Fly Fishing Helped to End the Cold War
Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze was serious about peace
Who ended the Cold War? In popular memory, two figures loom large when it comes to answering that question.
Reform-minded Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. president Ronald Reagan, a staunch anti-communist who seized the right moment to accept Soviet reforms, tend to receive the lion’s share of the credit.
But a new set of formerly classified documents released on-line by The National Security Archive of George Washington University are a reminder that Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister from 1985 to 1990, was instrumental in reducing tensions between the two countries.
Shevardnadze is pictured above, at right, meeting U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in 1987.
Using his political savvy and personal charm, hammering out compromises that might not have seen the light of day without his skills, Shevardnadze brought a new diplomatic style and candor to bear on the thorny problem of Cold War relations, according to researchers at the archive.
“These documents shed light on the real behind-the-scenes story of his appointment, his principled position on arms control, which he defended in the Politburo, and his excellent negotiating skills that helped him achieve agreements with U.S. counterparts on the most difficult issues,” Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russia programs of The National Security Archive, told War is Boring.
The electronic briefing book that Savranskaya and her colleagues posted on-line includes extracts from the minutes of Soviet Politburo meetings, selections from the diary of a Central Committee member, transcripts of meetings between Shevardnadze and U.S officials and the transcript of a meeting between the Soviet foreign minister and Pres. George H.W. Bush.
Most of the documents originally were classified as secret. Archive translators produced English-language versions of the documents originally in Russian.
Gorbachev’s decision to appoint Shevardnadze took both the Soviet Union and the world of intelligence analysts completely by surprise—a “bolt from the blue,” to quote one Soviet political figure.
Now seen as a manifest display of Gorbachev’s political skills, at the time the decision left many scratching their heads. Shevardnadze was a Georgian—not a Russian. He had no experience in diplomacy or foreign affairs.
He did not have the résumé of other likely candidates for foreign secretary such as Anatoly Dobrynin, who as the time was the highly experienced Soviet ambassador to the United States and an accomplished Washington, D.C., insider.
And Shevardnadze was certainly different than his predecessor Andrei Gromyko, a foreign minister so recalcitrant that Western observers nicknamed him “Mr. Nyet.”
But as the journalist Robert Kaiser stated in his book Why Gorbachev Happened, Shevardnadze possessed other qualifications. “In Shevardnadze [Gorbachev] got a talented politician who could build personal relationships with foreign leaders while persuasively conveying the new spirit that Gorbachev wanted to promote.”
At first, the new Soviet foreign minister received a cautious welcome from the Americans.
In his Sept. 27, 1985, diary entry, Reagan concisely assessed Shevardnadze after their first meeting. “He’s a personable fellow but we had our differences.”
However, the diplomatic partnership of Shevardnadze and Gorbachev swayed even Reagan, whose foreign policy goals rejected many aspects of détente. “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands,” Reagan reportedly quipped during the Geneva Summit between the world leaders.
The site also provides a unique look at the personal conversations that took place between Shevardnadze and another president of the United States. In one set of documents recording a conversation on Sept. 21, 1989, Shevardnadze and Bush held a lively discussion on a number of issues.
Shevardnadze told Bush about the progress of domestic perestroika—“openness”—and democratization in the Soviet Union, the work on economic reform and the new tone in U.S.-Soviet relations. But he made it clear that the USSR will not abandon its greatness as a nation.
“I would not wish to idealize our relationship, but one truth is elementary,” he said, according to a declassified White House transcript of the meeting. “Relations between states can only develop if there is domestic stability. Therefore, we appreciate the high degree of U.S. interest in democratization and renewal in the USSR.”
“We have reassessed and condemned our previous policies quite a bit recently,” Shevardnadze continued, “but we will not wipe out or negate the accomplishments of the decades of our country. There are tragic events in our past which are difficult to explain. But the historical goal we have traversed is glorious and only on the basis of these accomplishments can we move forward on reform.”
A confident Shevardnadze then described why he believed radical reforms in the Soviet Union would succeed despite the economic difficulties that they posed.
“We are not asking for aid from you,” he told Bush. “We want only equal cooperation. We have no doubt, to conclude, that perestroika will succeed. I know some of my friends say we have five months, or one year, or 18 months and then we will collapse.”
“This is not a serious view,” Shevardnadze said. “I know my country, and predictions of catastrophe for perestroika are not serious at all. We will succeed.”
In 1989, a Wyoming fly fishing outing with Secretary of State James Baker led to a variety of discussions on regional confrontations, human rights and international issues like the environment and terrorism. The meetings between the two often ran over time—an indicator of the level of engagement both men brought to the discussions.
“[Shevardnadze] was exceptional in that he was not a professional diplomat but learned very quickly on the job and became a skillful and successful negotiator, who often showed initiative and was able to resolve difficult situations,” Savranskaya said.
“He believed deeply in the need to end the Cold War, deep disarmament, including elimination of nuclear weapons and genuine partnership with the United States—all features that are lacking in the U.S.-Russian relationship today,” she added.
“He was deeply committed to principles of primacy of human rights and non-violence in international relations. He was also special in that he, being Georgian, he understood the complexity and the explosive potential of the nationalities issue in the Soviet Union—well before Gorbachev did.”
Shevardnadze was the president of independent Georgia from 1995 to 2003. Once he left politics, spent his last years living quietly in retirement at a house on the outskirts of Tbilisi. He died July 7 at the age of 86.
Paul Huard is an educator, analyst and historian who writes about the military, foreign policy and U.S. political history. A former newsroom reporter for daily newspapers in California and Oregon, he covered government and politics for more than a decade. You can follow him at his blog https://theshoutheardroundtheworld.wordpress.com/