REAGAN AND GORBACHEV: How the Cold War Ended

By Jack F. Matlock Jr.

Random House. 363 pp. $27.95

Ronald Reagan's death and funeral prompted a flood of commentary on the historical contributions of our 40th president, particularly on his role - real or imagined - as "the man who defeated communism," in the words of the British magazine the Economist. Much of this commentary was blather, so Jack Matlock's serious effort to sort out Reagan's role in the historic superpower diplomacy of his second term is timely. Matlock's publisher recognized as much by rushing his book to market two months ahead of the original publication schedule.

Matlock was Reagan's ambassador to Moscow in the crucial years of the late 1980s when the Cold War effectively came to an end. Before that, he served as the Soviet expert on Reagan's National Security Council staff; as fate would have it, his colleagues were secretly conducting the Iran-Contra fiasco at the very time Matlock was trying to help Reagan get a conversation going with Soviet leaders in Moscow. A fluent Russian speaker who served four tours of duty in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Matlock represented a rare asset for the American foreign service. He actually had the opportunity to exploit his training and experience in two critically important posts at critically important moments. For once, our man on the spot was the best man available for the job.

Matlock retired from the foreign service at the end of his last Moscow tour. In 1995 he produced an estimable account of the collapse of the Soviet world, Autopsy on an Empire. His new book, Reagan and Gorbachev, covers some of the same ground but is more personal, and more focused on the key players.

Autopsy on an Empire was the first comprehensive history of the amazing events from 1987 to 1991, and remains the best book of its kind. Reagan and Gorbachev is neither first nor best in describing the diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1985 through 1988. That distinction belongs to George Shultz's compelling memoir, Turmoil and Triumph, published nearly a dozen years ago. Shultz's account of the events Matlock describes is more detailed, more vivid, more compelling, more literary than Matlock's new volume.

But Matlock makes a contribution by drawing on material unavailable to Shultz, including the memoirs of many other participants. The most important of these may be the remarkable account by Anatoly Chernayev, Gorbachev's national security adviser. Chernayev kept notes of everything he saw and heard and published many of them in My Six Years With Gorbachev. Matlock has used Chernayev to good effect, using quotations from his notes of Politburo meetings at key junctures that allow us now to see what was going on backstage in Moscow while Gorbachev was transforming his country and the world.

Reagan and Gorbachev is a chronological account that emphasizes the events in which Matlock was personally involved -- events that turn out to be among the most important in those fateful years between 1983 (when he joined the NSC staff) and the end of Reagan's presidency in 1989. By that time, Matlock argues persuasively, the Cold War had effectively ended, though it would be another two years before the Soviet empire disappeared entirely.

On whether or not he single-handedly defeated communism, as the Economist tried to assert so smugly, Matlock renders a much more ambiguous -- and more accurate -- verdict. He is full of admiration for Reagan's resolve, consistency and determination, and especially for his ability to see that the Soviet Union really could change. But he is also quite candid about the president's limitations, though he generously does not dwell on dysfunctional behavior throughout the Reagan administration -- the grudges among his Cabinet members, the sideshow of Iran-Contra, the president's uneven attention to pressing matters -- that often impinged on the diplomacy Matlock was trying to help conduct. Matlock recognizes the critical parts played in this great drama by the two foreign ministers, Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze. Emphatically, he gives appropriate credit to the key actor: "It was Mikhail Gorbachev, not Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush, who ended communist rule in the Soviet Union." And he writes that Reagan never had the goal of breaking up the Soviet empire.

For all that, Matlock has written what might be called an America-centric book, one that in my view gives too much credit to the United States in shaping the events that ended the Cold War. He writes that it was Gorbachev's fervent desire to reduce the cost of the arms race that made him a reformer. When Reagan made it clear to him that the price for arms control agreements with the United States would be Soviet respect for human rights at home and the end of Soviet imperialism abroad, Matlock contends, Gorbachev decided to make fundamental reforms inside the U.S.S.R. Matlock considers the 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, the key event. Failure to reach a dramatic arms control agreement then persuaded Gorbachev "that he had to begin reforms at home if he was going to end the arms race with the United States."

This argument does not do justice to the historical record. In a speech given in 1984, two years before Reykjavik and five months before he was elected General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Gorbachev set out his reform agenda with remarkable candor. He called for "profound transformations" of the Soviet economy and political system, including enhanced self-government, or "socialist democracy." He proposed, for the first time, glasnost, or openness, about the problems besetting Soviet society. He called for dismantling the centralized system of controls that so distorted the Soviet economy. He was blunt and, by the standards of that time, amazingly honest. This was a courageous speech, one that told his comrades clearly: If you pick me, I will want to change things. And they picked him anyway, I believe, because they knew they were in desperate trouble -- not just because of the arms race, but because Joseph Stalin's model had failed, and because the Soviet Union was quietly crumbling.

Matlock barely mentions Gorbachev's early efforts at reform. His simplified version of the history -- that Gorbachev capitulated to American demands that he respect human rights and get out of Afghanistan in order to achieve arms control agreements -- just isn't plausible. Gorbachev had powerful reasons for seeking reforms that went far beyond human rights and withdrawal from Afghanistan: He wanted to rescue his country from impending disaster. As later events demonstrated, his concerns were well placed.

Matlock also offers a limited, and therefore, I think, misleading description of Soviet-American relations before Reagan came to office. He reports Reagan's view that "U.S. defenses had been allowed to deteriorate during the 1970s, and that this condition had left the United States vulnerable." But the United States steadily strengthened its nuclear arsenal during the '70s, emphatically so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and had a formidable force of land-based and submarine-based intercontinental missiles and bombers that, the Pentagon rightly insisted, assured us of the capacity to survive any Soviet attack and destroy the Soviet Union in reply. This was "deterrence." It worked for nearly half a century, until it was no longer needed.

As Lou Cannon reports in his masterful biography of the president, "Reagan did not know enough about nuclear weapons systems to formulate a policy to accomplish his objectives," which were to reduce the level of nuclear arms. For example, Cannon writes, Reagan didn't realize that U.S. submarines and bombers carried nuclear weapons.

Matlock implies that Reagan's expensive defense buildup significantly changed the equation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but he doesn't try to prove that point, and I don't think he could. In fact, every president from Truman to Carter had embraced a policy of containing Soviet ambitions and deterring nuclear war. Each of them strengthened U.S. nuclear forces, and American military technology was always superior.

What changed when Reagan was president was the Soviet view of the utility of the arms race. Under Gorbachev, the Russians finally recognized that the contest was futile. The Reagan buildup and the U.S. flirtation with a strategic defense initiative -- an expensive dalliance that continues to this day -- - emphasized the futility but did not fundamentally alter the balance of terror. Gorbachev did that.

Another frustration in Matlock's argument is his limited appreciation of domestic American politics, which barely appears in these pages. Cannon makes clear that many key Republicans (beginning with Nancy Reagan) worried that the president's ferocious anti-Soviet rhetoric and arms build-up in his first term might undermine his chances for reelection. In 1984, preparing to run for a second term, Reagan began to pay much more attention to trying to negotiate with Moscow. What role did an impending election play in shaping Reagan's diplomatic initiatives? Matlock sees none.

But politics is not Matlock's game. He acknowledges, for example, that when the Iran-Contra scandal broke, he was baffled as to why selling arms to Iran and sending the proceeds to Nicaragua's contras (to whom Congress had banned government aid) was "such a big deal." Like many fine diplomats before him -- George F. Kennan is a good example -- Matlock is bewildered by the vagaries of America's political process.

Diplomacy is his game, and students of that art form will learn a good deal from this book. Together with Shultz's memoir, Reagan and Gorbachev memorializes a time of triumph for American diplomacy, and a joint Soviet-American victory over half a century of costly, ultimately counterproductive rivalry.

Robert G. Kaiser is associate editor of The Post and author of Why Gorbachev Happened.

President Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, October 1986 RICH LIPSKI / THE WASHINGTON POST