Twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down, the end of the Cold War still inspires euphoria and triumphalism in the West. But even as we lift toasts once again to the victory of 1989, we should re-examine that momentous year. Documents, memoirs, and other evidence that have come to light suggest that for relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, it was also a time of missed opportunity.
The fall of the wall was a European earthquake, but in Washington and Moscow, miscommunication and suspicion meant the leaders were badly out of sync. While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was eager to move on cutting nuclear arsenals, President George H.W. Bush was cautious and uncertain, and a promising moment slipped away.
The fall of the Berlin Wall united Germany and eliminated the Cold War's most potent symbol. Here are five barriers that continue to divide nations and disrupt lives today.
By Joshua Keating
It is always easier to identify a pivotal year in retrospect than as you are living through it. When he became president in 1989, after eight years as vice president, Bush was devoted to the ideals of prudence and good stewardship in public service. He and others in the Republican party, conditioned by their Cold War experience, did not see how quickly the world was changing around them. They remained wary of Gorbachev. By year's end, when the unexpected happened and the gates of the Berlin Wall were flung open, Bush faced pressures made even more intense by his early hesitation.
On Dec. 7, 1988, just weeks after Bush was elected and before he took office, Gorbachev made a stunning announcement at the United Nations: the pullback of 500,000 troops from Europe. It was a profound break from the past to make such a sizable one-sided withdrawal. Gorbachev said the Soviet Union would no longer hold the countries of Eastern Europe in its grip, another breathtaking change in approach. "Freedom of choice is a universal principle," he said. "It knows no exceptions."
After the speech Gorbachev met with President Ronald Reagan and Bush at Governors Island. Reagan, in the twilight hours of his presidency, was ebullient, but he did not discuss Gorbachev's remarkable speech in any detail, and they parted without having realized their goal of reducing the arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons. The hope for a 50 percent cut was bogged down in negotiations.
Bush was low-key, and Gorbachev sensed his hesitation. "We should take into account that Bush is a very cautious politician," Gorbachev told the Politburo. Two days after Bush's inauguration in January 1989, Bush's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, said, "I think the Cold War is not over."