Washington’s View of Gorbachev’s Perestroika


by Jack F. Matlock, Jr.

Prepared for presentation at the Eighth World Congress of the ICCEES

Stockholm, Sweden

July 26-31, 2010

Comments are invited on www.JackMatlock.com

Although some intelligence analysts predicted that Viktor Grishin would succeed Konstantin Chernenko as General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, most American officials were not surprised that the Central Committee chose Mikhail Gorbachev when Chernenko died in March 1985.  It was clear that members of the Brezhnev generation of leaders were no longer capable of dealing with the country’s mounting problems.  The election of a leader from the younger generation seemed obviously in the country’s interest if the USSR was to recover any of the dynamism it had showed at earlier periods of its history. Mikhail Gorbachev seemed poised for the top position: a generation younger than the majority of his Politburo colleagues, he possessed what was assumed to be the minimum prerequisites for a CPSU General Secretary: membership in both the Politburo and the CC Secretariat.  Furthermore, he seemed to be acting informally as “second secretary” since he was reported to chair Politburo sessions in Chernenko’s absence.

Not all analysts were convinced that Gorbachev would be Chernenko’s successor.  After all, the selection of Chernenko when Yuri Andropov died seemed to indicate that members of the Brezhnev generation would cling to power so long as they lived, oblivious to the country’s real interests.  Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s visit to London in December 1984 suggested that the Soviet leadership might be grooming Gorbachev as the next general secretary.

President Ronald Reagan was pleased when Gorbachev became the Soviet leader.  He had hoped, at least from 1983, to meet the Soviet leader and begin a process of resolving differences and ending the arms race. Nevertheless, the infirmity of Gorbachev’s predecessors, as well as the rigidity of their foreign policy, made a meeting impossible.  Since Gorbachev was known to be younger, healthier, and more vigorous than his predecessors, Reagan had hopes that they could meet soon. He sent Vice President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz to Moscow for Chernenko’s funeral. When they met with Gorbachev they delivered an invitation from Reagan for Gorbachev to visit Washington.

Vice President Bush and Secretary Shultz reported upon their return to Washington that they had found Gorbachev articulate and well briefed on issues.  Not surprisingly, Gorbachev gave no indication that he was prepared to change Soviet foreign policy in any way, but he seemed capable of thinking for himself, rather than simply reading statements prepared by others, as his immediate predecessors had done.  Bush and Shultz agreed with the judgment British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had expressed following Gorbachev’s visit to London: he was a man the West could do business with.

There was no illusion that Gorbachev would be easy to deal with.  On the contrary, some thought he would be tougher than his predecessors. When U.S. Ambassador Arthur Hartman briefed President Reagan in April 1985, he reported that Gorbachev was “a narrow fellow, of set views,” who, in any case, would be preoccupied for a time with consolidating his power. Shultz commented that Gorbachev might be more “dangerous” than his predecessors since he lacked some of their faults.  Following that meeting, Reagan noted in his diary the conclusion that “Gorbachev will be as tough as any of their leaders.”

Nevertheless, Reagan was eager to meet and to initiate a dialogue, convinced that it would be in the Soviet interest to end the arms race, open the country to outside influences, and to begin reforms to make it more democratic and less threatening to its neighbors.  He had hoped that he could meet Gorbachev in Washington and show him something of the United States, but when Gorbachev demurred and proposed a meeting elsewhere, Reagan agreed that they would meet in Geneva in November.

Although the summit meeting in Geneva did not solve any of the “big” issues between the United States and the Soviet Union, Reagan felt the meeting was a success.  Reagan liked Gorbachev, despite their differences, and was encouraged that they could eventually find common language.  He also considered it significant that Gorbachev was willing to approve much broader and more intensive contacts between American and Soviet citizens than his predecessors had allowed.  The agreement to expand exchanges, signed at Geneva, in time did much to reduce misunderstanding and distrust between ordinary Americans and Soviet citizens.

In 1985, there was no direct mention of perestroika.  Instead, Americans observed policies such as the anti-alcohol campaign and uskorenie.  Although the goal of the first was laudable–public health in the USSR would benefit from less alcohol consumption–the campaign was carried out in ways that were not effective.  It seemed that Soviet officials had learned nothing from the failure of prohibition in the United States in the 1920s.  As for uskorenie, Soviet citizens resisted attempts to force them to work harder with no increase in benefits. American analysts noted that these policies were not bringing the intended results, but that Gorbachev, during 1985, had consolidated his power to the degree that he could subsequently initiate more meaningful reforms if he chose.

When it analyzed the new CPSU Program, adopted by the 27th Party Congress in March 1986, the CIA pointed out that the program “opens up new options for Gorbachev” and “makes clear that new policies are needed to get the country moving again but it does not provide a specific plan of action.” The report also noted that “The program presents an image of a party leadership that sees strengthening the country’s economic base as an important factor in improving foreign policy prospects.”  One feature that suggested the primacy of economics was the fact that the 1986 Party program discussed domestic policy before foreign policy, in contrast to the 1961 program, which gave foreign policy precedence.[2]

During 1986 the policy of glasnost attracted more attention than perestroika, a term that was still used only sparingly.  In August the CIA issued a report that concluded:

Gorbachev evidently believes that more media candor in discussing domestic problems will help marshal public support for his policy initiatives–such as the campaign against alcohol, corruption, and crime–and legitimize the discussion of economic reform.

Gorbachev is also using publicity of shortcomings within the elite to pressure officials to behave in accordance with new standards he is setting.[3]

The report noted, however, that “there are clear limits to Gorbachev’s desire for openness; not surprisingly, no criticism of his leadership has appeared in Soviet media.”  It also pointed out that glasnost “harbors major risks for the regime and for Gorbachev personally. Public airing of social problems could stimulate a process of social ferment within the intelligentsia and criticism from below that could get out of hand.”

In September 1986, the American intelligence community issued a “national intelligence estimate” predicting Gorbachev’s policies toward the United States over the following two years (1986-88). It concluded that “The Gorbachev regime aims to re-create some sort of détente relationship with the United States to ease the burden of arms competition and, accordingly, the task of domestic economic revival.” It recognized that this would not be easy to achieve and would be controversial in Moscow, but predicted that “Gorbachev has the political strength to forge Politburo consensus behind the initiatives and decisions he favors in dealing with the United States.”[4]

A month later, Reagan and Gorbachev met for two days in Reykjavík, Iceland.  Their negotiations dealt largely with nuclear weapons and missile defense, and they came close to an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons in ten years.  Nevertheless, each refused to accept a key element in the other’s position, and the meeting ended in apparent failure. In retrospect, however, this meeting can be seen as a turning point in the personal relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev, since each came to understand that the other was genuinely interested in ending the arms race, particularly in nuclear weapons.[5]

The Central Committee plenary session that convened after repeated delays in January 1987 convinced American intelligence analysts that Gorbachev was serious about “systemic change” in the USSR. (Previously, analysts had assumed that his intent was limited to changes that did not affect the Soviet system of rule.) In a report issued March 11, 1987, nearly six weeks after the CC plenum (suggesting that the conclusions had been debated intensely), the CIA reached the following judgments:

Gorbachev is attempting to revitalize the country’s institutional structure to smooth the way for the successful implementation of his economic reforms.  He made clear that he has no intention of limiting the party’s monopoly of political power or the top leadership’s authority within the party. Rather, his proposals are intended to energize the system by mobilizing grassroots pressure against recalcitrant lower level officials and by giving the population a sense of participation in the political process. …

The plenum clearly demonstrated that Gorbachev now has the initiative and is strong enough politically to push openly for broad policy and systemic changes. By taking the offensive, however, he is heightening the risk of a direct clash with more conservative elements. … His program and his own political future are more closely tied together than ever.[6]

The Central Committee plenum that followed in June 1987 marked a further step forward in adopting Gorbachev’s program. The CIA reported that “General Secretary Gorbachev scored a major political victory at the Central Committee plenum and Supreme Soviet session in June, winning approval of a landmark program for comprehensive economic reform and securing leadership changes that will enhance his ability to control the policy agenda.” It noted that the decision to hold a party conference in 1988 “could allow him to further strengthen his position in the Central Committee, where his supporters are locked in battle with conservative Brezhnev-era holdovers who want to limit the scope and slow the pace of reform.”  The CIA report then added:

The plenum’s approval of guidelines for a comprehensive economic reform package, along with the Supreme Soviet’s ratification of a new Law on State Enterprises, marks a watershed in Gorbachev’s quest for a “new economic mechanism.”  Previously, he had introduced limited economic reforms in a piecemeal fashion, and critics inside and outside the USSR had insisted that a comprehensive approach was necessary. The new program … is designed to sharply reduce rigid central control over economic activity. …”

While greeting the resolutions in June 1987 as “watershed decisions,” the CIA cautioned that “while impressive, they [Gorbachev’s achievements] do not guarantee either his longevity in office or the success of economic reform. … Conservative forces are still represented in the Politburo and Central Committee and some leaders previously allied with Gorbachev think he is pushing too far too fast.  Above all, the vast governmental bureaucracy is notoriously reluctant to change.”[7]

A few weeks before Gorbachev arrived in Washington in December 1987, the American intelligence community issued a “National Intelligence Estimate,” a comprehensive assessment of Soviet policy and politics in the years ahead.  It began with the attention-getting statement that “Mikhail Gorbachev has staked his future on a bold effort to revitalize Soviet society, improve Moscow’s abilities to compete with the West, and more effectively advance Soviet influence in the global power arena. The reforms he is pressing … have the potential to produce the most significant changes in Soviet policies and institutions since Stalin’s forced regimentation of the country in the late 1920s.”  The report then went on to describe “Gorbachev’s Vision” as follows:

We believe Gorbachev is now convinced that he can make significant changes in the system, not just tinker at the margins, if he is to achieve his ambitious domestic and foreign objectives. To revitalize the society and the economy he:

Has launched a thorough-going turnover of party and government officials designed to consolidate his political power and prepare the ground for his ambitions policy agenda.

–Intends to revamp the main institutions of the Stalinist system.  He wants to create a ‘halfway house’ that preserves the essential features of the Leninist system (the primacy of the Communist Party and strategic control of the main directions of the economy), while grafting onto it approaches not seen in the USSR since the 1920s–a political atmosphere more tolerant of diversity and debate, a less repressive environment for Soviet citizens, an expanded role for market forces in the economy, and a dose of economic competition.

While the report judged that Gorbachev aimed at radical change in Soviet society, it expressed the view that Gorbachev’s foreign policy objectives remained the traditional Soviet ones: “first and foremost enhancing the security of the Soviet homeland; expanding Soviet influence worldwide; and advancing Communism at the expense of capitalism around the globe.” Nevertheless, the report expressed the belief that Gorbachev wished to change Soviet strategy and tactics in order to achieve these goals:  “He believes that a more pragmatic approach to ideology, a more flexible and accommodating diplomacy toward the West, the Communist Bloc, China, and the Third World, and a corresponding de-emphasis on military intimidation as an instrument of foreign policy will help achieve his objectives.”[8]

Having thus defined Gorbachev’s goals, the report assessed the likelihood that Gorbachev would achieve them.  The most likely outcome, it opined, would be a rejuvenation of the existing system.  It added that, given the obstacles to change, “the chances that Gorbachev will succeed in going beyond rejuvenation to implement what we call systemic reform are small.”  Significantly, however, the possibility of systemic reform was not totally dismissed: the odds that Gorbachev could achieve it were judged to be one in three.  As for other possibilities, the report concluded that a return to a more authoritarian neo-Stalinist regime was less likely than systemic reform, and stated: “At the other end of the spectrum, we believe the odds of a turn toward democratic socialism, featuring a more radical push for a market economy and a pluralistic society than systemic reform, will remain virtually nil under any circumstances.”

Reports by the intelligence community contributed, of course, to the judgments formed by policy-making officials, but they were not taken as definitive or conclusive.  Both President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz based their judgments increasingly on their personal contacts with Soviet leaders, particularly—of course—General Secretary Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.  As these contacts became more frequent and intense, confidence began to grow that Mikhail Gorbachev was indeed a different sort of Soviet leader, who was dedicated to fundamental reform—perhaps even movement toward the “democratic socialism” that the U.S. intelligence community considered a virtual impossibility.

Reagan was impressed by Gorbachev’s willingness to agree to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and by the steps taken to open Soviet information media to informed debate and to foster more personal contact between Soviet citizens and persons in the West.  While some of Reagan’s advisors warned that Gorbachev wished to reform the Soviet Union only to make it stronger and better able to conduct its traditional foreign policy, Reagan understood that a democratic Soviet Union, even if stronger, would not be a threat to the United States or its neighbors, but would more likely be a partner for economic development and the preservation of peace.  He, therefore, looked for signs that Gorbachev intended to use perestroika to make the Soviet Union more democratic.

The most convincing of these signs came in May 1988 when the CPSU Central Committee issued its “Theses” for the Nineteenth CPSU Conference.  At that time I had been U.S. ambassador in Moscow for a year.  I was in Helsinki, Finland, when the Theses were issued, in order to brief President Reagan before his visit to Moscow.  When I read the Theses, I understood that one could no longer question Gorbachev’s determination to press for fundamental reform of the Soviet system.  I described the Theses to President Reagan and remarked that if Gorbachev could implement the ideas in them, “the Soviet Union will never be the same.”  Reagan agreed, and when, a few days later, he was asked in Moscow if he still considered the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” he replied, “No.  That was another time, another era.”  And when he was asked who was responsible for the change, he said without hesitation that the credit went to Gorbachev, as the leader of the country.

American intelligence analysts concentrated their attention on political struggles, economic performance, and military doctrine and deployments and gave scant attention to ideology.  President Reagan, however, had a keen interest in ideology since he was convinced that ideology lay behind the tensions of the Cold War.  The arms race and geopolitical competitions were, of course, serious, and had to be dealt with, but unless there was a change in ideology, it would be difficult to bring the Cold War to a definitive close. Reagan often said, “Nations don’t fear each other because they are armed; they arm because they fear each other.”  He wanted, first of all, to attenuate the fundamental distrust the Cold War had engendered.

As ambassador to the Soviet Union, I also understood that ideology was important, even if it was no longer the strong motivating force it had been during the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalin’s collectivization drives.  After all, the Brezhnev government had declared in the 1970s, during the détente period, that relaxation (razryadka) applied to relations between states of different social systems, but not to ideology.  Specifically, the foreign policy of the Soviet Union continued to be based on “the international class struggle,” which implied that there could be no compromise with “bourgeois” or “imperialist” states, but only a temporary truce until the Soviet Union was strong enough to fulfill its international duty to support the expansion of “socialism” as it defined the term.

For this reason, the debate that occurred in the Soviet leadership in 1988 over “the common interests of mankind” attracted the American embassy’s attention.  Most of it occurred behind closed doors, but occasionally it became public, as when the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossia published an article by Nina Andreyeva defending Stalinism, and Alexander Yakovlev and Yegor Ligachev gave conflicting speeches on the subject.[9] During a call on Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze on other subjects I mentioned the debate and he assured me that the Soviet Union no longer considered the international class struggle the basis of its foreign policy.  On December 7, 1988, Gorbachev in effect gave the same assurances in his speech to the United Nations when he declared that there could be no limits on a nation’s freedom of choice.

Following his speech at the United Nations, Gorbachev met with Reagan and with President-elect George H.W. Bush on Governors Island in New York harbor.  Ideologically, the Cold War seemed over at that meeting.  Reagan told Gorbachev that he prayed to God that his successor would continue his policies of accommodation with the Soviet Union and he noted in his diary, “The meeting was a tremendous success… Gorbachev sounded as if he saw us as partners in making a better world.”

By the end of 1988, senior American and Soviet officials had developed a degree of personal trust that contrasted sharply with typical Cold War suspicions.  Conversations became more and more candid as the political leaders agreed on common goals.  In November, during his last visit to Washington during the Reagan administration, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze speculated on the future of his country in a private dinner arranged by Secretary of State Shultz. He anticipated that the country would somehow muddle through its economic difficulties. A bigger problem, he observed, was the “nationalities question.” If Soviet policy did not change for the better—as he thought it would—“the Soviet Union will not survive as a unitary state,” he advised his American listeners. (Shultz and Shevardnadze each had three compatriots at the table, for a total of eight persons.) The mutual confidence of those present had developed to the point that Shevardnadze’s astounding comment never spread within their governments or leaked to the press. I doubt that any person present put in writing what Shevardnadze said lest it reach unreliable eyes and leak to the press.

Those American officials who knew the Soviet Union well did not have to be informed that national feelings could be an explosive issue. In fact, we were amazed that Soviet leaders, like some foreign scholars, seemed insensitive to the danger ethnic nationalism could pose for the regime. (One well-known American scholar had stated flatly in the late 1980s that “the Soviet ‘nationality problem’ has been solved.”)  Instructions were given to the Voice of America to avoid any encouragement to ethnic hatred or violence in their broadcasts to the Soviet Union.

Although the spirit of the U.S.-Soviet relationship had changed, many issues still separated the superpowers in January 1989.  Europe was still divided in opposing military blocs; Germany itself was split into two states with American troops, as part of NATO, stationed in the west and Soviet troops, under the Warsaw Pact, in the east.  Agreements to reduce strategic nuclear weapons and conventional forces in Europe were still under negotiation with no clear end in sight.  While Soviet troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, “proxy wars” continued in Africa and Central America.  Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s announcement in his United Nations speech that the USSR would reduce its armed forces by half a million made a strong impression on Western governments and on public opinion in Europe and the United States.

When President Bush took office in January 1989 he announced that he would undertake a policy review before formulating his own policy toward the Soviet Union.  His intent was to continue Reagan’s policies (which, as Vice President, he had supported) for the most part, but to convince those on the right wing of the Republican Party that he was not “soft,” and to formulate policies that he could call his own rather than seeming merely to implement policies designed by his predecessor.  His principal advisers were less impressed by Gorbachev’s reforms than President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz had been.  They were “realists” who paid more attention to the Cold War issues that had not been resolved than to the shift in underlying attitudes that took place in 1987 and 1988.

Shortly before George H.W. Bush took office as president, the U.S. intelligence community produced an assessment of the prospects for economic reform in the Soviet Union. Entitled “Gorbachev’s Economic Programs: the Challenges Ahead,” the report found that the economic results of perestroika were meager at best, and predicted a difficult road ahead. While the policies themselves might hold promise, “a resentful public and skeptical bureaucracy” would make it most difficult to “increase the production of goods and services for consumers.” Despite this pessimistic outlook, the report conceded that “Gorbachev has often dealt with setbacks by adopting radical measures, and we cannot rule out an effort to move rapidly toward a market economy in the state sector.”[10]

When President Bush announced his review of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, I sent three lengthy telegrams from the American Embassy in Moscow, which dealt, successively, with internal developments in the Soviet Union, Soviet foreign policy, and proposals for U.S. policy.[11] Some officials of the new American administration were advising President Bush that Gorbachev hoped to improve the Soviet economy only to oppose the United States more effectively, and that Gorbachev himself might be removed soon if he did not change course, just as Nikita Khrushchev had been swept aside in 1964. I drafted the telegrams in order to refute both these propositions. I predicted that Gorbachev was likely to remain in office throughout the Bush administration and longer, and that the reforms he was undertaking would bring profound changes to the Soviet Union. However, I was not optimistic that the reforms would greatly improve the Soviet economy, and I foresaw problems ahead in dealing with the growing signs of ethnic conflict within the Soviet Union.  As for U.S. policy, I advised that “We have an historic opportunity to test the degree the Soviet Union is willing to move into a new relationship with the rest of the world, and to strengthen those tendencies in the Soviet Union to ‘civilianize’ the economy and ‘pluralize’ the society.”  U.S. policy, I argued, should be supportive of perestroika because it was in the U.S. interest for the Soviet Union to democratize its political system and its society.

Not all American officials shared Embassy Moscow’s position.  A National Intelligence Estimate issued in April 1989 described disagreements among analysts in Washington as follows:

  • Some analysts see current [Soviet] policy changes as largely tactical, driven by the need for breathing space from the competition. They believe the ideological imperatives of Marxism-Leninism and its hostility toward capitalist countries are enduring. They point to previous failures of reform and the transient nature of past “détentes.” They judge that there is a serious risk of Moscow returning to traditionally combative behavior when the hoped for gains in economic performance are achieved.
  • Other analysts believe Gorbachev’s policies reflect a fundamental rethinking of national interests and ideology as well as more tactical considerations.  They argue that ideological tenets of Marxism-Leninism such as class conflict and capitalist-socialist enmity are being revised. They consider the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the shift toward tolerance of power sharing in Eastern Europe to be historic shifts in the Soviet definition of national interest. They judge that Gorbachev’s changes are likely to have sufficient momentum to produce lasting shifts in Soviet behavior.[12]

President Bush’s policy review lasted several months, but his meeting with Gorbachev on Malta in December 1989 gave new impetus to the relationship.  Both leaders agreed that their countries were no longer enemies, and Gorbachev assured Bush that he would not intervene in Eastern Europe to preserve unpopular regimes there.  Meanwhile, political reform in the Soviet Union had continued apace, with contested elections, the formation of a legislature with real power (the Congress of Peoples Deputies and its Supreme Soviet), and growing restrictions on the authority of local Communist Party officials to interfere in management of the economy. Forces in several republics, particularly the three Baltic republics, demanded economic autonomy, and—when this was denied—sentiment grew to insist on full independence.

The United States, like most Western countries, had never recognized the legality of the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union.  Therefore, U.S. leaders tried to convince Gorbachev that he should find a way to restore independence to the Baltic countries.  The United States government, however, did not wish to see the other twelve union republics leave the Soviet Union.  It supported Gorbachev’s efforts to negotiate a Union Treaty that would provide a democratic basis for a federated state.

Toward the end of November 1989 the American intelligence community issued a National Intelligence Estimate entitled “The Soviet System in Crisis: Prospects for the Next Two Years.”[13] The report summarized its predictions as follows:

  • The Soviet domestic crisis will continue beyond the two years of this Estimate regardless of the policies the regime pursues.  The regime will be preoccupied with domestic problems for years to come, will want to keep tensions with the United States low, and will probably still pursue agreements that reduce military competition and make resource trade-offs easier.
  • Despite the enormous problems he faces, Gorbachev’s position in the leadership appears relatively secure, and he has increased power and political room to cope with the crisis.
  • There will be greater efforts to define the limits of political change, a tougher approach to ethnic issues, and some retrenchment in media policy, but the process of political liberalization will expand with the legislature and independent political groups increasing in power at party expense.
  • The regime will concentrate on stabilizing the economy and, while pulling back on some reforms, will push for others designed to enlarge the role of the market and private enterprise.
  • Despite these efforts, we expect little improvement—and possibly a decline—in economic performance as well as further increase in domestic turmoil.
  • Community analysts consider it most likely that the regime will maintain the present course, intensifying reform while making some retreats.
  • In a less likely scenario that all analysts believe is a possibility, the political turmoil and economic decline will become unmanageable and lead to a repressive crackdown, effectively ending any serious reform effort.

In a most unusual dissent, the CIA’s Deputy Director for Intelligence disagreed with both the scenarios listed above.  He expressed the following alternative view:

Assuming Gorbachev holds on to power and refrains from repression, the next two years are likely to bring a significant progression toward a pluralist—albeit chaotic—democratic system, accompanied by a higher degree of political instability, social upheaval and interethnic conflict than this Estimate judges probable. In these circumstances, we believe there is a significant chance that Gorbachev, during the period of this Estimate, will progressively lose control of events.  The personal political strength he has accumulated is likely to erode, and his political position will be severely tested.

The essence of the Soviet crisis is that neither the political system that Gorbachev is attempting to change nor the emergent system he is fostering is likely to cope effectively with newly mobilized popular demands and the deepening economic crisis.

This report was issued almost exactly two years before Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich met at Belovezhkaya Pushcha and decided to dissolve the USSR and replace it with a Commonwealth of Independent States.  This, however, was not a result that the United States sought. Indeed, from December 1989 it was American policy to give the fullest possible support to Gorbachev’s reform efforts.

The problem for American policy makers was that events seemed to be spiraling out of Gorbachev’s control, in ways that no foreign power could hope to restrain, or even to influence in any significant way. In May 1990, I sent an analysis of the situation to prepare Secretary of State James Baker III for his upcoming meeting with Shevardnadze.  It was entitled, “Gorbachev Confronts a Crisis of Power.”[14] In a formal sense, Gorbachev seemed to be at the acme of his power, having created the office of president and a Presidential Council of his choice, freeing him from much of the constraints that the CPSU Politburo might impose.  Nevertheless, these new institutions were not yet up the formidable tasks they faced. I described the situation as follows:

  • Gorbachev has yet to fashion a coherent system of legitimate power around new state institutions to replace the old Party-dominated, Stalinist one he has extensively dismantled. In the absence of a strong center of power, Soviet society has fragmented along ethnic lines and polarized on the political spectrum.  The Party itself, as yet still the dominant political institution, is beset by factional struggle and probably doomed to split at the 28th Party Congress this July or shortly thereafter.
  • The success of Gorbachev’s efforts to modernize Soviet society and at the same time to keep the federation together appears increasingly problematical. Democratization and market reforms are exacerbating regional, ethnic and class tensions, and thus complicating the forging of the national consensus needed for further reform. True to his past, Gorbachev is probably resolved to move boldly to resolve the current crisis. He has said that the next year or year and a half will make or break the reform process. Nevertheless, he may find that there is no bold departure that will allow him to keep both reform on track and the federation together. …
  • Despite the problems, Gorbachev has a reasonable chance of remaining at the helm for some time to come. His position is under pressure, not lost. Bold, effective use of his powers as president could reverse the current decline in his popularity and authority. …

This message was sent following the Lithuanian declaration of independence, which Gorbachev refused to honor but did not attempt to remove the Lithuanian leadership by military force.  By July 1990, evidence was mounting that the danger Shevardnadze had identified during that private dinner nearly two years earlier was growing outside the three Baltic republics.  I judged that Washington needed a shock and send a telegram with the subject line: “Looking into the Abyss: The Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should Be Doing About It.”[15] The Embassy’s political counselor, Raymond Smith, was the author of the message and its summary paragraphs read as follows:

Gorbachev, or even more progressive reformers may triumph and the Soviet Union may move rapidly into full and productive interaction with the rest of the world. But they also may not, and it appears to us that the potentially less happy outcomes are the ones that require more forethought. The prospects of the Gorbachev regime have deteriorated over the past year and Soviets themselves are increasingly talking in apocalyptic terms. Some republics will leave the Soviet Union and there will be a substantial redefinition of the remaining republics’ relationship to the center and to each other unless massive repression is used to prevent it. Truly dangerous scenarios—ranging from civil war and the loss of control over nuclear weapons to a truncated, belligerent, nuclear-armed Soviet or Russian state—cannot be excluded, even if they are not as likely as less apocalyptic scenarios. We need to take a close look at our policy to make certain that it minimizes the probability of extreme outcomes, and minimizes the risk to the U.S. if they should occur despite our best efforts.

We should move now to establish a permanent presence in each of the Soviet republics. A major expansion of our exchange programs, both governmental and private, is essential. We need to keep our focus, and that of the Gorbachev regime, on moving forward on economic reform. Our arms control negotiations are in serious danger of being a day late and a dollar short. We need to rethink our objectives and how we are to get there, from war-fighting strategy to modernization to how we organize ourselves as a government to conduct arms control negotiations. We need to move beyond ad hoc-ism in civil conflicts to the establishment of international principles and mechanisms for dealing with them.

This message was not a prediction that the Soviet Union would necessarily break up, but that it could happen and that the American government should think in advance about the implications and the ways that the most dangerous aspects of a Soviet collapse, both for the people within and those without, might be avoided.  The CIA implicitly endorsed the analysis by sending it “eyes only” in its periodic briefing telegram to American ambassadors in the largest embassies. Its only comment was, in effect, “You will be interested in Ambassador Matlock’s views of the situation in the Soviet Union.”[16] If there had not been large agreement in the CIA with the embassy’s analysis, the message would not have been repeated to key ambassadors and other senior officials. Actually, nobody wanted the CIA to issue an official judgment that the Soviet Union could fail as a state; such an assessment would inevitably have leaked and led to a possibly massive crack-down in the Soviet Union and a reversal of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

As 1990 progressed, the last important remnants of the Cold War were eliminated: Germany was allowed to unite, the Soviet Union accepted non-communist governments in the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, a treaty to limit conventional weapons in Europe was signed, and the Soviet Union voted with other members of the United Nations Security Council to condemn Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. President Bush was eager to support the reforms of perestroika and, at Gorbachev’s request, in September sent a delegation of prominent American businessmen to discuss economic cooperation.  All were interested in finding areas of potential investment and represented companies capable of investing billions of dollars in promising foreign ventures.

Gorbachev received the American delegation graciously, but following an encouraging meeting turned them over to the Chairman of Gosplan, Yuri Maslyukov, who promised to convey a list of investment opportunities within days.  The American Embassy repeatedly requested the list, to inform the American investors, but it was never supplied.  This, and many other experiences convinced the embassy that the Soviet bureaucracy was simply refusing to implement policies Gorbachev had announced. Gorbachev also started changing his mind under pressure: he and Boris Yeltsin had indicated support for the “500-Day Plan,” but then when the bureaucracy opposed it, Gorbachev withdrew his support and ordered that it be combined with contradictory elements of a government stabilization plan. Meanwhile, the economy was in a tailspin.

By November 1990, the predictions in the annual National Intelligence Estimate became more alarming:

The USSR is in the midst of a historic transformation that threatens to tear the country apart. The old Communist order is in its death throes. But its diehards remain an obstructive force, and new political parties and institutions have yet to prove their effectiveness. The erosion of the center’s influence, coupled with the republics’ assertion of sovereignty, is creating a power vacuum. Gorbachev has amassed impressive power on paper, but his ability to use it effectively is increasingly in doubt. Meanwhile, economic conditions are steadily deteriorating.

The American intelligence community concluded that the slim chances of surmounting this crisis would depend on improving economic performance and on cooperation between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, neither of which seemed likely.[17]

President Bush and Secretary of State Baker were more hopeful than their intelligence agencies that Gorbachev could master the situation.  The American Embassy in Moscow, while recognizing the great problems Gorbachev faced, also hoped that Gorbachev would find ways to put perestroika on track.  In the winter of 1990 and 1991 there were recurrent rumors that Gorbachev might be removed from power.  My opinion, which I expressed in several messages to Washington, was that Gorbachev could not be removed unconstitutionally so long as he had the full support of the KGB Chairman, the commander of the Kremlin guard, and the Minister of Defense. Nevertheless, problems were mounting, and Gorbachev’s apparent “turn to the right” in November 1990, when he replaced several key officials, Eduard Shevardnadze’s dramatic resignation in December, and the subsequent appointment of unreliable individuals to the posts of vice president and prime minister raised questions in many minds about Gorbachev’s judgment of people.

Crisis seemed to follow crisis.  For Washington, the most important was the attack on the television tower in Vilnius in January 1991.  Gorbachev denied that he had ordered it (and I believed his denial), but if he had not ordered it, why did he not act promptly to bring to justice those who had perpetrated the outrage? His failure to clarify the situation promptly led many observers in Moscow to believe either that he was dissembling or if not that he had lost control over the security organs.  When I met with Gorbachev a few days after the Vilnius incident to deliver a letter from President Bush, he asked me to advise the president that the country was on the brink of a civil war, which he as president had to do everything to avoid.  This would require him to “zig and zag,” but we could be assured that he had not changed his objectives.[18]

In a speech in Minsk in February, Gorbachev attacked the “democratic” forces as if they were his enemies, capable of an illegal seizure of power. He then put great political energy in conducting a non-binding referendum on the union, which in the end did more harm than good to his cause since it was worded differently in different republics, not conducted at all in several, and in the RSFSR was coupled with a vote to create a Russian presidency—giving Yeltsin a stronger platform to challenge Gorbachev’s authority. Then, in late March, Gorbachev authorized bringing troops to Moscow to prevent a mass demonstration, which took place anyway without significant violence.

It seemed to our embassy, and to most intelligence analysts in Washington, that Gorbachev needed the “democrats” to make perestroika work; they might be difficult to deal with and more radical in their proposals that was prudent, yet if Gorbachev lost their support by pandering to the “power ministries,” how could he succeed in implementing the reforms he had proposed? The idea, expressed in Gorbachev’s Minsk speech, that the “democrats” were planning an illegal seizure of power seemed ludicrous to us.  It was well known that the security organs, most military officers, and the bulk of the Communist Party apparatchiks were opposed to the democrats.  There was no realistic possibility that the democrats could seize power by force—even it that had been their aim, which, so far as the embassy could determine, was definitely not the case.  The embassy could only speculate that Gorbachev must have been misled by his own intelligence organization, which seemed to have an agenda of its own.  Bringing troops to Moscow in March to control a demonstration seemed an ominous rehearsal for an attempt by the security forces to seize power.

It was in the wake of these events that the CIA’s Office of Soviet Analysis issued a report on April 25, 1991, entitled “The Soviet Cauldron,” which, in summary, came to the following conclusions:[19]

  1. Economic crisis, independence aspirations, and anti-communist forces are breaking down the Soviet empire and system of governance; …
  2. In the midst of this chaos, Gorbachev has gone from ardent reformer to consolidator. … Gorbachev has chosen this course both because of his own political credo and by pressures on him by other traditionalists, who would like him to use much tougher repressive measures. …
  3. Gorbachev has truly been faced with terrible choices in his effort to move the USSR away from the failed, rigid old system.  His expedients have so far kept him in office and changed that system irretrievably, but have also prolonged and complicated the agony of transition to a new system and meant a political stalemate in the overall power equation. …
  4. In this situation of growing chaos, explosive events have become increasingly possible.  …
  5. … A premeditated, organized attempt to restore a full-fledged dictatorship would be the most fateful in that it would try to roll back newly acquired freedoms and be inherently destabilizing in the long term.  Unfortunately preparations for dictatorial rule have begun in two ways:
    1. Gorbachev may not want this turn of events but is increasing the chances of it through his personnel appointments; through his estrangement from the reformers and consequent reliance on the traditionalists whom he thereby strengthens; and through his attempted rule by decree, which does not work but invites dictatorship to make it work.
    2. More ominously, military, MVD, and KGB leaders are making preparations for a broad use of force in the political process; …
    3. A campaign to retire democratically inclined officers or at least move them out of key positions has been going on for some time. …
  6. Should the reactionaries make their move, with or without Gorbachev, their first target this time would be Boris Yeltsin and the Russian democrats. …
  7. Any attempt to restore full-fledged dictatorship would start in Moscow with the arrest or assassination of Yeltsin and other democratic leaders. … A committee of national salvation—probably under a less sullied name—would be set up and proclaim its intent to save the fatherland through tough but temporary measures …
  • The long-term prospects of such an enterprise are poor, and even short-term success is far from assured.
  • The number of troops that can be counted on to enforce repression is limited.

The report continued with further speculation about the effects of an attempted putsch on the non-Russian republics (it would increase the demand for independence), and concluded with the judgment that “with or without Gorbachev, with or without a putsch, the most likely prospect for the end of this decade, if not earlier, is a Soviet Union transformed into some independent states and a confederation of the remaining republics, including Russia.

In Washington, at the political level, there was still hope that Gorbachev could avoid a breakup of the union. His renewal of the “Novo-Ogarevo process” of negotiation with union republic leaders in April was an encouraging step, but a workable economic reform plan seemed to elude him. He failed to obtain significant Western economic support at the Group of Seven meeting in London in July, but not because the Western leaders were indifferent or hostile.  All were willing to help if that had been feasible.  But without a credible plan to turn the economy around, foreign leaders felt that financial assistance would be tantamount to pouring water into the sand.  They might have been willing to prime a pump, but without a pump there was nothing to prime.

In June, when we received a report that senior officials including KGB Chairman Kryuchkov, Prime Minister Pavlov, and Defense Minister Yazov were planning to seize power, we tried to warn Gorbachev.[20] He, however, failed to take the warning seriously, perhaps because we did not name the individuals but gave only a general warning.  Nevertheless, the attempt to warn him made it clear that the U.S. government did not wish to see a change of leadership in Moscow.  Furthermore, when President Bush made his state visit at the end of July, he attempted to persuade the non-Russian union republics to sign the union treaty that Gorbachev had negotiated.  He traveled to Kiev on August 1 and delivered a speech to the Ukrainian parliament that was intended for all the non-Russian union republics aside from the Baltic states.  Pointing out that freedom and independence were not synonyms, he advised the republics to choose freedom by signing Gorbachev’s union treaty and thus creating a federation.

At that time it appeared that several, though not all, union republics were prepared to sign the treaty.  Plans to do so, however, were put aside during the attempted putsch organized the night of August 18-19.  Though the putsch failed, it so undermined Gorbachev’s authority that he was unable to preserve even a voluntary federation. The American government was not happy with this turn of events, but could do nothing to stop the disintegration of the USSR once the process started.

The widespread view in Russia today—and not only in Russia—is that the United States or the “West” conspired to force the break-up of the Soviet Union. Many consider the Soviet collapse the culmination of the Cold War. Both views are dead wrong. The United States tried to support Gorbachev’s effort to create a voluntary federation, and the Cold War ended long before the Soviet Union collapsed. But the myths play a corrosive role in international relations to this very day.[21]

It is also wrong, in my view, to consider the breakup of the Soviet Union as a failure of perestroika.  When he was CPSU General Secretary and President, Gorbachev often stated that perestroika was an objective process, not dependent on one individual.  That process continued in many of the Soviet republics after they became independent, and continues to this day, with setbacks at times and progress at others.  Perestroika has turned out to be a longer and more complicated process than its initiators hoped, but its core ideas are still valid, not only in Russia and other successor states of the Soviet Union, but more generally. Those political leaders who are able to implement these ideas will lead more successful societies than will those leaders who reject or ignore them.

Princeton, New Jersey

July 19, 2010

[1] An earlier version of this paper was published in Russian in Proriv k svobode: O perestroika dvadtsat’ let spustya: Kriticheskii analyz. Moscow: Alpina Business Books, 2005.

[2]“The New CPSU Program: Charting the Soviet Future,” [SOV-86-10022], issued by the CIA on April 1, 1986.

[3]“The Debate over ‘Openness’ in Soviet Propaganda and Culture,” issued by the CIA on August 1, 1986.

[4]“Gorbachev’s Policy Toward the United States, 1986-88,” issued September 1, 1986.

[5] I have described the meeting in Reykjavik and its aftermath in Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004, pp. 215-250.

[6]“The January Plenum: Gorbachev Draws the Battlelines,” issued March 11, 1987.

[7]“The June Plenum and Supreme Soviet Session: Building Support for Economic Change,” issued in September 1987.

[8]“Whither Gorbachev: Soviet Policy and Politics in the 1990s,” [NIE 11-18-87], issued in November 1987.

[9] I described the debate in Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: Random House, 1995), pp. 142-148.

[10] NIE 11-23-88 of December 1988, published in Benjamin B. Fischer, editor. At Cold War’s End: U.S. Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989-1991. Washington: Government Reprints Press, 2001, pp. 1-26.

[11] 89 Moscow 02962; 89 Moscow 03850; 89 Moscow 04648.  All have been declassified from the original Secret classification and are available from the Historical Division, Department of State.

[12] NIE 11-4-89, “Soviet Policy Toward the West: The Gorbachev Challenge,” published in Benjamin B. Fischer, editor. At Cold War’s End, pp. 227-254.

[13] NIE ll-18-89, published in Benjamin B. Fischer, editor. At Cold War’s End, pp. 49-81.

[14] 90 Moscow 15714, declassified and available online at the Department of State FOIA Electronic Reading Room.

[15] 90 Moscow 23603, July 13, 1990, now declassified in full and available on the U.S. Department of State FOI Reading Room web site.

[16] Quoted from memory. The gist is accurate, but the quotation may not be literal.

[17] NIE 11-18-90, “The Deepening Crisis in the USSR: Prospects for the Next Year,” published in Benjamin B. Fischer, editor. At Cold War’s End, pp. 83-110.

[18] Described in Matlock, Autopsy on an Empire, pp. 468-473.

[19] Published in Benjamin B. Fischer, editor. At Cold War’s End, pp. 111-119.

[20] Described in Autopsy on an Empire, pp. 539-546.

[21] Discussed at length in Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray—and How to Return to Reality. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010).

4 Responses to Washington’s View of Gorbachev’s Perestroika

  1. Anish Kulkarni says:

    Hello, Mr. Matlock,

    First, I would like to say it is an honor to contact you. My name is Anish Kulkarni and I am a 7th grade student at Wayzata West Middle School near Minneapolis, MN and I am conducting research on the INF Treaty and the Cold War for my National History Day project. During the course of my research, I came across and read some of the blog entries by you, Mr. Matlock, on http://www.jackmatlock.com. I have referenced some of your quotes on my website, which is available at http://17377414.nhd.weebly.com.

    I recently read your article on “Washington’s View of Gorbachev’s Perestroika” since I am trying to understand why Gorbachev implemented glasnost & perestroika and how it affected changes in the Soviet Union. After reading the article, I feel as if I now understand the motivation behind those policies. But I am still struggling to find answers to a couple more questions.

    1. Did Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika contribute to the collapse of the Soviet Union? If so, how?

    2. The Reykjavik summit ended with neither side willing to make concessions, with President Reagan’s reluctance to give up SDI being a major issue. Then how did Gorbachev convince Reagan to shut down SDI and focus on the INF Treaty instead?

    Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you very much,

    Anish Kulkarni
    Wayzata West Middle School
    Wayzata, MN

  2. Jack says:

    Thank you for your message, Anish.

    1. The policies of glasnost and perestroika were introduced in order to give more openness to Soviet society and government, and also to make the system more responsive to people’s needs. When important officials in the Communist Party tried to block Gorbachev’s reforms, he acted to reduce their power. When he did so, the Communist Party was no longer able to hold the country together by force and it came apart when key republics decided to assert their independence. In that sense, glasnost and perestroika led to the break-up of the Soviet Union, but they did not have to have that effect. If there had been more support, glasnost and perestroika could have led to a more democratic Soviet Union.

    2. In their meeting at Reykjavik, both Reagan and Gorbachev made concessions. Gorbachev wanted Reagan to keep research on strategic defenses (ballistic missile defense) in laboratories for ten years, without testing components of the system. Reagan thought that the ABM Treaty allowed us to test and well as conduct research, and propose that both sides agree to eliminate all ballistic missiles. Gorbachev did not agree to that, so they went home without a final agreement but they were very close to one.

    Subsequently, in 1987, they agreed to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear missiles—the INF Treaty. But Reagan did not “shut down” SDI—research, testing and some deployments continue to this day. What happened was that Gorbachev agreed to conclude a treaty on INF without a treaty on strategic weapons (START) or space weapons. At Reykjavik and before, he had insisted that all these agreements had to be concluded at once. The U.S. position had been that we should not tie them together, so we were happy to do them one by one. Later, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed a strategic arms treaty with Gorbachev, but we never concluded one on “space weapons.”

    You can read about the Reykjavik meeting and its repercussions in my book, Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended, Chapters 10 and 11.

    Best wishes for your National History Day project!

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