An Icelandic Saga

The passage of time has been kind to the reputation of Ronald Reagan, less so to that of Mikhail Gorbachev. The reappraisals of Reagan provoked by his death in June were so handsome as to undermine the proposition that the only unwelcome publicity for a politician is an obituary notice. Reagan’s supposed naiveté became his sincerity; his laziness, an inner calm; his impatience with detail, a magisterial overview; his good humor, the most presidential of all attributes. Gorbachev, meanwhile, has descended far into the small print of post-Soviet politics since his resignation as Soviet leader in 1991 and his futile bid for the Russian presidency in 1996. He continues to be honored outside his own country, but as a man who did the right thing for the wrong reason. He undermined Soviet communism as the unintended consequence of his efforts to reform it.

The posthumous elevating of Reagan flowed in some measure from a desire to diminish George W. Bush by comparison. But it reflected also the course of history since Reagan’s presidency ended. The years since 1989 have shown that Reagan, together with his British contemporary Margaret Thatcher, changed the way that Western governments think about economic policy. The balance of conventional wisdom has tilted away from government planning and the desirability of the welfare state toward individualism, competition, and lower taxation. Reagan’s triumph in foreign affairs, to confront the Soviet Union and to speed the collapse of Soviet communism, has so thoroughly acquired the aspect of historical inevitability that it is hard now to remember how widely Reagan was derided for his overt anticommunism in the early 1980s, when the priority of most Western governments was to get along with the Soviet Union as amiably as they could. Reagan was mocked as much for the simplicity of his views as for the substance of them. He wanted to reverse Soviet expansionism abroad, and to encourage more personal and economic freedom within the country and its satellites. But his essential job as a president was to be right, and, in the case of his Soviet policy, he was. The complications could always be added by his advisers.

Jack Matlock’s role as a diplomat and a Soviet expert was, if not always to add complications to Reagan’s view of the Soviet Union, then at least to spot the times when a few nuances might be useful, and to unpick the complications which arrived daily from the Soviet side. His previous book, Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union, recounted the turmoil between 1987 and 1991 when Matlock was ambassador to Moscow with a ringside view of Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the Soviet economy and the Soviet Communist Party. His new book turns back the clock to the years between 1981 and 1988, and examines relations between the US and the Soviet Union during the two terms of the Reagan presidency. The core of …

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