Ronald Reagan is often lauded as the U.S. President who won the Cold War, by orchestrating a massive arms buildup that the Soviet Union couldn’t afford to match, and by giving a famous 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in which he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
But the decline and ultimate collapse of Soviet communism—from the actual demolition of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe, to the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself—occurred during the single four-year term of Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush.
While Bush didn’t set in motion the massive geopolitical change that occurred, historians credit his steady, low-key, cautious approach to Soviet relations with helping to ensure that when communism collapsed, it fell as softly as possible. Mainly, it fell without the bloody revolutionary upheaval that had occurred during its rise three quarters of a century before.
Bush Was a 'Moderate Cold Warrior'
“Unlike Reagan, who was rash and undermined American political and moral values to destroy communism around the globe, Bush was a much more moderate cold warrior,” Dickinson College Professor of History Karl Qualls explains. “He was analytical, not impulsive. Although he certainly despised communism, he saw in Gorbachev a reformer who was willing to create change and who wanted peace.”
As Southern Methodist University historian Jeffrey A. Engel wrote in his 2017 book, When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, the cautious Bush resisted the temptation to aggressively exert American influence on events on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He also did not respond too boldly to the dramatic changes occurring. Instead, Engel says, “his caution helped carry the world safely through this tumultuous time.”
“Unlike most Presidents, he had a detailed knowledge of foreign relations,” says Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and a former Soviet affairs analyst at the U.S. Department of State. “He knew his stuff, and didn’t have to be taught from scratch. He didn’t make the same kinds of mistakes that less-informed chief executives make.”
Berlin Wall Falls, Bush Response: ‘Very Pleased’
Bush began relations with the Soviet Union cautiously, taking time to study the situation before moving ahead with more diplomacy, according to an essay by Stephen Knott, Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The pause or “pauza,” as the Soviets called it, made the Gorbachev regime initially uneasy, but ultimately helped solidify the improved relationship, Knott says.
Bush showed even more restraint in November 1989, when the collapsing communist regime in East Germany opened its borders and Germans spontaneously tore down the Berlin Wall. Instead of reveling in the end of communist rule, Bush told the news media only that he was “very pleased.” His muted response resulted in criticism from anti-communist conservatives in the United States, but he avoided antagonizing the Soviets and endangering future relations, according to Knott.
Bush “was able to encourage the Soviets to make concessions, while allowing them to save face,” Katz says.
A month later, Bush met with Gorbachev in Malta, where they discussed arms reductions and improving U.S.-Soviet relations. The following June, they met again in Washington to sign an agreement in which the two countries agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. In July 1991, the two leaders met a third time in Moscow to sign the START treaty, which cut the collective number of nuclear warheads by a third.
Soviet Union Collapses
But Bush—like many seasoned U.S. experts on Soviet relations—failed to foresee the Soviet Union’s collapse. Shortly after signing the START agreement, he flew to Kiev in Ukraine—at the time, still part of the USSR—and gave what detractors called his “Chicken Kiev” speech. In the speech, Bush avoided backing Ukrainian independence and instead extolled the “astonishing things” that Gorbachev had accomplished. Bush “didn’t want to deal with 15 separate governments,” Katz explains.
But Bush’s wish to keep the Soviet Union together wasn’t fulfilled. A few weeks later, plotters within Gorbachev’s regime attempted a coup. As usual, Bush treaded carefully, trying not to do anything overt to antagonize the plotters, in case they managed to hold on to power. At the same time, he quietly sought to support coup opponent Boris Yeltsin, providing him with intelligence intercepts that showed Soviet military units were not joining the rebellion. “This help enabled Yeltsin to emerge from the crisis a triumphant hero,” journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in a 1994 Atlantic article.
But after the coup failed and Yeltsin became head of a new Russian government, Bush found himself in another delicate situation. As Gorbachev’ regime had previously requested, Yeltsin sought massive amounts of foreign aid to support a transition to capitalism and democracy. “What Yeltsin wanted was the equivalent of the Marshall Plan after World War II,” Katz says. Bush demurred, saying in 1992 that he didn’t want to give a “blank check” for aid.
But Bush’s success in helping to ease Soviet communism onto the scrap heap of history didn’t help his own political fortunes. A recession back home and a primary challenge from conservative Patrick Buchanan the following spring dimmed Bush’s chances at reelection in 1992. “Many people felt the Cold War had distracted us from our own domestic needs,” Katz says. “I think that was part of the reason for his reelection loss, the sense that he was somehow less interested in us than in those foreigners.”