Jack Matlock Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the Cold War: A Diplomat Looks Back; Conversation with Jack Matlock, 2/13/97 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by L. Carper

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Reagan Policies toward the Soviet Union

Before you became ambassador to the Soviet Union you served as Special Assistant to President Reagan from '83 to '86. Was the Reagan policy consistent with the ideas laid down by George Kennan in the containment article?

Yes, I think they were totally consistent, because the job I was given when I was brought on the National Security Council staff in the spring of 1983 was to develop a negotiating strategy for the Soviet Union that, if it wouldn't end the Cold War, at least would end the arms race. We couldn't end the Cold War in and of ourselves. We could end the arms race, and we hoped to end the Cold War. And that was in Reagan's mind, I think, from the very beginning. The people who say that he changed course midway, I think didn't understand him and didn't really pay attention to the way he had formulated his policies. He had very harsh things to say about the Soviet Union, all of which in my opinion were true, and they may have seemed un-diplomatic. But they had a purpose. One was to de-legitimize the system. The second was that he felt he had to build up -- in poker terms you might say he wanted to have more chips on the table -- to negotiate effectively, thus his arms buildup. But at the same time he always intended to negotiate, and to negotiate the best deals he could. After two years of the defense buildup, he decided it was time to negotiate, and I was brought in as a specialist to tell him how to do it.

Ambassador Matlock with President Reagan at the White House, September 1987 Would you make the argument that although Reagan appeared to be extreme in his rhetoric, he was building a political base to get the treaties approved once there were successful negotiations?

Well this was an effect. I'm not sure how conscious it was. But it was clear to me ... I came on as a professional; I was not a "Reaganaut" from the beginning. As a matter of fact, though I wouldn't have talked about it then as a professional Foreign Service officer, I voted for Carter in that election in 1980. But I was brought on the staff as sort of a non-political specialist, and was treated very well -- I was never asked my party affiliation. I think that he was looking for guidance along those lines. What was clear to us trying to develop it was that if we developed a successful strategy, and he signed an agreement, the Senate was going to ratify it. He could not be outflanked from the right, and that was a tremendous strength. Now, if Carter had been president at that time we couldn't have done that. They would have chewed him up if he had made some of the concessions that we later made, or if he had suggested such a forward-looking program for the Soviet Union as Reagan did in 1984 and '85 as we started negotiations. It would have been chewed up from the right, but Reagan was immune to effective opposition from the right. Of course when he started doing what the Democrats and the others wanted him to do, and for a time accused him of not doing, they had also no alternative but to support him. So we ended up with a policy with overwhelming public and congressional support. I don't know how much of this was conscious on his part. He was not a disingenuous person. He was always very frank about his opinions and I think what he said he really believed in. There wasn't anything Machiavellian behind it. But it did have the effect that you suggested.

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