Books: January-February 2005

January 31, 2005

 

Books 

Reagan and Gorbachev:How the Cold War Ended
By Jack F. Matlock, Jr. '50
Random House, 2004. 384 pages. $27.95.

Reagan and Gorbachev:How the Cold War EndedJack Matlock Jr. entered the U.S. Foreign Service in 1956 and became one of its premier specialists on the Soviet Union and the Communist world. He served three tours of duty in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, including charg? d'affaires in 1981. In November of that year, Matlock was named ambassador to Czechoslovakia. He served as ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991.

When Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, Ronald Reagan was determined to open a serious dialogue with the Soviet Union to try to improve relations. The foreword of Reagan and Gorbachev begins with an entry in Reagan's diary from April 6, 1983: "Some in the NSC [National Security Council] staff are too hard line and don't think any approach should be made to the Soviets." Matlock was brought from Prague shortly afterward to occupy a newly created post in the NSC that coordinated policy toward Europe and the Soviet Union to help achieve this goal.

Reagan and Gorbachev is largely autobiographical, but it is autobiography rooted in an enormous amount of research in American and Russian secondary works, the classified documents of the time, and interviews with high- and mid-level Soviet officials. Matlock has already written a more comprehensive history of the period, Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Random House, 1995). His latest book is more personal.

Reagan and Gorbachev centers primarily on what Matlock observed and on the policies that he helped to shape. This has produced a wonderful book. Ronald Reagan, his foreign-policy lieutenants and their bureaucratic fights, and the problems of mid-level Soviet officials emerge with unusual clarity because of Matlock's unique position and experiences.

The book makes three major contributions to our understanding of the 1980s and to foreign policy in general. First, Matlock thinks--and rightly so, in my opinion--that both conservatives and liberals have found it useful to present a common distorted view of a totally ideological President Reagan. Matlock saw the president differently and wants to correct the record.

One of Matlock's main duties in the NSC was to draft or help draft Reagan's communications with the Soviet Union and his public statements and speeches about it. Conflicting views in the bureaucracy are reflected most directly in struggles over the language in such documents, and ultimately the disputes have to be resolved by the president. For this reason, Matlock was able to watch Reagan's reaction when real decisions had to be made. He has many interesting anecdotes that reveal how Reagan operated and thought in these situations.

Reagan emerges as a man who was not always engaged, but who would read long memoranda and annotate as he went. Matlock obviously agrees with a later Gorbachev statement that Reagan was not an intellectual lightweight, but "a man of real insight, sound political judgment, and courage."

Although Reagan chose not to replace anti-Soviet friends such as Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and CIA head William Casey who were very suspicious of Gorbachev, the president was determined to meet and negotiate with Gorbachev despite their efforts to dissuade him.

Once he saw Gorbachev as a human being, Reagan quickly overcame stereotypes. Matlock is convinced that Reagan had a horror about nuclear weapons and a deep desire for a peaceful world. There seems no reason to challenge this judgment.

The second contribution of Reagan and Gorbachev is its sophisticated illumination of what Matlock calls the "viciousness of bureaucratic infighting." Most important, the book shows this infighting with much more subtlety than usual conclusions about conflicts among cabinet officers. The conflict between Weinberger and Secretary of State George Schultz was, as everyone knew, a central feature of the Reagan administration. Matlock characterizes Weinberger as a "troglodyte," but this does not lead him to view Schultz as a consistent hero. Moreover, the infighting extended to mid-level officials who occupied shifting positions.

Matlock also developed a keen awareness of the similar bureaucratic struggles within the Soviet bureaucracy, and despaired when obtuse American officials and diplomats often could not realize how their proposals and words would affect that struggle in ways antithetical to their own goals. He depicts this in detail.

The third contribution of Reagan and Gorbachev is the most important from a policy perspective. Too many people think that the United States won the Cold War and that Reagan's military buildup destroyed Communism and the Soviet Union. Matlock has no sympathy for such thinking and believes it has had a dangerous influence on subsequent policy.

Matlock sharply distinguishes between the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He correctly thinks that the three were not inevitably linked. Communism and the Soviet Union, he believes, could have lasted for years after the end of the Cold War. Matlock sees Gorbachev, not the United States, as responsible for their demise.

Matlock's main and most original thesis is that the Cold War essentially ended by the time Reagan left office, and he gives the president great credit. Matlock thinks that Reagan created the conditions necessary to end the Cold War, but for different reasons than the defenders of the president usually give. The American military build-up, Matlock believes (and is convinced Reagan believed), served to create the requisite psychological conditions in the United States for an end of the Cold War, not in the Soviet Union. As a conservative, Reagan was able to build up American confidence and to bring along American opinion.

Yet, in Matlock's view, it was Reagan's determination to negotiate an end to the foreign-policy conflict with the "evil empire" that was crucial. The president did not become fixated on the Soviet Union as a symbol of evil against which an eternal struggle was needed. It is an extraordinarily important insight with broader meaning, and the distinctions drawn by Matlock give lasting significance to the book.


Meeting the Professor:Growing Up in the William Blackburn Family
By Alexander Blackburn.
Introduction by Fred Chappell '61,A.M. '64.
John F. Blair Publisher, 2004.
384 pages. $18.95.

Meeting the Professor:Growing Up in the William Blackburn Family

How can a man who produces no scholarship inspire generations of scholars? How can a man of great emotional reserve at home and in the classroom inspire his children and his students? How can a man who never published a poem or short story become a legendary teacher of writers whose number includes Fred Chappell, Mac Hyman '47, Reynolds Price '55, William Styron '47, Hon. '68, and Anne Tyler '61? Alex Blackburn's family biography, of which his own life as a teacher and writer is a large part, provides answers that are profoundly important to teaching in a university, a school, a business, or a family.

This book at times wanders down literary and historical side roads and never quite successfully blends the narration of the lives of father and son, but it is full of insight. Here is the key to Blackburn's success as a teacher: "Father, I believe, instinctively realized that the Bible is a work of literature and that the study and teaching of literature--the diffusing and humanizing of culture--satisfied the spirit, though not the letter, of evangelism."

Blackburn's family history on back to a Mayflower ancestor is wrapped in religious evangelism. His maternal grandmother, a Civil War widow, poet, and novelist, saved him from seminary and sent him to study liberal arts at Furman University. He never regained the old faith.

Yet he could not abandon evangelism's concern with moral salvation. Just as he realized the Bible was great literature, he approached great literature as scripture--stories, songs, and declarations that asked readers to face moral choices, accept the difficulties, and prepare for the consequences. The revolt of deconstructionists, feminists, and multiculturalists against the Western canon had barely begun in Blackburn's last decade, but for him the canon existed in a theological sense. Herein lies the importance of this book. It defines a kind of teaching that has largely lost out on the one hand to petty scholarship and on the other to cultural egalitarianism.

He shared with many religious evangelicals an uneasy common ground--the sense of the world corrupted and losing its way. He loved seventeenth-century writers because they, too, "looked simultaneously at the natural world and at the supernatural other-world of God, belonging to neither."

Blackburn's teaching model was a professor at Furman. "It was he who awakened my interest in English literature. He awakened it by reading poetry as if it has life in it." That was how Blackburn inspired his own students. He did not explain literature; he acted it. Some of his peers looked down on his lack of scholarly publication. Others envied his charisma. Some called him "that old fraud," as Fred Chappell recalls in his masterful essay on teaching that introduces this book.

Alex Blackburn says his father "though denied drama lessons at Furman, was as good an actor as Spencer Tracy." A lofty claim but true. His classroom readings often took more time than his exposition. He was a successful actor-teacher because his subjects possessed him as scripture and the Holy Spirit possess evangelicals.

Once he had helped students understand the seventeenth-century grammar and vocabulary, notes on those things were as useless as vocabulary cards of a language learned. He bet everything on language as performance rather than as logic or even personal communication, and, through performance, he made clear the importance of the writing. No one but Blackburn could have read Henry King's poem "Sic Vita" or Sir Thomas Brown's essay "Urn Burial" and brought a classroom full of healthy, immortal undergraduates face to face with death. He didn't so much teach students as convert them.

I have to admit that I remember nothing I may have learned about the craft of writing in Blackburn's fiction-writing classes --the way of making a sentence, paragraph, or story. What Blackburn demanded was that we listen--to each other and to selected passages from two or three writers whose work was our touchstone for the semester.

In the classroom, Blackburn expressed himself not in intimate words but in praise notable for its rarity and timing. When he fixed on a student with promise, his hope had the quality of passionate prayer. Blackburn never gave false encouragement for the sake of mercy or to encourage what is now called "self-esteem." Novelist Max Steele wrote of Blackburn's admiration for one student: "No one can make brilliant sound so brilliant, and I'd rather have that one word from him than a gold medal from the State."

Early in my own years of teaching English, I recognized the not-so-secret fact that we waste huge amounts of time and money on lectures easily replaced by printed pages or the computer screen. In reaction, we now have the professor who makes himself or herself the subject of the course. Some engage in endless personal anecdote, often titillating, while others develop laugh-a-minute lecturing. Some advocate for political perspectives or causes, and others cultivate exotic dress or mannerisms. Most are sensational but shallow actors, possessed not by their subject but by themselves.

Universities are enormously expensive places to get an education, and teachers are a major cost. Students and parents rightly ask whether professors earn their keep. The example of William Blackburn, born in the nineteenth century and dead forty years, does us the very relevant service of defining the kind of teaching that can never be replaced by book or computer. His praise was not only better than gold to his students, but for the profession of teaching, his legacy is the untarnished gold standard.