Bush, George and Mikhail Gorbachev

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George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev

Excerpt from "At Historic Crossroads: Documents on the December 1989 Malta Summit"

Published in Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 12/13, Fall/Winter 2001

"We have managed to avoid a large-scale war for 45 years. This single fact alone says that not everything was so bad in the past. Nevertheless, one conclusion is obvious—reliance on force, on military superiority, and the associated arms race have not been justified. Our two countries obviously understand this better than others."
Mikhail Gorbachev

F ollowing the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and increasing unrest within the Soviet Union, it was clearer to President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) and his secretary of state, James A. Baker (1930–), that change was real in the former Soviet empire and a prospect of substantial political instability loomed large. Bush had at first been cool to showing support for Gorbachev. He was coming to decide that it would be best for the United States if Gorbachev's reforms were successful and if some degree of social order was maintained without the hard-line communists taking control once again.

Immediately following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, Bush met with Gorbachev on a ship off the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. The historic talks began as a major storm was raging, tossing the ship to and fro in the bay where it was anchored. In the Soviet Union, ethnic tensions were rising in some Soviet republics pressing for independence. Potential political chaos was looming. The two leaders ended their session by making a joint public statement.

First, Bush spoke on his increased desire to see Soviet reforms succeed. Bush offered steps to provide improved trade and financial assistance, but he stressed that the United States was not offering aid to "save" the Soviet Union but rather a cooperative venture in helping the Soviets see their reforms through. This also included letting the Soviets become more participatory in world economic markets. Bush also addressed the reduction of chemical weapons, strategic nuclear weapons, and major reductions in conventional forces in Europe.

Gorbachev responded with great pleasure that Bush was willing to increase U.S. assistance to his reform efforts. He again denounced the Cold War's arms race and confrontations over differing philosophies. He warned that military leaders on both sides were locked into a Cold War mentality of military aggressiveness. Gorbachev spoke of "a united, integrated European economy" and greater involvement of China as well—"a regrouping of forces in the world."

A first step, according to Gorbachev, was a promise "that the Soviet Union will not start a war under any circumstances." He added that the Soviets no longer considered the United States as an enemy. It was urgent to end the arms race and reduce weapons as soon as possible and become military cooperators rather than confronters. Turning to domestic issues, Gorbachev asserted that a "main principle" of the "new thinking is the right of each country to … choose without outside interference … a certain social and economic system." Unknown at this time was the fact that the Soviet Union would exist for only one more year.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "At Historic Crossroads: Documents on the December 1989 Malta Summit":

  • President Bush was very hesitant to support Gorbachev's reforms. This excerpt clearly shows Gorbachev's expression of urgency and Bush's more reserved but growing support.
  • Bush had previously held various government positions involved in Cold War politics, such as U.S. representative to the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and U.S. representative to communist China.
  • Communist governments in Eastern Europe had just fallen during the past several months. The Soviet empire was dramatically shrinking to its own borders, with social unrest growing within.

Excerpt from "At Historic Crossroads: Documents on the December 1989 Malta Summit"

G. Bush: We have already had productive discussions. I would like for you to allow me to describe some ideas of the American side in summary form.…

About our attitude to perestroika … that the world would be better off for perestroika's success.…

But you can be confident that you are dealing with a U.S. administration and also with a Congress that wants your reforms to be successful.

I would now like to describe a number of positive steps which, in our opinion, could define in general terms the direction of our joint work to prepare for an official summit meeting in the U.S.

Some comments about economic questions. I want to inform you that my administration intends to take steps directed at preventing the Jackson-Vanik amendment which prohibits granting the Soviet Union most-favored nation status, from going into force.…

I would also like to report that the administration has adopted a policy of repealing the Stevenson and Byrd amendments which restrict the possibility of granting credits to the Soviet side.

These measures, which the administration is proposing right now in the area of Soviet-American relations, are restrained … in the appropriate spirit: they are not at all directed at demonstrating American superiority. And in this sense, as we understand it, they correspond with your attitude. We in the U.S., of course, are deeply confident of the advantages of our way of economic management. But that is not the issue right now. We have been striving to draw up our proposals so as not to create the impression that America "is saving" the Soviet Union. We are not talking about an aid program, but a cooperative program.

After the Jackson-Vanik amendment is repealed, favorable conditions will arise to remove the restrictions on granting credits. The American administration is not thinking about granting aid but about creating conditions for the development of effective cooperationon economic issues. We have in mind sending the Soviet side our proposals on this matter in the form of a document. It concerns a number of serious projects in the areas of finance, statistics, market operations, etc.…

I would like to say a few words to explain our position regarding the Soviet side's desire to gain observer status at GATT … We are [now] in favor of the Soviet side being granted observer status at GATT. In doing so, we are proceeding from the belief that Soviet participation in GATT would help it familiarize itself with the conditions, the functioning, and the development of the world market.…

You know that my administration is in favor of ridding mankind of chemical weapons.…

On the practical level this means that even in the near future both sides could reach agreement about a considerable reduction of chemical weapon stockpiles, bringing this amount to 20% of the amount of CW [chemical warfare] agents the U.S. presently has in its arsenal.…

About conventional weapons. Although serious efforts will be needed for this.… It appears in this regard that we could put forward such a goal: to orient ourselves toward signing agreements about radical reductions of conventional forces in Europe in 1990.…

Concerning the issue of a future agreement about reducing strategic offensive weapons.…

The resolution of the issue of preventing the proliferation of missiles and missile technology is gaining ever greater significance at the present time.…

M. S. Gorbachev: Thank you for your interesting ideas. It's possible that this is the best evidence that the administration of President Bush has shaped its policy in the Soviet-American direction. I intend to touch on several specific issues later.

But right now I would like to make a number of comments of a philosophical nature. It seems to me that it is very important for us to talk with you about what conclusions can be drawn from past experience, from the Cold War. What has happened remains in history. Such, if you will, is the privilege of the historical process. However, to try to analyze the course of previous events—this is our direct responsibility. Why is this necessary? Certainly we can say that we have all ended up at historical crossroads. Completely new problems have arisen before humanity which people had not previously anticipated.And what about it—will we decide them using old approaches? Simply nothing would come out of this.

By no means should everything that has happened be considered in a negative light. We have managed to avoid a large-scale war for 45 years. This single fact alone says that not everything was so bad in the past. Nevertheless, one conclusion is obvious—reliance on force, on military superiority, and the associated arms race have not been justified. Our two countries obviously understand this better than others.

And confrontation arising from ideological convictions has not justified itself either; as a result of this we ended up swearing at one another. We reached a dangerous brink and it is good that we managed to stop. It is good that now mutual trust between our countries has emerged.…

Cold War methods, methods of confrontation, have suffered defeat in strategic terms. We have recognized this. And ordinary people have possibly understood this even better. I do not want to preach here. People simply meddle in policymaking. Ecological problems, problems of preserving natural resources, and problems connected with the negative consequences of technological progress have arisen. All of this is completely understandable since we are essentially talking about the issue of survival. And this kind of public sentiment is strongly affecting us, the politicians.

Therefore we together—the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.—can do a lot at this stage to radically change our old approaches. We had felt this even in our contacts with the Reagan administration. And this process continues right now. Look how we have confided in one another.

We lag behind the mood of the people at the political level. And this is understandable since various forces influence leaders. It is good that [Chief of the General Staff] Marshall Akhromeyev and your [National Security] Adviser, [Brent] Scowcroft, understand the problems which arise in the military field. But there are people in both countries—and there are many of them—who simply scare us. Many people working in the defense sector are used to their profession and for whom it is not easy to change their way of thinking. And all the same, this process has begun.

Why have I begun with this? The thesis is consistently advanced in American political circles that the Soviet Union "has begun its perestroika and is changing policy under the influence of the Cold War policy." They say that everything is collapsing in Eastern Europeand [that] this also "confirms the correctness of those who relied on Cold War methods." And if this is so, then nothing needs to be changed in this policy. We need to increase strong arm pressure and prepare more baskets in order to catch more fruit. Mr. President, this is a dangerous delusion.

I have noticed that you see all this. I know that you have to listen to representatives of different circles. However, your public statements, as well as specific proposals directed at the development of cooperation between the U.S.S.R. and U.S. which you spoke of today, mean that President Bush has formed a certain idea about the world, and it corresponds to the challenges of the time.…

Initially, I was even thinking of expressing something of a reproach. To say that the President of the United States has not once expressed his support for perestroika, wished it success, and noted that the Soviet Union itself should deal with its own reforms. What we were expecting from the President of the United States was not only statements, but specific steps in accordance with these statements.

Now there are both statements and these steps. I am drawing this conclusion having heard what you have just said. Despite the fact that these are only plans for steps. But this is very important.

Second consideration. A great regrouping of forces is underway in the world. It is clear that we are going from a bipolar to a multi-polar world. Whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with a united, integrated European economy. We could discuss the issue of Western Europe separately. Whether we want it or not, Japan is one more center of world politics. At one time you and I were talking about China. This is one more huge reality which neither we nor you should play against the other. And it is necessary to think about what to do, so that China does not feel excluded from all the processes which are taking place in the world.…

All these, I repeat, are huge events typical of a regrouping of forces in the world.

And what is waiting ahead for us with regard to the economy, the environment, and other problems? We need to think together about this, too.

We in the Soviet leadership have been reflecting about this for a long time and have come to the conclusion that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. are simply "doomed" to dialogue, coordination, and cooperation. There is no other choice.

But to do this we need to get rid of the view of one another as enemies. Much of this stays in our brains. And we need to keep in mind that it is impossible to view our relations only at the military level.

All this means that we are proposing a Soviet-American condominium .… We have only entered into the process of mutual understanding.

Mr. President, yesterday I reacted very briefly to the ideas you expressed about military-political issues. Today it is our turn.…

First of all, a new U.S. President should know that the Soviet Union will not start a war under any circumstances. This is so important that I would like to personally repeat this declaration to you. Moreover, the U.S.S.R. is prepared to no longer consider the U.S. as its enemy and openly say so. We are open to cooperation with America, including cooperation in the military sphere. That is the first thing.

Second point. We are in favor of ensuring mutual security through joint efforts. The Soviet leadership is devoted to a continuation of the process of disarmament in all directions. We consider it necessary and urgent to get past the arms race and prevent the creation of exotic new kinds of weapons.…

The two of us have recognized that, as a result of the arms race, absolutely inconceivable military power was created on both sides. We have come to the common conclusion that such a situation was fraught with catastrophic [dangers]. We have started to act in the right direction and have displayed political will.…

Summarizing what I have said, I would like to stress again with all my strength that we favor peaceful relations with the U.S. And proceeding from this very precondition we propose to transform the present military confrontation. This is the main thing.…

It is necessary to proceed from an understanding of the enormous importance of the current changes. It is necessary to avoid possible mistakes and use the historic opportunities which are opening up to bring East and West together.…

I stress that a special responsibility rests on the Soviet Union and the United States at this historic moment.…

The main principle which we have adopted and which we follow in our new thinking is the right of each country to free choice, including the right to reexamine and change their original choice. This is very painful, but it is a fundamental right. The right to choose withoutoutside interference. The U.S. is devoted to a certain social and economic system which the American people have chosen. Let other people decide themselves, figuratively speaking, what God to pray to.…

G. Bush: I understand you and agree.… We welcome the changes which are occurring with all our hearts.

M. S. Gorbachev: This is very important since, as I have said, the main thing is that the changes lead to greater openness in our relations with one another. We are beginning to be organically integrated and liberated from everything which divided us. What will this be called in the final account? I think—a new level of relations.

What happened next …

By February 1990, public demonstrations were erupting against the Communist Party in various Soviet republics. In Moscow, hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out. To distance himself from the Communist Party after being its leader for five years, Gorbachev created a new governmental leadership position, the Soviet presidency. Gorbachev assumed the new position, for the first time separating Communist Party leadership from Soviet government leadership. In addition, other political parties besides the Communist Party were allowed for the first time since the communist takeover in 1917.

Through 1990, the Soviet economy continued its steep downward slide. Gorbachev's popularity on the home front was similarly declining. The Soviet Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were scrambling for independence from Soviet rule. During the previous year, Gorbachev stood by while communist rule ended in country after country in Eastern Europe. However, under pressure from party hard-liners, he responded with force when the Soviet republics tried to break away. When the Soviet republic of Lithuania attempted to gain independence, Gorbachev sent Soviet troops to the country and established an economic blockade. In reaction, Bush placed trade restrictions on the Soviets, causing Gorbachev to quickly back off.

In May 1990, Gorbachev traveled to Washington, D.C., for another meeting with Bush to discuss the reunification of Germany. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Gorbachev feared a new, strong, reunited Germany. He sought guarantees from Bush that Germany would not soon become a threat once again to Soviet security. Agreement was soon reached over a reunified Germany. East and West Germany merged on October 3, 1990. A new Europe was formed the next month as thirty-five nations signed the Charter of Paris. The charter declared support for democracy, human rights, social justice, and economic liberty. By February 1991, the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance of Eastern European countries formerly under Soviet control, disbanded. The Soviet Union itself would collapse over the next ten months. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation as president of the Soviet Union, and the nation ceased to exist a few days later.

Did you know …

  • After the Malta summit, President Bush had a clearer understanding of Gorbachev's situation. If Gorbachev pressed reforms too hard, the hard-line communists would attack his policies. But if he did not press hard enough, the Soviet economic system would collapse.
  • In 1990, Soviet president Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his Soviet reform efforts and named Time magazine's "Man of the Year."
  • The first post–Cold War major conflict would be the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). In early 1991, President Bush led a broad coalition of nations under a UN resolution in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi invasion and occupation. Because of Soviet military and hard-line communist opposition to directly joining the coalition against Iraq, Gorbachev could only provide support through the UN.
  • President Bush would travel to the Soviet republic of the Ukraine in August 1991 to publicly support Gorbachev's reforms. He warned Ukrainians against pushing for change too quickly and causing violent confrontations with the Soviets.
  • The most important outcome of the Malta summit was a secret exchange of assurances. Gorbachev would avoid violence as much as possible as the Baltic States sought their independence, and Bush would not publicly criticize Gorbachev on this issue.

Consider the following …

  • Bush was concerned about moving too fast in agreements with Gorbachev, particularly on arms control. What were his concerns? What kinds of cooperation did Bush offer at Malta?
  • Was Gorbachev able to achieve the reform goals he was seeking? If not, why?
  • How would you react if you lived in a communist country that greatly controlled your everyday life, and neighboring communist countries were suddenly gaining considerably more freedoms?

For More Information


Ash, Timothy G. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. New York: Random House, 1990.

Ashlund, Anders. Building Capitalism: The Transformation of the Former Soviet Bloc. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Cold War International History Project Bulletin Issue 12/13 ("The End of the Cold War"), Fall/Winter 2001.

Greene, John R. The Presidency of George Bush. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.

Hurst, Steven. The Foreign Policy of the Bush Administration: In Search of a New World Order. New York: Cassell, 1999.

Parmet, Herbert S. George Bush: The Life of a Lone Star Yankee. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Web Site

George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu (accessed on September 22, 2003).