The following is an excellent excerpt from the book “THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES” by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick from Chapter 12 “THE COLD WAR ENDS: Squandered Opportunities” on page 463 and I quote: “Suddenly, a season of peace seems to be warming the world,” the “New York Times” exulted on the last day of July 1988. Protracted, bloody wars were ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua, and between Iran and Iraq. Later that year, Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, under pressure from Moscow, renounced terrorism and implicitly recognized Israel’s right to exist. But the most dramatic development was still to come. In December 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War over:
“the use of threat of force no longer can. . . be an instrument of foreign policy. This applies above all to nuclear arms. . . . let me turn to the main issue—disarmament, without which none of the problems of the coming century can be solved. . . . the Soviet Union has taken a decision to reduce its armed forces. . . by 500,000 men . . . . we have decided to withdraw by 1991 six tanks divisions from East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and to disband them. . . .. Soviet forces stationed in those countries will be reduced by 50,000 men and their armaments, by 5,000 tanks. All Soviet divisions remaining. . . will become clearly defensive.”
He promised to reveal Soviet plans for the “transition from the economy of armaments to an economy of disarmament” and called upon other military powers to do likewise through the United Nations. He proposed a 50 percent reduction in offensive strategic arms, asked for joint action to eliminate “the threat to the world’s environment,” urged banning weapons in outer space, and demanded an end to exploitation of the third world, including a “moratorium of up to 100 years on debt servicing by the least developed countries.”
Still, he was not finished. He called for a UN-brokered cease-fire in Afghanistan as of January 1. In nine years of war, the Soviets had failed to defeat the Afghan insurgents despite deploying 100,000 troops, working closely with local Afghans, and building up the Afghan army and police. He proposed an international conference on Afghan neutrality and demilitarization and held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H. W. Bush, offering a “joint effort to put an end to an era of wars, confrontation and regional conflicts, to aggressions against nature, to the terror of hunger and poverty as well as to political terrorism. This is our common goal and we can only reach it together.”
The “New York Times” characterized Gorbachev’s riveting hourlong speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Wilson’s Fourteen Points in 1918 or Roosevelt and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter in 1941–”the basic restructuring of international politics.” And the “Times” proclaimed, “He promised to lead the way unilaterally. Breathtaking. Risky. Bold. Naïve. Diversionary. Heroic. . . . his ideas merit—indeed, compel—the most serious response from president-elect Bush and other leaders.” The “Washington Post” called it “a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations.”
Bush had not yet moved into the White House after trouncing Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the recent election. Trailing by 17 points during the summer, Bush struggled to overcome what was widely being described as the “wimp” factor. For a while, it looked like the election might turn on the issue of whether Bush was too much of a wimp to be president. Some thought it odd that Bush, a recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross, who had flown fifty-eight combat missions in the Pacific during World War II, would be so derided. “Newsweek” considered it a “potentially crippling handicap—a perception that he isn’t strong enough or tough enough for the challenges of the Oval Office.” Not even the fact that Bush captained Yale’s baseball team earned him a pass. The “Washington Post’s” Curt Suplee wrote, “Wimp. Wasp. Weenie. Every woman’s first husband. Bland conformist. These now shop-worn pejoratives are the essence of George Bush’s ‘image problem’–the vague but powerful suspicion of many citizens that the vice president may be too feckless and insubstantial to be the leader of the free world.” “He’s been reduced to a cartoon,” his second son, Jeb Bush, complained.
Commentators attributed the image to his wealthy, pampered upbringing and his Ivy League education. Always staid and reserved, he had been nicknamed “Poppy” as a boy. Despite resigning from the Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission, he couldn’t shake the image of being the ultimate “Establishment” candidate—the man endorsed by David Rockefeller. On top of that, most of his political offices had been appointments. None of Reagan’s charisma had rubbed off on him as Reagan’s vice president. It turned out that Reagan didn’t like Bush and hadn’t wanted him on the ticket, but his preferred choices—Senator Paul Laxalt and Representative Jack Kemp—wouldn’t fly. Bush’s kowtowing to Reagan and the right-wing policies he had previously opposed, including what he called “voodoo economics,” made him look weak and unprincipled. “I’m following Mr. Reagan—blindly,” Bush told one reporter upon receiving the nomination. He went so far as to call Oliver North, a man he would have once found contemptible, his “hero.” One commentator noted that Bush tried on “the boorish philosophies of the political Right. . . to get closer to the Oval Office.” Bush’s initial victory in the New Hampshire primary frustrated his principal opponent, Bob Dole, who fumed, “There’s nothing there.”
People thought he lacked a home or community—he officially resided in a Houston hotel—and derided his tendency to end sentences with “muddy” phrases like “whatever it is” and “all that sort of stuff” and mocked his “speech disturbances: sentence incompletion, interruption of word sequences and tongue slips.” Feisty Texas Governor Ann Richards quipped at the Democratic National Convention, “Poor George. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
When parading his war record, defending gun rights, frequenting barbecues, and shamelessly pandering to the Right did nothing to help Bush change his image, he tried a different strategy. He questioned Dukakis’s patriotism and openly played the race card with a campaign ad about a furloughed murderer Willie Horton that appealed to voters’ fear of crime. But the coup de grace came when CBS news anchor Dan Rather pressed him on his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush was ready to pounce. He challenged the question’s fairness and angrily retorted, “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” His strategy worked. Reporters referred to the “Rather Bush-whacking,” calling Bush a “bully.” Few noticed that Rather’s questions about Bush’s role were entirely legitimate. During the campaign, Bush insisted that he had been “out of the loop—no operational role” in the illegal operation, but in his taped diary the former CIA director admitted, “I’m one of the few people that know fully the details.” Bush would later pardon former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger to avoid testimony about Bush’s role in the scandal.
Bush’s foreign policy team included James A. Baker III at State, Dick Cheney at Defense, and General Brent Scowcroft as his national security advisor. Scowcroft chose Robert Gates as his number two man. Paul Wolfowitz took over as undersecretary of defense for policy.
While in New York to address the United Nations, Gorbachev met with Reagan and Bush, seeking help on arms control and troop withdrawal. But Bush’s advisors remained skeptical and the CIA, whose intelligence capabilities had been degraded by years of unrelenting right-wing assault, completely misread what was occurring. As Gates later admitted in his memoirs, “the American government, including CIA, had no idea in January 1989 that a tidal wave of history was about to break upon us.” Gates and Cheney were most skeptical of Gorbachev’s initiatives and sought ways to take advantage of his willingness to reform the Soviet system. For the most part, Cheney’s opposition to working with Gorbachev prevailed. Cheney opposed an early summit, fearing that Gorbachev’s initiatives would weaken Western resolve. Bush decided on a strategy that would further erode Soviet military strength: whereas Gorbachev was calling for eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe—an offer most Europeans applauded—the United States countered that the Soviet Union should remove 325,000 troops in exchange for a U.S. cut of 30,000. Bush and Gorbachev did not meet again for another year.
While neglecting the Soviet Union, Bush continued to play the China card, building on the economic and political ties that Reagan had forged with Chinese leaders, who had assisted in toppling pro-Soviet government’s in Afghanistan and Cambodia. As former ambassador to China, Bush intended to maintain close relations. His plans were almost derailed by Beijing’s brutal crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators. As television viewers around the world looked on, the people’s Liberation Army slaughtered 3,000 demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, wounding 10,000 more. But Bush resisted pressure to punish China’s rulers, initially even opposing legislation allowing the 43,000 Chinese students in the United States to remain in the country beyond their one-year visas.
Gorbachev hoped to jump-start the Soviet economy, which had been moribund since the late 1970s. He knew that the Soviet Union could no longer afford war in Afghanistan, support for third-world allies, and a military establishment that consumed more than 20 percent of GNP and more than half of total government expenditures. Soviet officials decided to cut their losses. They ended support for Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia and Vietnamese troops in Cambodia and pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan in early 1989. The third world, an arena that had looked so promising a decade earlier, was now unraveling. The Soviet people had tired of expensive and ill-advised adventures. The Afghan war had cost the lives of over 14,000 Soviets and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, drained scarce resources, and inflamed anti-Communist feeling throughout the Muslim world. Young Muslim radicals who had once turned to socialism now looked to radical Islam. The faltering Soviet economy no longer provided a viable model for development. Fed up with the repressive and costly policies of many of the Soviet Union’s third-world allies, who resisted his demands to change their ways, Gorbachev proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union both stop interfering in third-world affairs and let nations settle their disputes amicably.
At the Moscow summit in May 1988, Gorbachev had asked Reagan to cosign a statement affirming peaceful coexistence and disavowing military interventions into other nations’ internal affairs. Reagan refused to sign. Undeterred, Gorbachev acted unilaterally. Historian Odd Arne Westad grasped the significance of this extraordinary reversal: “Gorbachev and his advisors. . . developed an understanding of the significance of national self-determination that went beyond those of the leaders of any major power in the twentieth century. The Soviet president practiced what both liberals and revolutionaries had been calling for at the beginning of the century—a firm and idealist dedication to letting the peoples of the world decide their own fates without foreign intervention.”
Not only did the United States not accept this principle, it worked actively to subvert it, exploiting the openings Gorbachev had provided in the third world. The United States continued to fuel Islamic radicalism. Many of the U.S.-backed jihads who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan joined the Islamist cause in Chechnya, Bosnia, Algeria, Iraq, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Kashmir, and elsewhere. Ethnic and tribal conflicts also erupted in Africa and the Balkans.
Gorbachev urged Eastern European governments to embrace the spirit of Perestroika. Poland was the first to act. In April 1989, the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski agreed to free elections. In June, candidates form the Solidarity trade union federation, with clandestine CIA support, soundly defeated the Communists, who peacefully relinquished power, agreeing to participate in a Solidarity-led coalition government. Unlike in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets did not intervene. In May, Estonia and Lithuania declared their sovereignty. Latvia followed in July. Gorbachev encouraged the reformers. In late July, Foreign Minister Eduard Shecardnadze explained the Soviet acceptance of these changes to Secretary of State Baker: “If we were to use force, then it would be the end of ”perestroika.” We would have failed. It would be the end of any hope for the future, the end of everything we’re trying to do, which is to create a new system base don humane values. If force is used, it will mean that the enemies of “perestroika” have triumphed. We would be no better than the people who came before us. We cannot go back.”
Other Eastern European nations followed suit. In October, the ruling communists in Hungary declared themselves social democrats and established a republic. That month, following Gorbachev’s visit to Berlin, demonstrations drove Erich Honecker from power in East Germany. And finally, on November 9, 1989, East and West Berliners jointly began tearing down the Berlin Wall, desecrating the Cold War’s most reviled symbol. Gorbachev’s foreign policy advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, wrote in his diary, “The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the Socialist system is over. . . This is the end of Yalta [and] the Stalinist legacy. . .. . this is what Gorbachev has done. . . . He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel.” But the transformation of Europe was far from over. The Czech parliament responded to demonstrations and a general strike by electing poet Vaclav Havel prime minister. One by one, all the Eastern European Communist governments fell. The world watched in disbelief. A peaceful revolution had occurred across the socialist bloc as citizens, burdened by decades of government repression and bureaucratic ineptitude, clamored for a better life. Gorbachev rejected the long-held view that controlling Eastern Europe was crucial to Soviet security. He believed that removing the drain of Eastern Europe would allow the Soviet Union and its allies to rapidly develop humane, democratic socialist systems.
Gorbachev saw this as a new beginning, but many U.S. policy makers hailed it as the ultimate vindication—the triumph of the capitalist West after decades of Cold War. It was “the end of history,” State Department policy planned Francis Fukuyama declared, anointing western liberal democracy “the final form of human government.” In September 1990, Michael Mandelbaum, director of East-West studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, exulted, “the Soviets. . . have made it possible to end the cold war, which means that for the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III.” The United States would soon test that hypothesis.
When Bush traveled to Poland and Hungary in July, he deliberately avoided saying or doing anything that might provoke a Soviet response. Having previously derided ”the vision thing,” even the tearing down of the Berlin Wall failed to elicit a jubilant response on his part. He explained, “I am not an emotional kind of guy.” He told Gorbachev, “I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.” “Yes, we have seen that” and “appreciate” it, Gorbachev replied.”
(THIS IS AN INTERESTING PART IN HISTORY BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA. WHEN PRESIDENT REAGAN MADE THE COMMENT ABOUT TEARING DOWN THE WALL, GORBACHEV WAS STARTING TO TEAR IT DOWN ON HIS OWN. THAT CAUSED IT TO COME DOWN BUT I UNDERSTAND THAT ACTUALLY, THE WALL WAS STARTED TO BE TAKEN DOWN BEFORE PRESIDENT REAGAN MADE THE COMMENT. AFTER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH WAS ELECTED TO OFFICE, SINCE IT WAS REALLY THE RUSSIANS STRESSING FOR PEACE, HE TOLD BUSH THAT WAS THE REASON HE TOOK IT DOWN. AND PRESIDENT BUSH ACKNOWLEDGED IT IN THIS EXCERPT. A VERY IMPORTANT PERIOD OF HISTORY THAT I DON’T BELIEVE IS BEING STRESSED BECAUSE WE THOUGHT IT GAVE MORE CREDIT TO THE RUSSIANS THAN THEY DESERVED, WHICH AFTER READING THIS SEGMENT THAT GORBACHEV’S COMMENTS AT THE UNITED NATIONS WERE ALREADY TAKING PLACE.
LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen and AARP Members