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.1 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,2 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 it lies in the chapters dealing with the period between 1983 and 1986, when Matlock was senior expert on Soviet policy in Reagan’s National Security Council, under three national security advisers in quick succession—William Clark, Bud McFarlane, and John Poindexter.

The great events of this period, and of this book, are the meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985 and at Reykjavik in Iceland in 1986. These were the meetings at which the two men discovered that they could talk productively to one another, probably more so than any US and Soviet leaders before them, and range far beyond their prepared briefs. At Reykjavik they reached the very brink of an agreement to abolish all their countries’ nuclear weapons, before stumbling back. Reagan charmed Gorbachev into thinking that relations of trust with the United States were possible and desirable. As Matlock tells the story, Gorbachev came to see that the fear and hostility which had long prevailed between the two countries were not only, or even mainly, the product of American “aggression,” but of Soviet aggression and Soviet militarism too.

Matlock contends that this evolution in Gorbachev’s thinking, and the fundamental change in the Soviet position to which it led, greatly reducing Soviet hostility toward the West, meant that “psychologically and ideologically, the Cold War was over before Ronald Reagan moved out of the White House.” He cites Soviet sources to show that Gorbachev had abandoned key tenets of cold war reasoning by the end of 1988, even when speaking within the Soviet Politburo. References to American “imperialism” were gone from his vocabulary. Gorbachev knew that the Soviet Union had already overbuilt and overstretched its military might, and that its struggling economy, hard hit by falling oil revenues, could ill afford another arms race. He was ready, in Matlock’s view,

to act as a partner [of the US], not because the United States demanded it, but because he could see that the Soviet attempt to compete with the United States had led to disaster. He had no choice but to end the Cold War and find ways to cooperate.3

Matlock insists that the breakup of the Soviet Union into fifteen independent countries, which followed in 1991, did not form part of Reagan’s policy. If anything, Matlock claims, the ending of the cold war could have worked to the benefit of the Soviet regime by giving leaders there “an opportunity to reform [the] system of governance without pressures from outside.” Perhaps. It was indeed never the stated policy of the Reagan administration to challenge the Soviet Union’s right to exist, or to deny the legitimacy of the Soviet government (save in its occupation of the Baltic states). But to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and to call its Communist regime a “sad, bizarre chapter in history whose last pages are even now being written,” as Reagan did in 1983, were hardly a way of wishing either of them well for the future.4


By the end of his presidency, Reagan was a lot chummier toward the Soviet Union than he had been at the start of it: he was willing even to withdraw his “evil empire” tag. But though this friendlier relationship was a source of personal pride for Gorbachev, it did little to help his political position at home. The end of the cold war took some of the strain off the Soviet defense budget, but it left Gorbachev scrambling to find new justifications and new excuses for all the other irrationalities and misfortunes of his country, if it was no longer supposed to be on a war footing. Why were Russians so badly off—with their food lines, their censorship, their shoddy housing, their scarce and primitive consumer goods, their falling life expectancy—if not because of the machinations of the West? The answer could only be: because of the machinations of their own regime. And when the regime itself started to admit as much, it was doomed. As the historian Stephen Kotkin has argued:

From its inception, the Soviet Union had claimed to be an experiment in socialism, a superior alternative to capitalism, for the entire world. If socialism was not superior to capitalism, its existence could not be justified.5

And as socialism duly collapsed, in an empire of disparate nations held together by force, nationalism surged back to take its place. Like all empires in history, evil and otherwise, the Soviet Union eventually broke apart.

Matlock touches briefly in his closing pages on the problems which the Soviet collapse posed for the West, and the relative success with which Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, managed them. Germany emerged reunited, if a little wobbly economically. The countries of Central Europe were helped to rediscover themselves as market democracies. The Baltic states made a triumphant return to the map as independent countries. On the European side of the Communist block, only Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova were not brought securely into the Western camp. Central Asia retreated into despotism. Russia posed a separate set of problems which have yet to find their solution even now. Russia has moved through chaotic laissez-faire democracy toward mild authoritarianism, but without renouncing clearly its Communist past and without putting into place the autonomous political institutions or the impartial rule of law which would help secure its stability and prosperity in the future.

In sum, history has yet to pronounce its final verdict on the Soviet collapse. But if we follow Matlock to the point of drawing an imaginary line across Soviet–US relations in December 1988 and calling this the “end of the cold war,” on the grounds that the Soviet Union had ceased to be an aggressive and expansionist power, then we should have no trouble in declaring the victor, even if Matlock himself is too diplomatic to do so. America won. Reagan won. Gorbachev came his way.


We have plenty of accounts of Soviet– American relations in the 1980s written by actors and experts, including the relevant sections of Reagan’s and of Gorbachev’s own memoirs. But there is room still for Matlock’s, because he gives us the definitive insider’s account from the American perspective—he occupied a point high enough in the pyramid of power to help a president make policy, and yet low enough to share the sleepless nights of the aides who write the speeches.

His book is valuable for the specific information it provides about the public and private diplomacy of the day, but also for the insights it gives into the conduct of modern diplomacy in general—reflecting the fact that diplomats do tend to be rather good at commenting on their trade, and Matlock has been one of the best. When he recounts the Reagan–Gorbachev summits in Geneva and in Reykjavik they take on the feeling of sports events in which the outcome depends on the preparation of the teams, the fitness of the players, the moves which have been scripted in advance, and even more on the surprises and mistakes which send the action in unforeseen directions. The more you know about the game, the more captivating the wobbles become. Here, for example, is Matlock’s plain note-taker’s summary of Gorbachev’s opening statement at one session of his first meeting with Reagan, in Geneva, in 1985:


Gorbachev led off with a strong pitch for increased trade and observed that the United States was losing an important market because of its restrictions on exports. He appealed to Reagan to join him in giving a new “impulse” to the nuclear arms negotiations so that resources could be released for both countries’ civilian economies. He also cautioned the president not to entertain “delusions” about the Soviet Union: the Soviet economy was not, he said, in a perilous state and thus subject to the leverage of an arms race; it was not lagging behind in high technology; the Soviet Union did not seek military superiority.

A predictable mixture of platitude and bluff, you might say. Diplomatic boilerplate. But to Matlock’s practiced ear the argument is riddled with feints and lures which betray Gorbachev’s weaknesses. Here is how Matlock goes on to unpack Gorbachev’s remarks:

I observed him from across the table with growing disbelief. Here was a man reputed to be a formidable debater…. But now he was leading with his chin. By stressing the importance of trade, he reinforced Reagan’s determination to withhold any trade concessions until some US requests (particularly regarding emigration and human rights) were granted. Furthermore, his attempts to characterize his economic problems and laggard technology as delusions not only called attention to these real problems, but also cast doubt on his denial that the Soviet Union sought military superiority. He obviously had not been briefed on American, and particularly Reagan’s, psychology as carefully as Reagan had on Soviet thinking, Gorbachev’s in particular. This is not to say that Reagan had a perfect understanding of Gorbachev, but he would not have made the elementary negotiating mistake of highlighting well-known weaknesses by denying their existence.

Gorbachev was even less sure of his ground when the Geneva summit moved on to its central concern, Reagan’s plan, labeled “Star Wars” by the press, for an array of space-based lasers and other defenses which might shield the United States from attack by nuclear missiles. Reagan had announced this project to the American people two years earlier, calling it the “Strategic Defense Initiative,” or SDI. He described it as “a vision for the future” requiring “years, probably decades of effort on many fronts.” Geneva was his first presentation of it to a Soviet leader. Some measure of Soviet acquiescence was desirable for legal reasons as well as political and strategic ones. Testing and deployment of the system would require amendments to the Treaty on Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, which America had signed with the Soviet Union in 1972.

When Reagan announced SDI, many leading American scientists were skeptical that it could ever be made to work. They remained so in the years that followed, even as SDI became the main sticking point in arms reduction talks between the Soviet Union and the US. An American expert group concluded in 1987 that “a decade or more of intensive research” would be needed merely to yield the “technical knowledge needed for an informed decision” about whether the sort of system envisaged by Reagan might have any serious chance of working.6 Matlock acknowledges this weight of scientific skepticism, but he argues that it was Reagan’s critics, rather than Reagan himself, who were guilty of misrepresentation:

One thing should have been clear from the beginning of the SDI debate: there was no possibility that any country could devise an impenetrable missile-defense shield so reliable that it could be counted on to repel a massive retaliatory attack. The best that any conceivable strategic defense could do was to intercept a small number of missiles, perhaps launched by accident or by rogue governments, or to eliminate a sufficient proportion of a large salvo to make it impossible for an enemy to plan a disabling first strike with confidence…. Furthermore, it was not clear in 1983—or, for that matter, twenty years later—that even such a limited system would be feasible at an acceptable cost.

But this rebuttal is incomplete at best. An SDI which offered merely a fair chance of intercepting a limited number of nuclear missiles would be an invitation to the Soviet Union to launch more missiles in the first place, and to launch them sooner, in the hope of overwhelming the defenses. Could Reagan really think that such an outcome would leave America more secure? It would be fairer just to admit that if Reagan’s critics were confused about SDI, then that was because Reagan himself had confused them, intentionally or otherwise. When he announced SDI in 1983 he called it “a program to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat.” He wanted America, he said, “to live secure in the knowledge that…we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.” If the “impenetrable missile shield” was a fantasy propagated mainly by Reagan’s critics, as Matlock claims, then it was a fantasy propagated by Reagan too.

Luckily for Reagan, Gorbachev was equally baffled by the science which all this implied. Matlock says, without citing sources, that the Soviet leader had “received conflicting advice” on SDI:

Soviet scientists advised against trying to match the US program since they were dubious that it would work. Soviet generals and the managers of Soviet military industries were of a different opinion, however. They claimed that the scientists underestimated the capability of American technology, that SDI was clearly an offensive strategy since it would permit the United States to attack the Soviet Union with impunity and furthermore was probably a cover for placing offensive weapons in space, weapons such as lasers that could destroy targets on earth.

Had Soviet scientists been more persuasive, and the Soviet military-industrial complex less so, then Gorbachev might have come to Geneva in a stronger position. He might have traded his acquiescence in a largely imaginary SDI for considerable American concessions, including a free ride on American SDI research, which Reagan claimed he was ready to share with the Soviet Union. Matlock believes that Gorbachev could have extracted “far-reaching commitments” from Reagan “without making commitments himself just by asking a few questions” about SDI. When Reagan spoke about sharing SDI technology with the Soviet Union, he might have asked whether Reagan was prepared to give any specific guarantees about how this could be done. He might have asked whether Reagan was ready to accept a joint SDI program, and perhaps other joint research programs too. At the very least, such questions would have driven a wedge between Reagan and the US Congress, which would have been much less willing to hand over technology.

Instead, Gorbachev set out to halt SDI outright, arguing at Geneva against even research efforts in that direction, let alone testing and deployment. In Matlock’s view, this tactic produced the opposite of its intended effect. The more that Gorbachev objected to SDI, Matlock writes,

the more necessary the program seemed [to Reagan] and the more leverage hard-liners who opposed any accommodation with the Soviet Union would have over Reagan’s thinking.

It may seem surreal now that the leaders of the world’s superpowers could have staged their decisive showdown over a project that neither of them could comprehend save in comic-book terms, and that would probably have proved impossible to build at any cost within their lifetimes. But we can at least acknowledge Reagan’s chutzpah here: either he believed that he could dictate the course of future science, or he was tying up Gorbachev in a colossal bluff. With hindsight we can also understand Gorbachev’s position. He may have been too credulous about the feasibility of SDI, but he was in good company. It worried America’s allies, who feared that its successful implementation might produce a “Fortress America with a dangerously insecure Europe outside the ramparts,” in the words of Mrs. Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, Sir Percy Cradock.7

Gorbachev could be sure that if the Americans went ahead with SDI, then the Soviet military-industrial complex would demand a ruinously expensive research effort to match it, whether it looked as if it would work or not. And once Gorbachev allowed that SDI might possibly work, he was right to argue that a defensive shield could encourage America—if not under Reagan, then under some wilder future ruler—to launch a first nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. This was a central point which Gorbachev “repeated countless times” at Geneva, Matlock says, and who can blame him?

As for Gorbachev’s fear that the technology employed in SDI would have offensive uses as well as defensive ones, enabling America to threaten the earth from space, the scientific basis for this was flimsy. The main point of putting X-ray lasers on satellites, to attack missiles in flight, rather than putting them cheaply and easily on the ground, was that they could not penetrate very far into the atmosphere.8 They could not reach the earth from space, or vice versa. They could thus defend the US without causing destruction on the ground. But Gorbachev was presumably taking advice here from Soviet scientists who were also doing research into laser and particle beam weapons, and who had a strong interest in making exaggerated claims for the possibilities for these technologies and the danger of letting America get too far ahead.


SDI became the central point in Reagan’s thinking about security, around which everything else revolved, almost literally. His fixation followed from his belief, sincerely held as far as I can judge, that the world could and should eliminate all nuclear missiles.9 He saw an effective defense system, which would render such weapons useless, as the essential step toward getting rid of them. And he wanted SDI to be that system. Put in those terms, who could easily disagree? In 1983 he launched SDI publicly by arguing that it would make the “awesome Soviet missile threat” obsolete. By the time of the Reykjavik meeting in 1986 he was trying to remove Gorbachev’s objections to SDI by arguing that wide-ranging prior agreements to eliminate nuclear weapons would make it irrelevant whether SDI was deployed or not. That logic led the Reykjavik summit into a flurry of unscripted exchanges about the abolition of the entire American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, the precise content of which diplomats might still be disputing to this day had not the collapse of the Soviet Union rendered them moot. According to Matlock’s account:

[Secretary of State George Shultz] asked whether Gorbachev would be willing to eliminate both strategic nuclear weapons and offensive ballistic missiles in [a] ten-year period. Even though Gorbachev gave no clear answer, Reagan indicated that he would agree to include all nuclear weapons in the group to be destroyed. At one point he went so far as to say that if they could agree to eliminate all nuclear weapons, they could turn it over to the negotiators in Geneva for them to draft an agreement for Gorbachev to sign during [a] visit to the United States.

Considering how much of world peace might have turned on this exchange, it is intriguing to wonder, even now, exactly what unclear answer Gorbachev gave to Shultz’s question, and in what manner Reagan “indicated” that he would destroy all nuclear weapons. Unfortunately Matlock was not the note-taker for the American side at this session (though he did serve as note-taker in other sessions) and I would guess that he has already drawn for this account on the work of his alternate as note-taker, Thomas Simons of the State Department, leaving this imperfect record as the best we can hope for.

There was no deal in the end, because Gorbachev’s bottom line on SDI was fixed too low for Reagan. Gorbachev would accept only “laboratory” research on SDI, not testing in space, for at least ten years. Reagan’s refusal to yield blocked the way to any other agreement on the reduction or elimination of nuclear weapons. But the possibilities opened up when the conversation jumped in those final hours at Reykjavik toward complete nuclear disarmament were more than enough to capture the attention of the world—and to worry other governments. Cradock, in Downing Street, called the Reykjavik summit “high-risk horse-trading.” When Mrs. Thatcher visited Washington soon after, she argued that the nuclear deterrent was vital to world peace, and found that Reagan “readily took her points,” Cradock recorded. He found this “a vast relief, but at the same time disturbing, for it suggested that [Reagan’s] original position had not been the product of very thorough reflection.”10

I can imagine Matlock agreeing partly with that verdict in private, but changing one word in it. Reagan’s tactics at Reykjavik were lacking less in reflection than in consultation—both with his allies and within his own camp. This shortcoming was potentially a fatal one. Even if Reagan and Gorbachev had reached a grand bargain to abolish nuclear weapons, Matlock contends, then that deal would soon have fallen apart, because American legislators and bureaucrats, let alone Soviet ones, would have blocked it before it reached the treaty stage. In Matlock’s view:

Those who have accused Reagan of passing up a unique opportunity to rid the world of nuclear weapons must assume that, once there had been a broad agreement in principle, a treaty would have been forthcoming…. Nothing in the history of US-Soviet rela-tions up to then would have provided any encouragement for such expectations….

In the past, general agreements on principles had proven extremely difficult to put into acceptable treaty form…. It is simply not plausible to think that the much more radical changes that Reagan and Gorbachev discussed in Reykjavik, some of which were vehemently opposed by powerful interests in both countries and by America’s closest allies, could have been put in acceptable treaty language, ratified, and implemented in the short period of time they postulated.

To put it another way, Reagan and Gorbachev were too far ahead of their countries in their desire to trust each other. When Matlock goes on to call it “a good thing” that the meeting in Reykjavik did not produce a sweeping agreement, his conclusion is sad, almost perverse, but probably accurate. If a deal reached at Reykjavik had then proved impossible to push through the governments and legislatures in Washington and Moscow, the recriminations and accusations of bad faith on both sides would have poisoned all other relations. Instead, relations recovered relatively quickly from the setback at Reykjavik, the mutual respect between Reagan and Gorbachev continued to grow, and a much more limited arms treaty, abolishing only intermediate-range nuclear weapons, was signed at the end of 1987.


One consequence of the failure to reach a sweeping agreement at Reykjavik was that Gorbachev, denied a clear foreign policy triumph, turned more of his energies and his impatience back toward domestic policy. Roughly speaking, the two years which followed, 1987–1988, were the time in which he moved from cosmetic changes to attempting radical reforms in his approach to both the Soviet economy and the Communist Party. He relaxed censorship, denounced Stalin, introduced contested elections to Party bodies, published his book Perestroika, and legalized private business in towns and cities for the first time in sixty years. These were magnificent gestures, but they were more than the system could stand. They divided the Communist Party between those who thought the reforms too much and those who thought them too little. The legalizing of small private business could do nothing to rescue the vast failing factories owned by the state. Freedom of speech unleashed seventy years of repressed public anger and ethnic tension.

And what if, to enter the realm of historical conjecture, things had gone otherwise? What if there had been a sweeping deal at Reykjavik to abolish all Soviet and American nuclear weapons, and if that agreement had been accepted at least in principle by the two governments? It would have ended the cold war when Gorbachev was still much stronger than he was by 1988. He would have gained huge new leverage over the West as the guarantor of the astonishing deal on the Soviet side.

The West would have wanted to keep him in power, whatever the cost to it in economic and diplomatic aid. All the soft loans in the world might not have been enough to prop up the Communist system, but the West could certainly have done much to hold the Soviet Union together, as Gorbachev wanted. It could have discouraged independence movements and disregarded independence declarations if these had still emerged in the Soviet states, and turned a blind eye to the use of force if this was needed to subdue rebellions. The West might also have agreed to the permanent neutrality of Poland and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union’s price for allowing democracy there, assuming that these countries were allowed to break free of the Warsaw Pact at all. This would have been a high price for the West to pay, even for a deal on nuclear weapons, and even in the currency of other countries’ freedom.

But we can lose ourselves too easily in counterfactual byways. It was, arguably, not even American strength that prevailed, but American confidence. Reagan encountered the Soviet Union in a phase of economic weakness and political self-doubt, and unnerved it with his optimism. He knew that countries in which capitalism and liberal democracy prevailed were, by and large, richer, freer, and more peaceful than countries in which communism prevailed. He genuinely believed, or so it seems to me, in the happiness of the average American. Gorbachev, by contrast, knew that Soviet communism, whatever its historical justification, had failed to deliver on its promises, and he had few illusions in private about the happiness of the average Russian. Famously, he had said to his wife, Raisa, on the eve of his appointment as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party: “We cannot go on living like this.”11

There were darker sides to Reagan’s personality, and to his foreign policy. In countries such as El Salvador and Nicaragua he was ready to oppose communism by propping up right-wing regimes and forces and by fighting undeclared wars that brought violence and repression exceeding the misery that communism alone might have wrought.12 He turned a blind eye when his officials broke American laws and misled the public by selling arms to Iran. But in his dealings with Gorbachev he was at his best. He was able to articulate and even to incarnate American virtues in ways that made them tempting to Gorbachev, when Gorbachev was searching for ways to improve Soviet life. Reagan’s certainties about the superiority of capitalism and democracy prevailed, not because they were necessarily right but because Gorbachev had no certainties of his own about the superiority of communism and dictatorship to oppose to them.

This Issue

November 4, 2004