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 5 of 8

End of the Cold War

When it was all over and the Wall came down, were you surprised that it happened so suddenly?

While I was writing Banana Diplomacy I was continuing to travel with Secretary of State George Shultz, and basically he put aside that aspect of Central America. He was interested in El Salvador, but Nicaragua, he just decided that it was not worth the fight. He put all of his energies into dealing with the Soviet Union, arms control, and other issues. He saw the chance and, give the man credit: he really got it right. I traveled with him on several of his trips there, and on one of them I decided that I would to talk to the [Soviet] institute that deals with Latin America.

When you were in Russia.

Yes. I sat down and I had the most terrific talk with several people from the institute. They told me basically that they didn't think Russia had much of a stake in Nicaragua or in most of Latin America. They were curious about what on earth Reagan was up to. Why was he acting as if this was a mortal threat to the United States? The Russians didn't care.

I found that to be so fascinating that I went around to the other institutes on the next trip. One of the institutes I went to was the Institute for the Study of Europe. There I sat down with some brilliant men, whose names I don't have at the top of my head. I asked them (Gorbachev was in by this time), what are you guys going to do about Berlin? What are you going to do about Germany? And they told me basically that they had the same attitude toward Germany that they had toward Nicaragua, which is quite astonishing. That was, "We don't see that we have the most vital stake in keeping our troops there and holding on."

It takes a while, when you hear something like that, for it to percolate through your brain and to figure out what that really means. I came back from that trip and I sat down and wrote a memo to my editors and I said, "It is possible that the Russians will withdraw from Germany, that they will let the eastern empire go, that the end of Gorbachev's perestroika is going to be the liberation of Eastern Europe and also the end of communism." They probably thought my memo was off the wall, but I was convinced to the pores of my skin that this was true. Often in our business, if you are far ahead of something (and this was months ahead, maybe even a year ahead), it's dangerous because you get very frustrated, nobody takes you seriously. Then you have to watch for it to unfold and try somehow to get into it.

How did this experience of doing the Cold War beat prepare you for the new world that we've entered in which you've played a leading role as a reporter? What lessons were you left with at the end of the Cold War that have applicability to the new world you are covering?

Well I really can't think of a lot, quite honestly.

It's a whole new game.

It is a whole new game. I found the Helsinki process so interesting in the way that we in the West and they in the East managed to find a common language and a common way of dealing with things. It was probably accidental that it happened. It was just somebody trying to cover the differences in Western policy. It may have come out of Brandt's ostpolitik. I think the Germans were in a good way responsible for it. Each of the Western countries brought something to bear in that equation, and that was pretty impressive.

I came away with the illusion, as did so many people, that there was a place called "Europe," that Europeans had an idea of how to manage security issues and that we the United States were a very helpful outsider, but we were basically a non-European power. This was a complete illusion. I was completely wrong on that, as were so many other people.

Professionally and technically, and especially after doing my Central America book, the one thing I developed was a kind of detachment from my own work to the extent of realizing that you work extremely hard to get the story right on the day it happened, and then you really have to keep on revisiting it even if you're not doing a book, even if you don't have a formal excuse. If you have a question about something, just go back again and again and again and finally get it fixed in your mind what really happened. Then you've got a point of reference. I developed that technique in my own strange way.

Now the deformation, as the East Europeans call it, that developed in the course of covering the U.S. government was that I tended to rely on the government or sources, or dissidents, or people just outside of it for a lot of my information. This was also a great mistake, because when real events happen like the fall of the Wall, like the end of communism, like the liberation of the East European states, the government doesn't know what to do. The government is a bunch of bureaucrats who operate on a concept of what the world was and has been but not what it is and is about to be. That was the Cold War era: it was an era when everything was definable, describable, and knowable; when you thought your government was doing its job because they were working. That ended in 1989.

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