Waverell Harriman, 90 years old today, has served five presidents as an envoy and diplomatic troubleshooter. In this recent interview with Washington Post columnist Philip Geyelin, Harriman tells what he has learned about dealing with the Russians. Q: Was the evolution into an adversary relationship with the Soviet Union inevitable after World War II?
A: Yes, I think it was absolutely inevitable. I remember saying in San Francisco (at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945) that our objectives and the Soviet objectives were irreconcilable, but we would have to find a way to adjust our difficulties to deal with international situations and compose our differences in regard to war on this small planet.
Q: So there was nothing that could have been done differently that might have headed off the Cold War?
A: I think that there was this absolutely irreconcilable difference. The Soviets haven't ever written this in quite this way, I don't think, but the Russian objective is to have as much of the world communist as possible. This is their ideological goal. They think their security will be best enhanced by communist countries -- dictatorships, as we call them -- whereas we believe that our security and our best interest is best served by democratic governments, namely, some form of government that is responsible to the will of the people, and that's an irreconcilable difference.
Now, whether that would have led inevitably to the series of differences (such) as we have had, I think that if you want to argue it out, we needn't have come to as vigorous a difference at different times if we had been a little more understanding of a very simple fact: that these were competitors of ours and that they were not necessarily doing things because they were our enemies but because of their ideology. I think if there had been a little more of that understanding in our government, we might not have had quite as vigorous a difference.
Q: How long is this going to go on? Is the Soviet Union falling apart inside, as some people say?
A: No, it's not falling apart inside. There are developments within the Soviet Union that are somewhat encouraging. People think a little bit more freely, they talk a little bit more freely among themselves. These are all good things. I am not suggesting that there is a little more liberty -- it is still very much of a controlled society -- but I think anybody that thinks that they are falling apart is just doing wishful thinking. They are having their difficulties. They have had some bad crops, and this system is not working well. They don't get the productivity that we get with the profit motive but they are not in any way falling apart.
Q: Secretary Haig and President Reagan have suggested that Poland is the beginning of the last chapter of the sad history of Soviet communist rule. What does Poland tell you?
A: Poland tells us that the Soviet Union is cautious, and not going to be reckless. They are sensible. They know that if they go into Poland they will have a situation on their hands that will be unmanageable. If they mean that communism is beginning to weaken, I personally believe that to be true -- I hope it so much that I believe it is true. But I am inclined to think it will be more in the form in the Soviet Union of an evolution than some sudden takeover. You see, in Poland the Russians are permitting things to happen which a few years ago you wouldn't have thought they would allow to happen, particularly when they moved into Afghanistan -- as reckless as they were at that time. I think there is an evolution going on, and with that evolution comes more vitality in the sense that people are having more of a chance to express themselves.
Q: Can they maintain their system if people are increasingly allowed to express themselves?
A: It will be more and more difficult to do so, and they will have to make adjustments, but they have indicated by their actions that they were ready to make adjustments, and I think there will be some sort of an evolution. I don't see any power that's strong enough to come in and take this great country over. It is fantastically difficult with the different races and the different situations in the different countries. So I think the change in Russia will be more of an evolution than a revolution. But in some of the aspects of it the historians may say a revolution, because I think the Soviet Union is bound to have a very major change in order to continue to exist: They are not able to achieve the productivity which is necessary, they are making some adjustments and they are giving in. They are not as rigid as they were and there is no one like Stalin who is so ruthless. So I think you will find it's an evolution -- which, as I say, looking back at it, historians may call a revolution.
Q: There is a new generation waiting in the wings. Is this new generation going to be easier to get along with?
A: I can't tell you that, except to say that when I have gone back there and see them and talk to them -- and I know Soviet Ambassador (Anatoli) Dobrynin very well and he talks very frankly to me, probably more frankly than to anybody -- I have the feeling that changes are going to take place. They have to take place. They are not as rigid as they were and they permit things to be done which are useful to them in the long run.
Q: In the meantime, how do we manage what is called the nuclear balance of terror? How do we avoid the one thing that everyone wants to avoid, which is that we don't push too far -- one side or the other?
A: Well, I take a great deal of hope from the caution with which they are dealing with the Polish situation. Unless some American gets reckless -- I hope to hell that will never happen -- the general trend in the Soviet Union is caution, and the trend obviously in our country is caution.
Q: Do you think that this administration is cautious?
A: No. But I am talking about caution in terms of doing such things as bringing about war with the Soviet Union. I am disturbed by this administration and concerned by it and worried by it. Whenever there is an inadequate American administration, that gives me concern.
Q: This one is inadequate in what ways that worry you most?
A: I don't know closely enough and haven't studied it closely enough to be able to say which way is the most worrisome, but I think that the failure to understand and failure to take sensible actions in some areas gives me concern.
Q: Are you talking now about arms control?
A: The most important thing at the moment with the Russians is arms control. The Russians want arms control. SALT II was a big step forward. We should have ratified it and should have moved right away to SALT III and I think the way this administration is delaying action on arms control is a very dangerous thing.
The Russians are very difficult to negotiate with. But I did negotiate. It's a question of knowing how to handle them. I negotiated the (1963) limited test ban agreement in two weeks. When I got off the plane, the press rushed around me and wanted to know how long I would be here, the usual questions, you know, and I said, Kennedy I know is very anxious to get an agreement. And I know the British are very anxious -- I have talked with the prime minister -- to have an agreement. If the Russians are as anxious to have a peaceful agreement as we are, I think we will get out in two weeks. They thought I was crazy. We signed up the 13th day. They pressed us every time we took more than a reasonable time getting an answer from Washington because we had to get agreements from Washington. They were pressing me to do this. I put them on the spot, you know, by doing this. I think there are ways of handling them which only experience will tell you. I only mention it as a kind of thing where we have to have a little experience.
Q: Where do you see nuclear arms control leading? Jimmy Carter said in his inaugural that he wanted all nuclear arms removed from the world. Wouldn't that be, in a way, almost as dangerous a state of affairs?
A: Well, s I think it is going to be much slower than that.
Q: But if it happened -- if we just go back to conventional weapons -- aren't we in the West hopelessly outmanned? Would there be a dangerous imbalance?
A: There is a dangerous conventional imbalance and there also would be a danger that a hidden nuclear weapon would be pulled out. But I think it is a dream, in any case, which is not feasible. I think that we made good progress in SALT II, and we could be well along in SALT III. I am very much disturbed when this administration said they weren't going to be able to negotiate until March. Why in the world have they waited so long? They should have taken it up right away. Of course we had a chance to get SALT II but the senator from Idaho, Frank Church, had SALT in his hand to put through Congress and he had the votes to do it and he repressed it and then he got involved in Cuba. ...
Q: ... You mean the discovery, as it was described, of the Soviet brigade?
A: Yes, and he set SALT II aside. If it hadn't been for that, we might have gotten it through and then we would have been well along. But I think for this administration to take over a year to get organized to talk about it is a very dangerous thing. It will be slow, a step-by-step proposition, and there will be no easy answer to it. I think the objective of reducing the number of weapons is a very important one.
At the same time, it is very important to have (U.S.) theater nuclear forces in Europe to prevent the temptation of using the SS20s (the new Soviet medium-range nuclear weapons). Obviously we would respond if we had comparable weapons in Europe. But if we are dependent upon pulling the trigger from the United States to Russia, they conceivably might take an idea that some president wouldn't do it. So I think it is too dangerous for us, as well as for the Europeans, not to have theater nuclear forces in Europe.
These, you may say, are minor questions but they are not. Each of these questions has to be reasonably well taken care of or else you are in danger. I do think we are in danger from nuclear war and I think that's our great danger, but I think if we can survive it -- and I believe we will survive it, because it is so important that we do so -- we are better off to have a reduced number of nuclear weapons on both sides than to try to get to a point of having none.
What might develop generations from now is something which I wouldn't want to get into, because that means giving up all weapons, living without weapons. I think it is almost impossible for the two sides to pretend they were going to avoid having nuclear weapons. I don't see how we could ever take a chance. That's an unenforceable thing. And if we have any agreement with the Russians we have got to have it enforceable for two reasons. In the first place, I wouldn't trust them; in the second place, we wouldn't ever get it through Congress. I would probably trust them more than most people, but it's a chance we can't afford to take.
Q: So we are going to have to live indefinitely in an atmosphere in which we must be able to convey to them enough resolve to use nuclear weapons if they use them -- and the other way around.
A: They have said they won't use it first, you know, and want us to do the same. But we keep our agreements, and we don't trust them to keep theirs. So I wouldn't make such an agreement. We have got to live with the fact and do the best that we can to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and particularly to reduce the number of countries with nuclear weapons. That's a terrible thing about this delay. The more countries that get them, the more dangerous it is. Man has learned how to destroy himself and civilization, and we have got to live with that. I think as time goes on, there will be more people who will understand how to do it, how to live with it.
Q: But doesn't it still come down to the question of what kind of signal we are sending to them and how they are receiving it, so that they don't miscalculate , s and begin to think they can safely accumulate large amounts of weapons and then use them for diplomatic leverage?
A: That's a question of being frank and blunt and telling the truth. They are suspicious of us and we are suspicious of them.
Q: Do you think that this administration is being too frank, too blunt?
A: No, I think they have been just slow and not taken action quick enough.
Q: So you see some value in some of the things this administration has said by way of conveying how tough we are?
A: Oh, no, I think insulting them is the worst thing in the world to do. That really irritates them and annoys them and makes them want to do something to us. I think that's very dangerous. I think in the beginning the administration absolutely ignored them, you know, for something like six months or so. That was terribly dangerous, to have no business with them of any kind ...
Q: ... except to talk in a bellicose way about them.
A: Well, they made a lot of very rough statements but they didn't try to improve trade, they didn't try to improve arms control or anything else. I thought it was very dangerous, and they were very much insulted by it. And that's where I take some heart in the way they have been cautious in Poland.
Q: Because they didn't allow our insults to influence their actions in Poland?
A: It may not have been thought of in those terms, but the way they have handled themselves in Poland has given me more heart than anything that has happened in a long time. They haven't been in any way yellow, but they have just been sensibly cautious.
Q: You wouldn't accept the argument that it was the way this administration came on with its tough rhetoric that made them cautious?
A: No, no, just the reverse: Rhetoric makes it more difficult for them to be cautious. Every time we do a thing like that it is counterproductive, I'll guarantee you that. They are not scared. One thing you can't do is to scare them. You have only to think of what they have been through, and I have followed them since the end of World War I, when they first came into existence. I thought it would affect us more than anything that had happened, so I have followed it very closely.