George Bush and the Spring of 1989

Twenty-five years ago, a new president and his national security team pondered Europe on the eve of revolutions.

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted fromThe Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptation, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War, copyright 2014, Cornell University Press. Used by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.

President George H. W. Bush detected winds of change in Eastern Europe as he took office. He had no way of knowing where the changes were headed or at what point they might cease. His priority was to make sure they did not lead to widespread violence.

As a politician and leader, Bush did not resemble Ronald Reagan. He pledged, drolly, to try to hold “his charisma in check” and professed to lack “the vision thing.”[1]

“If you give me a ten, I’m going to send it back and say, ‘Give me an eight,’” he told his speechwriters. “And you'll be lucky if I deliver like a six.”[2] At times he spoke directly. “We know what works: freedom works. We know what's right: freedom is right.” Other times, Bush sounded nothing like his predecessor. “We will always try to speak clearly,” he stated during his inaugural address, “for candor is a compliment; but subtlety, too, is good and has its place.”[3]

Bush brought to the White House a sterling résumé—congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, US. envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and, for the previous eight years, vice president. His father, Prescott Bush, one of the “wise men” of the Eastern establish­ment who had surrounded FDR and Truman, a Republican in the mold of Henry Stimson, Robert Lovett, and John McCloy, had imbued in his son a sense that duty to country comes before politics. George Bush had been the youngest aviator in the navy during World War II; he was the last veteran of that conflict to serve as president.

“For the common man and the intellectual alike, the direction of change today is not leftward,” Bush proclaimed on the campaign trail. “The gloom of the West, the ‘malaise’ we heard so much about just a few years ago, is in retreat, replaced by a healthy confidence in our ability to cope, to change, and to grow.” It was an assessment not necessarily shared by American intel­lectuals as 1989 began. Yet Bush remained optimistic. “If we continue on this course,” he stated, “the revolutionary concept of freedom embodied in Western democracy will surely prevail.”[4] While Bush aspired to prevail, he also understood that 1989 in Eastern Europe was a time and place for caution and subtlety. Whether change occurred peacefully depended on how the Kremlin reacted. Bush knew that verbal pronouncements could not change reality. He was not the person who had employed the phrase “evil empire” in 1983 or spoke of “another time, another era” in 1988. He was not a bel­licose Cold Warrior, and he had not, in the course of the 1980s, become a naive optimist. “The Cold War isn’t over,” Bush told a reporter in the wake of Reagan’s visit to Red Square.[5]

While the Soviet Union was changing, he told a joint session of Con­gress on February 9, 1989 “prudence and common sense dictate that we try to understand the full meaning of the change going on there, review our policies, and then proceed with caution.”[6] Gorbachev’s reforms not­withstanding, the “fundamental facts remain that the Soviets retain a very powerful military machine in the service of objectives which are still too often in conflict with ours.” Moderation needed to be championed, illusions to be put aside. “So, let us take the new openness seriously, but let’s also be realistic.”[7]

The man Bush chose to be his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, saw plenty of Soviet objectives in conflict with American ones. “I think the Cold War is not over,” Scowcroft told a Washington Post reporter shortly after returning to the position he had held during the Ford administration.[8] The Red Army was still casting a pall over central Europe; Soviet military aid was still flowing to Cuba and Nicaragua; a vast Soviet nuclear arsenal was still threatening the free world. “I was suspicious of Gorbachev's motives and skeptical of his prospects,” Scowcroft later recalled. Were Gorbachev any­thing but a committed Marxist, he reasoned, Moscow’s inner circle would have chosen someone else to lead the Soviet Union.[9] Scowcroft “believed that Gorbachev’s goal was to restore dynamism to a socialist political and economic system and revitalize the Soviet Union domestically and inter­nationally to compete with the West.” This objective did not make him a friend of the United States. If anything, Gorbachev’s popularity in the West made him “potentially more dangerous than his predecessors, each of whom, through some aggressive move, had saved the West from the dangers of its own wishful thinking about the Soviet Union.”[10] The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, according to this thinking, revealed the truth to an American public accustomed to détente. Unlike Brezhnev, Gorbachev had done noth­ing to shock the American people in a negative way—yet.