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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Let's look at the figures that you were dealing with. What is your assessment of Gorbachev, looking back at that time? What did he get right, what did he get wrong?

He got ending the Cold War right. And in so doing, I think he earned his place in history. Second, I think ultimately though there was a lot of bobbing and weaving and to-ing and fro-ing, he got right the relative priority between preserving the Communist Party and trying to build a more democratic and open society. He opted for the latter. Probably history will eventually give him credit for that. His own countrymen seem to have forgotten it. I say in my book that I think he led his people out of bondage. He was unable to reach the promised land, but maybe there's historical precedent for that. And maybe he won't be blamed too much for it by later historians.

I do think he made, when push came to shove, the right decisions. Without what he did, the power of the Communist Party could not have been fatally undermined. He did it. And he did it, I think, recognizing, not at first but eventually, what he was doing. Now right at first he thought he could strengthen the party and convert it to a progressive force. I think that certainly by the time he established a presidency he was already set on a course to replace the party with a presidential-type system and take it out of total control of the country, which happened very rapidly, I would say between the middle of '90 and '91. So that by the summer of '91, the Communist Party had virtually lost control of the entire country. Of course, the coup attempt in August was to restore this and it failed. When it failed the Communist Party was immediately outlawed and, of course, the whole underpinnings which had held the state together were then cut. This allowed then the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But that happened, I would say, despite Gorbachev. Though he had made some mistakes. He didn't move fast enough with his Union Treaty. He didn't move fast enough with economic reforms. To be fair, I don't think anybody really knew what had to be done, and if they had known how painful the transition was going to be they might have decided it was politically impossible. In fact, I think things had reached a stage in '90 and '91 that there was no way to bring about a transition that didn't bring much of the misery which has succeeded. So I don't blame the reformers for that; I really blame what happened before. And Gorbachev never really understood fully what had to be done to reform the economy.

Ambassador Matlock greets Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House (US), July 1991 In your book you seem to be suggesting that he had his limits as a democratic politician, so to speak; that his sources of information were not what they should be; he relied too much on his KGB advisor. But you do credit him with never using force to maintain his own power.

That's right. I know people have challenged this by saying, "Look, force was used in Tbilisi, force was used in Vilnius, when 12 people or so died. Force was used in Baku in Azerbaijan." Of those three, he clearly authorized force in Azerbaijan. But he had a horrible pogrom going forward. Maybe it was the wrong thing to do but it was understandable, and it was sort of like bringing in the National Guard at the riots in L.A. We use force under situations of that sort. And that was not to keep himself in power.

The other two: I think it's clear in Tbilisi that he did not authorize that. That happened when he was out of the country and apparently didn't know about that in advance. In the case of Vilnius, people are still divided on the issue. He says he didn't order it and I'm inclined to believe him. But even if so, it was for limited purposes. Again, it was not for the purpose of keeping himself in power. When he could have used force to keep himself in power by preventing Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus from meeting secretly near Brest, in the meeting in December '91 when they brought down the Soviet Union, he refused. We do know that some of his advisors, including some of his democratic advisors, advised him to use force. At that point the army would have reacted reliably to preserve the Soviet Union, what was left of it. By that time the Baltic States had already been freed. But he flatly refused. He said he was not going to stay in power using those means. So I would maintain that it's very clear: he refused to use force to keep himself in power. He would authorize it as a last resort if he felt it was necessary to put down a riot or to end violence. That is true. But I think most effective leaders will make those decisions.

You also fault him for not working out arrangements with Yeltsin. He was obsessed with Yeltsin and would not deal with him.

Yes. He became obsessed early on, and one of his weaknesses was his inability to work in tandem with charismatic people who might one day gain greater popularity than he had. He tended to put down, keep subordinate, and sometimes force off his team some of his most talented people. So he ended up with second raters and even third raters who furthermore were treacherous and betrayed him. And that in a leader is a very, very serious fault in my opinion. I think he could have kept Yeltsin on the team a lot longer. Undoubtedly at some point Yeltsin, given the chance, would have tried to challenge him, but the best way to head that off would be to use him at least as long as you could and keep him on the team. Instead he opted, fairly early on in the game, to force him out. This left Yeltsin with no option, if he was to get political power, than taking Gorbachev on. Eventually his motivation in ending the Soviet Union in order to remove Gorbachev from office became overpowering for Yeltsin. So I think there was a serious mishandling of the whole Yeltsin phenomenon, but it was a part of a deeper fault on his part, the inability to work in tandem with very talented people. I mean after all, when you look at our politics, you find sometimes very different people, a president working with a vice-president, we've had that situation now -- a very talented one who's certainly able to challenge the other for it. You certainly found that situation, say, with Reagan and Bush. Very different people, but they understood that in order to win and so on, you work in tandem and eventually maybe the other one can succeed, the one who is subordinate for a while. Gorbachev never learned that, and I think that that was one of his failings.

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