July 1989: Historic Visit to Poland and Hungary “A Western Vision of the Future”

July 1989: Historic Visit to Poland and Hungary “A Western Vision of the Future”

Poland and Hungary – July 1989

“Western Vision of the Future”

Note: Thirty years ago this month, President Bush embarked on historic visits to Poland and Hungary prior to attending the G-7 (Group of Seven) summit in Paris. The President and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft recounted the significance of these visits in their 1998 book, A World Transformed, excerpts of which appear below.

Book Narrative

Even though a visit to Eastern Europe had been tacked onto our trip to Paris and the G-7 summit, it eclipsed these in importance. President Bush’s presence would be a highly visible way to underscore and call attention to our new policy, and an opportunity to take the propaganda initiative from Gorbachev. We would show American backing for reform efforts in Eastern Europe – and the Western vision of the future.

Poland and Hungary were ideal candidates for stops. They fit the political and economic reform criteria for U.S. support the president had outlined at Hamtramck and stood in sharp contrast to the rest of Eastern Europe. Poland in particular was taking a courageous lead in reform and had been dismantling its fences with Austria since May 2 – tearing open part of the Iron Curtain. The removal of the fences was to have even greater significance later in the year for fleeing East Germans. But there was a special and emotional appeal for President Bush to return to Poland, which he had visited as vice president in 1987. That trip had help legitimize and invigorate the struggling reform movement in the eyes of the Polish people and the world, when, after speaking to (Polish leader) General Wojcieh Jaruzelski, he had brought the leaders of Solidarity to the U.S. Embassy for historic discussions. Another visit would allow him again to offer American help and encouragement at a time of difficult transition …

GEORGE BUSH

The popularity of Gorbachev’s new proposals in Western Europe made my trip to Eastern Europe imperative in order to offset the appeal of his message – that the West need not wait for concrete actions by the Soviet Union before lowering its guard and military preparedness. The visit, however, was intended primarily to encourage reformers there, yet I had to be cautious about what I said and did. The almost open quarrel in the Warsaw Pact demonstrated the delicacy of the situation. We had an obligation to be a responsible catalyst, where possible, for democratic change in Eastern Europe. We could support freedom and democracy, but we had to do so in a way that would not make us appear to be gloating over Gorbachev’s political problems with Party hard-liners as he moved away from the iron-fisted policies of his predecessors. I was not going to back off my principles because it might offend Gorbachev. But hot rhetoric would needlessly antagonize the militant elements within the Soviet Union and the Pact, and might cause them to rise up against these changes and perhaps against their perpetrator, Gorbachev …

BRENT SCOWCROFT

On July 10 our visit began in earnest, coupling the protocol of a formal ceremonial visit with a more private side: discussions with Jaruzelski and (Solidarity leader Lech) Walesa on the next best steps for Poland’s evolution into a non-Communist state with a market economy, and encouraging the two sides to work together …

GEORGE BUSH

Jaruzelski opened his heart and asked me what role I thought he should now play. He told me of his reluctance to run for president and his desire to avoid a political tug-of-war that Poland did not need. He did not think Solidarity would provide enough support for his election, and he worried about the humiliation of being defeated. I told him his refusal to run might inadvertently lead to serious instability and I urged him to reconsider. It was ironic: here was an American president trying to persuade a senior Communist leader to run for office. But I felt that Jaruzelski’s experience was the best hope for a smooth transition in Poland …

This remarkable meeting was followed by an equally remarkable luncheon at the residence of the American Ambassador, John R. Davis, Jr. A seasoned Foreign Service officer, Davis was well respected by the diverse group of guests – some forty Communist, Solidarity and Catholic leaders. It was literally the first time they had sat down together at a social gathering – the jailers and the jailed at the same table …

BRENT SCOWCROFT

It was a dramatic scene and a graphic demonstration of the role the United States was playing as midwife at a critical moment in the strained but peaceful evolution of Eastern Europe from autocracy to pluralism. Following the luncheon, the President addressed the National Assembly, the first time an American chief executive had spoken there. It was an uplifting speech. Poland was the country where the Cold War had begun fifty years before, and its people could now help to bring the division of Europe to an end …

GEORGE BUSH

The next day, July 11, we traveled to Gdansk for a lunch and a speech, a journey which fulfilled our every expectation and gave me an opportunity to get to know Walesa better …

Following lunch, Barbara and I rode with Walesa to the Lenin Shipyard, where I was to speak. As we drew near the site, Walesa looked overcome by the size of the crowd. “Oh my God, Oh my God,” he kept saying in English. He said it was the largest crowd he’d ever seen.

I spoke in front of the Solidarity Workers monument to an animated throng which packed and overflowed the square. There were thousands lining the street going into town, and estimates of up to 250,000 in the square. It was an emotional moment, with grown men and women crying. There were all kinds of signs of affection for the United States: flags, handwritten signs welcoming me, and expressing the friendship between the United States and Poland, and everywhere the “V” sign …

At the end of the day I had the heady sense that I was witnessing history being made on the spot, as the leaders from the regime and Solidarity came together …

Having just torn up his speech, President Bush speaks briefly on Jul 11, 1989 to another large, enthusiastic — and rain-drenched — crowd in Kossuth Square after arriving in Budapest, Hungary.

BRENT SCOWCROFT

The Polish visit fully met our objectives. We had unmistakably demonstrated our support for the process of reform, had done it in a way which gave heart to the Poles without things getting out of hand, and had avoided provoking a backlash. Not bad …

For us, it was on to Hungary on July 11. Just as George Bush had been the first American vice president to visit Hungary six years earlier, he would now become the first American president to do so.  The difference in mood between Poland and Hungary, to outward appearances, was dramatic. Poland, while hopeful, had been cautious and apprehensive. The Poles seemed to be concentrated more on the current problems of living and less on the promise of a brighter future. In Hungary there was a feeling of ebullience and expectation which was infectious …

We arrived in Budapest during a summer thunderstorm, which delayed Air Force One’s landing. President Bush was scheduled to make some arrival remarks in Kossuth Square, in the center of the city, and the crowd stood in the downpour while our airplane circled above. The people were drenched, but their enthusiasm was undampened. They gave the President an enthusiastic welcome and even waited patiently while President Bruno Straub, unwilling to accommodate his introduction to the delay and the rain, stolidly plowed through all fifteen minutes of his prepared remarks.

When Straub finally droned to a conclusion, President Bush stepped up to the microphone, waved off an umbrella, and proceeded to tear up his speech, in full view of all. The crowd went wild. He then delivered a few extemporaneous remarks praising Hungary’s reform-minded leadership.  As he was finishing his brief remarks, the evening sun began to break through the dark clouds, seeming to add its own soft rays to the warmth of the occasion. Noticing an elderly woman who was standing near the podium, soaked to the skin, the President took off his raincoat and put it around her shoulders. As the crowd roared its approval, he plunged into its midst, shaking hands and shouting good wishes. It was an incredible scene, one I will never forget. The empathy between him and the crowd was total …

As we flew from Budapest to Paris, I reflected on the new Europe being born. Different as were the peoples, and the paths of reform they were following, there was something fundamental taking place, something I was becoming convinced would not be denied. Reform now seemed to be determined, deliberate, and without the bitterness or thirst for revenge which might trigger renewed repression. I had no idea what a short timetable lay ahead, but I was enormously encouraged by what we had seen …

GEORGE BUSH

As my trip to Europe drew to a close, I realized that to put off a meeting with Gorbachev was becoming dangerous. Too much was happening in the East – I had seen it myself – and if the superpowers did not begin to manage events, those very events could destabilize Eastern Europe and Soviet-American relations. We still did not know how much change Gorbachev would allow in the region, and I saw that Eastern Europeans themselves would try to push matters as far as they could …

I was moved by the hope I saw in Eastern Europe … But I understood that the pressure on Gorbachev from hard-liners to intervene would grow, as these once reliable allies began to pull further away and the Soviet security buffer against the West eroded. The dangers were ahead, and I would have to respond with even greater care as the Eastern Europeans pushed their own way to the future. We could not let the people down – there could still be more Tiananmens.

President Bush and his foreign policy team, right, meet in Budapest with Hungarian leaders guiding their country towards more democratic reforms on July 12, 1989.