Ambassador Jack Matlock
When I arrived in Moscow for my second tour, Ambassador Jack Matlock had already been in heading up the Embassy for two years. Appointed by President Reagan in April 1987, he arrived at an Mission that was in severe disarray, suffering under the unjust burden of suspicion caused by the Lonetree scandal. His tenure as Ambassador was one of the most eventful, and most significant, of any U.S. Ambassador, so much so that David Mayers, the author of “The Ambassadors and America’s Soviet Policy” ranks him as one of the most effective Ambassadors in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. I agree with that assessment, although I would note that since the halcyon days of the Second World War, the role of the Ambassador has steadily shrunk from that of policymaker, to advisor and interpreter of events. Matlock was supremely well equipped to fulfill this latter role, however, and maximized the limited potential of his Moscow Ambassadorship.
Early on, Ambassador Matlock established a good relationship with Gorbachev, and while his connection with the Soviet leader did not approach the intimacy that Tommy Thompson enjoyed with Khrushchev, it was good enough to gain him access whenever he needed it. Matlock also used Spaso House for almost daily meetings, dinners and other representational events to bring together Soviet officials and ordinary citizens on neutral ground, to push the idea of democracy, and to overcome the tensions that remained in the relationship.
Steadily improving relations led to two Summit meetings, the first in Moscow and the second in New York. The Armenian earthquake, which took place on December 7, 1988, took over 25,000 lives and gave the U.S. the opportunity, for the first time since the Second World War, to offer aid to the Soviets. Perhaps the most significant event occurred shortly after I arrived, when on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Warsaw Pact alliance system collapsed. Matlock was called upon to interpret events and judge likely Soviet reactions, and did so with great accuracy.
Matlock participated in the December 1989 “seasick summit” at Malta, and also in the June 1990 Summit in Washington, which led to a number of bilateral agreements, signaling a new era of cooperation between the Soviets and Americans. He also participated in the Helsinki Summit in September 1990, at which Presidents Bush and Gorbachev mapped out their strategy for the Gulf War, following on the statement of solidarity by Baker and Shevardnadze that July.
Ambassador Matlock also had the misfortune to preside over not one, but two serious fires at the Embassy. The first, in 1988, damaged several floors of the chancery. The second fire, in March 1991, nearly burned the Embassy down. Matlock had insisted on strong fire evacuation procedures after the 1988 fire, and as a result there were no casualties from the more serious 1991 fire. Matlock was also working at the Embassy during the first fire in 1977, thus making him one of the few people to be present at all three events.
Ambassador Matlock’s management of the Embassy, especially his role in reestablishing its credibility in the wake of the Lonetree scandal, was exemplary, but his real strength was his ability to report on and interpret the historic events taking place in the Soviet Union. Working closely with his Political and Economic Sections, he was able to forecast and report accurately on the growing disarray in the Soviet economic and political systems. In particular, he took it as a given that the Soviet Union was in a slow-motion breakup, something his betters in Washington did not concede until much later. In mid-1990, a cable drafted by Political Counselor Ray Smith went out over his signature that laid out all these concerns and predicted the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was entitled “Looking into the Abyss: The Possible Collapse of the Soviet Union and What We Should Be Doing About It.” (90 Moscow 23603, July 13, 1990; declassified by the Department of State on Feb. 28, 2007).
His wide array of contacts also enabled him to scoop the rest of the diplomatic corps on important stories. For example, in June of 1991 he received information from then-Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov that a hardliner coup was being planned against Gorbachev. His warnings went unheeded. Ambassador Matlock departed Moscow in August, 1991, just after the last Bush-Gorbachev Summit in Moscow, and just before the abortive August 1991 coup attempt.
During my tenure in Moscow, I got the sense that Ambassador Matlock had a very good relationship with President Reagan and the NSC staff, but was on uncertain ground with President Bush and Secretary Baker, who may have viewed him as something of an unwelcome holdover from the previous Administration. They valued him for his incisive reporting ability, but he was definitely an outsider as far as the new group was concerned. Matlock was constantly frustrated by the fact that Bush and Baker, while quick studies, were unable to anticipate the rapid pace of change in the Soviet world. It seemed that they were constantly reacting to, rather than moving events. Nonetheless, the Bush-Baker team in the main did very well with their Soviet policy, and owed a lot of their success to their man in Moscow, Jack Matlock.
|Sharing a Happy Moment with the Matlocks|
Ambassador Matlock would often take me along on his calls on Soviet officials, since with me he could do the entire meeting in Russian and be certain that my notes would be accurate. He and his wife, Rebecca, also invited me over to Spaso House quite frequently, and we would often sit and talk in the second floor library, which Matlock had turned into an office. Matlock was an early adopter of E-mail, and I found that quite often he would be engrossed in an E-mail on his green screen computer when I walked in the library door.
Matlock would sometimes call on me for special projects, even if they were not in my specific area of responsibilities. For example, on one occasion, he asked me to do some thinking about ways in which the travel regime could be relaxed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, aware that I had worked on the travel controls issue during my first tour in Moscow and on the Soviet Desk. The more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that the time had come for radical proposals, and so I drafted a first-person NODIS cable for him proposing an abrogation of travel controls altogether, except for areas occupied by the national militaries. I dubbed the proposal “Open Lands,” and Matlock embraced it immediately. The initiative was put into effect, along with a relaxation on the ban on hiring local employees. The term “Open Lands” passed into popular diplomatic parlance when Mark Taplin published a book by that name on his travels to some of the newly-opened areas.
Although the Ambassador and I were good friends and had a very good professional relationship, my sense was that Matlock was less close to others in the Political Section. He was still a little bit maladapted when it came to personal relations with his staff, and did not “manage by walking around” as some other Ambassadors did. He rarely came down the two floors to Political, and did not mix very well with staff. He was the quintessential “Mr. Outside,” while Mike Joyce and Jim Collins, his DCMs, fulfilled the “Mr. Inside” role. Nonetheless, he was genial and attentive, and more popular with the staff on this tour than he was on my first tour. In many ways, he was the ideal Ambassador for the times.
End of Excerpt.