Four Years that Changed the World -1989 – Ending the Cold War

Four Years that Changed the World -1989 – Ending the Cold War


Governor John H. Sununu served as President Bush’s first White House Chief of Staff and most recently was the author of “The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush” (Broadside Books, 2015).

Thirty years ago, on May 29, 1989, President George H.W. Bush led NATO to adopt his proposals to begin the unwinding of the cold war with the Soviet Union. Although the summit meeting six months later between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at Malta – which took place in December of 1989 – is usually celebrated as being the milestone date for the end of the cold war, Malta would never have happened without the events that came together in Brussels over Memorial Day Week in 1989.

As President of the United States, George Bush’s highest priority was to take advantage of the opportunity to develop a less confrontational relationship with the Soviet Union. As Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, he had seen the buildup of America’s defense strength convince Mikael Gorbachev that a constructive accommodation with the West could be in the best interest of the Soviet Union.

In early 1989, Gorbachev was implementing new policies which were allowing things to change dramatically in Eastern Europe by relaxing the level of Soviet control over political and economic structures. Bush believed that the United States could lead a process to nurture and support those dramatic changes in Eastern Europe. He felt that the key to a long-term relaxation of tensions and confrontation with the Soviets was to get an agreement on conventional forces that would produce the withdrawal, or at least the significant reduction of Soviet troops Europe. Removing that military threat would give domestic political reformers in the occupied nations some breathing room to bring significant freedom to their citizens.

The president ordered a strategic review of America’s Soviet policy. He tasked his Secretary of State James Baker and his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to frame a proposal. As much as the strategy of significant US and Soviet troop withdrawals appealed to Bush, he was smart enough to understand how complicated it would be to present such an approach to our allies. He knew that to achieve his objective would require his own personal efforts to explain both the short-term and long-term objectives to our friends in Europe. Our allies would need to see a well thought out, detailed plan before they could commit their support.

After many long discussions with his own national security team, the President was eventually comfortable with the broad framework of this foreign policy initiative. In his words, “in regard to the Soviet Union, our policy was to move beyond containment.”The hard part was yet to come. He would have to convince both NATO and the Soviet Union to accept the broad vision and the details for implementation. The President recognized that three leaders were the key to forging a united front to convince the Soviet Union that this was the best route to a stable world.  He realized he had to convince the French under President Françoise Mitterrand, the Germans under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and most critically, our allies in the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Bush decided to begin by outlining his strategy publicly in a series of four speeches. The first speech was given in Hamtramck, Michigan; the second at Texas A&M University; the third at Boston University; and the fourth at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. At the same time, he made a significant effort of discussing his plan with each of the key European leaders. Bush even invited French President Francois Mitterrand to his summer home in Maine to spend a couple of days discussing how he had come to his decision, and the details of how he proposed to make it work. He also had numerous phone calls consulting with Margaret Thatcher and with Helmut Kohl. Bush was patient but persistent with each of them, and he added calls to virtually all the heads of government of our NATO partners so none of them would feel they were ignored.

On May 28, 1989, President and Mrs. Bush arrive at the Sicily-American Cemetery near Anzio and Nettuno to pay their respects to the 8,000 American World War II servicemen buried there.28 May 1989 Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Finally, Bush was ready to put the package forward at the NATO Summit. The meeting of the NATO Alliance was set for May 29-30 in Brussels. The President decided to begin the Memorial Week trip with a stop in Rome to visit Nettuno, one of the meticulously kept cemeteries in Italy for Americans killed there in World War II. Then, after a briefing of the Italian leadership and a visit to the Vatican for conversations with Pope John Paul II, we left Rome on Sunday afternoon for Brussels where the first formal session of the summit would take place the next day.

George Bush outlined the details of his proposal on Monday morning and, thanks to all of his early preparation efforts, the leaders at the summit enthusiastically received and endorsed his recommendations. His painstaking efforts to let all the leaders know what was coming made a real difference, and most of them came with speeches already prepared to support the Bush initiative. The reaction from the Soviet Union was also positive. Gorbachev received the proposals as a serious effort mirroring his own interest in unwinding the confrontational climate of the Cold War.

After the NATO meetings, President Bush went directly to Bonn, Germany to visit Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Chancellor was extremely pleased with the results from Brussels and went with President Bush to the city of Mainz where Bush delivered a speech in the historic Rheingoldhalle. The speech was a carefully crafted and nuanced presentation in which he spoke about the future of Europe. He called for the removal of the Berlin Wall and an end to the East-West division of the European continent. It was in this Mainz speech that George Bush use the phrase “a Europe whole and free” which became the theme for the dramatic changes that were to take place in Europe. “Together” he said, “we shall answer the call. The world has waited long enough.”

That speech capped an intense but historically productive and successful seven days.

President Bush address in Mainz, Germany – Post NATO Speech. 31 May 1989 Photo credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

The Memorial Day Week of May 1989 triggered the changes that define the Europe of today. That week set the stage for the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Malta six months later, which, as history has labeled it, finally marked the end of the Cold War.  These events of 30 years ago, remembered now as part of our series Four Years that Changed the World—The Presidency of George H.W. Bush.