The Foreign Service Journal, November 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | NOVEMBER 2019 27 are rarely good news. The voice on the other end of the phone was that of Larry Napper, the new director of the Office of Soviet Union Affairs, EUR/SOV. I had just finished a two-year assign- ment there, and was a few weeks into my new job as regional and security affairs officer in what was then the Office of Eastern European and Yugoslav Affairs, EUR/EEY. “Can you come to the office right away? I have spoken to your director, and he is fine with your coming back to the Soviet Desk for a few days. We are very short-staffed, and we need your help to make sense of what is happening,” Larry said. “What is happening that would lead you to call me at 2 a.m.?” I replied. “Oh, you don’t know, I guess,” said Larry. “There has been a coup against Gorbachev, and he is being held prisoner at his dacha in Crimea. A KGB-military junta has taken over. We have to send a memo to the president from the Secretary in a few hours. How soon can you be here?” I threw on some clothes and drove down to the department. I did not warrant a parking space in the basement, so had to figure out what to do with my car. I put it in the all-night garage in Columbia Plaza. That proved to be a wise choice, because I did not get to retrieve it for another 12 or 13 hours. A team was already assembled when I arrived at my former office, including analysts from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research and several former colleagues from the desk. Larry spoke quickly: we had two hours to assess the situation and complete a draft “Sec-Pres”—a memo from Secretary Baker to President Bush. Larry asked me to be the main drafter. After an initial set of consultations with the team, I began to draft the memo. Our principal conclusions were that the coup was likely to fail because the coup plotters did not have popular support, did not have support within the Soviet bureaucracy and, at the end of the day, were fundamentally a bunch of drunken mediocrities. I noted how poorly they had presented themselves at their hast- ily organized news conference earlier in the day in Moscow, and that Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanaev’s hands did not stop shaking during the televised event. He had been named acting president of the USSR, but certainly did not look the part. Our advice was to sit tight, refrain from recognizing the coup, and try to contact Gorbachev and express public support for him. We also recommended asking our embassy to find Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin and open a channel to him from the White House. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, foreground left, addresses the crowd from the top of a tank in front of the Russian government building, also known as White House, in Moscow on Aug. 19, 1991. At Yeltsin’s left is his bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov; above Korzhakov is a second bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov. APPHOTO