George Bush and the Spring of 1989

November 10, 2014 Topic: History Region: United States

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.

Scowcroft believed that enthusiasm on the part of Reagan and the men and women around him had outpaced sober calculations of U.S. national interest. The previous administration’s “willingness to declare an end to the Cold War, without taking into consideration what that would require,” troubled him. So did talk of eliminating nuclear weapons. However hor­rible, these weapons “were an indispensable element in the U.S. strategy of keeping the Soviets at bay, a compensation for their enormous superiority in conventional forces.”[11] Scowcroft thus seconded Bush’s inclination to be cautious about embracing Gorbachev. He ordered a comprehensive review of U.S.-Soviet relations. After a draft Soviet strategy review from the State Department, he entrusted Robert Blackwill, a highly regarded foreign service officer in charge of European and Soviet Affairs at the NSC, as well as a protégé of his own, Condoleezza Rice, to embark on a new study. Until its completion, Scowcroft ruled out an early summit, which he figured would only provide Gorbachev a propaganda victory.[12]

Scowcroft and Bush wanted to buy time. Not entirely sure how to pro­ceed, they allowed former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to reassert him­self at the highest levels. On January 17, 1989, Kissinger met Gorbachev in Moscow and spoke in terms of realpolitik. “I have said repeatedly that you do not change the seventy-year history of the Soviet Union, the four hundred year history of Russia, and the two hundred year history of the United States,” Kissinger told Gorbachev. “If there is a conflict between our two countries, we will lose, and others will benefit.” American foreign policy tended to be missionary in character, Kissinger went on to say; Soviet foreign policy, defensive. The two sides needed to move beyond these fundamental differ­ences and beyond the “details” of arms control. The new administration in Washington was not interested in challenging Soviet “security interests,” nor was Bush as allured by SDI as his predecessor.[13] Gorbachev “was prepared to send Dobrynin to the United States or receive Scowcroft in Moscow,” Kis­singer reported back to Washington. “Or an emissary could come if Scow­croft was unavailable. A note should be sent via the Soviet UN Ambassador, preferably from Scowcroft, although in order to preserve the privacy of the channel it would be best if the outside envelope were from me.”[14]

Kissinger’s ambitions probably foundered the moment that the new secre­tary of state, James Baker, underlined the words “would be best if the outside envelope were from me.”[15] Baker, who owed nothing to Kissinger, was not about to share power. Like his longtime tennis doubles partner, George Bush, Baker had spent eight years as a “moderate” in the Reagan administration, nearly every day of which conservatives had viewed him with suspicion. During his confirmation hearings, critics pounced on Baker for his lack of traditional foreign policy experience and his background as a maestro of political campaigns. Yet Baker was no less qualified than George Shultz. Both men had graduated from Princeton, joined the Navy, and served as secretary of the treasury. Both men understood the principle articulated by Dean Acheson that a critical role of any secretary of state was to marshal and sustain domestic political will for foreign policy objectives. They believed in negotiations backed by strength and in the possibility of reaching a deal. And both men forged a personal bond with Eduard Shevardnadze.

In his Princeton days, Baker wrote an undergraduate thesis about the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky that briefly ruled Russia between the collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the Bolshevik Revolu­tion.[16] At the beginning of 1989, he joined Scowcroft in cautioning against wishful thinking. “Progress in arms control, human rights, [and] Afghani­stan” were “reasons to be hopeful,” read his notes for a January 23, 1989, cabinet meeting. “But, realism demands prudence”—despite the tremendous changes since 1981, when Baker served as chief of staff to President Rea­gan, the Soviet Union remained “a heavily-armed superpower hostile to American values and interests.”[17] Baker was tough yet open-minded. The Soviets “have to make hard choices,” he wrote Bush in February 1989. “We do Gorbachev no favors when we make it easier to avoid choices. ... He made a choice in arms control because there was a need for it.”[18] The Bush administration’s penchant for caution drew criticism, nearly from his first day in office, for being out of step, as changes in the Soviet Union seemed undeniable to so many observers. Reagan himself indicated in an interview that spring that he felt Bush was being too cautious in his dealings with Gorbachev.[19]