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Q&A: Former U.S. ambassador Matlock reflects on Cold War

Andrew Wilkinson
Andrew Wilkinson

Jack Matlock, Trinity ‘50, is the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and is currently teaching classes as a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke. Matlock was the ambassador from 1987 to 1991 and spent more than 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service with postings in Austria, Germany, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Since retiring, he has held appointments at Columbia University, Princeton University, Hamilton College, Mt. Holyoke College and the Institute for Advanced Study. The Chronicle’s Adam Beyer recently sat down with Matlock to discuss how Duke has changed since he was a student and his time as an ambassador.

The Chronicle: You were involved in translating messages between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile crisis—what was that like?

Jack Matlock: I was at the embassy in Moscow, and at that time we didn’t a have a means of transmitting directly messages between our governments, so Khrushchev’s urgent messages to Kennedy were delivered at night, usually around 10:30 or 11 and we had to translate them in order to transmit them to Washington. I think we did it pretty fast and I know one 14-page letter we had completely translated and sent it out in about two hours. Nevertheless, Kennedy didn’t like that delay and that’s why they arranged after the Cuban Missile crisis for a hotline. That hotline still exists between the U.S. and Russia.

TC: What would you tell whoever is elected president in 2016 to do about our relationship with Russia and other former Soviet countries?

JM: Well, as far as Russia is concerned, I think that in dealing with the most important problems we have, problems like global warming, the threat of terrorism, the impact of failed states, international drug trade, international crime in general, organized crime, these I think are the crucial problems and in dealing with them, Russia is either going to be part of the solution or part of the problem.

It seems to me our efforts should be to try and give them every incentive to be part of the solution. You don’t do that if you seem to be competing with them over control over neighboring countries, countries for centuries that were part of their countries.

We know how Americans react if—Germany, say during the first World War, tried to make an alliance with Mexico. We know what happened when Castro seemed to be developing ties with the Soviet Union, so why we allow some of our people to talk about making a military alliance with say Georgia or a Ukraine, I think is crazy because one thing, no Russian government is going to allow that, and second, in doing it, you actually stimulate them to be more aggressive than they would have been otherwise, so it is counterproductive. So I feel that much of our policy since the late 90s has been misdirected, in fact, I wrote a book about it called “Superpower Illusions.”

TC: Much of the millennial generation has no memory of the Cold War, how do you think this changes the way we understand relations with Russia?

JM: I think the tragedy that has happened is that the tensions that have grown up because of the things that I have talked about before with Russia have created the atmosphere of your generation in Russia that the U.S. is an enemy and they’re afraid of us. When they see us bombing Serbia over human rights things and invading Iraq and so on, they say, “Well, if they don’t like what we do here, maybe they’ll start bombing us.”

I think the triumphalism, you know, people are saying, “Well, we won the Cold War. We are the only super power. You guys lost.” That has been the thing, which is wrong, but this conveys to the Russians that we consider them a defeated power and we are not going to consider their interests.

TC: What was it that led you to an interest in Russia?

JM: I developed an interest in Russia and the Soviet Union starting actually when I was in high school during World War II and then it was added to when I began reading Russian literature in translation and was very attracted by it. Duke did not offer Russian language until 1948 when I was a junior, and I was in the first class here. I was number one attracted by Russian literature and culture and number two, politically it was extremely important at that time to prepare for diplomacy with the Soviet Union.

Actually when I was at Duke, my wife and I were both in an organization—United World Federalists, thinking that we needed a world government to make sure there’s no more horrendous conflict like World War II or use of nuclear weapons, but as I learned more I decided that was not going to happen and probably was not a good idea.

By the time I graduated from Duke with a major in history, I decided I wanted to specialize in Soviet and Russian affairs, and so I went to graduate school at Columbia to the Russian Institute but with a major in literature and the idea being that I was going to try and go into the Foreign Service or else do common teaching. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do both.

TC: How has Duke changed since you were here as a student?

JM: Probably the biggest difference is when I was here as an undergraduate, the East campus was the Women’s College, Trinity College was all men and although we had a lot of classes together, the dorms were all quite separate with the men on west and the women on east, except for the nursing school, where they had their own dorm near the hospital. So things are organized quite differently now in many ways.

Also, when I was a student, it was back in the times when there was racial segregation in North Carolina and in fact, we had a [North Carolina] student legislature, I don’t know whether there still is one, and my wife and I—who were both undergraduates—the first one we went to, the first move we had was to start desegregating the school system, but there was a good amount of opposition among our elders in Raleigh at the time. So a lot of things have changed, the University itself is much larger than it was.

TC: You’re teaching a class this semester. How is that going?

JM: As far as I’m concerned, it’s going well but ask some of the students. The course is on leadership in international affairs. We are studying case studies of decisions that leaders made that were not maybe obvious to all at the time they were made.

My feeling is that having worked in this is that the individual leader makes a great difference—that you shouldn’t think of international relations as a sort of mechanic, mechanistic process of billiard balls colliding or something like that which some theories tend to do, but rather the interaction of human beings. It sort of adds a dimension to what is often taught in theoretical international relations. Next semester, I’m going to do a course on U.S.-Russian relations since the break-up of the Soviet Union. These courses are both in the Russian department and Public Policy.


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