Roy Gutman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Witness to Genocide: Conversation with Roy Gutman, correspondent, Newsday, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; 4/10 97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

Page 2 of 8

Reporting on East - West Relations

Did you plan to go directly into national security and the communist systems?

In a way I did. Although I was working summers during college at the Hartford Times, I really started working in Germany for UPI. It was 1968, a month or two before the invasion of Czechoslovakia, so from that moment there was almost nothing but major national security issues. And then I stayed on in Germany. It was the time, especially after the Prague invasion, that everybody in Europe was saying that we've got to make sure this doesn't happen again. So the Germans, being the people in the middle, and Willy Brandt, being then the chancellor, had this idea that they had to reach out to the communist side, and he started ostpolitik. I was one of the very few reporters there -- maybe it's just because of the training; this is where the training and the education came in -- who was fascinated by that diplomatic process. Press conference in Washington with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 1976Every element of it. I was curious about how the Germans were doing it, and they were so open. It's a very open society anyway and a fairly open government. I was able to become a real expert on ostpolitik at that point. That got me very much into national security issues, because what the Germans were doing wasn't necessarily what the Americans wanted them to do. And what did the Russians want to get out of it? What did the peoples of Eastern Europe want to get out of it?

We should remind our audience that this was the last phase of the Cold War, in which both superpowers had concluded that the world was getting a little too dangerous because of the escalating arms race. Especially the Europeans were concerned. Brandt was defining a policy of reaching out so that Germany could become a broker between the superpowers, or at least help ensure the stability that everybody wanted.

What he did was brilliant in a way. It was timely. It made a difference. It led to what the Germans called entspannung, what the French call détente. A relaxing of tensions. That led, in the course of the mid-'70s, to the Helsinki Agreement, which at the time was scorned by conservatives in the United States. It was regarded so badly there that they didn't even turn it into a treaty. It was a final act which is just sort of a signed document. But what they did was they set up human rights as a central element of future stability. When East Europeans read this, and as I said it's a signed document, people in these small countries and in Russia took it very seriously whether we did or not. That is what led, very basically over the course of a decade, to the revolution, the peaceful revolution in Eastern Europe, which is one of the miracles of our time or any time. It's one of the greatest events that I think we're likely to see for a very long time.

This Helsinki process became a way to institutionalize human rights concerns within the various states in the Soviet empire.

Yes. If you take Czechoslovakia as it was known then, Václav Havel, who's now president, and other intellectuals founded something called Charter 77. It was based on the Helsinki charter. And they started campaigning for the principles of freedom of expression, free movement, free access to information, and they would get arrested. Then they would go back again and say, "Well, Helsinki says the following." The same thing happened in Russia, and the same thing happened almost everywhere in Eastern Europe. So they created throughout the educated class a knowledge that these principles are acceptable and are accepted and are worth fighting for. They fought for them, basically, by giving up their own freedom to a good extent. So the east revolution started at that point. We know what happened when the Wall came down. It didn't just start in 1989. It really started in the mid-sevnties.

Laying down these institutions made the end result possible.

Then American conservatives saw this for what it was, and they got rather interested in it and in different administrations, including the Reagan administration, started trying to elaborate on it. They had meetings every three or four years. This is one of the untold stories of modern times, because the peaceful revolutions were such a success that everybody's sort of forgotten. We've gone on to other things. These peaceful movements developed during Democratic and Republican administrations. They produced a body of principles and agreements that today are, in a sense, as good a charter as we could have of the international system.

Next page: The Helsinki Agreement

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