Speaker: Jack Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991


There are a number of myths out there which I think are quite unfounded, but some that I would identify are:

First of all, the widespread belief that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a multipart documentary of the Cold War that was broadcast I think on CNN, and it ends with the Russian flag being raised on the Kremlin, the end of the Cold War being the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I was shown that last portion of that by the producer before it was released to the public, and I said, "That gets it all wrong. The Cold War ended well before that, at least two years before that."

He said, "Yes, but that's not dramatic."

I said, "Well, okay. Are you talking about drama or about history?"

So that's one of them.

The second was that the United States defeated the Soviet Union by superior military strength and economic pressure. That is simply not true, because the Soviet Union collapsed after the Cold War ended. As a matter of fact, it probably wouldn't have collapsed if the Cold War had not ended beforehand.

To take that even further, one even hears things like "Russia was defeated in the Cold War." But Russia was not even a party to the Cold War. Russia was one of the units of the Soviet Union, and actually, once Russia had its own leaders, they cooperated with us very closely, even at times being disloyal to the Soviet leadership as a whole.

Another one is the widespread feeling that the United States was the sole superpower. There had been two superpowers, you see, and one of them disappeared; therefore, there must be only one. Well, yes, there were two countries in the world with enough military force to destroy it. There are still two countries in the world with enough military force to destroy it.

Neither of us were superpowers in terms of our ability to force or induce other countries to do our will, unless they saw it in their interest. One of the things that allowed the United States to be as powerful as it was during the Cold War was the feeling of so many countries that they needed us to protect them from communism and from an expansionist Soviet Union. When that was no longer a threat, U.S. power became less.

So all the speculation about a unipolar world, or even a unipolar moment, I think is totally misplaced. But the thing is, it deluded not only many of our leaders, it deluded leaders elsewhere. If you have a problem in the world after the Cold War was over and the United States doesn't fix it, it must be either because we are indifferent or because we are hostile. And, of course, much of our triumphalist rhetoric played right into that sort of attitude.

Another mistake was thinking of the Cold War as if it was a real war.

Transcript of entire lecture

Lecture is based off a discussion of Superpower Illusions