H-Diplo Review Essay 278 on Brown. The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Review Essay 278

13 October 2020

Archie Brown.  The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9780198748700.

Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by James Graham Wilson, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State[1]

On October 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan described in his diary a working lunch he had convened in advance of his upcoming meeting with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland.  “Consensus was that Gorby is trying to make it a one topic agenda—arms control,” he wrote.  “We think we should get into Human rights, Afghanistan, etc.”[2] The same day, the president’s top Soviet expert on the National Security Council, Jack Matlock, responded to National Security Advisor John Poindexter’s question about a Foreign Affairs article, “Change in the Soviet Union,” which Reagan had just read.[3] “I believe the article is basically sound,” Matlock wrote, although its author was “more sanguine that Gorbachev has fundamental reform in mind than I am,” and may “implicitly underestimate the degree of opposition to Gorbachev’s domestic program.”[4]

The author of that article, Oxford Professor Archie Brown, had been part of a group of outside specialists who briefed British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Chequers in September 1983 and identified Politburo member Mikhail Gorbachev as someone worth watching.  A little over a decade later, Brown published The Gorbachev Factor,[5] which immediately became the standard account of the man who led the Soviet Union from March 1985 until its collapse in December 1991.  In his most recent book, The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War, Brown weaves together the lives of Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, contending that the personal interactions of each with the other two help explain the peaceful end of the Cold War.

Brown depicts Gorbachev as someone who regarded himself as part of a community of Western leaders, as opposed to the lineage of Soviet ones.  Gorbachev read British political satire and argued about ideas.  He deeply respected his wife, Raisa, who studied and taught philosophy and sociology, and whom he saw as a confidant and advisor.  He developed an unlikely political friendship with Thatcher that blossomed in debates with her at Chequers in December 1984 and in Moscow in March 1987 (196-200).  The new Soviet leader was decent, and above all, optimistic.  “In 1984 Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union was badly in need of reform,” Brown writes, “but that it was, nevertheless, reformable” (57).

Reagan was also decent and optimistic.  He was “the American dream in action,” Brown writes, quoting Thatcher, and the president delivered his best lines under pressure (70).  “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he told his wife Nancy, following an assassination attempt against him on March 30, 1981; and, to his doctors: “I hope you’re all Republicans” (71).  Reagan had been elected as an ardent Cold Warrior in 1980.  After winning in a landslide four years later, however, he modulated his tone and engaged with Gorbachev in five encounters, which were intended to improve relations between the two nuclear-armed superpowers.  In the spring of 1983 he had famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire”; five years later, he stood in Red Square and referred to that moment as “another time, another era.”[6]

Margaret Thatcher was surely the least sentimental of the trio.  She provided an important ‘bridge’ between Moscow and Washington, according to Brown, while remaining steadfast in support of capitalism and whatever was left of the British empire.  As an ideological bogeyman, she would have surpassed Vladimir Lenin’s wildest imagination; this allowed her to vouch for Gorbachev (“I like Mr. Gorbachev.  We can do business together,” as she famously put it in December 1984, 125)) both to Reagan and the most hardline anti-Communists, some of whom later suspected that the Gipper had been caught up in ‘Gorbymania.’ Thatcher pulled no punches during her visit to Soviet Union in 1987, both on screen with Soviet commentators and in private with Gorbachev.  The day after his inauguration, Reagan had told Thatcher that they would “lend strength to each other,” yet their relationship was never simple.  (70) As Brown suggests at times in the book, Gorbachev looked forward to speaking with her more than Reagan did.

Each leader here had at least one big idea.  Reagan wanted to win the Cold War, or at least end it.  Gorbachev wanted to save Communism, or at least reform it.  Thatcher wanted to reverse the economic and spiritual decline of the United Kingdom since the end of World War II. In Brown’s account, the three individuals played central roles, yet their contributions were not equal.  “While there are many contributory causes of the end of the Cold War,” he sums up, “it occurred when and how it did due to a combination of leadership, power, and ideas—most specifically, in the Soviet Union” (291).

While I find this thesis and much else in Brown’s account to be convincing, I would offer two criticisms that speak as much to the confounding nature of the era as to the book.  The first is that the book conflates the reversal of hostilities between the superpowers that occurred in the mid-1980s with the end of the Cold War, which occurred in 1989–1991.[7] The distinction matters because the post-Cold War settlements—some of which still resonate loudly in 2020—were playing out at the same time as the Cold War was ending, as opposed to their happening sequentially. “It had perhaps been unrealistic to have suggested then that the Berlin Wall be torn down in its entirety,” Reagan told Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in September 1988, referring to his famous speech the previous year.  “The President said he realized that the division of Germany and of Berlin was a product of World War II, and the feeling on the part of the Soviet Union and many others that Germany should never again be allowed to be the strongest and most dominant power in central Europe.”[8] In 1989–1990, the reunification of Germany within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came amidst the acquiescence of Gorbachev, the reluctance of Thatcher, and the absence of Reagan. The key actors in the delicate diplomacy of those years were West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President George H.W. Bush, whose administration Brown downplays.

A second criticism has to do with Brown’s depiction of the role of nuclear weapons.  Yes, both Reagan and Gorbachev shared a common vision of eliminating them, and this played an important role in reversing superpower hostilities.  Yet that shared vision was insufficient to produce verifiable nuclear arms reduction agreements, which took years of painstaking negotiations at levels below the White House and Kremlin.  For negotiators in Geneva, Moscow, Washington, and elsewhere, it was not easy to come up with formulas that not only could achieve the intended outcomes—something that had not been done before—but also could win acceptance by members of the Politburo and the U.S. Congress. 

Consider the example of the December 1987 Washington Summit, which featured the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by Reagan and Gorbachev.  “No real progress on strategic arms was made at the Washington summit,” Brown writes, “with the two sides’ different interpretation of the ABM Treaty again a sticking point, and the usual SDI arguments on both sides aired once again” (216). By my reading, negotiators made a significant breakthrough toward the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), and it was laid out in the Washington Joint Summit Statement, in which the President and General Secretary “noted the considerable progress which has been made toward conclusion of a treaty implementing the principle of 50 percent reductions” that now included “agreements on ceilings of no more than 1600 strategic offensive delivery systems, 6000 warheads, 1540 warheads on 154 heavy missiles.”[9] Working groups led by Soviet Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev and Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State Paul Nitze hammered out this basic counting formula, which endured until the two sides signed the treaty in the summer of 1991.

The second part of Brown’s assessment of the December 1987 Washington Summit has to do with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and here again I would take issue with his depiction.  “After billions have been poured into SDI,” Brown writes, “it remains some thirty-five years later as much of a delusion—and job-creation scheme for the military-industrial complex—as it was in 1983” (80). Indeed there was (and remains) a U.S. military-industrial complex, yet it played far less of a role in U.S. policy decisions in Washington than it did in Moscow. And it did not lead Reagan to aspire to cast off the logic of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).  The president regarded SDI as a modest premium on an insurance policy for a grand bargain between Washington and Moscow leading to a radical reduction of nuclear weapons and the potential elimination of them.

SDI was essential to the “strategic concept” that Reagan laid out in a letter to Margaret Thatcher and other allied leaders in January 1985: “During the next ten years, the US objective is a radical reduction in the power of existing and planned offensive nuclear arms, as well as the stabilization of the relationship between offensive and defensive nuclear arms, whether in earth or in space. We are even now looking forward to a period of transition to a more stable world with greatly reduced levels of nuclear arms and an enhanced ability to deter war based upon the increasing contribution of non-nuclear defenses against offensive nuclear arms. This period of transition could lead to the eventual elimination of all nuclear arms, both offensive and defensive.  A world free of nuclear arms, is an ultimate objective to which we, the Soviet Union, and all other nations can agree.”[10] This proposal was not secret.  In a speech to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council the following month, Paul Nitze announced the strategic concept and elaborated upon what the three potential transitional phases might look like.[11]

Gorbachev received more attention, in January 1986, when he publicly called for the elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2000.  My point here is that both leaders were homing in on the same objective.  In a letter of July 25, 1986, Reagan proposed to Gorbachev a phased approach by which SDI research and development, adhering to the limits of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, could lead to the elimination of offensive ballistic missiles and the sharing of benefits of any advanced strategic defense system.[12]

Three and a half months later, Reagan highlighted the closing sentence in Archie Brown’s Foreign Affairs article, which read: “Though the fate of Gorbachev’s policy innovation will be determined essentially within the Soviet Union itself, it requires something more from the West than the stock response.” That was an accurate statement, yet the position that the Reagan administration had already announced—at least, as it pertained to nuclear weapons—was hardly “the stock response” from American presidents during the Cold War.

Both Reagan and Gorbachev arrived in Iceland in October 1986 with their cards already on the table.  The weekend that followed was one of the most dramatic encounters in all of the Cold War, yet it would be a mistake to say either that it came out of nowhere, or that only winners and losers emerged from it. Another day in Iceland could well have afforded both sides the opportunity to craft language to split what were essentially narrow differences over SDI research and testing.  But it would not have altered the course of history.  In early 1987, Gorbachev, who trusted Reagan, untied the package of INF and SDI upon which he had insisted at Reykjavik.  Reagan, who trusted Gorbachev, committed himself to an INF Treaty even amidst skepticism from NATO leaders such as Thatcher, whom he also trusted and respected, yet with whom, on this matter, he disagreed.

Ultimately, I think that Gorbachev proceeded toward an INF agreement in spite of SDI—not because of it. It nonetheless turned out to be a net positive in the decade-long quest to bring about verifiable nuclear arms reductions—if only by bringing along the most conservative president of the Cold War, whose idea it was.  This is something apart from saying that SDI caused Gorbachev to make concessions, yet that view is not as outlandish as Brown suggests.  The technological prowess that SDI symbolized was easily compatible with Gorbachev’s sense that the West was moving ahead while the Soviet Union stagnated absent radical reforms.  And, indeed it was, at the dawn of the information age and just a few years before the Internet revolutionized human interaction.  Had Gorbachev been able to visit Silicon Valley during his trip to America—an idea Reagan administration officials considered but eventually scrapped for logistical reasons—he might have heard predictions of seemingly impossible things, such as: over the course of the Soviet leader’s lifetime, anyone would be able to hold a video conference with anyone else on the planet for free.

“No Soviet leader in his first year of office has presided over such sweeping changes in the compositions of the highest party and state organs as Mikhail Gorbachev,” read another marked passage of Reagan’s copy of Brown’s Foreign Affairs article. Matlock was generally a believer in Gorbachev, yet his comment about Brown’s article shows that he anticipated a backlash to the Soviet leader’s reforms—one that eventually consumed Gorbachev’s political career and left him in low esteem among his countrymen. Reagan’s diary entry for October 6, 1986, notwithstanding, the president did not get to press Gorbachev on Afghanistan and human rights at Reykjavik, which was nearly entirely about nuclear arms reductions.  Yet the composite of U.S.-Soviet relations during that era included a four-part agenda of bilateral relations, regional matters, arms control, and human rights.[13] Both sides could point to achievements in each of these categories by the time that Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev exited the political stage. Three decades later, in a geopolitical landscape where illiberalism has been on the ascent, is the pursuit of commitments from states to restrain regional transgressions and uphold internal political norms still as vital to meeting overall security objectives as it was during the mid-1980s? Such is one question that confronts policymakers who seek either to rescue the last vestiges of Cold War arms reduction regimes or build new ones.  Here and elsewhere, as he once did for the leaders about whom he now writes, Archie Brown’s scholarship can provide wisdom and hope.


James Graham Wilson is a Historian at the Department of State, where he compiles volumes for the Foreign Relations of the United States.  He is the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2014).  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2011.


[1] The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government and are based upon declassified and publicly available sources.

[3] Archie Brown, “Change in the Soviet Union, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1986, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/1986-06-01/change-soviet-union.

[4] Jack Matlock to John Poindexter, October 6, 1986, Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Box 18, Matlock Chron October 1986 (1), available at https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/digitallibrary/smof/nsc-europeanandsovietaffairs/matlock/box-018/40-351-7452064-018-005-2018.pdf.

[5] Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

[6] See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981–1988, Volume VI, Soviet Union, October 1986–January 1989, Document 155, available at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1981-88v06/d155.

[7] According to Brown: “The Cold War . . . ended in its ideological dimension with Gorbachev’s speech to the United Nations in December 1988.  It ended on the ground the following year, when the Soviet leadership refused to use force to prevent Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and other central and eastern Europeans from exercising that freedom of choice of which Gorbachev had spoken, and when they allowed the Berlin Wall to be breached without a shot being fired” (2-3).

[8] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981–1988, Volume VI, Soviet Union, October 1986–January 1989, Document 177, available at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1981-88v06/d177.

[9] Joint Statement on the Soviet-United States Summit Meeting, December 10, 1987, available at https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/research/speeches/121087a.

[11] Paul Nitze, “On the Road to a More Stable Peace,” Department of State Bulletin, April 1985, pp. 27-29.

[12] Reagan to Gorbachev, July 25, 1986, available at https://www.thereaganfiles.com/19860725.pdf.

[13] Minutes of a National Security Planning Group Meeting, May 17, 1988, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981–1988, Volume VI, Soviet Union, October 1986–January 1989, Document 154, available at https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1981-88v06/d154.