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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The End of the Cold War, the Collapse of Communism, and the Fall of the Soviet Union

On your watch, when you became ambassador and served as ambassador from '87 to '91, three major things happened. The Cold War ended. Communism was no longer the operative philosophy in Russia. And then the Soviet Union broke apart and collapsed. Was it inevitable that all three of those things happened?

I don't think so. They were interconnected, but I think you're quite right in separating the three. A lot of people don't. They look at the end of the Cold War and the end of the Soviet Union as somehow synonymous -- they're not. Actually, the U.S. attitude differed greatly in regard to those three events, and our contribution to them differed greatly. We wanted to end the Cold War, and we set terms that were not contrary to Soviet interests if the Soviet Union was willing to live in peace with its neighbors and not threaten them. We were careful about that. A lot of people didn't understand that, I think, when they analyzed our proposals, but our proposals were not contrary to the true national interests of the Soviet Union. But nevertheless, we did write sort of the score for the end of the Cold War. And it's to Gorbachev's credit that he saw that it was in their interest to engage us and come to these agreements. So we definitely aimed to, and helped, end the Cold War.

Now the end of Communist rule in the Soviet Union was something else again. We knew we couldn't end that and if we tried directly we would probably strengthen it. But we did think that the traditional type of rule would be very much weakened if they opened up, if they became more democratic. Two of the four parts in our agenda had to do with the internal situation. One was protection of human rights, which, by the way, Reagan felt very strongly about. He didn't talk about it as much as Carter, but in a practical sense he did a lot more for it. He really cared about the individuals that were caught and he believed that that was something that, though we had to be clear about our policy, had to be pursued mainly by private diplomacy and not a lot of rhetoric. He was very diligent in pushing human rights, as was George Shultz. To open up the Soviet Union we first talked about improving the relationships by better contact, but what we really meant was breaking down the Iron Curtain and increasingly we talked about that.

These movements, when they began to take place, of course weakened Communist rule. In order to end the Cold War, Gorbachev himself, inspired by Alexander Yakovlev whom you have interviewed here, actually revised the fundamentals of Marxism to make this possible. After removing the class struggle as, you might say, the rock bottom of their international policy, they replaced that with a policy based on "the common interests of mankind." This is a profound difference, but this also undermined the ideology of Communist rule. So they brought about the end of Communist rule. We were happy to see it happen, I must confess. But we didn't bring that about; they did.

Ambassador Matlock with President Bush at the White House, April 1991 Finally the Soviet Union. Though we wanted the Baltic states to be given their freedom (we never recognized they were officially or legally a part of the Soviet Union), nevertheless we would have been very happy to live with a voluntary federation of the other 12 republics. President Bush (this gets after the Reagan administration), made that clear in his speech in Kiev in August '91, which Bill Safire has called his "chicken Kiev speech." But if you go back and read it, and forget the labels, what he said to the people in Ukraine was that independence and freedom are not synonymous. What you want is freedom. I think he was absolutely right, because what we have seen has been that by taking independence prematurely, one might argue, a deal was made to keep too many elements of the old system, that is the political deal. Ukraine has not liberalized, say, to the degree Russia has, and has even deeper economic problems because of that. But that's rushing ahead of the story. The point is that we did not bring down the Soviet Union, though some people would like to take credit for it now, and some of the chauvinists in Russia would like to accuse us of it. It just isn't true.

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