Nuclear arms negotiator looks back


For a man who negotiated nuclear arms agreements for fiv U.S. presidents, Edward L. Rowny can be pretty undiplomatic.

One month before the presidential election, the Baltimore native published a memoir, "It Takes One to Tango," that skewered his former boss, President George Bush, as a "a man without a plan" who lurched from crisis to crisis without guiding principles.

The son of Polish immigrants who grew up in East Baltimore, Ambassador Rowny graduated from the Polytechnic Institute, the Johns Hopkins University and West Point, earned master's degrees in engineering and international relations at Yale and a Ph.D. in international relations at American University. Along the way, he commanded units in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

From 1973 until his retirement from government in 1990, Ambassador Rowny -- given that rank by President Reagan -- was a key player in U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations. Seen as a hawk who was deeply skeptical of Soviet intentions, he was lionized by conservatives, but sometimes portrayed by less sympathetic observers as a spoiler.

Now 75, he does private consulting from his home in Arlington, Va.

QUESTION: Of the five presidents you worked for -- Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush -- who was the most effective negotiator and who was the least?

ANSWER: Reagan was the most effective, because he built up our strength. He recognized that the Russians deal only with strength, and when you sit down with them, you have this contradiction -- in order to come down, you had to build up, because they wouldn't give up anything unless you gave up something.

Reagan had very good instincts. He was very able to turn things around and make light of a tough situation and tell a story.

Q.: But it's been reported that Reagan really didn't know the details of the weapons or the negotiations.

A.: He knew the details of the negotiations. He did not believe it was his duty to know the details of the weapons. He said, "I've got people like Rowny and others, let them worry about that."

It was a contrast to the worst negotiator -- President Carter.

The first time I briefed President Carter I got up at 6 o'clock in the morning to make sure I was prepared.

But he got up at 4 a.m. to get ready for me. He was confounding me on the nuts and bolts of the SS-19. He got into more details than I cared to get into -- I left that to my subordinates. So I formed the opinion that he never saw the forest for the trees.

Carter, of course, was a highly Christian gentleman. He believed you should turn the other cheek. They [the Soviets] took advantage of that.

Q.: Did you take anything from your Baltimore childhood to your career as an arms negotiator?

A.: When I was about 10, I joined the Baltimore Harmonica Band. I was one of the 10 original founders.

Over the years, I would play the harmonica to try to break the ice with the Soviets at social occasions, when they were kind of dour and uptight.

The Soviets always entertained us at big fancy dinners, very heavy, lots of food and lots of drinks. And once [in 1975] I thought I'd try to do something different. On a beautiful spring day, I hired a steamer to go around Lake Geneva.

The Soviets sat down on one side of the boat, and I sat with our group on the other, and they wouldn't mix. So I went to the microphone and started playing Russian nursery rhymes, and they started to hum to that. Then I broke into "Moscow Nights," and they began to sing to that. Then I played "Miy Kommunisty" ["We're the Communists"], and they formed a conga line and congaed around the boat.

But at the end, the minister from the other side came around with a little sailor hat and took up a collection of dollars, rubles, Swiss francs and French francs.

He said, "All right, 50-50."

I said, "Fine."

Then he took all the money and put it in his pocket.

I said, "What are you doing?"

He said, "You got 50 percent of the pleasure by playing and getting the applause, and I'm going to get 50 percent of the pleasure by spending all the money."

I said, "Well, now I know how you people negotiate: what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable."

Q.: Your father was a Pole who was forced to speak Russian as a kid. Did that knowledge and experience influence your attitude toward the Russians?

A.: I guess it did in the subconscious. It was naturally an interesting sidelight -- the fact that my father talked about the Russians who took over his village.

But what really got me interested in the whole stand-off between us was that I had a part in working up the Baruch plan [after World War II], where we were going to give up our nuclear weapons to the United Nations. The Soviets balked.

Seeing the Soviets on the march, I decided to go to graduate school, and the Army sent me to Yale, where I studied Russian politics and nuclear weaponry and Russian language.

Q.: Before Gorbachev came to power, Soviet state occasionwere known for heavy drinking. Was alcohol ever a factor in U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations?

A.: Before my time they used to keep bottles of liquor on the table -- whoever was host. We'd alternate, their place and our place. We would put bottles of vodka and Jack Daniel's on the table. The Soviets always drank Jack Daniel's, and we'd always drink vodka.

The stories I heard about this was someone got tipsy, that someone got sloshed and were incoherent.

So when I came on board, I said no alcohol at these meetings. One of my advisers said, we have to do this. The Soviets are so stiff, and this loosens them up.

My argument was, it loosens us up more than them. They could handle it, they were used to drinking, and we weren't.

Q.: The public seems to feel quite reassured about nuclear arms after the Cold War. Is there a nuclear threat to the West from Russia or its neighbors today?

A.: So long as they have the weapons, we're not free of the nuclear threat.

With the collapse of the Communist Party's authority, with Yeltsin trying to move toward democratization and a free economy, we don't need to have any fear of Yeltsin.

But suppose Yeltsin should go, and suppose the hard-liners come back? They still have the weapons, and even a dozen of those weapons could obliterate the United States . . . they have thousands of them.

So we've got to be sure that Russia and Ukraine and Kazakhstan and the others move gradually toward a peaceful society.

Q.: What do you think of the state of this country in the wake of the Cold War, especially its cities?

A.: We had a Cold War that was very threatening. I think we pretty much won that.

Now we have another war which is going on internally and socially, and I think we're losing that war. I don't think we have a grip on our urban problems, on our work ethnic.

I do some negotiating with the Japanese, and they remind me of my dad and my youth. You did an honest day's work, by God, and you were proud of it.

I've seen too much slipshod work. The tradition of strong families is lost, the religious aspect is lost. I see an unfortunate deterioration of our value system, and I'd like to see that turned around.

I have rays of hope. In Baltimore, the old, dirty, stinky harbor where I was scared of the rats when I sold newspapers down there is now the National Aquarium, and it's all been redone, and there are nice buildings, nice restaurants, a nice stadium.

The problems can be solved if people get after them. But then I drive into other parts of Baltimore and everything's boarded up, abandoned and burned out.

I'm more optimistic about the world situation and moving to democracy internationally. I'm less optimistic about our grip on our own social problems.

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