The Go-Between

In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents

by Anatoly Dobrynin
Times Books, 672 pp., $30.00

Anatoly Dobrynin is by all odds the most conspicuous diplomat of this century. For twenty-five years of cold war tension he was the representative of one of the two superpowers in the capital of the other. Remarkably, he managed not only to satisfy a succession of Soviet leaders whose ignorance of the United States was matched only by their suspicion of it and hostility to it but also to ingratiate himself into the confidence of one American president after another. In this respect, his achievement has no parallel in modern diplomacy.

Readers of his constantly fascinating memoir will learn much about his relations with American statesmen and something of his attitude toward his own government, but little about his secret of staying on the perilous diplomatic tightrope stretched between Moscow and Washington during the years of confrontation. It is easy to understand how an ambassador can please both his own and his host governments when both perceive an interest in close relations. It is much less obvious how this can happen when both view their relationship as one in which every gain for one country inflicts commensurate damage on the other.

Dobrynin managed a close and often confidential relationship with every American president from Kennedy to Carter even though occasionally his own government, for instance during the Cuban missile crisis, used him to feed false information to his Washington contacts—an abuse of diplomatic communication which would normally destroy an ambassador’s effectiveness, but which Dobrynin had the skill and guile to overcome. Or maybe it was his American hosts who were so eager to use him as a tool in their domestic political squabbles that they were willing to overlook occasional mendacity, particularly when he could credibly disclaim responsibility.

In any event, thoughtful Americans will read with both interest and dismay of the penchant many American political leaders had for playing politics with the Soviet relationship. President Johnson, for example, was so enamored of the idea of a summit meeting in Moscow that he failed to react when Dobrynin reported to him personally in August 1968 that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. Instead of expressing outrage, Johnson pressed for Soviet consent to announce his planned trip to Moscow. Dobrynin plausibly attributes the Soviet decision, some eleven years later, to invade Afghanistan in part to the weak American reaction when the Prague Spring was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks.

Toward the end of his time in office, overwhelmed by Watergate, President Nixon also used Dobrynin as his private “channel” to plead with Brezhnev for expressions of support. Nor were such appeals always private. I personally recall the state dinner in Moscow during Nixon’s visit in 1974, when he stressed in his toast the importance of “personal relationships” in preserving the peace, only to have Brezhnev reply with pious generalities about the weight of “principles.” As an American, I was embarrassed as I listened to my president toadying to the likes of Leonid Brezhnev. If I had been aware…

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