Octavian Report: To what extent were Reagan and Gorbachev as people essential to ending the Cold War?
Ambassador Jack Matlock: I think only Reagan and Gorbachev would have been able to do what they did. You had to have the two of them in office at the same time. Now, the first George Bush finished it off. But essentially, the Cold War was over ideologically when Reagan left office. It was just up to Bush to continue the policies Reagan had set with Gorbachev in order to finish it peacefully. It was finished by negotiation so that both sides came out as winners.
That’s why today, when we talk about winning the Cold War as if Russia was the loser, we’re not only distorting history, we’re making it much more difficult to build a peaceful world.
OR: In what way do you think Russia won?
Matlock: First of all, Russia was part of the Soviet Union. We ended the Cold War with the Soviet Union, not with Russia. We’ve got to stop talking about Russia as if it was the same entity, whether a Communist empire or whether the current Russian Federation. There are a few characteristics that they share, but these are entirely different political entities.
That’s one thing you have to understand. The Soviet Union won the Cold War — as did everybody else. Ending it saved them from the collapse that was going on internally. The arms race was killing them. Their ideology was killing them. Their foreign policy was not in their interest. Gorbachev saw that and Reagan saw that. We set terms to end the Cold War which were in the interest of the Soviet Union if they wanted to follow a peaceful policy towards the West, which they did.
Losing the Cold War would have been if it went hot. Everybody would have lost. We ended it without anyone losing anything. The Soviet Union lost nothing in ending the Cold War other than its control of Eastern Europe, which was not an advantage for it but a disadvantage. The idea that somehow controlling other countries that don’t want you to control them is an asset is absolutely wrong. Look at the problems we have in the Middle East today. It is a liability. It is not an asset. In giving up those liabilities, Gorbachev made it possible to try to reform the system.
He was unable to do so but the system broke up from the inside after the Cold War was over. Ending the Cold War, ending the arms race which literally was killing their economy, ending their attempt to project their power abroad which was creating liabilities, ending all of that was to the advantage of the Soviet Union. It gave the country the possibility of reforming and coming into the late 20th century. They couldn’t do so under the conditions of the Cold War.
OR: How do you view Reagan as a political thinker?
Matlock: He was not an intellectual but he was very firm in his basic beliefs. He also understood something very few American presidents understand. That being: he didn’t know everything. Therefore, he was quite willing to listen to those who knew more than he did about a given situation.
He was never a warmonger. The reason he was in favor of increasing our defense budget when he came into office was simple: he thought we were too weak to negotiate. He said and he wrote before he met Gorbachev the first time, “I’ve got to convince him that we don’t want an arms race but if he insists on one, he’s going to lose it.” The point was to be strong enough to negotiate from strength, not to use those weapons. He never intended to use them. He didn’t increase our deployments abroad. In a few cases he authorized action abroad, but he would bring the troops back if they got into trouble. For example, the Marines in Lebanon. Basically he was anything but a warmonger. He was a man of peace but he understood that when you were dealing with a Soviet Union still guided by the policies that Gorbachev’s predecessors had followed, you had to be strong. If you wanted to bring down arms, you had to prove to them that if they didn’t, they were going to lose the arms race. That is precisely what he was able to do.
As far as nuclear weapons were concerned, he hated them. He thought they were an abomination. His great dream was to set the world on a course of abolishing them. That’s what allowed him eventually to team up with Gorbachev: when Gorbachev began to talk also about eliminating nuclear weapons, that caught his fancy. He overruled his staff who kept saying, “Well, this is just propaganda.” He would say, “No, you may knock it but that’s precisely where we should be going.” He kept a basic understanding of these big issues.
He had another characteristic that people don’t give him credit for. They used to say, “Oh, he’s only an actor.” He had never been only an actor. After all, he was head of the Screen Actors Guild. He had negotiated and was a very good negotiator with the studios. He had been governor of California, of course. The point is that as an actor, he did know how to put himself in another person’s shoes. What interested him before he began dealing with Gorbachev is: where’s this fellow coming from? How can we explain to him that many of the policies of his country are not in his country’s interest? How can we convince him of that? How do you deal with him personally? I think he had empathy for other politicians. Empathy is not sympathy but it is an understanding of where they’re coming from. That’s what he concentrated on. That’s why he, in a relatively few years, was able to bond with Gorbachev.
Today, if you read Gorbachev’s comments about Reagan, you’ll find he is one of his greatest admirers, precisely because he was a man of peace. He was a man who in complex situations always tried to do the right thing. He didn’t go into detailed analysis. But he had a holistic view as to how he might convince another person to do something that was actually in that person’s interest but not what they were doing before and also how you move forward from there.
Another thing he did which is different from the others: he said, before he even met Gorbachev, whatever we achieve we must not call it victory because that will simply make the next one more difficult. Ronald Reagan never said we won the Cold War. In his memoirs, when he and Gorbachev parted in December — 1988, their last meeting when he was president — he said, “We parted as partners out to make a better world.” In other words, he understood that you can’t just say, “We won, we won, we won,” as we started doing in the 1990s, and then create something better with other people.
OR: What was Gorbachev like? Why do you think he came to power at the moment he did, given that he was so different from the other general secretaries?
Matlock: First of all, his colleagues didn’t understand how different he was. Second, he was a generation younger than the older ones who started dying off. He was actually put there primarily by Yuri Andropov to reform the system. Andropov understood that it needed change. He wasn’t thinking of fundamental change but changes in development.
If one looks at the politics of the Politburo at that time, Gorbachev was really the only plausible candidate when Konstantin Chernenko died. He was vigorous and the others had been showing their age and their disabilities for some years. He didn’t need a lot of staffing. He was much better-educated than the previous generation, having gotten a law degree at Moscow University. He also knew more of the outside world. As a party official, he had taken vacations in France. He had spent time in Canada. He was acutely aware of how backward the Soviet Union was and how it was not fulfilling its needs, the needs of its people.
At that time, he thought he could use the party apparatus to push his fellow politicians in a different direction, but he had to end the arms race. He had to end the hostility with the West in order to have any possibility for reform at home. At first, he tried to do it by attempting to bring pressure to bear on the United States using Western allies. He had a successful trip to London and impressed Margaret Thatcher. He then had a trip to Paris with François Mitterrand before he ever met Reagan.
Our impression at the time was that he was going to be more vigorous. That meant that that if his aims were the same as those of his predecessors, then he could be more dangerous. But it was clear that he was able, that he was vigorous. Then he began to put forward a new doctrine and foreign policy which was defensive rather than offensive: first glasnost, which was an opening-up of the country to information, and then perestroika, which was a rebuilding. Many American analysts didn’t take this seriously. Those of us who did, we said, “Give it a chance. Let’s push him. Let’s see if he will go down this course and when he does, let’s make sure he’s rewarded for it with agreements because he is doing to policy what needs to be done if we’re going to get along peacefully.”
He was always very articulate and certainly had his brief in hand. He didn’t need a lot of assistants prompting him as his predecessors did. But at the same time, he was constantly changing and reacting to what was a very difficult situation at home and at times abroad. In talking about what he was aiming for and what he was doing, one has specify which year, which month, which day and maybe sometimes whether it was the morning or the afternoon. He was a moving train. That was part of the fascination in watching and dealing with him.
OR: Do you think that he had a significant humanitarian, peacemaking streak in him like the one you describe in Reagan?
Matlock: Absolutely. He absolutely ruled out the use of force to keep himself in power or to keep the Soviet Union together. He was the first leader of Russia or the Soviet Union to refuse to use force to stay in power. I was at a conference in China a few years ago. I said, “I think one of his great contributions to Russian history was he refused to use force to keep himself in power.” The representative of the Chinese Communist Party said, “In our opinion, that was his biggest mistake.” They had Tiananmen Square. Gorbachev, on the other hand, refused to authorize suppressing demonstrations. That’s why Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, and his co-conspirators tried to remove him in August 1991. They failed to do so because the country had changed to the point that force wasn’t going to work anymore. But that change came about because of Gorbachev’s unwillingness as the leader of the party, in control of the country, to use force to keep it together. He thought this was fundamentally wrong.
Russians who would say, “Well, it was more important to keep the Soviet Union together,” consider that a mistake. I consider it an example that Russian presidents, I hope, will continue to follow. You can’t have peaceful changes of regime if every leader insists on ruling for life and using force to stay in power. There are other aspects here where he was absolutely different. That was when he learned that many in the Communist Party were blocking the reforms he wanted internally. He began to take the party out of control of the country. That was going on certainly from 1988, 1989, and 1990. When the Party was out of control of the country, that allowed it to split apart later.
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.
Whenever Shevardnadze came to New York for the autumn United Nations meeting, Schultz always had a private meeting with him. In the fall of 1987, I believe, Schultz as he always did started that meeting by giving him this representation list of human rights cases. This time, Shevardnadze took it and said, “George” — they were already on a first name basis — “I’ll take this and if what you say is true, I’ll do my best to correct the situation.” Then he paused; then he spoke again. “But I want you to know one thing,” he said. “I’m not doing this because you asked me to. I’m doing this because it is what my country needs to do.” Schultz stood up on the other side of the table, put out his hand and said, “Eduard, let me assure you: I will never ask you to do something that I do not think is in your country’s interest.” The two shook hands.
The Cold War was over ideologically. I was a witness to this. This was one of the most emotional moments of my life because I realized they now have grasped, at least in the leadership, that what we’re asking them to do is what they need to do. That’s the essence of diplomacy and that’s what we achieved in ending the Cold War. That’s why it’s so wrong now for people to talk about winning the Cold War and defeating the other side and also to talk about the Russian Federation as if it were the Soviet Union.
OR: The media roundly mocked Reagan for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Was it important in pushing the Soviets and Gorbachev to come to some accommodation with us?
Matlock: It was important in a number of respects. It is not what brought down the Soviet Union. It is not what ended the Cold War. However, it was still important. It remains important today because it is still an issue between us and Russia. The fact is that Reagan really wanted SDI because he visualized it as something necessary if we were going to abolish nuclear weapons. That may have been a simplistic view, but he held it very sincerely. As he put it at one point, we outlawed poison gas but we didn’t throw away our gas masks. In other words, we would need a defense.
Where he was wrong was on the technical questions. There is no way you can have a totally effective defense against sophisticated ICBMs, the sort that we and the Soviet Union had aimed at each other then and that we and Russia have aimed at each other today. Even if we solve all the other difficulties, all the other side has to do is to send enough dummies to take out the interceptors. Actually, the whole idea that a strategic defense is possible, I think, has been proven wrong. But Reagan really thought that this was the key to abolishing nuclear weapons. He had promised the American people to find out if it was technically feasible. He said, “You know, I think and hope it will be but I don’t know that. Obviously, it’s going to take more research.”
Even some of his supporters, like Robert McFarlane, thought it was a huge scam: let’s tell them that if you don’t reduce your heavy missiles, the ICBMs that could take out our silos and which were virtually invulnerable because they were mobile and ours were not, we’ll build an impermeable defense against them. At the point when Gorbachev began to agree to reduce his heavy missiles, the heavy ICBMs, people like McFarlane said, “Yeah, let’s make a deal,” but at that time, Reagan and probably also Schultz were convinced that we had to continue the program and that what Gorbachev was asking at Reykjavík would kill it.
Looking back, I think it would not have killed it. We would have been better off accepting the deal that he proposed at Reykjavík. But that wasn’t clear to us then and certainly it wasn’t politically feasible in the U.S. This whole missile defense issue is one that has continued to plague our relations. This might have been avoided if Gorbachev had accepted Reagan’s idea of sharing it. Reagan was sincere about that. He said, “If we develop it, if Gorbachev said, ‘Okay. Let’s develop it together,’” he would have agreed.
When Putin later proposed that to the second President Bush, his administration turned it down and, in fact, walked us out of the ABM treaty, which created many of our problems with Russia today. This is an issue where both those who were in favor of SDI and those who were against it have exaggerated its importance. It played an important role in our arms-control negotiations. It played much less of a role in other things that we did which were arguably more important.
OR: Why do we not seem to have world-class statesmen, figures like Schultz, Acheson, or Kissinger, on our side today?
Matlock: I think we have the figures. It’s just that recent presidents have chosen not to listen to them. There are plenty of people who understand this. But if you build a closed group advising the White House or advising the Secretary of State, you get a lot of groupthink and you reinforce that with the distorted view you get in much of our mainstream press today. You get within the Washington Beltway a circular thinking.
Almost every one of us in senior positions in both parties that helped negotiate the end of the Cold War opposed the expansion of NATO to the east. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to protect Eastern Europe. We said, “Use a different mechanism,” whether we were Republicans or Democrats. In fact it was a Democratic administration that went ahead and started it. We also said, “If you start it, you’ll certainly have to stop before Ukraine and Georgia. If not, you will have a real situation with Russia.” I don’t care who is in charge. These things were predictable by everyone who intimately knew the area. Our last three presidents have simply chosen to listen to other people, most of whom are theoretical specialists, have probably never served abroad, probably never had to run an embassy and negotiate with another country or try to understand what was going on internally but are taking a theoretical view of international relations — which is always a distorted view, by the way, because international relations shouldn’t deal with countries as if they’re predictable, physical entities. International relations are about human beings with all of their passions and their irrationalities. International politics is not only a matter of rational choice made by rational governments but also of the irrational passions of political leaders and populations. If you don’t understand that and you don’t understand what’s happening in the other countries, you leave yourself open to the sort of mistakes we have been making in the last three administrations. Particularly in the one that preceded the current one.
OR: What is your view of Putin and how do you see the U.S.-Russia relationship playing out?
Matlock: He is obviously and right now in control of the political process within Russia. I think that in relations with the U.S., he has been largely reactive to what he sees as our offensive and even arrogant attitudes. I think his reactions have not been in Russia’s interest and I think that he has done Russia great damage.
However, the way we have handled the situation has not helped. Particularly in expanding NATO, particularly in supporting what look to Russians like anti-Russian revolutions in Ukraine and in Georgia, areas that have been part of Russia for centuries but which were voluntarily cast off. For the U.S. to try to use street demonstrations — this is the Russian view — to oust a government illegally and take control of it, well, that has all of the emotion for Russians that Khrushchev putting nuclear missiles on Cuba held for Americans. Of course they’re going to react when they have that perception. The perception may be wrong or exaggerated, but it is a perception.
Basically, you have to look at what we have done — all of it, every step of the way from the late 1990s on, against the advice of our people who negotiated the end of the Cold War — to understand how Putin’s attitudes have been developed. I think we can still cooperate with him. We have cooperated with him. He cooperated with us to get the agreement with Iran, which is a good agreement. He cooperated with us to get chemical weapons out of Syria as the critics cried, “Oh, no. This is a fake.”
The thing is, there is a current of what I would call Russophobia here, of criticizing everything in Russia and not applying the same standards to anybody else. In the case of Syria, they’ve been telling us all along: you remove Assad, you’re going to have chaos. Look what happened in Iraq. We told you not to go there. You’ll make it worse. You went anyway. Look at Libya. We had agreed that you can protect people but we didn’t agree you could take out Ghadafi. You did and look what we’ve got. Now, you want to take out Assad and you think that’s not going to create a mess?
I’ll tell you something. Russia is much more vulnerable to ISIS than we are. It’s a country that’s 20 percent Muslim. Most of them have a Sunni heritage. Many of the fighters have come from Russia. To pretend that they don’t have interest there is simply absurd.
I think it is a fault of diplomacy on both sides. We were not able to make common cause regarding Syria; if we hadn’t said that Assad has to go before anything else can happen, we could have probably gotten their cooperation from word go. The idea that there are moderate oppositionists who are not themselves jihadists and who could control the country is an illusion. Yet you still have our politicians talking that way. Anybody who looks closely at the area would know that’s simply not the case.
OR: Do you see a crisis coming in the Baltics?
Matlock: No. Absolutely not. The Russian population there does want full citizenship rights. But if they wanted to be in Russia, they would have emigrated there long ago. There’s nothing keeping them there. Their life is better there. As a matter of fact, many of the Russians in both Latvia and Lithuania actually voted for independence.
Why should Russia want to take over part of that area? They would get absolutely nothing. The sort of Russian nationalism that was exhibited in taking Crimea was a very, very special case. Taking it was not in Russia’s interest and is going to cost them a lot, entirely aside from sanctions in the West. The fact is that the majority of the people probably wanted to go to Russia. They had traditionally been there. They were not happy in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, there has been violence against Russians in Odessa. But the crucial question there was the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, one very important for their history. The idea that if the new Ukrainian government took Ukraine into NATO, NATO would close the Russian base: this gave Putin the incentive to do what he did. The fact is that, without Crimea, Ukraine would never have had that pro-Russian president they had that they threw out. He never could have been elected. Ukraine is better off politically without Crimea.
To people who simply look at this and say “Well, he violated borders,” I’d respond by saying we violated borders on the other side with Kosovo. We made war against Serbia without U.N. approval, which was illegal. Then, later, we recognized Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s approval. Putin has used this. Many of us warned at the time: if we do this, we’re going to set a precedent for Russia to use. Which is precisely what we have done. These things get so complicated, but usually they are presented in much of our media in a very one-sided fashion.
OR: How secure in power do you think Putin is at the moment?
Matlock: It’s hard to say. I think he’s pretty secure but he does it by balancing off numerous factions. He certainly is secure in terms of public opinion. Those polls giving him 80 percent approval are probably exaggerated. But in general, even honest polls would give him results that any democratic politician would love to have. I think that’s something that people have to understand. Many U.S. policies have seemed to Russians as if we’re treating them as a defeated power. We’re not paying attention to their national interests, we are competing with them and trying to surround them with anti-Russian states that were once part of their country.
Many of our actions fit that. NATO commanders, for instance, talking about Russia as an existential threat. Yes, it is with its nuclear weapons, if they’re used. But we’re even more of an existential threat to them. Unlike them, we are fiddling around, trying to control governments even militarily that were once part of their territory. They look at us much more seriously as an existential threat than we conceivably could look at them. Or you have American politicians like John McCain and Mitt Romney saying they’re our principal geopolitical adversary. What do you mean by that? Why should we be fiddling around on their borders trying to control countries? It’s not going to work and it’s going to get a reaction from them. If we make geopolitical issues out of these things, we’re not going to be able to solve the real issues.
The real issues coming up are those such as the use of terrorism worldwide, global warming, international crime. The spread of disease. Dealing with failed states. These are the issues that are going to determine the future, not who controls this territory or that. Fifty years from now, if the people are living reasonably normal lives, nobody’s going to care whether Crimea is in Russia or Ukraine. It just doesn’t make any difference on these big issues. If the U.S. wants to accuse Russia of acting illegally, then it should recognize that it, too, has acted illegally. Certainly the invasion of Iraq was illegal. It has cost us greatly, not only in terms of lives but in terms of money. Why do we have these huge debts? Because we’re going off and illegally invading another country, trying to control it and creating a situation which is more threatening and worse than what was there before.
The Russians look at that and say, “At a certain point, we have to stop putting up with it.” What they’re doing is not good. It’s not even good for Russia. But we have to understand why Putin can do it and get the approval of the Russian people. Meanwhile, his economy is going down, more because of the oil price than the Western sanctions. The Western sanctions, however, will convince the Russian people that we are the cause and not their own policies or the world market prices of oil. They’ve made a number of mistakes in their economy but if we really want to cooperate with them, we have got to use the diplomacy of saying,
“Look, the E.U., the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, we all must find a strategy to develop economies so that we don’t become enemies so that the competition can be productive rather than destructive.” We haven’t been doing that.
I think a different approach could bring Putin around. One thing he and most Russians will not tolerate is the intent to run their internal affairs for them. There’s been too much of that.
OR: One more question: in your memoir, you tell a wonderful story about Reagan deciding to go outside — without an overcoat despite the weather — to meet Gorbachev.
Matlock: It was just that when Gorbachev arrived in his limo, he came and the drive was in front of several steps. Reagan, instead of putting an overcoat to go out to meet him — it was really a chilly, rather raw day in Geneva in November — bounded down the steps without an overcoat. Meanwhile, Gorbachev gets out of his limo with a fur hat and an overcoat and though he was a much younger man, the impression given to the press was that Reagan in fact was the more vigorous one, the more young-looking.
I don’t think that was anything that anybody thought through carefully. Certainly, Reagan’s advance party were the same people that dealt with setting up his campaign. They knew how to set up the situation so he would look good: where the flag would be evident, where you insist people put their cameras to get the right angle, that sort of thing. But the spontaneous idea that he didn’t need the overcoat to go down that flight of steps? That was simply Reagan. He was an accomplished actor. Maybe not the greatest in the world, but not a bad actor. Again, they did understand appearances. He was significantly older than Gorbachev and of course, in the re-election campaign, there’d been an attempt to make age a factor. I think he was accustomed to making sure he didn’t act or look like an elderly person.
This was a small thing. But I know that some Russians later said, “You know, it made us feel that you’re the ones with the young innovative president and we still have old, stodgy politicians.” This was actually not true, but this was the impression given at that time. This is not something anybody set up Reagan for. It was just his own instinct. It wasn’t so cold he felt he needed the coat when he was only going to be out for a minute or so.