BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Don Oberdorfer, author of the book "The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era", what's it all about?
DON OBERDORFER: Well, basically it's a history of what happened between the United States and the Soviet Union from 1983 to the middle of 1990, the period when we went from an intense confrontation with the Soviet Union to almost a partnership with the Soviet Union -- how the two countries interacted, how the two leaderships interacted and what really happened.
LAMB: In your study, what's the most important date or event that changed it and created the turn?
OBERDORFER: Well, I wouldn't say "date that created it," but if I had to pick one date as the epicenter, perhaps, of the turn, it would have been the Reykjavik summit in October of 1986, just about five years ago from this fall.
LAMB: What happened there?
OBERDORFER: In this remarkable event, probably the most remarkable meeting of U.S. and Soviet leaders, certainly since Kennedy's meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna, [Ronald] Reagan and [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Eduard] Shevardnadze and [George] Shultz sat down in a small room in Reykjavik over a dining room table and started negotiating over their entire nuclear arsenal. They had on the table to be bargained with the entire stock of ballistic missiles in the arsenals of both governments, which were the basic weapons underpinning their national power. At the end of the summit Reagan even said -- and I have the quotes authenticated for the first time -- "Why don't we just get rid of all nuclear weapons? Just get rid of them all." And Gorbachev said, "Yes, let's do that. Let's just get rid of them." If you'll remember, it broke up in its final hour over SDI, but it was the most spectacular event, deemed to be a failure in its immediate aftermath, but it opened the way, in a way, toward a degree of trust and a degree of willingness to bargain that was not the case before that meeting.
LAMB: What's this picture right here?
OBERDORFER: That's the picture. That picture shows Gorbachev and Reagan and two interpreters. Shortly after that picture was made, Shevardnadze and Shultz joined them at the table. It's a dining room table in Hofdi House in Reykjavik -- the government guest house -- where they had these extraordinary negotiations for two days in October, 1986.
LAMB: Were you there?
OBERDORFER: No. I was on leave that fall as a professor at Princeton. It's the only one of the meetings that I was not at.
LAMB: How did you approach doing this book?
OBERDORFER: Well, I had covered for the Washington Post nearly all of the major events -- the summits, the ministerial meetings, and so on -- and I had in my mind a kind of basic framework of what had happened. I saw it at the beginning as a great turning point in history, so I started with my own articles and with my own longhand journal which I'd been keeping for a number of years to give me the flavor of events. And then I started interviewing and obtaining other information. I had 122 interviews, about two-thirds of them with American officials -- Reagan, Bush, Shultz, Baker, all the secretaries of defense, all the national security advisers, all the Soviet desk officers and so on -- and then the other third, roughly, were with Soviet officials in Moscow. They gave me terrific access. I had the only book interview that Shevardnadze ever gave as foreign minister, and when he agreed to be interviewed by me, then everybody under him agreed automatically, the way their system works or at least worked at that time. And, too, I interviewed three members of the Politburo and so on, so that with all this mass of information and interviews, I then sat down and put the pieces together in my little upstairs study at my house -- sat there for six months and wrote the book.
LAMB: Did you work at the Post during the time?
OBERDORFER: I worked during my interview time, although I took a few days and weeks off, but I had a six-month leave last year to do the writing. I couldn't write the book doing daily reporting at the same time. It's just beyond my capacity.
LAMB: What was your objective to even write the book in the first place?
OBERDORFER: Well, I did a book 20 years ago that was published just 20 years ago, the only other book I've written, and that was on the Tet offensive in Vietnam which was the turning point of the Vietnam War. It's a very satisfying thing -- one of the most satisfying things that I ever did. A person like me has written I don't know how many thousands of newspaper articles and dozens of magazine articles. Those things are read, people react to them and tomorrow you wrap fish in the newspaper that you got today. They don't have much of a long life. A book has a really long life. My book on Tet is still in print after 20 years. It's being used by colleges and universities; it's in every decent library in the country. I set out to do with this Turning Point, which is a much more ambitious book in a much bigger canvas, what I did then, in a way, and that is to greatly deepen my knowledge as a person who covered it and greatly deepen the knowledge and understanding of the readers of one of the great dramatic turning points of our time, and do something that will stand up for a long time, that future historians as well as scholars and students and ordinary Americans can read and say, "This is what happened."
LAMB: Who are the people, in your opinion, that made the difference?
OBERDORFER: Well, there are a lot of people, of course, but you have to really look first and foremost at the leaders. We tend to forget this, but when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, it was the first time since 1972 that you had a politically and physically healthy Soviet leader and a politically and physically healthy American leader in office at the same time. After Nixon's summit with Brezhnev, his first summit in '72, there was Watergate, and Nixon was weakened by Watergate.
Then came Gerald Ford who was an unelected president, then came Jimmy Carter. By the time Carter was well ensconced in office, Leonid Brezhnev was in a decline. If you will remember, at the summit with Carter in 1979, he was almost like a vegetable. He had to be carried around and so forth. He was succeeded by Yuri Andropov, a Soviet leader who had only about four months of decent health in office before his kidneys failed, and then by [Konstantin] Chernenko who had emphysema so bad when he took office that he could barely complete a speech. So when Gorbachev came in in 1985 and Reagan had just been re-elected by a tremendously big majority in the United States, you had two strong guys who could interact. Gorbachev, in my opinion, is going to be one of the great historical figures of the 20th century. We've seen the deficiencies and difficulties and weaknesses, but, with all that, this could not have happened without him and he is going to be a very important figure in history. He's certainly a very important figure in my chronicle of what happened.
Ronald Reagan was much readier than we knew, certainly much readier than I knew as a reporter, to engage with the Soviets -- to get in there and bargain with them even while he was condemning them in the harshest terms. So, Reagan is an important figure. Shultz and Shevardnadze in their own right were extremely important. George Shultz is a steady, methodical, sort of bulldog figure who knew how to get things done, and as an economist, which is sort of rare in the political side of government, he's a man who believed in the long gain and in steady inputs -- in putting things on the table and keeping at it. Shevardnadze, I think, is just a truly remarkable person -- a remarkable figure.
He is a man who had absolutely no experience in diplomacy, none in democracy, and he became one of the important diplomats of our time and, in my opinion, a small-D democrat. How he got that way is an incredible puzzle, and I think he was more important than we knew to lots of things that took place in the Soviet Union.
LAMB: You spent a lot of time with George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze in preparation for this book?
OBERDORFER: I spent a lot of time with George Shultz. I had 13 taped interviews with him in California at his place in Stanford. I didn't spent nearly as much time with Shevardnadze. I had one interview in Moscow in the foreign ministry, but that's more than anybody else had. So, I don't know, in the kingdom of the mind, the man is king, perhaps. But I watched him over time as well.
LAMB: The interesting thing I noticed that in your liner notes, your acknowledgements, you sign off on this in the introduction at January 1991. This book was written long before the coup attempt.
OBERDORFER: Yes, it was. I made some changes as late as this last spring and early part of the summer, but even that was before the coup attempt. But a lot of the things that happened -- later you can see them sort of growing. You can almost see the seeds growing in this book as the hard-liners get more authority in Moscow, as the military begins to interfere more with what Gorbachev is wanting to do, even in 1989 and 1990, as the consequences of the change in Eastern Europe began to be felt in the Soviet Union.
LAMB: You also interviewed Cap Weinberger?
LAMB: And you talk a lot in here about the feud between George Shultz and Cap Weinberger?
OBERDORFER: I talk some in there, yes.
LAMB: Not a lot. Why were they feuding?
OBERDORFER: As best I can tell, they never liked each other in the first place. They worked together at the Bureau of the Budget back in the Nixon administration. Shultz was head of it, Weinberger was his deputy, and they didn't really get along that well. Then they went to Bechtel. Shultz, again, was president of the company. Weinberger was the general counsel. Then in the Reagan administration Weinberger was there first as secretary of defense. Shultz only came in after Haig resigned in the summer of 1982. They're two very, very different people. Shultz is a very methodical, steady, thoughtful person who is not a person that likes to battle over things, and he will fight on his turf. But Weinberger is much more the guy who enjoys combat.
At Bechtel they said he would like to litigate. He wanted to get in there and scrap. Their personalities are different. They had different bureaucratic positions, of course. Weinberger at Defense was suspicious of negotiations with the Soviet Union which seemed to raise questions about the need for a $300 billion defense budget. Shultz wanted to carry on the negotiations. So, all through the administration they were at each other's throats on a variety of things, including response to terrorism and many other things that we all remember.
LAMB: A surprising note -- when I read that George Shultz wanted to keep the Marines in Lebanon, according to your book, when Cap Weinberger wanted to bring them out after 200-and-some had been killed?
LAMB: Why? You would think the Pentagon chief would have been the hawk to say, "Stay there."
OBERDORFER: That's a misunderstanding, really, of the Pentagon. They don't like their people being killed; they don't like their people in risk. Militarily it was not a very sensible position. I think the Long Commission, which you will remember investigated the tragic killing of the Marines, said that it was militarily indefensible. Shultz felt it was very important for national reasons not to give the impression of turning pale and running. He was standing almost alone in the administration insisting that they remain, while Weinberger and Jim Baker and then-Vice President Bush and others who for a variety of reasons, some of them political with the campaign of 1984 coming along, wanted them out of there.
LAMB: Is it healthy to have a secretary of defense and the secretary of state disagreeing strongly or having a feud?
OBERDORFER: I don't think it is. I think it's healthy to have differences of opinion and to have honest differences, either from bureaucratic position or from your own philosophical or political position, but to carry it to the extent that the Reagan administration did and that President Reagan tolerated it I think is not healthy, just as I don't think it was healthy to have [Zbigniew] Brzezinski and [Cyrus] Vance for years battling during the Carter administration because at the end of the day the government needs to have a policy -- a policy, not two policies or three policies.
LAMB: Are you still covering the State Department?
OBERDORFER: Yes, but not on the same daily basis as I was doing for 15 years. I've been asked to take what is called a Broder-like role in foreign policy, referring to our chief political correspondent David Broder, and to concentrate on broader issues, major projects, travels of my own abroad rather than traveling on a plane with the secretary of state, and sort of trying to use such experiences I've piled up in 15 years of covering diplomacy to do a bigger picture.
LAMB: Are you pretty much assured that when you write an article in the Washington Post that everybody that's playing in the diplomatic game reads it?
OBERDORFER: Oh, I think probably. The Washington Post in this city is kind of the bread-and-butter information source that everyone shares. It would be unusual if an article on any major subject that was of interest in Washington was not read by all the players involved. We just assume that.
LAMB: When you're traveling with the secretary of state, do they ever walk back in the plane and say, "I just got faxed to me this article that you wrote," and they want to dispute something? Is it that instantaneous that they know what you're doing when you're out there running around the world?
OBERDORFER: The secretary of state when he travels receives faxes every night of every article in the Washington Post that has to do with diplomacy or with him, of course, and so they have it -- all of our file, every day. They don't get it, we hope, before it appears in the paper. Rarely do they come over and say, "We didn't like that." It's not the style of people in government. You sort of get it indirectly and you hear that there's a little bit of static up in the front of the plane about the article or that sort of thing. So they don't come at you. But we know that they're reading it. We know.
LAMB: At what lengths do they go to keep you informed and to keep their message in front of you when you're traveling? Or when you're here, for that matter.
OBERDORFER: Well, through the usual briefings and things like that, of course. But any reporter who is able to do so wants to penetrate beyond that and find out more. The one good thing in working for an organization like the Washington Post -- I shouldn't say one good thing; there are many good things -- is that people do tend to respond to your telephone calls and to see you. You say, "I don't understand why you're doing this. Explain to me what's going on here," or "I have learned X. Tell me your side of the story." You could usually at least get through. Whether you get the real story or not, that's another question.
LAMB: How long have you been with the Washington Post?
OBERDORFER: Twenty-three years.
LAMB: What did you do before that?
OBERDORFER: Well, you remember when we first met I was covering the Nixon White House. I covered Nixon's campaign for election in 1968, his taking office in his first term as president, then I went out to Asia and became the Tokyo correspondent, the northeast Asia correspondent, for the Post for three years. I came back after three years in 1976 and began to start covering the State Department, and have been covering American diplomacy ever since.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
OBERDORFER: Atlanta, Georgia.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
OBERDORFER: Druid Hills High School in Atlanta, Georgia, and then through a kind of fluke went to Princeton University -- four years at Princeton, which opened my eyes to a world that I had no idea even existed. Then I went into the Army in Korea and started off as a newspaperman in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Charlotte Observer.
LAMB: What was your family like?
OBERDORFER: In Atlanta?
LAMB: In Atlanta.
OBERDORFER: My dad was an insurance agent and a wonderful, gregarious person. My mother was a college-educated woman, which was not too frequent for her generation. She went to Goucher College up here near Baltimore. I have one brother, 15 months younger than I, who is in the family insurance business. I had a great time growing up in Atlanta. It's a wonderful city. I have a lot of friends and family there.
LAMB: What stimulated your interest in going to a place like Princeton?
OBERDORFER: Well, a friend of mine, who I went all though school with, and I decided to go to college together. We were best friends and he picked out Princeton and I picked out the University of North Carolina, which was about as far as my horizons could possibly extend in those days. In the end, I went to Princeton and he went to the University of North Carolina. I went there as a freshman. I had never been there; I didn't know anybody who was going there or anybody who had ever gone there. All I knew about it was it was in the East and it was supposed to be hard to get into and it had something called the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, which I was interested in. I wanted to know what was going on in the world. I wanted to be a newspaperman even then. I joined it, and it was a great university life.
LAMB: Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton at one point?
OBERDORFER: He was president before he was president of the United States.
LAMB: Did you know who he was, and did you know what you were getting into before you got there?
OBERDORFER: I knew who he was, but I had no idea what I was getting into. My first year at Princeton I was scared to death. All the people around me had come from, I thought, the best prep schools in the United States. In those days Princeton was about two-thirds prep school and one-third high school. Today it's about the reverse. I went through 11 years of school before going to college, which was Georgia in those days, and all these other guys, I thought, were way ahead of me. And they were. So, I worked my tail off my freshman year. Each year it got a little bit easier until I graduated.
LAMB: When did you first know that you were interested in writing for a living?
OBERDORFER: My best friend, the guy who I applied to college with, says that when we were in the third grade I came in off the playground one day after playing soccer and said to him, "When I grow up I want to be a newspaper reporter," which was a kind of bizarre thing because there was nobody in my family, nobody that I had ever known, who wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I have no idea where it got in my head, but I was writing a little community newspaper before I was out of grammar school. I was the editor of my high school paper, I was editor of the Daily Princetonian, the newspaper at Princeton, and it was just clear to me this was what I wanted to do.
Thank goodness I wanted to do something that you could do. I mean, I could have said I'd like to run the four-minute mile or I'd like to be president or something like that. This was a realistic goal, and today after 35 years as a newspaper reporter in journalism I still love it. I love a good story, and I had a great time writing this book. I hope and believe that it will be a permanent contribution long after my newspaper stories are forgotten. But still, the real juice in me is to get a great newspaper story.
LAMB: In the back of the book you have a lot of notes and you refer to a lot of other books that you looked at to help put this one together and you told us earlier that you had 122 interviews, so the question is what new information or new angles on old information do you have in here that you're most pleased about?
OBERDORFER: There's a whole lot of new information in here. Daily journalists such as myself cover essentially the tip of the iceberg. That's what we see on a daily basis is this iceberg tip, and if by virtue of great diligence we can go down below the water line a little bit and see what's beneath the water line, we're doing our job well. But to go back after events are over a year or two later or several years and interview the people who were involved, you can learn a lot that you did not know at the time. This book contains many things -- I would say maybe half of it are things which I did not know while I was a reporter for one of the major newspapers of the country, covering these same things intensely on a daily basis.
So that's where historians begin and journalists leave off because people are not going to tell you at the time what's really going on between them and the president, what's going on between the general secretary and the foreign minister. If I had to cite one series of things, it is the candid look at Mikhail Gorbachev, the negotiator and the bargainer in these meetings with Reagan and Shultz and with Bush and Baker -- and the book goes into the Bush administration -- because there's much more detail in here. You see a picture of Gorbachev in his unguarded moments in negotiations that has just not been available before and which I think historians and readers will find absolutely fascinating.
LAMB: Where was this picture?
OBERDORFER: That is in the Oval Office during the 1987 Washington Summit. The picture on the other side with all the people around is a remarkable picture. Gorbachev got out of his car on Connecticut Avenue and walked into the crowd. The bartender at the restaurant which is just on the second floor right above the part of Connecticut Avenue where Gorbachev got out grabbed his camera from behind the bar, walked out onto the balcony and shot this picture which is, in my opinion, a terrific picture of Gorbachev surrounded by waving, cheering Americans as if he were some kind of rock star.
LAMB: Was there a particular moment in your interviewing when you were studying President Gorbachev's negotiating talents or abilities where the light bulb went off and you said, "I didn't know that. That is really interesting."
OBERDORFER: There was not one moment, there were dozens of moments. Look, we are reporters and we're there. When it comes to ministerial meetings between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. or summit meetings, we are dependent on kind of second-level briefings and dribs and drabs of what people will tell us. We just don't have the kind of access to what really went on that people are willing to provide several years after the fact, especially after an administration is over. So there was not one moment, there were just many moments when I said, "Oh, if I had only known that!"
LAMB: Give me some example.
OBERDORFER: Well, one example -- and I cite this in the book; kind of the difference between daily journalism and how journalists look on something and what is actually happening. George Shultz went to Moscow in early November of 1985, a few weeks before the Geneva Summit. That's the picture there of sitting down at that meeting with Gorbachev. All we had in our heads as members of the press was that Shultz had better make a deal with Gorbachev or the summit coming up in Geneva was going to be a disaster because we had no confidence that Reagan and Gorbachev would be able to iron out anything.
Shultz had a press conference after the meeting was over. That picture that you just showed was taken, then they shooed us out and for the next three hours or so they had a meeting which I later learned was an extremely tumultuous meeting. Gorbachev was attacking Shultz and Reagan. He was saying, "You're afraid to tell me the truth. You'll be fired from your job!" Shultz says, "I got news for you. I'm a tenured professor at Stanford University. I don't have to worry about a job. I'll tell you anything that's on my mind." They went back and forth in absolutely extraordinary terms we were not told anything about, basically.
At the end of the meeting, though, Shultz had a press conference and he said, "We made absolutely no progress. There was no narrowing of the gap at all." I'm saying to myself, "Oh my God. Geneva is going to be a disaster!" I'm sitting there in the American ambassador's house where they had set up a temporary press room writing on this laptop computer this disaster story for the Washington Post, saying disaster was coming up in Geneva, and I looked up and Secretary Shultz has come to the door of the press room and is looking in -- looking at us typing our stories. He's got a drink in his hand and he looks extremely pleased. I looked down on my story, I looked up at the secretary, I looked down on my story -- I don't know if you've ever had this feeling; there's something wrong here and I don't know what it is -- but with the instinct of a lifetime of journalism I toned down my story. It was now not a disaster; it was just a very difficult meeting.
Well, later I learned -- much later -- Shultz had had this fiery meeting with Gorbachev which is described in my book in great detail, and then he came to the conclusion that he had faced down Gorbachev, didn't give an inch, and that Gorbachev was going to blink -- that he would not come to the Geneva Summit and try the same kind of tactics on Reagan. After the meeting was over Shevardnadze said to Shultz very confidentially, "Listen, we now have to work together and make sure that the Geneva meeting is a big success." Had we known all that happened and why Shultz was so contented and what happened in the meeting, we would have reported the whole thing completely differently. But we didn't know.
LAMB: Thirteen interviews with George Shultz at Stanford.
LAMB: Does he have a house on campus there?
OBERDORFER: He does have a house on campus. This was in his office. He has an office on campus as well. He is on the faculty and also on the staff of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
LAMB: When did you do the interviews?
OBERDORFER: Starting with the spring of 1989 through the summer of 1990.
LAMB: What was the longest one of the 13?
OBERDORFER: Oh, they generally were about 90 minutes or so.
LAMB: How often did you go out there?
OBERDORFER: I think I went out there five or six times. I went out there initially for one or two, and then in the summer of '89 I went out -- we had a regular program. He agreed to see me over a period of several days, and so I think for five days running we had an hour and a half each day. I covered each one of these different periods of his interaction with the Soviet Union, and then later I went out and asked him about things that had come up when I was in the Soviet Union and so on. I spoke to Shultz about this book while he was still secretary. I told him what I planned to do -- I didn't ask him. I said, "This is my plan," and he thought it was a good idea. He said that when he was out of office he would assist me the best that he could to recall what he could about his part of the story.
LAMB: You thank him, and you thank him in light of the fact that he's writing his own book.
OBERDORFER: Yes. I think it was extremely generous of him. He could have just said, "I'm writing my own book now, Don. Forget it." Or he didn't even have to say that. He could just say, "I'm too busy out here." But he didn't. He said he would help with this book, he thought it was a worthwhile project, and he certainly did. So did a lot of others, too.
LAMB: What is he like up close?
OBERDORFER: I've known him much better since he was out of office and since I was working on this than I did in Washington, although I knew him from the time he was labor secretary back in the first Nixon administration. He's very much like what you saw as secretary of state except that he is also a witty guy. He's a very shrewd observer of people and of things. There's one incident in this book I think that tells a lot about Shultz.
In September or October of 1987 he had a meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow in the Kremlin, a meeting at which Gorbachev was supposed to agree to the dates for the Washington Summit. Gorbachev suddenly balked and refused to set a date. You've probably forgotten about it now -- I'm sure most Americans have -- but it was a rather sensational story for a day or two in the press. When Gorbachev came into the meeting, Shultz, who had been a veteran of labor management negotiations, saw something different about Gorbachev. When the meeting was over he said to his staff -- there were a few people around him; again, this did not reach the ears of the press -- he said Gorbachev reminded him in that meeting of a poem by Carl Sandburg in which Sandburg talks about a fighter who had never been hit. Shultz said Gorbachev had always reminded him of a fighter who had never been hit. It's from Sandburg's great poem "Chicago." George Shultz said, without knowing any more, that when he came into that meeting he thought that Gorbachev had been hit. This wasn't the same man. Somehow someone had hit him. It turned out about a week or 10 days later that the day before this meeting with Shultz was the first big blowup in the meeting of the Central Committee between Yeltsin and Gorbachev in which Yeltsin had made attacks on Ligachev and on Gorbachev.
Gorbie came into this meeting having been battered around by Boris Yeltsin and the right-wingers and he really lost some of his confidence. So the point of this story is, to me it is remarkable that Shultz could sit there and watch this guy and make the analysis that there was something different, something about him that suggested that somebody was closing in on him and that this accounted for his behavior. He's a very shrewd observer.
LAMB: You have a number of other people you talk about. There's one picture here -- you write about this picture, and I want you to explain. Who is it, and what impact did this picture have on the negotiations?
OBERDORFER: Well, this is a picture of Andrei Gromyko, the veteran foreign minister of the Soviet Union, and Reagan at the White House. It was taken, I guess, at the entrance to the Rose Garden or some place like that. When Gromyko came to the White House in 1984, it was a big thing for Reagan. He had never met a senior Soviet leader before. I covered it, and I was sitting at my desk at the Washington Post the day after the meeting and I received a telephone call from the secretary of the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, who says, "Mr. Oberdorfer, Foreign Minister Gromyko is going back to Moscow this afternoon and he wonders if he could have as a souvenir a picture that appeared in the Washington Post today."
I said, "Well, I'll see what I can do, if I can get it for him. Which picture?" And it was that picture of Gromyko with Reagan, Reagan with his arms, in effect, around Gromyko. It stunned me that he wanted to take that back and, I guess, show it to the Politburo or hang it on the wall or do whatever he did with it.
LAMB: Did they get along?
OBERDORFER: They got along fairly well. Gromyko is a sort of old-line tough guy, but he was on his good behavior for Reagan, and I think Reagan was on his good behavior for Gromyko.
LAMB: How long was he foreign minister?
OBERDORFER: I've forgotten now, but the longest time of any foreign minister that the Soviet Union has ever had, and almost anybody ever had. He was foreign minister in 1960 when Khrushchev came to the United States and went to the U.N. and pounded his fists on the table -- he was foreign minister long before that.
LAMB: You repeated that story in here about Mr. Khrushchev saying that . . .
OBERDORFER: He said that if you wanted Gromyko to sit on a block of ice, you'd tell him to sit on it and he'd sit there until you told him to get up.
LAMB: You said if you told him to take his pants off and sit there . . .
OBERDORFER: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: He said that in a public meeting.
OBERDORFER: Yes, he did. He said that publicly. He was kind of ridiculing Gromyko. But Gromyko was quite a person, too. He is clearly partly responsible for the selection of Gorbachev. He had a big role in '85 in making Gorbachev the Soviet leader. There's one other story that's in the book about Gromyko that I think is a priceless story, myself.
In this meeting in 1984 when he came to the White House, the U.S. government wanted Reagan to impart some particularly important piece of information through Gromyko -- some arms control position or something. People can't remember it, but at the time it seemed very important to get this across. It was decided that after the meeting in the Oval Office and before the luncheon where Gromyko met Nancy Reagan, that Reagan would keep Gromyko back -- say, "Stay back a minute, Andrei. I want to tell you something," and he would tell him this vital thing and then they'd go to lunch.
Well, the next day, the State Department began checking with the Soviet delegation, and no one had ever registered, hadn't even heard about this big, important information. So they began checking back, and they found that there's a Secret Service agent who has a peephole that looks into the Oval Office to make sure that the president is not having a heart attack or that something untoward is happening.
What he saw was the two men talking for just a minute, and then Reagan saying to Gromyko, "Would you like to use the bathroom?" So this 75-year-old foreign minister goes in to use the bathroom, then Reagan says, "Now I will." He went in to use the bathroom, the 73-year-old Reagan, and he came out and the two guys went to lunch. Apparently, Reagan forgot to tell him this vital piece of information because the two fellows used the bathroom and then went to lunch. So that's the way diplomacy really works.
LAMB: In your career -- a State Department correspondent since '76?
LAMB: Can you remember a story or two that you wrote that changed the course of foreign policy?
OBERDORFER: No. We don't change the course of foreign policy just because of a story.
LAMB: Changed the course of a next-day meeting?
OBERDORFER: Oh, there are lots of stories where I've heard later that they were talking about my story or joking about it or one thing or another. But I think that's an exaggeration about the world of journalists. We cover things and we sometimes are able to dig up something, but it doesn't basically deflect the course of the great ships of state. I can't remember one that I wrote that I thought had some tremendous long-term impact. No. They all have some impact. People read them and react to them, but in terms of changing the policy of the United States? I doubt it.
LAMB: You said earlier that you taught college for a while?
OBERDORFER: I've had three semesters off from the Post to be a professor at Princeton, my alma mater, in 1977 and 1982 and 1986, which was great. I loved it.
LAMB: What do you get out of it?
OBERDORFER: I get out of it the chance to meet 20 very bright students around the table for three hours a week, and beyond that to take any course at the university whose professor will let me in, to go to the library and go and look at all the books on anything I'm interested in -- the kinds of things that most Washington reporters would give their eye teeth to do, except that we don't ever have time to do this. A person like me knows about a thousand trees, and I could tell you with, say, 15-minutes' notice what's happening today in Croatia or what's the situation in Brazil and so on, but a great university and great professors know the forest. To be able to communicate with them, to hear their side of the great forest, the big picture of the world we're living in to me is not only a rare treat, it's very, very valuable.
LAMB: When you write your daily columns and stories for the Post, compare that with writing this book. Were you writing for two different audiences in your own mind?
OBERDORFER: No. I basically write for the essentially intelligent-but-uninformed reader. I write that way for the paper. I don't assume that the reader has a lot of information about what I'm writing about, whether it's the situation in Cambodia or the situation with the Soviets, so you explain things knowing that he picks up the paper today. The same with this book. I am not writing down to people, I'm not writing it for the State Department desk officers or for the great gurus in Soviet affairs. I'm writing it for intelligent people who want to know but who don't have a lot of details going into the book about what happened. I try to explain and carry it on as a narrative -- this is what happened and then what happened and then this is why and what happened next.
LAMB: You have two pictures in here. When you wrote this book this man was alive.
OBERDORFER: I had four-and-a-half hours of meetings in the Kremlin with Marshal Akhromeyev, which I thought was a rare treat -- fascinating.
LAMB: Were you surprised that he killed himself?
LAMB: Do you think he killed himself?
OBERDORFER: Well, I have never heard any doubt about it. I think he probably did kill himself right after the coup. I'm told that there is no evidence that he was involved in it in any way and that he was just so stricken by all that happened that he decided to end it. I think it's tragic. He was an incredibly interesting man and a great man of his time for the Soviet military.
LAMB: What impact did he have on this whole series of events?
OBERDORFER: He was a negotiator unlike anything the United States had ever seen. He first showed up at Reykjavik as far as being a negotiator. Most Soviet negotiators up to that point were full of polemics, arguments. There were no polemics from Akhromeyev, but he was in a far stronger position to make decisions, and he would sit at a table. I was told, and I quoted some officials in this book who said, "If you could convince Akhromeyev, that was it." He just said, "Da, OK, we'll do it," and he did it.
LAMB: What were your four-and-a-half hours like with him in the Kremlin?
OBERDORFER: Well, they were fascinating. I was in two sessions, two different days. I had written to him and said I wanted to see him. I'd seen him here briefly and said I wanted to see him. But the real reason I got to him was because another person that I knew quite well, Yevgeny Primakov had been made a member of the Politburo, a great stroke of luck for me.
LAMB: His current job is?
OBERDORFER: He is currently the head of the foreign policy side of the new KGB. Anyway, when I got to Moscow, Primakov, who has always been very hospitable to me, immediately agreed to see me in the Kremlin, and I said I was having problems getting hold of Marshall Akhromeyev.
So he picked up his phone in his Kremlin office, said, "Get me Akhromeyev," got him on the phone and said, "Will you talk to Oberdorfer?" Then he turned to me and said, "Well, tomorrow afternoon at 3:00, is that all right?" I said, "Sure." So, I went back to the Kremlin. We had a long table, just me, my interpreter and Akhromeyev in full uniform of the Soviet marshal, eight or nine rows of battle ribbons and so forth. He was very thorough, systematic, businesslike. He made notes on my questions. He answered them. To be able to sit with the former chief of staff of the Soviet armed forces and the chief military adviser to Gorbachev for four-and-a-half hours in the Kremlin and get them to answer your questions -- it was unthinkable a few years ago. There's just no way you could even conceive of it.
LAMB: When you did this book, how long did you stay in the Soviet Union?
OBERDORFER: On my book interview trip I intended to be there about three weeks, but the paper asked me to stay because things were happening. I actually stayed six weeks, of which three weeks were for the book and the other three weeks were reporting for the Post.
LAMB: Another picture I want to ask you about in the book -- why this story?
OBERDORFER: Well, that's the little airplane that was flown by a young West German all the way across the Soviet Union and landing in Red Square in 1987. Because it landed in Red Square they fired the then-defense minister and brought in Dmitry Yazov, who was part of the plot recently. But he was supposed to shake up the Soviet military on behalf of perestroika. Some of the wags in Moscow said jokingly that Gorbachev ought to give a medal to the West German because he was the excuse for firing some of these Soviet military people.
But the impact of this little plane flying all the way across the Soviet territory to Moscow with no one stopping it was tremendous. You can imagine, if somebody flew a light plane across the Atlantic from the Soviet Union or somewhere and came across the eastern seaboard, say, down from Maine or some place all the way down and landed in the backyard of the White House and no one even knew he was there, it would be a scandal. It was an even bigger scandal in Moscow.
LAMB: Looking at what the Reagan administration's foreign policy was like and its defense policy, what did the Reagan administration do, in your opinion, that had some impact on which way President Gorbachev reacted eventually. In other words, look back from maybe even a professorial standpoint. What worked? What made a difference? What money was spent by the United States that was worth it?
OBERDORFER: The Reagan administration, though it didn't sometimes articulate it too well, had two points to its policy about dealing with the Soviet Union. One of them was to deal from a position of strength. I think President Reagan made that very clear -- his military build-up, SDI and all the rest. How much of that was necessary, people are going to be debating for a long time, but certainly you do have to be strong.
The other side of his policy, which was not known for quite a long time, was to engage them, to have dialogue with them, to negotiate with them, to try to work things out with them. So the two things fit pretty well, and I think both things were necessary. If you'd have had a policy of being strong but not of talking to the Soviet Union, you would have just had a heightened confrontation between the two countries. And if you'd have had a policy if being conciliatory and being engaged without the sense that the United States was a strong power that could not be pushed over, it would not have been a particular success either. I'm not judging whether this particular move, domestically or in foreign policy, was good or bad, but overall I think you needed to have both those sides for your policy.
LAMB: A small thing -- I can't find a dedication in this book to anyone. Is that on purpose?
OBERDORFER: Well, I dedicated my first book, Tet, to those who were killed in the Tet offensive on both sides -- the Vietnamese in the South, the Viet Cong, the Vietnamese in the North, the Americans, others. I couldn't think of a similarly appropriate dedication for this particular book. I give thanks and credit to a lot of people, including my wife who read all of it. She's an English teacher and so she keeps me out of semantic trouble and is my best reader. But I didn't see a particular reason to dedicate it to any particular person.
LAMB: Are you happy with the way people have greeted this book, meaning reviewers and shows and call-ins and stuff like that?
OBERDORFER: Well, so far I am. You know, there are some reviews that you like better than others. Some people, I think, understand the book who have reviewed it. A few people seem to have their own agenda in commenting on it, where I think the review is more a commentary on their ideas than it is on what's in the book. But that's fair game, and I knew that was going to happen.
LAMB: How do you like doing things like this and having to go on the tour? Is it fun?
OBERDORFER: I don't mind it. I think it's fun for a limited time. I'm not sure I want to make a life's career of it. I worked three years on this book, six months full-time, but I started it three years before its publication, and so it represents quite a big investment of my time and energy. I want to see it be recognized. I want to see people read it, and more than anything else, I want to see the people who are serious about foreign policy read it now and for a long time. So, you've got to bring it to people's attention, which means you go on television programs and radio and you are interviewed and all these other things. It's in the interest of bringing it to the attention of the public.
LAMB: We don't have much time left, but in the couple of minutes we have left, I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you about the change in governments and what impact that's had. What's this picture, by the way?
OBERDORFER: That picture shows Secretary Baker and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at the end of a ministerial meeting. It was Baker's idea to get Shevardnadze out of Washington and see some of the real country and the beauty of the United States. It really was an idea that worked brilliantly.
This administration started off very slowly with the Soviets, and it took them quite a few months to get going, to get the traction up that the Reagan administration had at the end. But they did it more and more, and then, of course, came the big change, after my book was finished, really -- the coup and the decline of communism, the demise of communism, and the threatened break-up of the Soviet Union, which presents this administration today with a different sort of problem than anyone had predicted. Not the question of managing a partnership, a friendship, but managing a world in which the Soviet Union simply probably is not going to be a major player at all.
LAMB: At all? Why?
OBERDORFER: Because it's a country in great disarray because its economy is dropping like a stone, because it does not have a stable political situation. Even if Russia and some republics join it, they're going to be so tied up with their internal problems, probably for decades, that they're unlikely to be a major player on the international scene.
LAMB: Maybe I shouldn't do this, but other than the Middle East and the Soviet Union, what do you think will be the big foreign policy problems for future presidents?
OBERDORFER: There will be maintaining our relationships both with Europe and with Asia. Asia is an extraordinarily important part of the world, with more U.S. economic sales and purchases -- we have more economic exchanges with Asia than in Europe. The Persian Gulf is extraordinarily important. It continues to be because it's the source of an unfortunately increasing amount of America's energy, imported. Canada, Mexico. I mean, there's plenty out there for future administrations to be concerned about in foreign policy.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era. We're talking about years 1983 to 1990, and the author is Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post. Thank you very much, sir.
OBERDORFER: Thank you, Brian. I've enjoyed it.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.