The Geneva Cold War Summit: 30 Years Later

Rubenstein Fellow Jack Matlock recalls the Reagan/Gorbachev summit of 1985

Geneva summit

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva

Thirty years ago, on November 19, 1985, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev convened in Geneva for talks that helped usher in the end of the Cold War. While the summit did not end with a formal arms reduction agreement, the two sides made a pivotal joint statement on the “impossibility of war” between the two countries, signaling the end of the nuclear arms race.

Duke alumnus Jack Matlock (’50), the final United States ambassador to the Soviet Union, worked closely with President Reagan in the months leading up to the Geneva summit during his tenure on the National Security Council (NSC). A career diplomat and academic and the author of three books on the final years of the Soviet Union, Matlock was present at several of President Reagan’s key meetings with Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders, including the Reykjavik summit in 1986. Matlock, a 2015-2016 David Rubenstein Fellow based in Duke’s Slavic and Eurasian Studies department, shared his memories of the pivotal summit on the eve of its 30th anniversary in an interview with Duke Today.

Prior to President Reagan’s meeting with Gorbachev in November 1985, you were tasked with giving the president a primer on Soviet history, culture and government. What were some of your goals in putting the president through that crash course, and how might the summit have been different without it?

I’ve never had a better student than Ronald Reagan. He knew that he didn’t know a lot of things. He was not an intellectual, and he was not arrogant. When the meeting with Gorbachev was coming up, McFarlane told me that the president didn’t know much of anything about the Soviet Union and that we had to get him up to speed before the meeting. So then I went to organizing “Soviet 101,” and we sort of called it that jokingly. It was about 24 papers that ran from six to 12 pages single-spaced. I wrote two or three of them about the psychology of the Soviet people. For the rest, I called the deputy director of the CIA and the head of intelligence for the State Department, whom I knew at the time, and asked them to assign their best analysts to each of the topics I had drawn out.

We got some excellent papers, about half from the CIA and State Department. Reagan really liked this curriculum. They also gave me almost unlimited briefing time with the president. Normally, you’d be happy to get 15 minutes with him, but we could get two hours with him each week.

Reagan also recognized that he needed these materials and he was not one to say, “how dare you try to teach me, I’m the president!” He was a man who didn’t know everything and was comfortable with it. When you corrected him, he wouldn’t take it as an insult—he would thank you!

How was President Reagan as a negotiator prior to the summit? Was the art of negotiation something that your curriculum also covered?

I think the president was an experienced and almost natural negotiator. A lot of people forget that, when I say he was an actor, he was also a chairman of the Screen Actors’ Guild and he negotiated contracts with the studios. One of the points that he would make to us at times, particularly when we had people on the staff who insisted to we get 100 percent [of our demands of the Soviet Union], he would say “look, when we went to the studios, we’d be happy to get just 80 percent.” He would’ve never acted like the Tea Party types or any of the right-wing Republicans today.

There must have been some anxiety before the summit. What was President Reagan most nervous about?

I don’t think Reagan was nervous at all. I think Nixon was very nervous when he was going into the meeting with Brezhnev before their 1972 summit. I was there for that, and I actually watched him sweat beforehand. I was almost ashamed, as an American, to have a president who was nervous about meeting with someone like Brezhnev. But no, Reagan was not nervous and, on the contrary, quite relaxed and confident. There were some on his staff, like the neo-cons and [Secretary of Defense Caspar] Weinberger, who were convinced that he didn’t know enough and that he would be taken advantage of.

Reagan just knew that he had to convince Gorbachev that we did not want an arms race, but if Gorbachev did want one, he would lose. That’s why Reagan was building up our arms, to prove to Gorbachev that it was in their interest to build down. There was no evidence that they would build down in a safe way without first being convinced by Reagan.

Matlock on Iran nuclear

Currently a Rubenstein Scholar at Duke, Jack Matlock discusses the Iranian nuclear deal on campus last month. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke Photography

How would the summit’s outcomes differed—if at all—had it been held in Moscow or Washington, rather than in a neutral third city?

Reagan was actually quite amenable to going to Moscow. But many on his staff and certainly Weinberger were saying that it would be misrepresented, that people would think he was going there hat in hand, especially since the last meeting [between US and Soviet leadership in 1974] was in Vladivostok and it was “their turn” to come over here.

At the time, I pointed out the advantages of going to Moscow. I didn’t think it would be like going over there hat in hand but a chance to address the Soviet people because they would have had to give Reagan a television address, and knock off the propaganda about him being a warmonger. They had shut down a lot of their anti-American propaganda with Nixon’s visit, and I thought this could make a tremendous impression on the Soviet people. But I think Shultz felt that maybe he’d be running a political risk and that the right wing would criticize this. I think there was just such sensitivity on both sides as to how it would look politically or if the public thought one side was caving to the other.

I can’t honestly say that things would be radically different if we would have gone to Moscow or they had come to Washington. Certainly, the right wing would have accused Reagan of kowtowing to the Soviets by going first, so maybe that wouldn’t have been great politically. And I’m sure some people in the Soviet Union would have accused Gorbachev of going to Washington prematurely. So maybe it was in the political interest of both to do it on neutral territory.

It seems there was a lot of attention paid to public perceptions of the summit. What was the American side hoping to achieve in terms of public reactions to the summit?

Our American publicity team was made up of the same people who run campaigns. They are very sensitive to what the media sees—where you position the president, where you position the flag. And Reagan himself was sensitive to a lot of these things. During the meeting with Gorbachev, it wasn’t planned specifically that Reagan would go down the steps without an overcoat. It was a pretty cold day, overcast, and Gorbachev got out of his limo in a top hat and overcoat. Reagan bounded down the stairs in his suit and shook their hands. As some of the Russian people said, the image was very clear that, even though Reagan was much older, Gorbachev came across as the spiritually older person. Reagan seemed bolder, and Gorbachev more cautious. Part of that was spontaneous, but the American team set this up so that the press would see our president in the most favorable light.

And Reagan and Gorbachev actually had private dinners together with their wives after each day of negotiations, correct? What impact did those private meetings have on their political relationship?

Including those dinners [in the summit program] was built on the idea that these two leaders must not only respect each other but also like each other to accomplish [peace between the United States and Soviet Union]. It was also a signal to the bureaucracy that it was okay to be friends with the other side. We wanted to create an environment where representatives from the two sides could speak privately if we thought we had a problem rather than going to the press and having a big brouhaha. It helped reduce tensions, ultimately. Being friendly personally does not achieve everything, but it becomes a lot harder to achieve your common goals if you’re not being friendly.

You wrote that although Reagan couldn’t get Gorbachev to discuss a number of key issues, the President still considered the summit a success. Why is that?

I think Reagan found that, while talking to Gorbachev, this was a man he could do business with. I think Reagan understood from the beginning that Gorbachev is not free to simply deal without the approval of the Politburo. He recognized that Gorbachev was a politician and had his own problems at home, and that Reagan could not emerge as the victor and humiliate Gorbachev and expect a good outcome. And later on, Reagan himself never said that we won the Cold War.

Now that we’re just a few weeks away from celebrating the Geneva summit’s 30th anniversary, what would you consider its greatest achievements?

There are certainly lessons to be learned from it in terms of reestablishing contact after a period of tense relations between two world powers. Before this meeting was scheduled, as we later found out, the Soviet leaders really thought that we might be planning a nuclear attack on them, which was a very dangerous situation. The Geneva summit was important because we put into text that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and that therefore no war could ever happen between us. To Gorbachev, this was a very powerful argument for arms reduction.

I still think the two biggest things that came out of it were the joint statement on the impossibility of war and the [student] exchange agreement. Reagan and the others may have considered the exchange agreement to be a window dressing, but I considered it very important. It did a lot to penetrate the Iron Curtain and eventually bring it down. And a third achievement was Reagan and Gorbachev deciding they could work together as equals. Both of them came out of the summit with a personal respect that would blossom into a real friendship. And to this day, if people criticize Reagan in Gorbachev’s presence, he corrects them.

For more, click here for a Chronicle interview with Matlock.