A Great Man’s Birthday

Author: Gary Hart

This month former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev will celebrate his 80th birthday.  Few figures in the second half of the 20th century have been as pivotal as he was.

For decades to come historians will debate and deliberate over the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and how credit for both should be allocated.  The best account to date has been rendered by one of America’s most effective career diplomats, Ambassador Jack Matlock.  His book, published this year, is entitled: “Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led American Astray–and How to Return to Reality”.

Ambassador Matlock was our ambassador in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era and participated in every summit President Reagan had with the Soviet leader.  He saw both men about as close as they could be seen.  He wrote his book after neo-conservatives in the George W. Bush administration argued for war in Iraq and the use of military force as a principal instrument of diplomacy.  He makes a powerful case, based on the Reagan-Gorbachev experience, that this is folly.

Ambassador Matlock admires President Reagan and thinks his change of course on Russia and the Soviet Union to have been critical.  But he also says that this alone did not end the Cold War.  He believes and so documents that Mikhail Gorbachev took dramatic, unprecedented steps within the Soviet structure and toward the U.S. that made the end of the Cold War possible…and paid for those steps with exile.

Only history, accurately told, can finally render praise and blame.  For myself, I have sent President Gorbachev, a friend since 1986, best wishes for a happy birthday…and warmest thanks for his courage.

10 Responses to “A Great Man’s Birthday”

  1. Dana Wittmann Says:

    As I remember it, Gorbachev was making drastic changes within the Soviet Union for Reform and the KGB hardliners were about to murder him and his wife Raisa for going against the strict Communist government that was clearly not working. As one worker proclaimed, ” We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”. Ronald Reagan got all the credit for demanding Gorbachev “Tear down this wall”, but he was already doing that from the inside. Remember when he and Raisa had to flee for their lives? The Societ Union was crashing down due to his reforms. Thanks to Mikael Gorbachev. I wish him a very happy birthday

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  4. P. Edward Murray Says:

    As I recall, you and Gorby had breakfast one day some years ago.
    Both you and him remain in my prayers!

    Best wishes,

    Ed Murray

  5. Jim Engelking Says:

    “Gorby” had that rarest of attributes as a politican: Courage. And the intelligence to know what his countrymen and women needed. He opened the Soviet system to change. Politically, that’s very hard to do, because the entrenched interests fight change with all they have, as they’ve done in the case of President Obama. For democracy to work, the people have to demand change, work for it within their communities, and help their politicians find courage within themselves to help make it happen.

  6. Pat Boice Says:

    Thanks for the tip about the book – I plan to buy it. And Happy Birthday to Mr. Gorbachev – I have always admired him greatly. We certainly have myth-makers in this country and they have done quite a job in creating this Ronald Reagan myth! He was certainly a pleasant man who succeeded in making Americans “feel good”, and he performed his “role” as President quite well and the movie continues to run! We do need a reality check!

  7. Margaret Mollick Says:

    Happy Birthday Mr. Gorbachev! I do admire you for all you did for the citizens of your country and for the planet – and not nearly enough credit came your way for doing it. Thank you and many more happy birthdays!

  8. P. Edward Murray Says:

    A couple of years or so after 1984, on the way to a Pennsylvania Young Democrats Convention, I met Vladimir Posner, a famous Russian Journalist and gave him a special Young Democrats pin to give to Gorbachev, I hope that he got it.

  9. Wm Scott Pappert Says:

    thank you for this valuable insight and resource. we must be able to separate those post cold war hawkish sentiments that believe (and still believe) that military strength is THE primary mode of influence for the information age US today. i am still of the opinion though that it is more the case that Pres Reagan was the historical recipient, as is true with most historically significant events, of ‘perfect storm’ patterning of circumstances that were certainly fortified with Mr Reagan’s diplomatic forays with Mr Gorbachev but were in motion several years before his proclaimed statement of “tear down this wall”. this includes the economic costs and embarrassment to the soviets of their failed venture into afghanistan in a society which was already economically compromised. would appreciate your input.

  10. William McOmie Says:

    Sen Hart,
    It is most definitely to your credit as an American politician to recognize the crucial role played by Mikhail Gorbachev in ending the Cold War. Your blog reminded me of a column by William Pfaff entitled “In Search of Great Men” in which he affirms that Gorbachev was indeed a great man. Why? Because he acted on his own initiative out of a sense of moral obligation to use his power to free people from a system of oppression. I haven’t read Ambassador Matlock’s’ book but his conclusion, as you indicate, that Reagan’s ‘change of course’ was alone not sufficient to end the Cold War is self-evident to anyone who values historical truth more than national mythology. I do not precisely know what ‘dramatic, unprecedented steps’ you refer to, but to me the most astonishing and almost unprecedented action that he took as leader of the Soviet Union, which led directly to its dissolution, was to take no action, ie not to use military force to suppress the popular aspirations for freedom that broke out first of all in the East European countries and the Baltic states. This seems to me to be the key decision, based on deep moral conviction, that more than any other, created the post-Cold War world we now inhabit. It is for this courageous decision that we all owe him the deepest debt of gratitude. I also wish him a very happy (belated) birthday and many more productive years. I haven’t heard that he has been ‘exiled’ from Russia. Unpopular with the present regime, yes. But there are some Russians who appreciate the magnitude of his contribution, such as Grigory Yavlinsky, referred to in Pfaff’s piece.

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