Give Gorbachev his due as Reagan's partner in ending Cold War

August 26, 2004|By Jack F. Matlock Jr.

MANY AMERICANS probably were surprised at the pictures of Mikhail S. Gorbachev comforting Nancy Reagan at her husband's funeral and by his tribute to Ronald Reagan as "a true leader, a man of his word, and an optimist ... who earned a place in history and in people's hearts."

After all, wasn't Ronald Reagan "the man who defeated communism" (as the London Economist proclaimed), and wasn't Mr. Gorbachev the top Communist in the Soviet Union during its latter years? How could Mr. Gorbachev have kind words for the man who defeated him?

The answer is that neither Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Gorbachev considered their relationship one of victor and vanquished. They started from different, antagonistic positions but, by the end of 1988, came to think of themselves as partners in a joint effort to end the East-West confrontation.

They changed the "zero sum" psychology of the Cold War, whereby each side considered a gain for one a loss for the other, to a "win-win" attitude that looked for ways for both sides to gain. This approach produced important agreements while Mr. Reagan was in office and cleared the way for Mr. Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, to work with Mr. Gorbachev to end the division of Europe and eliminate the remaining points of Cold War tension.

Three momentous events took place in quick succession between 1988 and 1991: The Cold War ended, the Communist Party lost its grip on the Soviet state and the Soviet Union shattered into its 15 constituent "republics." These were separate events with separate causes, but they happened so close to one another that many think of them as part of the Cold War's death rattle.

Not so. The Cold War ended before the Communist Party lost its stranglehold on the Soviet Union and before the Soviet Union passed into history.

Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev cooperated to end the Cold War. Mr. Reagan, in effect, set terms that would not be harmful to a peaceful Soviet Union with a government dedicated to improving the lives of its people. Mr. Gorbachev knew that his country had to end the arms race if it was to pursue the reforms it needed, and came to understand that Mr. Reagan's terms were reasonable. As Mr. Gorbachev began genuine reform, Mr. Reagan supported him. Mr. Reagan's endorsement of Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika during his visit to Moscow in 1988 gave a powerful push to the reforms that were just getting under way.

And what about Communist control of the Soviet Union?

Mr. Gorbachev deserves most of the credit (or blame, if you are a Communist) for ending it. Seeing that key elements in the Communist Party were out to block change, Mr. Gorbachev pushed them aside and thereby undermined the party's ability to control the country. Stalin had structured the party so that it could be run only from the top. Mr. Gorbachev used his authority as general secretary to loosen the party's grip on the country, to free political prisoners, to introduce contested elections and to liberate the information media. He was the first and only Soviet leader to put the interests of the country, as he saw them, above those of the Communist Party.

The Soviet system was so dysfunctional that the Soviet Union probably lacked the capacity for reform. Mr. Gorbachev made his share of mistakes as he negotiated with regional leaders in 1990 and 1991 for a democratic federation. But the most immediate cause of the Soviet breakup was the attempt by a cabal of Mr. Gorbachev's associates to remove him from power in August 1991.

Poorly planned and lacking support, their putsch disintegrated in less than three days, but it so weakened Mr. Gorbachev that he was unable to withstand the centrifugal political forces his reforms had unleashed. The Soviet Union collapsed not because of U.S. or Western pressure but as the result of internal forces no longer constrained by the police state's instruments of compulsion.

President Reagan never considered the end of the Cold War a victory of one country over another but one of freedom and democracy over totalitarianism.

Mr. Gorbachev worked to destroy that totalitarian system and started the process of democratization in his country, a process that is not yet complete.

Mr. Reagan deserves our praise and gratitude for engaging the Soviet leaders with a strategy that reduced the burden of the arms race while it encouraged and rewarded reform in the Soviet Union. But let's give Mr. Gorbachev his due: The Cold War could not have ended when and as it did if he had not accepted Mr. Reagan's offer of partnership.

Jack F. Matlock Jr., the author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, was U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.

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