyko and Shevardnadze” give the book an abundant amount of evidence to support his excellent recollection of the Reagan-Gorbachev summits13.
However, needless to say, its lack of organization disorients the readers. Although the quotes placed at the beginning of the chapters do help enunciate a faint idea of what lays ahead, it is often difficult to follow through the abnormal subheadings and subtexts. For example, one might be reading about “Mr. Shultz visit to Moscow” but in the next completely unrelated heading “Contacts Expand” jumps to Matlock’s ascension to Moscow Ambassador14. This lack of flow from one topic to the next confuses the readers and leaves them bewildered in a sea of text. But aside from this disorganization, the book’s refreshing perspectives including Matlock’s give a glimpse into how the evolving relations between Moscow and Washington ended the Cold War.
Although Reagan’s initial plans to engineer ICBMs and deploying GLCMs to key NATO countries can be interpreted as conservative, its ideology stood for a political progressivism unrivaled by those of other periods. President Reagan knew that by deploying large amounts of nuclear missiles and ground-launched weapons would raise tensions, thus destabilizing the situation. However, he also knew that without these military advantages, he would not be able to demonstrate to the Soviets that an arms race with America was not only not desirable but also disastrous. And in doing so, Reagan successfully convinced Gorbachev to advocate for summit meetings instead of military buildups. In turn, it promoted peace, reduced arms, established a relationship with the Soviet Union, and granted basic human rights to the deprived Soviets. Eventually, such a relationship was so successful that economic and social exchanges began to occur between the two superpowers, most notably with the “small group of college scholars” invited to observe Gorbachev’s “perestroika”15.
The ultimate collapse of the Soviet system was probably inevitable, but it was not inevitable that the Cold War would end when it did, or that it would end peacefully. Reagan’s honesty, dedication, and firm resolve with Gorbachev’s fearless break from Soviet tradition helped America maintain its economic security and social standing while slowly adapting the Soviet Union to the modern world. Although Secretary of State Shultz and foreign minister Shevardnadze were the ones who organized the summits, both Regan and Gorbachev made indispensable contributions to ending the Cold War, thus preserving the human race.
1. Brown, Archie. The Gorbachev Factor. New York. Oxford University Press, 1996. 7.
2. Brown, Archie. 88.
3. Brown, Archie. 89.
4. Brown, Archie. 155
5. Brown, Archie. 306.
6. Brown, Archie. ix.
7. Brown, Archie. 129.
8. Brown, Archie. 15.
9. “The Gorbachev Factor. By Archie Brown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 406 Pp. $30.00.” Rev. of The Gorbachev Factor, by Robert Legvold. Foreign Affairs 75.6 (1996): 161-62. UCI. Web. 21 May 2016.
10. White, Anne. “Archie, Brown. The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).” Rev. of The Gorbachev Factor. Slavonica 3.2 (1996/1997): 88. UCI. Web. 21 May 2016.
11. Brown, Archie. 308.
12. Brown, Archie. 309.
13. Brown, Archie. 318.