From Gorbachev to Putin

An Interview with Amb. Jack Matlock

The idea people have that somehow we, the U.S., brought down Communism is absolutely wrong. Gorbachev brought down Communism in the Soviet Union. He was able to do it because the Cold War was over. We didn’t have an arms race anymore. The Cold War ended in 1989, at least a couple of years before the Soviet Union broke up.

OR: Do you think that Gorbachev is the most important post-WWII figure?

Matlock: There’s no hierarchy of importance. That’s simply intellectual laziness. He was a very important figure, yes. So was Reagan. So was George Schultz. I would say George Schultz, among American secretaries of state and even in comparison to most of our presidents, was one of the great statesmen of the 20th century. But I don’t think you can put any hierarchy there. Yes, he had a lot of influence. But when one looks back at decisions made in the case of the end of the Cold War, what you have in Reagan and Gorbachev is a unique combination. I can’t think of any other people who might have been the leaders of those two countries at that time who could have done what they did. There may have been plenty of people who had the intellectual ability to understand what needed to be done but you had to have a Ronald Reagan to carry it politically in the U.S. He couldn’t be outflanked from the right. His main problem in dealing with the Soviet Union was not the Democratic Party. The Democratic leadership supported us. It was his own supporters. That was our problem in managing it. If we had had a Democratic president trying to do the same thing, it would have been blocked.

In the case of Gorbachev, another party leader would not have taken the Communist Party out of control. Another party leader would not have understood as quickly as Gorbachev that they had overbuilt their military, that it was a liability to try to control Eastern Europe. They would have tried to do probably the old things and we would still have the Soviet Union. We would still have the Cold War.

OR: Gorbachev received word of the coup brewing against him before the plan went into action. Did anyone working for the U.S. try to warn him?

Matlock: I tried to. I didn’t want to name the people involved because we couldn’t confirm that. Gorbachev thought when the warning came that we were simply picking up intelligence from low-level sources. I’d gotten my information from the mayor of Moscow, and I didn’t know who his source was. We did have the names of the people who subsequently organized the coup. It was a real tipoff.

This did not come through intelligence sources. We did not have a single clandestine intelligence source in the Soviet Union when I was ambassador there. Traitors in Washington had compromised all of ours. Let me tell you something: it was an advantage not to have people claiming to possess political intelligence. Normally, sources on the spot giving you supposedly inside information have an axe to grind. The country was opening up to the point that we understood what was going on, using simply our contacts, our traditional means, and my own judgment. Our understanding of what went on in the Soviet Union was not based on spying. It was based on having a terrific staff that understood the country, understood the language, and had developed contacts all over the place. People talked to us. We watched what was happening. I didn’t have to compete with clandestine intelligence. If scholars look at our report, they will find the most detailed story of the Soviet Union falling apart. We didn’t get that out of spying. This report that we got was not because we had a spy but because we had developed sufficient confidence in the people running the Soviet Union that they would come to us and confide. In the case of the Moscow mayor, he was trying to get word to Yeltsin (who was in Washington) that a coup was brewing and that Yeltsin must come back. President Bush, when he met Yeltsin the day I sent the report, asked Yeltsin what to do. He said, “You ought to warn Gorbachev.” I was instructed on a secure line to try to warn him but I told them, and they agreed, that I mustn’t name these people. How can I go to the president of the country and tell him that the head of his security establishment, the head of the parliament, his prime minister, and his minister of defense are conspiring against him? It would sound like an utterly preposterous situation. Yet it was the truth.

I simply said to Gorbachev that we have a report that is more than a rumor but we cannot confirm it. I wanted by that to indicate to him it was not an intelligence report, but he didn’t understand. He thought that we were picking up things from low-level military officers who everybody knew were talking about a coup and so on but they were not capable of carrying one out. He dismissed it.

He had another reason, I think, for dismissing it. Bush was planning a visit which he had postponed several times because of the Gulf War and other reasons. He desperately needed Bush to come because he was having more and more domestic difficulties. He didn’t want Bush to think that he was weak, so he dismissed this report.

OR: When you look back at the Reagan-Gorbachev talks, was there a moment you see as the decisive breakthrough?

Matlock: There were so many moments where something new seemed to be happening. One of the most dramatic occurred not with Gorbachev but with his foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and George Schultz. For years, we had been trying to get them to improve respect for human rights. We would have lists of people. Sometimes there were Jews wanting to emigrate. Sometimes there were political prisoners. We would give these lists to the Soviet foreign minister and say, “Please look at these cases and try to resolve them.” Shevardnadze’s predecessor in the post would usually lecture us on how it was none of our darn business and we should keep our nose out of their affairs. Though he wouldn’t throw the papers back at us. In effect, he would make it clear that he didn’t consider it our business.