Toon’s troubles were not over by a long shot, however. He viewed Carter and Vance as naïve in their dealings with the Soviets, and particularly objected to their continued use of Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin as a back channel to the Kremlin, to the detriment of Toon and Embassy Moscow. Like his two immediate predecessors, Beam and Stoessel, Toon was systematically frozen out by most of the Soviet hierarchy, and never had the kind of access that Dobrynin had. Toon felt that his side should have insisted on equal access and equal status for the two Ambassadors, rightly pointing out that the White House could not know how accurately Dobrynin was reporting to the Kremlin. There is little doubt that a double-track policy would have been much wiser in order to avoid misunderstandings, but Carter White House staffers preferred the more personal Dobrynin channel, since it gave them greater influence over the process. In fact, they were only following the precedent set by the Nixon Administration, when a secretive President and NSC Advisor Henry Kissinger effectively gutted the role of the State Department and Embassy Moscow in policymaking vis à vis the Soviet Union.
Relations between Toon and Dobrynin were somewhat less than congenial. In his memoir, “In Confidence,” Dobrynin referred to Toon as “a belligerent career diplomat,” while ignoring the fact that one of the possible reasons for Toon's belligerence was Dobrynin's own success in monopolizing high-level contacts.
|Ambassador and Mrs. Toon with Tchaikovskiy Winner Elmar Olveira|
The following month, Toon lobbied strongly against the July 12-13, 1978 Gromyko-Vance meeting in Geneva to discuss arms control issues, since it came at the same time as the trials of Anatoliy Shcharanskiy and Aleksandr Ginzburg. In the end, the Carter Administration decided to go ahead with the meeting, but accompanied it with statements highly critical of Soviet treatment of the two dissidents. Several months later, on April 27, 1979, Ginzburg, Eduard Kuznetsov, Mark Dymshits, Valentin Moroz, and Georgy Vins were traded for the “Woodbridge Duo,” thus bringing a number of serious espionage and human rights issues to a successful conclusion. Toon’s role in the effective handling of this problem was typical of his unsentimental and unsparing view of relations with the Soviets.
This complicated and instructive episode in U.S.-Soviet relations pointed up the dilemma often faced by Carter Administration policymakers. The Administration was very strongly committed to supporting human rights in the Soviet Union, but it did so at a cost to the relationship in other areas. Early in the Administration, before this reality became apparent, the White House sometimes overreached in its zeal to promote human rights issues, and the Embassy would often bear the brunt of Soviet displeasure. For example, early on Toon was instructed to deliver a Presidential letter to Soviet human rights leader Andrey Sakharov, an act which, had he carried out his instruction literally, would have gotten him expelled, at least according to Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Korniyenko. After this initial close shave, Toon decided to control more closely all Embassy contacts with human rights activists and dissidents. This policy was widely misunderstood at the time, but it probably saved several Embassy officers from expulsion. Dick Combs notes that the policy was not as draconian as many assumed, since Toon delegated to him control of Embassy contacts with the Soviet dissident community. In practice, this allowed Political Officers to continue their work without stultifying restrictions, while requiring others to clear contact work with Political/Internal.
With regard to high-level talks, Toon was systematically frozen out of the Administration’s SALT II negotiations, even though he knew the issue well and accurately predicted that the Soviets would reject the Administration’s initial proposals as non-negotiable and grossly biased in favor of the U.S. Toon's lack of influence in arms control matters suited the White House, Secretary Vance, and the Soviets themselves, who were all in a position to prevent Toon from carving out a role for himself.
Toon’s perceived hardliner attitude, and his dour manner, earned him the moniker “Looney Tunes” from detractors within the Administration, but few really understood the impossible situation he faced in implementing a policy that was often ill-advised, and on which he was rarely consulted. After leaving Moscow for retirement, Toon lamented that under Beam and Stoessel the role of the U.S. Ambassador in formulating policy had been significantly eroded. He had tried, but had not been able to make much progress in rectifying this situation during his three years in Moscow.
Toon’s difficulties in Moscow were compounded by the fact that the Soviets made a conscious effort to isolate him, as they did all diplomats, from the realities of Soviet life and politics. Toon was a perceptive observer of the Soviet scene, but his lack of contact with Soviet citizens, from the most powerful to the most humble, hampered his ability to accurately discern what was going on inside the Soviet world. Toon, for example, favored Politburo powerhouses Andrey Kirilenko and Vladimir Shcherbitskiy as possible successors to Brezhnev. In the end, however, neither made it to the top spot. There was also one memorable staff meeting at which Toon coldly predicted that the Soviet Union would last at least another 60 years, this just 12 years before the actual disintegration of the USSR. Of course, at the time, I was even further off in my own estimate, and thought that there was no prospect for an end to Soviet power.
As a lowly staff aide, I knew little about the bureaucratic politics surrounding Toon’s tenure, or the difficulties of his work in Moscow. Toon would of course make occasional comments that indicated the severe problems he and the Embassy faced, both in Moscow and in Washington, but, more often than not, he retained his steely reserve, and betrayed little about his real feelings to his staff. Later on, he would unburden himself to his friends in the Moscow correspondent corps, and to diplomatic historians, but at the time much of the behind the scenes bureaucratic tussling was just that – hidden from view. In any case, I was not particularly aware of or interested in these battles in the clouds. I was simply glad to be working for Ambassador Toon again, and, in my own limited area of responsibility, there was more than enough to keep me fully occupied.
After a very frustrating tour of duty, Toon left post for retirement on October 16, 1979, but he did stay on long enough to preside at ceremonies marking the beginning of construction of the ill-fated New Office Building that September. Toon was replaced by a political appointee who was inadequate for the job in almost every respect.