1989: The Lost Year

For Gorbachev and Bush Sr., it was 12 months of missed opportunities. The first in an FP series, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down, the end of the Cold War still inspires euphoria and triumphalism in the West. But even as we lift toasts once again to the victory of 1989, we should re-examine that momentous year. Documents, memoirs, and other evidence that have come to light suggest that for relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was also a time of missed opportunity.

The fall of the wall was a European earthquake, but in Washington and Moscow, miscommunication and suspicion meant the leaders were badly out of sync. While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was eager to move on cutting nuclear arsenals, President George H.W. Bush was cautious and uncertain, and a promising moment slipped away.

It is always easier to identify a pivotal year in retrospect than as you are living through it. When he became president in 1989, after eight years as vice president, Bush was devoted to the ideals of prudence and good stewardship in public service. He and others in the Republican party, conditioned by their Cold War experience, did not see how quickly the world was changing around them. They remained wary of Gorbachev. By year’s end, when the unexpected happened and the gates of the Berlin Wall were flung open, Bush faced pressures made even more intense by his early hesitation.

On Dec. 7, 1988, just weeks after Bush was elected and before he took office, Gorbachev made a stunning announcement at the United Nations: the pullback of 500,000 troops from Europe. It was a profound break from the past to make such a sizable one-sided withdrawal. Gorbachev said the Soviet Union would no longer hold the countries of Eastern Europe in its grip, another breathtaking change in approach. "Freedom of choice is a universal principle," he said. "It knows no exceptions."

After the speech Gorbachev met with President Ronald Reagan and Bush at Governors Island. Reagan, in the twilight hours of his presidency, was ebullient, but he did not discuss Gorbachev’s remarkable speech in any detail, and they parted without having realized their goal of reducing the arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons. The hope for a 50 percent cut was bogged down in negotiations.

Bush was low-key, and Gorbachev sensed his hesitation. "We should take into account that Bush is a very cautious politician," Gorbachev told the Politburo. Two days after Bush’s inauguration in January 1989, Bush’s national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, said, "I think the Cold War is not over."

Bush ordered a series of foreign-policy reviews, including one on the Soviet Union. "In the end what we received was mush," Secretary of State James A. Baker later recalled. Throughout the spring, the new administration made public statements suggesting that Gorbachev’s dynamism was a competitive threat, rather than an opportunity. "I’ll be darned if Mr. Gorbachev should dominate world public opinion forever," Bush wrote to a friend March 13 of that year. Bush finally decided on a policy to "test" Gorbachev’s intentions, issue by issue, which was in keeping with his characteristic prudence but way behind the curve. The pause of early 1989 was a mistake.

Gorbachev was, in fact, at the zenith of his powers. It would have been an ideal time to seize the initiative to lock in the 50 percent cut in strategic weapons or make cuts in tactical nuclear weapons. A 10-page Kremlin work plan for arms control and defense issues for the year, which I obtained, included dozens of instructions and tight deadlines, including for reductions in tactical nuclear weapons and chemical arms. Another draft five-page instruction laid out the rationale for dramatic Soviet weapons cuts and conversion to civilian needs.

As Bush dithered, the window of opportunity in Moscow began to close. Gorbachev’s power waned. The forces of freedom and openness he had unleashed began to overtake him. An election for a new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies, the first relatively free election since the Bolshevik Revolution, was held on March 26. The Communist Party took a shellacking, and there was open and trenchant criticism of the authorities when the new chamber met for the first time in May and June.

In China, Gorbachev’s visit in May brought the student protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square to a new level of intensity. They were suppressed by the June 4 massacre a few weeks later. Across Eastern Europe, ferment spread, especially in Hungary and Poland, where the Solidarity movement came out from the underground and won in parliamentary elections. On July 7, Gorbachev affirmed to leaders of the Warsaw Pact that the Soviet Union would not intervene to stop the juggernaut, and they were free to go their own way.

Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s aide, captured the mood in his diary, writing that socialism in Eastern Europe is "disappearing," the planned economy "is living its last days," ideology "doesn’t exist anymore," the Soviet empire "is falling apart," the Communist Party "is in disarray" and "chaos is breaking out." Chernyaev called 1989 "The Lost Year."

By the summer, after a presidential visit to Europe, Bush could see a tide of change, and thought it was time to reach out to Gorbachev for a summit. "Too much was happening in the East — I had seen it myself," he wrote in his memoir with Scowcroft. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the former chief of the Soviet General Staff and advisor to Gorbachev, made a remarkable tour of U.S. military installations during which he and Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly debated how to end the arms race. Bush gave Akhromeyev a letter to Gorbachev suggesting a summit.

In September, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told Baker that Gorbachev’s situation at home was urgent and precarious. Baker was surprised at how Shevardnadze had candidly described the forces of disintegration within the Soviet Union, pulling the republics away from the center. A few weeks later Baker gave a speech calling for a search for "points of mutual advantage" with the Soviet Union. But the very next day, Vice President Dan Quayle rejected the idea of helping Soviet reform and said "let them reform themselves."


In late October, Vladimir Pasechnik, a quiet, serious scientist from Leningrad, defected to Britain and confirmed what some had suspected but no one had known for sure: The Soviet Union had a large and ongoing germ-warfare program in violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Pasechnik was the director of a leading institute in the program. This was one of the most closely guarded Soviet secrets of the late Cold War period. In the months that followed, Pasechnik carefully laid out for the British the frightening details: the use of plague as a strategic weapon, among other things.

The details were soon passed to Washington. The disclosures raised a disturbing question: Did Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, the paragons of glasnost and "new thinking," know or approve of this underside of the arms race? Could the West still do business with them? In fact, Shevardnadze and other high-ranking officials (but not Gorbachev) had discussed the illicit biological weapons program at a meeting in July, according to an attendance sheet, agenda and handwritten notes I obtained for my book.

The Berlin Wall came down Nov. 9, ending the division of Europe. Bush was again cautious. He had in mind Gorbachev’s many difficulties. And indeed, there was now a perfect storm brewing: the future of Germany and indeed Europe was up for grabs; Gorbachev was in ever-deeper trouble at home as perestroika had not improved living standards; the arms-control talks were going nowhere; the Baltics were leaning toward independence. Pasechnik’s revelations were kept secret by the West, so they would not trigger a new furor amid all the other uncertainty.

When Bush and Gorbachev finally met at the storm-tossed Malta summit in December, Bush defended his words of caution when the wall came down. "I do not intend to jump up on the wall," he said. "Well," Gorbachev replied, "jumping on the wall is not a good activity for a president." They laughed, but it had been a year of lost opportunity and unexpected turns. Bush seemed eager to get down to business, but he could have started sooner. And for Gorbachev, the hour was already growing late.

Bush and Baker made the unification of Germany within NATO a top priority, and eventually achieved it. But hesitation about Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War put the United States behind the curve in the crucial year of 1989. The superpowers didn’t reach a strategic arms treaty until two years later. And when Bush and Gorbachev did order the pullback of short-range nuclear weapons in their separate 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the efforts were undertaken hastily, without a treaty or verification.

Late was preferable to never, but the outcome might have been better had Bush recognized, early in 1989, what a historic period the world was passing through.

 Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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