IN CONFIDENCE: MOSCOW'S AMBASSADOR TO AMERICA'S SIX COLD WAR PRESIDENTS
By Anatoly Dobrynin
672 pp., $30
As Soviet ambassador in Washington during 1962-86, Anatoly Dobrynin impressed many Americans as a most unusual Communist: genial, intelligent and, eminently reasonable. So is his informative, fair-minded yet refreshingly blunt memoir from the Soviet side of the cold war. Nevertheless, at a higher, more thoughtful level, this otherwise excellent book is afflicted by what the French call deformation profesionale, ''the professional's tunnel vision.''
But let that pass - for the moment. After all, Dobrynin offers us so much, especially in his fascinating disclosures regarding the Kremlin's self-destructive foreign-policy system. Those who saw the Soviets as omniscient, omnipotent, slyly scheming for every advantage, will be shocked by his portrayal of bumbling and incompetence, of endless infighting in the 1970s and afterward between the ideologues led by Mikhail Suslov and the pragmatists of Andrei Gromyko's Foreign Ministry.
Dobrynin is a professional diplomat in the best but also the narrowest sense of that term. This old pro applauds the lawyerly, pragmatic style of Cyrus Vance, Henry Kissinger, and even Dean Rusk, despite their differences about Vietnam. Dobrynin admires them all as consistent, seasoned professionals with whom one could ''do business'' - his supreme accolade - by bargaining calmly over such precise, finite issues as disarmament. His great moment was the 1972-1974 detente, following the negotiations with Nixon and Kissinger.
But there also were the hotheads - Kruschev, Brezhnev, Alexander Haig, Robert Kennedy on occasion, and Reagan before 1984 - ''emotional,'' ideological men whose aggressiveness meant trouble. Witness the Cuban missile crisis, the invasion of Afghanistan, and especially Reagan's denunciations of the ''evil empire,'' which virtually labeled Moscow a global outlaw. Dobrynin was equally fearful of the military-industrial forces on both sides - of Politburo ideologues, and of rabid anti-Communists in the American media and politics.
His conclusion flows inescapably: Down with ideology! Up with peace, pragmatism, stability, and disarmament! Foreign Minister Gromyko fully agreed, as his ''Memoirs'' (1989) suggest, and with good reason. Russia has experienced two terrible invasions in this century, assaults which its diplomats could not deflect. These disasters, combined with the diplomat's distaste for war - which signifies professional failure - made Soviet diplomats essentially conservative, averse to gambles and adventures.
Which is precisely what they faced when Kruschev triggered the Cuban missile crisis, without any understanding of the likely American reaction, just months after Dobrynin became ambassador. After all, Kruschev argued, what right did the Americans have to intervene in Soviet-Cuban relations.
This dangerous misconception reappeared during the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Though Dobrynin then was visiting Moscow, no one consulted or even informed him.
Dobrynin treats the following years as the most frustrating and dangerous of his career in Washington. The American military buildup; proxy guerrilla wars in the third world; the rhetoric of anti-Communism: Were the Americans beating the drums for war? Dobrynin did his best to keep things calm, and found allies in George Schultz and Nancy Reagan, whose ambitions for her husband required disarmament, not bellicosity.
All this is gracefully told, with shrewd anecdotes regarding various American or Soviet political figures. Few emerge with great credit. Dobrynin writes as a specialist, saddened but hardly surprised by the sheer ignorance of the politicians with whom he dealt. Long after Yugoslavia and especially China had broken with Moscow, for example, the Americans persisted in believing that the Soviets could force the Vietnamese Communists to make peace. Similarly, Moscow could not understand that the Watergate controversy was not simply a plot against Nixon.
But the always-rational Dobrynin also has his own blind spots, those of the professional diplomat who dismisses ideological disputation - all that talk of human rights or of proletararian solidarity - as the ravings of the Scoop Jacksons or Mikhail Suslovs of this earth. We sense his exasperation with both the Soviet officials who forbade Jewish emigration from Russia and the American Jews who urged Congress to demand it; with Soviet leaders who mouthed Marxist platitudes, along with American politicians who deployed anti-Soviet cliches in election campaigns.
In his eagerness to dismiss ideology as the great danger to peace, Dobrynin is harkening back to the days before Woodrow Wilson linked diplomacy to democracy, the days when the Metternichs and Bismarcks ignored popular aspirations while remapping the world as they saw fit.