Diplomat shares Cold War memories

Tuesday, November 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Political science students at MU got a rare first-hand account of the end of the Cold War when the last American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, visited their class Friday.

Matlock wrote “Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended”, in which he gives a detailed first-person account of the final days of the Cold War.

“I wrote the book because so many accounts did not get it right,” he said.

Matlock, a career diplomat, was transferred to the Moscow embassy in 1961. In 1987, he became the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, a position he held until 1991.

Matlock told the students that many lump the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism into one event, when, in fact, they are three distinct events.

He pinpointed the end of the Cold War to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s speech to the United Nations in December 1988, when he proclaimed a unilateral reduction of Soviet armed forces by at least half a million men.

Up until this speech, any reduction in military power between the Soviet Union and the United States was always a “zero-sum game,” according to Matlock. All diplomatic negotiations would assume that any reductions would require similar reductions on the other side. This diplomatic climate ended with Gorbachev’s speech.

The speech also signaled a major policy shift when Gorbachev said the Soviet Union would abandon former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s policy of forcing socialist states to stay socialist or face a Soviet invasion.

Finally, the U.N. speech marked the fall of communism as a basis for Soviet foreign policy, Matlock said. Gorbachev said the new ideological principle should be “the common interest of mankind,” as opposed to protecting the interest of the working class in an international class struggle.

Matlock also criticized the assertion that the Cold War ended because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev became leader of the Communist Party in 1985, he proclaimed the two policies that would change the world: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), Matlock said.

Glasnost made the collapse of the Soviet Union possible, but perestroika was just as vital. Matlock said most Communist Party members did not see the full consequence of these policies until it was too late.

He said the personal relationship of trust and friendship that developed between Reagan and Gorbachev was essential to make all these events possible. Reagan made a strategic choice to circumvent the bureaucracies and the diplomatic corps on multiple occasions to create a more open negotiation climate.

Matlock ended his speech with several criticisms of the foreign policies since Reagan left office. He said the efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States stopped until two years ago when the Bush administration negotiated another agreement.

Matlock said that both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration failed to grasp the change in international climate after the fall of Soviet Union. They were not able to recognize the threat of Middle Eastern terrorists and make the necessary changes in the bureaucracy to address this threat.

Susan Allen, who teaches the class that Matlock visited, said she learned about Matlock’s visit to Columbia by sheer luck. Matlock came to visit an old friend, Tatiana Kudryavtseva, whose daughter lives in town. Kudryavtseva translates books from English to Russian and has been a friend of Matlock and his wife for 40 years. When Allen heard this, she extended an invitation for him to speak at her American foreign policy class.

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