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[Note: This interview was not edited by Ambassador Bohlen.]
Q: This is a Foreign Affairs Oral History Program interview with Ambassador Avis Bohlen. Today is the 28th of February, 2003. This interview is being conducted under the auspices of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
BOHLEN: Actually it was 1977; the start of the Carter Administration. I must have come in in the summer of 1977. That's right, because I got married in December of 1977, so I came in in the summer.
It really went remarkably well when I look back on it. I took an exam. I think I was the first person to take what I'll call the lateral entry exam for want of anything else. I went over to the Bureau of Examiners, and there were the Foreign Service Officers who were looking at the instruction booklet because they had never given an exam before for a lateral entry candidate. They were sort of feeling their way, and I was feeling my way. But I passed. It was just an oral exam. At one time in the past I had taken the Foreign Service exam and had passed both the written and the oral, although I opted not to go into the State Department at that point. At this time the lateral entry exam was only an oral exam. I passed that and then was taken into the Foreign Service.
Actually, my marriage affected my career right off the bat because the department was looking for a political military officer in the embassy in Moscow, and they were going to send me to that. Then I decided to get married, and it really didn't seem a good idea to commit to spend two years away from my husband since he wasn't going to go. So I went to the people on the Soviet desk and said I could commit to go for one year, but not really two, and would they consider that? At first they said yes, and then they came back and said, "No, it's very costly to send somebody, so we would rather offer you a slot on the Soviet desk."
As I look back on it I think it was my great good fortune because I really think that even though I worked for the government and knew my way around the department not too badly, I would have been totally unprepared to do that job in Moscow. I think I would have floundered a good bit. It was much better to begin a job in a department where I was very directly supervised by somebody.
I was on the Soviet desk then for, I think, two and a half years, and it was a wonderful experience. I had a great group of people to work with. My office director was of the section chief was Gary Matthews; the office director was Mark Garrison and Sherrod McCall who were both wonderful people, and all of them very supportive.
Among other people whom I worked with was Mark Paris who subsequently went on to great things and became our ambassador to Turkey. It was a very stimulating place. I was put in charge of sort of Arms Control and security issues. The period was a very difficult one. It was the Carter administration. If you remember, Mr. Vance was sent off by President Carter to Moscow in March 1977 with a new proposal on strategic arms limitations.
BOHLEN: I think there were certainly a lot of people in the bureaucracy who knew quite correctly what the reaction of the Soviets would be toward him. There was a big debate at that time going on in the United States about these agreements. Kissinger had come very close to negotiating one in the 1975-1976 time period, but he could not get it through. This was during the Ford presidency. The presidency was not strong, and Ford was beginning to run scared because of the election. Kissinger was not able to get it through the bureaucracy and in particular not able to overcome the opposition of James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense. No, sorry. Donald Rumsfeld [Ed: Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense from November 1975 to January 1977].
I know Rumsfeld was involved, and he was very much opposing the Kissinger proposals. Which one was in office when Ford stopped being president? Anyway, both of them were opposed to what Kissinger was doing, and Rumsfeld in particular was very clever at blocking proposals. So the proposals were in trouble even before Carter took office, and the bureaucracy continued work much along the same lines that had been going on under Ford.
But then the Carter people(National Security Advisor Zbigniew) Brzezinski, the president and some of the others around himsaid we need to take a different approach on this, and they adopted what were essentially the proposals that Senator Scoop Jackson and Richard Pearle were pushing which involved deep cuts and very disadvantageous to the Soviets. They sold the Carter administration on this and off Vance went to Moscow with his proposals which infuriated the Soviets and caused a big flap.
I came in after this, and I'm telling this for a reason because the flap was such that both sides decided to paper over this disagreement. It was the first trip to Moscow. So Gromyko and Vance decided to set up seven or eight arms control working groups. Those were things that I became very active with. One was to ban nuclear testing, one to do away with arms sales, one was on chemical weapons. They were all issues that were out there.
The Strategic Arms Talks also resumed, pretty much along the same lines as before the March trip, and I became involved in those, too. I went off to Geneva a couple of times as part of the delegation. I was there when the treaty was finally signed in 1979. I also went off to Geneva for some of these other negotiations, so that was very much my bailiwick.
BOHLEN: No. I think there was some real hope that something could be achieved. Marshall Schulman was the Special Advisor to Cyrus Vance on Soviet Affairs, and he was a very strong advocate of arms control. He was somebody who very much favored the continuation of the dialogue with the Soviets and trying to keep things on an even keel. I think this got both Vance and ultimately Carter in trouble because the mood in the country at that time was building up very much in the opposite direction, and you had the let me think Rostow group I'm drawing a blank now. They were really beating the drums. They really swung into full gear when the SALT II Treaty was obviously going to reach some sort of agreement. They were denouncing Carter and Vance and the SALT II Treaty and the Soviets, and they said that the Soviets had a master plan to intimidate us with their nuclear weapons and we would be scared to undertake any action anywhere. It was the time of Angola.
BOHLEN: Horn of Africa, and the discovery of the Soviet base in Cuba, which had been there all along, but which was now being dragged up. The Cuban Brigade. So that was the background of all this. But I think Vance really felt that the SALT II agreement was absolutely critical to counterbalancing all these negative tendencies and to reducing the risk of nuclear war. He was a real believer. So he pressed on.
BOHLEN: I was one of four officers. The Soviet Office consisted of four sections: One was Internal, Political, one was Economic, External, which was called the Multi-lateral Affairs Office. We covered all aspects of Soviet foreign policy including arms control. There were four of us, and then there was an officer in charge who was Gary Matthews. I was one of four, and one colleague I remember was covering the whole evolving Afghanistan issue, which later ended up with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Things were very much happening, and as I say, Vance was very committed to the SALT II treaty, and I think I really participated in that frame of mind. It seemed to me at the time very important. I worked very hard and was in Geneva when the treaty was finally signed, which was a very exciting moment. It was one last issue that had to be that we were waiting for instructions from Washington. It was 3:00 in the morning when we had the final plenary session. Even though the negotiator Ralph Earl had a very good sense of what difficulties awaited the treaties. Within the delegations it was a very happy and wonderful moment.
BOHLEN: I think there was a debate about whether this was a push for world domination or whether they still had an interest in some kind of détente relationship with us. The evidence was not conclusive. There was the evidence of their actions. There was also intelligence, but it was really their actions one had to look at. Of course, there was the terrible split within the Carter administration between Vance and Brzezinski. Carter just vacillated between the two, and this was one of the reasons that he never was reelected because he had the worst of both worlds.
He looked weak in the right in this country, and he looked weak to the Soviets because he never could really follow through, he gave these contradictory speeches, warned about the need for strength. Then you had episodes like the neutron bomb where this whole bureaucracy had decided to try to deploy it in Germany, and we had expended an enormous amount of capital with our allies and particularly Helmut Schmidt, who never forgave Carter.
At the last minute, Carter refused to sign the order. He said, "I won't be party to creating a new nuclear weapon." It was just stunning. I remember one of my colleagues describing He was stationed in Germany, and he had to go carry the President's letter to Helmut Schmidt who was on vacation in Hamburg or something. He said he arrived and produced the letter. He said it was just so awful what Carter had done, and Schmidt was completely speechless. Everybody was speechless. Couldn't believe it. Anyway, that's a digression, but we were involved in all of that.
BOHLEN: No, because I think on the Soviet desk we were pretty much on the Vance line, the Vance-Shulman line, and we were there to try to counter some of this propaganda. I think Brzezinski was seen as the enemy. As so often happens, you get in your little cocoon, and you think you are fighting a good fight. That was clear. Also, I was really very junior, so I did what people told me. I would just say also on this period that I was a new Foreign Service Officer there, and I had arrived. I was a little uneasy that people would regard me as an interloper because I hadn't come up through the ranks. I hadn't done the consular bit, I hadn't stamped visas, and I wondered if people would regard me as illegitimate somehow. I was really taken in from the word "go," and that was very wonderful for me.
BOHLEN: I think it worked for me in a sense that people were predisposed to think well of me. If I was Chip Bohlen's daughter, I must be smart, I must know something, and I was probably hard working. Until they saw evidence to the contrary, they were disposed to think well of me. Then it really worked out very well, and I don't think I ever felt that it obviated the necessity to work hard and to prove myself. It was nice the way people would say, "Well, we worked with your father". It made me feel like I was part of the family.
BOHLEN: Which I was!
BOHLEN: Yes. So you imbibe a lot of stuff with your father's notes. That was a very nice thing. Everybody was very supportive. It was the beginning of the period when people were that the lateral entry program was part of that, but people were beginning to realize that women, and minorities, were way underrepresented.
BOHLEN: Endless briefing papers for the Secretary, for Marshall Schulman, for George Vest who was the Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, for Bill Luers who was our Deputy Assistant Secretary. That then, as today, occupied a great deal of one's time. And then there were endless meetings. The European Bureau was obviously not the originator of arms control proposals, but I went to all the other agency meetings. It was actually a good specialty to have because it brought me in touch with a lot of people from other bureaus and a lot of people from other agencies as well. I loved the Geneva experience. That was great fun.
BOHLEN: Paul Warnke was head of it by that time. [Ed: Warnke succeeded Iklé and served from 1977 to 1978.] He was on it I can't remember when it was that he was on it He was head of some of the delegations that I went on, the SALT delegation to start with and also the chemical weapons and the Comprehensive Test Ban. He was a very powerful force within the State Department. He had Vance's ear. He was a very controversial figure, and he resigned when did he resign? I think when Carter reversed himself and decided to authorize the B-1 bomber. He was a wonderful man whether one agreed with him or not.
BOHLEN: He did. He didn't work directly with me except when I was on his delegation, but ACDA partly because I'd worked there before, so I knew all the people. I had very good relations with him. We were all committed to doing this treaty. Then we went out to Geneva and Paul was really a very inclusive as head of Delegation. ACDA has never really had a lot of clout. It was a body that was mandated, whose creation was mandated by Congress, and it had very strong support in Congress. Within the administration, it was never a player that could rival the Defense Department or the State Department. In a way the dynamics of the inter-agency consensus was that the Defense Department held up the far right and sometimes supported by the CIA and sometimes not. Then far left was ACDA, so the State Department could be in the middle. Once ACDA ceased to exist, then the State Department moved to the far left.
BOHLEN: There were endless inter-agency meetings. I remember particularly I used to go to all of the NSC meetings which were chaired by Jim Thompson who is now head of RAND, and this was sort of the working level. I remember Walt Slocum represented the Defense Department. I was one of two State Department people who used to go. There were endless discussions, and particularly towards the end when the criticism was mounting and the opposition was becoming old and very deciferous to the Defense Department was reflecting some of this to some degree. There were some very hard decisions to be taken, so that was interesting.
BOHLEN: Not really, because we were talking about capping at that point—capping the number of missiles, capping different types of missiles, heavy missiles in particular. For that the national technical means was largely sufficient. It was only later that you needed an intrusive verification that you got in the START treaties. The most difficult issues had to do with the lack of The Soviets were building their so-called Heavy missile, and all the treaty did was to cap the top level that these missiles could reach, but it was a level that was in the future. So, when people said we didn't cut any weapons; that was absolutely true. We even allowed an increase. They were an increase in the kind of weapons that . They said that the Soviets would have such power to destroy us that we would be completely immobilized. So that was one issue, but there was nothing to be done about that. There was something called the "backfire bomber". Whether it was a long-range heavy bomber as we chose to contend or whether it was a long-range tactical bomber which is the kind that it was, it had a very long range. I think that was one of the most difficult ones.
There were a lot, but it took a long time to negotiate that agreement, and I think that's one of the things that helped to sink it in the end, and Vance and Gromyko had to meet to solve these issues. They'd have to go to that high level, and they were meeting almost once a month at the end.
BOHLEN: A lot had to get pushed up at the end. There were issues that could be worked out at the lower levels. The military you always have to make distinctions between the uniformed military and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The uniformed military were always quite favorable to arms control because it gave them a predictable framework within which they could do their own planning. So that was the treaty, and that was one of the things that I was most involved with. Never really as a technical expert but as somebody who was supposed to understand the Soviet angle.
BOHLEN: That was very much the view of those who supported the treaty. They recognized that it was an imperfect agreement. They saw it as the first of a progression of agreements that ultimately would lead to reductions. Of course, the right wing didn't see it that way.
BOHLEN: It would be hard for me to say that because I wasn't really operating at that level. I would say it was very bitter, this competition between Vance and Brzezinski. Some of that, of course, was reflected at the working level because it can't be otherwise, but on the whole I would say there was quite good inter-agency cooperation is my recollection of it. But again, I was really at the bottom of the totem pole.
BOHLEN: They went on permanently. They would occasionally recess for a month or so, but they were in permanent session. After Warnke resigned, the head of the delegation was (ACDA Director) Ralph Earle [Ed: who served as Director from 1980 and 1981. From 1978 to 1979 he served as the United States' chief negotiator at the SALT II round of talks on nuclear disarmament].
The State Department would send somebody in rotation out there. They had a permanent representative, who was Herbert Okun, and then they had a junior person to support Herb, and that person came out in rotation. I went out I think three times, and somebody from the Political-Military Bureau went out, somebody from (EUR/)RPM (Office of Security and Political Affairs, Bureau of European Affairs) and EUR (Bureau of European Affairs). Various people. We would do reporting and help draft plenary statements and so on and so forth.
BOHLEN: It was a very formalized style of negotiations because the mistrust in Washington was so great, and I dare say the mistrust in Moscow. We had plenary statements, plenary meetings. We would sit on opposite sides at a long table, and Ralph Earle would read his statement, then Victor Karpov would read his statement. Victor Karpov was frequently drunk. He had a real alcohol problem, so sometimes he would get very wound up, and we would have these angry exchanges at the table which were done partly for home consumption. Androv would reply in time.
And then you had the military people who would meet with the military people. Herb Okun had his counterpart who was the number two in the Soviet delegation. Ralph Earle and Karpov would go off and meet in separate groups, but these were also very stylized meetings. I think the real work got done when there was a decision to move on something. Then Ralph would meet with Karpov, but always with the note takers, so there would be a record of what he said. I think Ralph had no choice but to play it very straight and very up front. As I say. A lot of the negotiating at the end was done at the Vance-Gromyko level. And that was the only thing that
BOHLEN: Not a whole lot. The KGB was always sort of watching. People had developed a relationship over the years, but it always was rather distant. We would do a reception and the Soviets would do a reception, and we'd all stand around and talk to each other. We'd fall into the same little groups. We would troll for nuggets, but there were very rarely any nuggets!
The SALT I negotiations, which, of course, had been much earlier, there you had really interesting discussions because it was the first time. Nitze has written about this. His counterpart was Academician Shoopkin who came from a very Moscow intelligentsia background and felt free to discuss things in a much more freewheeling way than was the case. B
Because the politics of these arms control agreements were so very vicious, there was
considerable mistrust. I think the later negotiations became very formalized and really
there was not much interplay, much intimacy.
I remember, just as an anecdote, Ralph Earle had a very nice residence. It was on Lake
Geneva. He decided he was going to give a barbeque for the Soviet delegation. He sent the invitations and said to dress informally. They didn't get the message, so all the ladies arrived in their best garden party dresses, and there we all were in blue jeans. It was an absolutely freezing cold day, just bitterly cold. And there we were this could only be in June in Switzerland, in Europe. We wandered around. There was a Soviet admiral who went over and stood looking out on the grey waters of Lake Geneva and said, "Just like Murmansk!" No one really felt like drinking beer, and that's all there was. The chicken was frozen and wouldn't defrost. Finally Ralph went inside and fetched a few bottles of cognac which disappeared immediately! It was a very funny occasion. That was one sort of humorous occasion that I remember. But as I said earlier, when the time came to sign the treaty, there was really a lot of good will in that room. Everybody was happy to have done this. They felt that they had worked hard to
BOHLEN: It was in trouble from the start. The President submitted it to the Senate, there were hearings, and it was supported, actually, by almost everybody who had testified including Kissinger and Ford who supported it because Carter, in the meantime, had increased the defense budget. He reversed himself and approved the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, so it was what I called the Law of Arms Control Agreements that they not only dealt limit arms but they lead to a ratcheting up of the defense budget. This was certainly the case. It was supported grudgingly by all these people in the hearings, but then of course the Nitze-Rostow group, the Coalition for But they were mounting a huge campaign in the country against it. I think this was having an effect because the Soviets were continuing their unrestrained policies elsewhere in Angola, etc. In the middle of the summer you had the Cuban Brigade that we talked about earlier, and Frank Church, a senator from Idaho, said he couldn't support the treaty unless the Soviets withdrew these people. Then it turned out they had been there all along, and so everybody looked ridiculous. It's a debate whether the treaty would have passed, but it was certainly in trouble.
In December 1979 the Soviets went into Afghanistan. This had been building up. remember my colleague who followed Afghanistan was watching the situation, and when they finally openly invaded, he said, "There's nothing left to really call an invasion because their presence is already so extensive," that is, the fact that they were already de facto occupying Afghanistan. So then the President withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration, and there were a whole bunch of retaliatory measures that he took including the grain embargo.
I remember that very well because we were asked to come in, all of us, over the Christmas holidays, and we were asked to put together a series of papers of how we should react to this. I was asked to do a paper about how could we maintain a mutual restraint in the treaty, a sort of mutual restraint in the treaty, sort of de facto observance, and were there pressures that would undo the treaty if it wasn't ratified and things coming in line. In fact, the treaty continued to be observed till 1985, if you remember.
BOHLEN: What was interesting was to fast forward a few years; Reagan came to office denouncing the SALT II treaty as unequal and dangerous for American security. He continued the policy that was called "The policy of not undercutting the treaty limits", and he continued that until 1985, I think much to the rage of the conservatives.
BOHLEN: Not at the negotiations. Ralph Earle would go after every session with the Russians and would debrief the NATO council. I think the Allies generally had a rather ambivalent attitude towards these negotiations. On the one hand, they were for everything that would allow them to continue their policy of détente that would not create tensions in Europe with the Soviet Union. On the other hand, they always felt nervous about the idea that we were going over their heads, negotiating directly with the Soviets about something on which that they didn't have any input in. So they were a bit ambivalent and of course the French at that time were very much opposed to the whole idea of arms control. I think officially they supported it, but there was this little undercurrent of reserve. They were not participants in it. We certainly didn't share everything with them.
BOHLEN: There was something called the Senate Arms Control Observer Group which would come and I'm sorry, I don't think the Observer Group existed until the later negotiations. I would have to check that. But certainly there were individual senators who came. The rule that was applied then and was followed later was that the head of the delegation would set up as many opportunities as they want to meet with the Soviet negotiators, would give them briefings in our bubble in the delegation, but they could not attend the actual negotiations. That remained the rule for senate observer groups up until the Bush administration. There haven't been any negotiations since.
BOHLEN: They didn't go down that far. I mentioned that smaller groups that they broke into and I would go with Herb Okun. I can't remember who his counterpart was. I would take detailed notes. They were extremely boring conversations unless the Soviets had a message they wanted to pass or unless we had a message we wanted to pass.
BOHLEN: You're looking for the nuggets. Yes, and you know, so many of these issues are really very, very technical, and so when the Soviets would I mean, every move was heralded in advance. One of these groups would get a hint that the Russians were going to have something new to say in the plenary and maybe even it would be adumbrated in a little more detail, usually Karpov. If it was a major thing Karpov would tell Ralph, and then there would be a plenary statement laying it out. I think the plenary statements per se didn't often produce surprises.
BOHLEN: Absolutely not at that point. This was the moment. It was sort of the last flash in the pan of the Soviets. In a way I would say, they felt in a way emboldened by the vacillations of the Carter regime, and they were feeling their oats in a lot of Third War spots as we discussed previously in Africa, the Horn of Africa, Angola. There was a great feeling in the United States, even in the world that the Soviets were somehow on the move and the U. S. was caught in these vacillations, there was the Iran hostage thing that already happened, and Carter was a very weak president. There was a huge debate going on. We looked very much on the defensive, and then ten years later you had a reversal because the Soviets were unable to sustain this advance at all, and it was really a last flash in the pan that disguised the terrible weaknesses that were going on. So no, you did not have the sense that you began to have
Maybe starting at the end of the Carter administration, but certainly into Reagan who was exactly the reverse, and then it seemed like the United States was on the move and the Soviets were run by this gerontocracy.
BOHLEN: I think that the interpretation was that they were, if you remember all the confused goings-on in Afghanistan before the invasion, that there had been a coup by the pro-Moscow party
BOHLEN: That's right, and they had overthrown the King whenever it was, and there were these two factions fighting, and Moscow's faction was overcome. In a sense they went in to protect their equities there, but also, we all concluded the Soviets felt they had nothing left to lose. A restraining factor in earlier months might have been that they There was the SALT Treaty, there was the relationship with the United States, with the West, that would be jeopardized by doing this. I think by December of 1979 they probably had judged that there was nothing to be lost because the United States relationship couldn't go any lower, and the SALT II probably was not going to be resolved.
BOHLEN: I can't say that I did. Again, I think we were concerned not to totally jettison the benefits of the treaty, but I think my officeI personally didn'tbut I think my office might have been the ones that came up with the idea of the grain embargo. We had been seeing this coming, and so the State Department loves to do contingency scenarios. We had been asked to look at some reprisal issues. Of course, the grain embargo was so ironic because it did hurt the Soviets, but it hurt U. S. farmers even more, and the first thing Ronald Reagan did was to lift it.
BOHLEN: I left in March of 1980.
BOHLEN: What was I up to? Good question. I think I began to get involved in the INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) debate. Remember, the prior administration decided it was going to show its toughness by deploying a new nuclear weapon in Europe.
BOHLEN: Cruise Missiles. In reality I think a lot of the motivation We interpreted the SS-20 as being something that was aimed at the intimidation of Western Europe because it had that range. Schmidt had been the first one who said we needed to respond to it. He didn't say respond with the deployment of a new missile. The reality of the SS-20 I think was a lot more ambiguous. It was replacing an older missile, and the Soviets could not manage to make it bigger, more bang for the buck or so on and so forth.
So that may not have been its original intention, but it was starting to be deployed, and the Carter administration was so much on the defensive everywhere that they said we really must stand up to this. With a lot of arm twisting they got the Allies to sign on to the deployment of the Pershings and the cruise missile.
[Ed: For an academic treatment see: http://csis.org/files/publication/101221_Leonard_poni_essay.pdf .]
With the proviso that the Allies insisted on that we also have an arms control track, so it was known as the Dual Decision. It took a huge amount of arm twisting. That was something that I became involved with. I really can't remember very specifically what I was. But in March I was asked to go to RPM, also in the European Bureau, which is the Office of Regional Political Military Affairs. That's where I was almost exclusively concerned with the INF decision.
BOHLEN: I don't think we really took it very seriously. Brzezinski took it very seriously. He wrote and spoke a lot about this and a "push to the south" and so on. I think to the best of my recollection, we always had a more limited view that the Soviet invasion was really rooted in their need to protect their equities. And, of course, it gave them an advantageous strategic position there. They were alive to that opportunity, but whether they had plans to go further, I think we were somewhat skeptical around the question of resources.
BOHLEN: I think it was very much seen as a sign of weakness that we couldn't do anything about it, and the failed rescue effort which lead to Vance's resignation. And then, of course, you had Muskie who was there about two minutes, and who was not a strong secretary. So the State Department was sad. It wasn't a good time, and everybody felt very depressed about it, by the events going on. It really was the end of an era. No question about that.