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 of his desperate pleading through Dobrynin, my embarrassment would have yielded to a feeling of utter humiliation.

President Carter, like Nixon and Johnson, made it clear that he considered summitry useful for electoral purposes, thus making it more difficult to obtain agreements acceptable to the United States. In this he was no different from Nixon and Johnson, but in another respect he and other Democratic leaders were. To judge from Dobrynin’s testimony, Republicans never tried privately to undermine the negotiating position of Democratic presidents. But Carter and some other leading Democrats carried their partisan passion to that extreme. For instance, Speaker Tip O’Neill described Reagan in 1984 as “a dangerous man” who could bring us to the brink of “a major armed conflict.” Carter told Dobrynin in January 1984 that he was “utterly convinced” that there would not be a single agreement on arms control as long as Reagan remained in power. This was two weeks after Reagan’s speech outlining a comprehensive approach for dealing with the Soviet Union, which in fact led to an end to the cold war. (Dobrynin observes dryly that Carter proved to be a “poor prophet.”)

Either statement, if made in public before an election, might be understood as campaign rhetoric. Expressing such opinions privately to the representative of a foreign adversary, however, can hardly be considered either appropriate or responsible. But such was Dobrynin’s charm that many seemed to forget who he was and what he represented when they talked to him.

Although Dobrynin is sometimes critical of his Soviet superiors—Gromyko is portrayed as rigid and secretive, Mikhail Suslov as doctrinaire, and Brezhnev as incompetent following his stroke in 1977—he offers few unexpected quotations from his exchanges with them, and his assessments will come as no surprise to anyone even modestly familiar with the Soviet politics of the period. He points out from time to time some of the misperceptions the Soviet leaders had about the United States: their failure to appreciate the role of Congress in foreign affairs, their habit of viewing problems through the distorting lens of ideological stereotypes, and their inability to grasp why issues such as emigration and human rights were important to the American public. He gives us few clues, however, to his efforts, if any, to correct these misperceptions. But that, of course, was not his primary duty, though some of his American interlocutors seem to have assumed that it was.


While Dobrynin’s account is entertaining and in many ways insightful, it can also be read as a cautionary tale, for it makes clear some of the traps in the brand of secretive, “backchannel” diplomacy practiced by the Nixon, Ford, and—to a somewhat lesser extent—Carter administrations.

One disadvantage is that negotiations without notetakers or interpreters produce ambiguous records. Dobrynin disputes Henry Kissinger’s account of some of their conversations regarding Vietnam and the Middle East; and Kissinger has been quoted as saying that his own accounts were accurate and it is Dobrynin who is confused. We should not expect such disputes to be settled by official documents once they are declassified. Unless tape recordings were made surreptitiously by one of the parties, any official record will be that made separately by the disputants following the conversation. It is unlikely that either negotiator would make claims in his memoirs which conflicted with the official record he had made. Both Kissinger and Dobrynin had access to their own reports when they wrote their memoirs.

Inasmuch as final, signed agreements can be verified, it is sometimes largely of academic interest how the early private negotiations were conducted. But if the private exchanges do not result in an agreement, they can burden future negotiations if both sides are not clear about what was said. When Secretary of State Cyrus Vance came to Moscow in March 1977 with new and radical proposals for nuclear arms reduction, Gromyko and his lieutenants accompanied their rejection with vehement charges that Carter’s proposal violated understandings made with Kissinger when Gerald Ford was president. The record available to the Carter administration bore no trace of such commitments, but given the habits of hypersecrecy and incomplete documentation which had prevailed in American diplomacy from 1969 to 1976, it was impossible to be certain that the Soviet claims were totally without foundation.

The need for secrecy in the early stages of many negotiations is so critical that historians and the public at large should be willing to tolerate some conflicting testimony as long as there is no confusion about what was finally agreed. For example, the 1993 agreement between Israel and the PLO could not have been reached without complete secrecy during the earlier talks. It will not be surprising if there are some discrepancies in the future memoirs of participants, but this should in no way diminish their achievement. Nevertheless, anyone who compares Dobrynin’s account of his conversations on key questions with those of his interlocutors will be struck by how often there are discrepancies and will be forced to wonder whether, in fact, the demand for secrecy justified what seems to have been very sloppy habits of record keeping on both sides.

A second aspect of backchannel diplomacy is even more questionable: the practice of using the representative of one country as the sole confidential interlocutor between antagonistic governments. At first glance, the practice seems so preposterous in principle that one might assume that any government answerable to a sophisticated public would avoid at all costs the appearance of fatuous gullibility that it inevitably gives. After all, any party to a civil suit would be considered mentally defective if he hired (or accepted without fee) the opponent’s attorney to represent him as well. And yet this is precisely what was done during the Nixon and Ford administrations, when Dobrynin was used for the most sensitive communications between the US and Soviet governments, to the exclusion of the US representatives in the Soviet Union and US delegation chiefs, who had been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for that explicit purpose.

The excuse offered, both by Dr. Kissinger, the most enthusiastic American practitioner of backchannel diplomacy, and by Dobrynin—that no American could have conducted a confidential dialogue with the Soviet leaders—does not withstand close examination. American representatives, particularly those who spoke Russian and understood the Soviet Union, always had access to the Soviet leaders when their own government desired it, as was shown by the experience of Averell Harriman and George Kennan during World War II, Llewellyn Thompson during Khrushchev’s heyday, and the American ambassadors during the Reagan and Bush presidencies.


Dobrynin indirectly confirms this when he remarks that Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko was annoyed when, following a long conversation with US Ambassador Jacob Beam, Kissinger sent word that all communication should go through Dobrynin. Rigid and unbending as he usually was, Gromyko would certainly have preferred a situation whereby both ambassadors were in the loop and he could play a role comparable to that of his American counterpart. A persuasive American ambassador authorized to meet frequently with him might well have induced greater flexibility on his part, since Gromyko would have had the possibility of taking credit in the Politburo for reaching solutions to some contentious issues instead of always deferring to Dobrynin Certainly, he would have received more precise insight into American thinking than his own man in Washington, however well integrated into that capital’s gossip circuit, could have offered.

We cannot escape the suspicion that the reason for conducting backchannel diplomacy exclusively through Dobrynin had little if anything to do with the need to have a secret dialogue with the Soviet leaders. Rather, it seems to have been the result of turf fights within the US administration, most notably Kissinger’s desire (with Nixon’s support) to cut Secretary of State William Rogers out of the process. Even after Kissinger became secretary of state the practice continued, partly out of habit but (one suspects) largely because it allowed him to claim personal credit for any achievements and to blur the responsibility for failures.

We of course needed confidential communication with the Soviet leadership if we were to reach meaningful agreements. But it would have been more productive if the ambassadors in both countries had been involved. A pattern of confidential communication in Moscow during the late 1960s and 1970s might have alerted the Soviet leaders earlier to the probable impact on Washington of Soviet restrictions on emigration, to the effect on American opinion of Soviet adventures in Africa and Latin America, and to the fact that Nixon’s problems over Watergate were not the result of an anti-Soviet conspiracy.

For their part, American policy-makers who took the insights of US representatives in the Soviet Union seriously would have been less confident than Nixon and Kissinger seem to have been that the Soviet Union would or could assist in a peaceful US withdrawal from Vietnam. They also would have understood better both the ideological factors driving Soviet foreign policy and the weaknesses developing in the Soviet economy, which gave the US leverage far greater than its weapons programs alone would justify. By no means was all Soviet policy to be explained by classical concepts of Realpolitik, yet that seems to have been the assumption the White House made at the time.

Successful secret diplomacy also must avoid bypassing designated representatives. Most ambassadors and delegation chiefs welcome the assistance of their superiors in getting through sticking points, but only if they are kept informed of communications in other channels and are consulted before negotiating positions are changed. As Paul Nitze pointed out in his lively and insightful memoirs,* Kissinger’s deals with the Soviet leaders on strategic arms issues, made without informing or consulting the US SALT delegation, almost certainly resulted in a less satisfactory agreement than we might otherwise have obtained.

Dobrynin prides himself on his accuracy in conveying his interlocutors’ messages to Moscow. There is little question that he was generally accurate when it was a matter of haggling over numbers and similar concrete matters. For example, having received a message “If you limit your heavy missiles to x, we’ll put a cap on our SLBMs at y,” he would have gotten the numbers and the identity of the weapons right.

When it was a question of matters less concrete, however, we have reason to doubt that he always had a full understanding of the ideas expressed to him. For example, he repeatedly refers to the Reagan-Shultz policy as one of “realism, force, and dialogue.” Actually, the words used were “realism, strength, and dialogue.” Both “force” and “strength” can be translated as sila in Russian, and it would seem that his understandable habit of thinking in Russian rather than English led him to put an inaccurate spin on a key concept. Fortunately, both Reagan and Shultz depended primarily on the US ambassador in Moscow to deliver our message to the Soviet leadership.

Judging from his memoirs, Dobrynin also failed to understand other major features of US policy. He had the impression, for example, that President Reagan placed less stress on human rights than President Carter. Reagan, in fact, gave them more attention, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned. He was, however, more interested in results than rhetoric. When the Soviet authorities, in 1983, gave the Pentacostalists who had taken refuge in the American Embassy in Moscow five years earlier permission to leave the country, and when they made other concessions on human rights issues at the 1983 Madrid Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (arranged by US Ambassador Max Kampelman, not Dobrynin), Reagan decided that he could begin serious negotiations on other issues. With him, as with George Shultz, human rights came first in relations with the USSR.

For that reason, one of the quotes on the topic attributed by Dobrynin to Shultz is certainly inaccurate. He quotes Shultz as saying that the problem of human rights “is not so much important in itself, but because of the widespread domestic reaction it causes.” As one who attended numerous meetings on the subject, I can testify that Shultz would never have made such a statement. What he probably said was that even if human rights issues were not inherently important, the administration could not ignore them because of the domestic reaction they stimulate.

Dobrynin also suggests that Shultz tended to avoid private meetings with him because he either lacked instructions or was not sure of his position. This was not the case at all. After several private meetings with Dobrynin, Shultz invited others to attend because he had trouble understanding Dobrynin’s English. “He mumbles so in his heavy accent that I can’t catch half of what he is driving at,” Shultz once remarked to some of us staffers before a meeting. “A couple of you who speak Russian better stay to help me out.”

Dobrynin also totally misunderstood several efforts by the Reagan administration to establish a channel of confidential communication. Each time the idea was suggested, he interpreted it as an effort to reestablish contact through him alone. That, however, was never the proposal. The idea was that each side would designate an interlocutor for informal contacts with the leaders in the other country—communication would thus proceed in both directions. By persistently, and at times it seemed willfully, misconstruing these proposals as efforts to revive the Kissinger back channel, Dobrynin managed for a time to block rather than facilitate confidential contacts.

There are other occasions when Dobrynin’s memory has played tricks on him. For example, he states that Marshall Shulman, then advisor on Soviet affairs to Secretary Vance, traveled to Moscow in March 1980 with a confidential message for Brezhnev from President Carter, but failed to see Brezhnev because the meeting was “poorly organized by the American Embassy in Moscow” and “Shulman himself did not display the necessary perseverance.” Actually, Shulman never went to Moscow with a message because Dobrynin advised Zbigniew Brzezinski, then assistant to the president for national security, that the trip would be futile.

Dobrynin’s description of the controversy surrounding the Soviet practice, whose aims remain obscure, of directing microwave radiation at the US Embassy in Moscow also contains a number of inaccuracies. First, Dobrynin suggests that both embassies were in the same situation, which was not true, since the US did not flood the Soviet Embassy with microwave radiation. (Proposals that we do so in retaliation were rejected, in part because some of the radiation could have spilled over into buildings occupied by Americans.) Second, he states that Ford raised the issue “under pressure from American intelligence,” when in fact it was raised at the insistence of Ambassador Walter Stoessel and the State Department’s Medical Division, who were concerned about the possible effect on employees’ health. Third, it is not true, as Dobrynin claims, that the Americans refused to conduct a joint study of microwave radiation. We in fact accepted the negotiations Dobrynin proposed to Kissinger (I was chairman of the US delegation to the talks), and we conducted joint measurements of the microwave radiation entering the ambassador’s office at our embassy in Moscow. These measurements showed unequivocally that microwave radiation was aimed at the embassy from the direction of structures on top of two nearby apartment houses. Nevertheless, the Soviet authorities refused to acknowledge the clear evidence produced by their own instruments. A few months later, a serious fire broke out in an apartment house across the street from the US Embassy, apparently because the microwave transmitter on its roof had overloaded its electrical system. In any event, radiation from that source ceased with the fire.

In one respect, Dobrynin’s account is accurate. He says he was instructed to deny that the US Embassy was being deliberately subjected to radiation. He did so, and his demonstrably false statement was added to the list of incidents which led Ronald Reagan, shortly after his election to the presidency, to remark that the Soviet leaders allowed themselves to “lie and cheat” whenever convenient.

Besides occasionally creating “facts” on demand, the KGB was also notorious for slanting real evidence to “prove” a particular point of view. Toward the end of his book Dobrynin inadvertently provides an example. Drawing on what seems to have been a KGB report based on the information from a listening device, Dobrynin refers to a briefing I gave Governor William Schaefer of Maryland, who was visiting Moscow a few weeks before Gorbachev traveled to the United States in 1990. After stating accurately that I described a number of difficulties the Soviet Union was undergoing at the time, Dobrynin attempts to demonstrate that the Bush Administration was not as supportive of Gorbachev as it claimed by adding: “Matlock frankly said it [the US] also was interested in using his [Gorbachev’s] visit to Washington to promote American interests by moving a weakened Soviet Union toward accepting political and economic concessions, including the reunification of Germany.” Actually, I said nothing about “using” Gorbachev’s visit or about Soviet concessions, but only—in response to a question about what was likely to happen at the upcoming summit—that I expected a discussion of issues such as arms control and German unification and hoped as a result that our positions would move closer.

Distorted reporting such as this prevented Gorbachev from understanding fully the political situation developing within the USSR, since the KGB persistently attributed most internal problems to malign influences from abroad, and from the United States in particular. Dobrynin’s use of such tainted “evidence” in his own memoirs suggests that he was not particularly helpful to Gorbachev in alerting him to KGB fabrications.

Dobrynin finds fault with some decisions made by the Soviet leadership while he was ambassador, such as the deployment of SS-20 nuclear missiles in Europe, the imposition of an “education tax” on emigrants, and the invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, he was comfortable with the basic direction of Soviet policy and the way it was implemented: he considers the errors he cites the results of misjudgment, lack of information, or misplaced pride. While he admired the United States in many respects, he thought of the US-Soviet relationship as inherently confrontational. As he saw it, his job was to keep his superiors from blundering into suicidal conflict and to extract the maximum advantage from each transitory deal, not to end the antagonism which had led to an arms race. When Gorbachev came along and tried to adjust Soviet foreign policy to make internal reform possible, Dobrynin never understood his intentions.

Dobrynin considers Gorbachev’s adviser Alexander Yakovlev an “evil mastermind” for replacing the Marxist assumption that class struggle is inevitable with the proposition that mankind has common interests that transcend class interests. Dobrynin is correct in concluding that this ideological revision contributed to the end of Communist rule in the Soviet Union. What he fails to recognize is that it also made it possible to end the cold war, and that the Soviet Union never could have created a productive, modern society as long as the Communist Party maintained a monopoly of power.

He is correct in observing that Gorbachev failed to manage the reform process in the Soviet Union, but is wrong to charge Gorbachev with incompetence in foreign affairs. All of Gorbachev’s decisions were in the Soviet Union’s interest if it was committed to reform and to living in peace with the rest of the world. When internal forces began to fragment the Soviet Union, political leaders in the West tried to help Gorbachev preserve a voluntary federation. If the cold war had not ended, they would have been tempted to exploit the Soviet disarray. Their support was not sufficient to save the Soviet Union from its inherent faults and the missteps of its leaders, but it may well have contributed to the fact that the Soviet collapse was remarkably peaceful, and occurred in a manner which presented the possibility of creating open, pluralistic societies in most of its successors.

Though Dobrynin seems to appreciate some of the features of democracy he observed in the United States, and certainly knew how to exploit them to his country’s negotiating advantage, he nonetheless feels that Gorbachev was wrong to try to reform the Communist system. For all his criticism of dogmatism and ideological blindness on the part of Soviet leaders such as Mikhail Suslov, Dobrynin reveals in his assessment of Gorbachev his fundamental allegiance to that system. As we absorb this fact, we come to realize that Dobrynin was able to satisfy his superiors in Moscow throughout his long tenure in Washington because his attitude basically coincided with theirs. It was his American interlocutors who mistook his charm and bonhomie for sympathy and understanding. We must give him his due; his performance as a Soviet diplomat was absolutely stunning.

This Issue

February 1, 1996