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 3 of 8

The Helsinki Agreement

Looking back at your work at that time, were you picking up on this? In other words, are you satisfied with the way that you covered it? Did you realize the implications that you're now describing?

Well, I had the good fortune of working for Reuters early, about 1971, and about a year or two after I went to work for them in Bonn, Germany, they asked me to go to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to be their bureau chief. I went there and found it a fascinating place, not quite east, not quite west, rather independent minded, a rather complicated story unto itself.

But somewhere near the end of my term the Helsinki negotiators had a parliamentary session in Belgrade. I covered it. This is where I really learned about the contents of the agreement and what they were trying to accomplish. I realized that this was major. They have Basket 3, they called it, the Helsinki process, which assured various rights. The one that concerned me, because I was a journalist and because I felt that what we were doing was important, was the freedom of movement for journalists, freedom of access, freedom of visas for journalists. I reported this in some depth and Reuters gave it a good play.

Now, interestingly enough, a few months later Reuters asked me to go to Moscow as their deputy bureau chief. I was quite willing to go, though I hated to leave Yugoslavia because I had been really almost smitten by it. They wanted me to go, and it was such an important post that I said "Of course." But the Russians turned me down for a visa. They didn't explain why. So, having this intimate knowledge of the process and how it was unfolding, I went to Reuters and I said, "Well, under this Helsinki Agreement," which was just at that time being finalized and signed, "I am supposed to have a visa to go anywhere I need to that you want to send me to." So they made a protest at Helsinki as it was being completed. They tried to deliver a letter to Andrei Gromyko, who was then the Foreign Minister. I had really primed them for this, I had given them all the data, all the reasons to act and all the background, and I don't think they would have known it otherwise. Gromyko wouldn't receive the letter so they published it on the wire. The Russians replied and they published another reply, back and forth.

Anyway, for all times (in the communist era) I was banned from Russia, but the principle was established within Reuters that they weren't going to take this anymore. They'd been kicked around and their people had been blackballed and had been slandered and physically assaulted at times. So we established the principle within my own organization that this was not going to be, and for ten years they didn't have a problem after that.

Basically it was luck and circumstance. I just happened to be there and I used it, and they used it, and we established the principle. Now it's harder to turn people down. I wouldn't say it doesn't happen, I get turned down once in a while, but people put up a fuss and it happens rarely.

Why do you think the Soviets didn't want you? Was it this background of experience, did they know about that?

Well, I'd be flattered if that was the reason. It's funny; they would come out and do interviews, they would have a local correspondent who might have been a KGB man come to my apartment and talk to me about my background. Did I have relatives there? Why did I learn Russian in college? Why was I so fascinated by the Soviet Union? Well, I mean, we were all fascinated by it at that time.

It was probably more because of the coverage I did out of Yugoslavia at that time. This was a place that East and West were competing over. I reported about the Russian side and I also reported about the American side. Being an American working for a British-based agency sort of gave me a feeling that I didn't belong to anybody and I could just do my job.

The Russians, at a certain point, were sponsoring a kind of a rebellion against Tito in the ideological sphere. There was a supposed party that was founded underground. It wasn't real, but the Tito regime put them on trial and I reported every detail lovingly, because it was quite a story. That was a great story. And I was on my own. It was risky, in a sense, because my sources were limited; but I trusted them. One day I reported that the Yugoslavs were so upset with the Russian interference in their internal affairs that they were welcoming the departure of the man who was then the chargé d'affairs, as well as the Hungarian ambassador and the Czech ambassador. I got this from government sources. I think it was true. But the next thing that happened was that everybody changed their plans. They had all planned to leave on a routine rotation and now suddenly they stopped.

So this is the thing: a wire agency in a small country, if you report things carefully and accurately and in a timely way, is a big rock falling on a small pond. That kind of story upset a lot of people, and when it came time to review my visa, in Directorate 7 (or whatever it was) of the KGB, they looked through all of the material they said "No, no, we don't want him. He has ruined more careers, this guy." I assume it was something bureaucratic like that. But you never know.

Alongside this Helsinki process was another process which was the world of throw-weights, deterrents, arms control, and those kinds of accommodations. You reported on that also.

I did. I wound up in limbo for at least a year in London, which is not the worst place to be in limbo of Reuters, but being on a big desk, for a working reporter, is sort of death in installments. I had a chance to come to Washington for Reuters. After a few months I got assigned to the State Department. Aboard Air Force Two with Walter Mondale, 1976. Reporters, left to right: Bernard Weintraub, unidentified, Roy Gutman, Strobe Talbott, John Gerstensans, Charyl ArvidsonIt was the beginning of the Carter administration, which was a very activist administration, and in their own way they wanted to deal with the issues of tension with the Soviet Union. I wound up covering for about five years non-stop the negotiations over SALT II and START I.

Now it's interesting: when I was at the London School of Economics they had a man named Hedley Bull and several others who were teaching strategic studies and the whole issue of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and other concepts. So if I think back to my LSE days, that was an area where I had a smattering of information, and later I focused on it and dug into it in depth. They also had, in my LSE days, a man named Karl Popper, a brilliant man on scientific method, and I'd sat in on his lectures. They had a man named Harry Johnson, one of the great economists who was dealing at that time with issues like currency values. He defined a subject that American academia really wasn't up on that much. I found everything that I learned, every one of these subjects, at some later point became of value. Clearly, Hedley Bull's lectures on strategic balance and the reading I did prepared me mentally for what I was going to cover.

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