Bush lacked a consuming interest in the domestic policy side of the presidency, but in January 1989 all seemed to be well on the home front. His easy victory as successor to the enormously popular Reagan indicated that most of the American people were happy with the government. The economy, growing spectacularly after a severe recession in the early Reagan years, was still strong. Employment was high, the stock market was up, people with money were making more. It appeared that if Bush simply maintained the domestic status quo he could concentrate on foreign policy, the area of his greatest interest.
Bush occupied the White House during two major events of the twentieth century: the end of the Cold War and the unanticipated collapse of the Soviet Union. Both had deep historical roots. In the 1960s and early 1970s there had been brief thaws in the Cold War and one could argue that the self-destruction of the Soviet Union was inherent in the nature of the Communist system beginning with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Accelerated change, however, began only after Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985.
Between 1985 and 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev, along with U.S. secretary of state George P. Shultz and Soviet foreign minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, began the transformation of Soviet-American relations. They agreed on the first major cuts in long-range nuclear weapons since the beginning of the arms race in the 1940s, eliminated intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, and consented to close inspections of each other's arsenals in order to ensure compliance with agreements. The two superpowers also began tentatively to cooperate in reducing conflicts in the Third World.
Gorbachev was convinced that the survival of the Soviet Union depended on drastic internal economic reform and relief from the crippling burden of military expenditures. Reagan's cooperative posture convinced Gorbachev that he could safely reduce Soviet military strength without tempting the United States to press an advantage. In December 1988 at the United Nations, Gorbachev renounced the Leninist theory of inevitable international conflict between capitalism and socialism, called on all nations to work together to solve universal human problems, and unilaterally announced the withdrawal of half a million troops and thousands of heavy conventional weapons from Eastern Europe.
Did that mean the Cold War was over? When Bush took office as president in January 1989 the answer was not clear. American skeptics in the press and among his advisers warned that it all might be a trick designed to lull the free world. Bush, a staunch Cold Warrior throughout his career, decided to slow the pace of Soviet-American negotiations. He did not believe, as had Reagan, that nuclear weapons could be abolished. He wanted to maintain a strong American nuclear arsenal and was wary of agreements that might give the Soviets an advantage. He was not convinced that the Soviets had abandoned their disruptive behavior in the Third World.
On the other hand, Bush did not rule out the possibility that Gorbachev might really be sincere and trustworthy. As vice president in December 1987 Bush told Gorbachev to ignore his public hard-line remarks, necessary if he was to win the nomination and election. His goal as president, Bush said, would be to improve Soviet-American relations. Gorbachev afterward said this was the most important talk he ever had with Bush.
The president's prudence (a favorite word) led him to underestimate the rapid deterioration of Soviet military and economic power and Gorbachev's desperate determination to jettison military burdens in order to prevent the complete collapse of Soviet society. Bush did not realize at first that nuclear arms control agreements were no longer the major issue or that Gorbachev would agree to almost anything. The real issue was whether Gorbachev would survive as a leader and whether after Gorbachev there would be chaos.
It was not until July 1989 that Bush told Gorbachev that he would consider a meeting—"without thousands of assistants hovering over our shoulders." Meanwhile, Secretary of State Baker and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze met several times and formed a close relationship. Baker was astounded at how frank Shevardnadze was about the Soviet Union's problems. In the autumn of 1989, while Bush watched and waited, Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe began to topple and Gorbachev publicly renounced the "Brezhnev doctrine," which the Soviet Union had previously invoked to justify armed intervention against freedom movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The message to Communist leaders in 1989 was that they could no longer count on Soviet tanks to keep them in power. With the Soviet Union deliberately standing back, the Berlin Wall came down in November, and soon non-Communist governments were replacing the old regime throughout the former Soviet satellite empire. There were also mounting demands for national independence within the USSR, most notably from the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
This was the situation when Bush and Gorbachev met for their first summit—on ships in a storm-tossed harbor of the island nation of Malta in the Mediterranean. The most important outcome of Malta was a secret exchange of assurances. Gorbachev would do what he could to avoid violence in dealing with the problem of Baltic secessionism and the discontent of other nationalities. Bush in turn would avoid public criticism of Gorbachev on this issue.
Bush came away from Malta with a better appreciation of how precarious was Gorbachev's political situation in the Soviet Union. If Gorbachev pressed too hard for economic reforms, made too many concessions to separatist movements, and agreed too easily with the United States, hard-line opponents would charge him with weakness. But if he did not introduce reforms and reduce the economic burden of a Cold War military establishment, the system would collapse.
By 1990 Bush decided that the essential goal of American policy toward the Soviet Union must be to keep Gorbachev in power and to favor the preservation rather than disintegration of the Soviet Union. The alternative was chaos. Sound, mutually advantageous agreements with Gorbachev on arms reduction could be negotiated. Without Gorbachev they might be impossible.
Meanwhile, the Communist government of East Germany collapsed and Germans on both sides of the former Iron Curtain called for reunification. Secretary of State Baker, assuming that Gorbachev would not accept a unified Germany within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in February 1990 initiated some complicated diplomatic negotiations involving the two Germanies plus the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—the "two plus four" formula. Baker's assumption had been wrong. In July 1990 Gorbachev made his greatest concession. He astonished German chancellor Helmut Kohl by announcing that the Soviet Union would withdraw all its troops from eastern Germany and accept NATO membership for a reunified Germany. Kohl, in return, promised to pay the cost of relocating Soviet troops and provide other economic aid. The line was now dissolving between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the Moscow-dominated military alliance of Communist governments. The Warsaw Pact was officially disbanded in 1991.
Meanwhile, arms control experts on the Soviet and American sides were making great strides. The most important achievement was the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty of November 1990, signed by Bush and Gorbachev in Paris. Among other things, it committed the Soviet Union to reduce by 70 percent its tanks and heavy weapons stationed west of the Ural Mountains. A treaty reducing long-range strategic arms took a little longer. Signed by Bush and Gorbachev in Moscow on 31 July 1991, the START treaty reduced nuclear warheads on both sides to 6,000—a 30-percent reduction. The dangerous category of missiles with multiple independently targeted warheads (MIRVs) was reduced by half. Because of the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was not approved by the U.S. Senate until November 1992.
The more the two sides reduced nuclear weapons, the less important arms control became in the relationship. The more pressing issues were cooperation in meeting the challenge of Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the very survival of the Soviet Union. Bush refrained from criticizing the occasional use of force by the Soviets against independence movements and even warned, in a speech in Ukraine in August 1991, that "Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred."
By this time, however, there was nothing Gorbachev or the United States could do to stem the Soviet Union's fall. On 18 August 1991 a group of Communist hard-liners put Gorbachev under house arrest and attempted to take over the country. They were miserably inept. Faced with strong opposition by Boris N. Yeltsin, head of the Russian Federation, and lacking the full support of the Red Army, the coup failed in three days. Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, the most senior of the old military establishment, committed suicide after the coup. He left a note saying that everything he had worked for—the Soviet Union, the Red Army, and the Communist party—was being destroyed. Akhromeyev was right.
Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin as president of the Soviet Union, but he was presiding over an empty husk. On 25 December 1991 Gorbachev resigned. The hammer and sickle flag came down from the Kremlin for the last time. The Soviet Union was no more. All the former dependent republics within the old USSR proclaimed their independence, secured international recognition, and were admitted to the United Nations. The real leader in Moscow now was Yeltsin, president of Russia, a man previously belittled by the Bush administration as a crude self-promoter.
Bush's preference for sustaining a single central government had been overtaken by events. The United States opened embassies in the newly independent states but still concentrated its efforts on Moscow and Yeltsin as the democratically elected leader of the new Russia. The two sides continued to negotiate on nuclear arms and in January 1993, just before Bush left office, agreed to the START II treaty eliminating MIRVs altogether and reducing strategic warheads to 3,500 on the U.S. side and 3,000 on the Russian. This was a 50-percent reduction in the levels set by the START I treaty approved only weeks before by the Senate. Meanwhile, the former Soviet republics in which nuclear weapons were still located—Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan—agreed in principle that they would be nonnuclear states with the weapons to be dismantled or shipped to Russia.
Yeltsin's political position at home, like Gorbachev's before him, was precarious in large part because of the chaotic state of the Russian economy. Yeltsin begged for massive U.S. economic aid. Bush was generous with words. "If this democratic revolution is defeated," he said, "it could plunge us into a world more dangerous in some respects than the dark years of the Cold War." But the president's inherent caution and the reluctance of Congress meant that aid would be limited to relatively small amounts for humanitarian assistance and help with the dismantling of nuclear weapons. The uncertain future of the Russian economic system made Americans wary of "throwing money down a rathole," and with the United States facing huge deficits itself, public opinion did not support a bailout of Russia.
The only former Communist country undergoing a more chaotic dissolution than the Soviet Union was Yugoslavia. In 1991 the political leaders of the different republics within Yugoslavia could not agree on how to keep the country together. As ethnic violence broke out, the federal Yugoslav army based in Serbia attacked Croatia. The Bush administration applied economic sanctions against Serbia, but was dismayed by the disintegration of a small country into even smaller parts. The United States went along reluctantly in 1992 when Slovenia, Croatia, and BosniaHerzegovina were admitted to the United Nations as independent nations. In 1992 the fighting in Croatia subsided, but shifted to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Bosnian Serbs launched a war of "ethnic cleansing" against the Bosnian Muslim population. The European Community and the United States tried to broker a political settlement while UN peacekeepers watched helplessly. Bush and the United States were criticized by some commentators for not using military force to punish the Serbs and protect the Bosnian Muslims. But his advisers, including General Powell, believed that the ethnic hatreds in the region were so fierce that outside military intervention would be doomed to failure. Furthermore, no vital security interest of the United States was at stake. Thus, the United States stood back while the Bosnian Serbs continued their attacks, especially on the besieged city of Sarajevo. Not until September 1995, more than halfway through the presidency of Bill Clinton, did the United States and its NATO partners finally use heavy airpower to deter Bosnian Serb attacks on Muslims in an effort to force a peace settlement.