The Foreign Service Journal - March 2017
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MARCH 2017


system in order to maintain political

order. With such foundational rigidities,

the issue of economic reform always had

profound and risky political implica-


Underlying Forces

at Work

The dilemma facing Soviet

leaders in the last years was

clear. The system was dying

and shortages were every-

where; economic autarky had

even begun to set in. Living

standards were falling, and

factories became desperate

as promised inputs and

outputs evaporated.

The economic competition with the

West was clearly lost, and the Soviet

military and space program only excelled

due to excessive, vampire-like skewing of

resources to them by a command system,

which left the rest of the economy resem-

bling an impoverished, cadaverous third-

world country. In other words, Gorbachev

had no choice but to attempt reform; but

that, in turn, would also loosen the shack-

les of centralized political control.

Under such dire systemic circum-

stances and historic internal contradic-

tions, I do not think any kind of addi-

tional, last-minute “vital aid” from the

West could have created a positive inflec-

tion point for the USSR’s future. The

cumulative consequences of decades of

baked-in structural economic inefficien-

cies and rigidities created a complex,

destabilizing morass and a tsunami

of economic and social problems that

made Gorbachev’s


, in any

format, highly unlikely to succeed.

There was also inadequate apprecia-

tion in the West for the massive, self-

destructive underlying forces at work

in the Soviet Union. “Shock therapy,”

as suggested by well-intended Western

economists, could not be successful as

outlined, and we so advised Washington.

However, I do agree with one of Mr.

Gorbachev’s remarks in that Dec. 12

interview, that the Soviet Union “ate

itself.” Near the end, it was, indeed, like

watching a rapacious, wounded

shark eat its own entrails.

Throughout the three

years I was in charge of

the economic, commercial

and labor reporting from

Moscow, we tried to weigh

objectively for Washing-

ton each of a long parade of

successive economic reform

packages, including versions of

the famous “500 Days” reform

program. But correctly, albeit often with

a sense of regret, we had to conclude and

report every time and for many reasons

that none of them were going to work.


Under Pressure

This brings me to the second reason for

this letter. The dynamic within Embassy

Moscow and in Washington during most

of my tenure was often that the Economic

Section was too aggressive in signaling

serious Soviet economic and social-stabil-

ity-related problems and dangers.

But our section lived amidst the evi-

dence of growing social and economic

disarray every day. For years, my trusty

small band pushed and prodded, and

at times was quite frustrated trying to

raise embassy and Washington concerns

about growing instability—and not just

about the economy. Tom Delare showed

great intellectual rigor and courage. Ross

Wilson (later ambassador to Turkey) did

yeoman’s work for years, as did other

economic officers.

The labor upheaval and growing soci-