FLASHBACK - Bush and Gorbachev at Malta | WHAT REALLY HAPPENED X-Frame-Options: DENY X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN

FLASHBACK - Bush and Gorbachev at Malta

The documents show profound misjudgments of Gorbachev on the American side, including the President's assumption that the Soviet leader would press for the removal of U.S. troops from Europe, not realizing until talking to Gorbachev directly that, just as Gorbachev had already announced publicly on multiple occasions, he believed the U.S. presence along with the NATO alliance to be a stabilizing force in Europe, particularly against any danger of German revanchism.

The documents signal a major missed opportunity at Malta to meet Soviet arms reductions proposals halfway, and suggest that the Bush "pause" in U.S.-Soviet relations during 1989 effectively delayed both strategic and tactical demilitarization for at least two years (the START treaty would not be signed until 1991, and only in September 1991 would Bush withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. Navy ships), at which point Gorbachev had effectively lost the domestic power to deliver on his side.

Gorbachev had sought to engage president-elect Bush as early as the Governor's Island meeting in New York in December 1988, but Bush demurred, instead launching a strategic review of U.S.-Soviet relations that cloaked the reality that the transition from Reagan to Bush was one from doves to hawks, that is, disbelievers in Gorbachev as a true reformer. Throughout 1989, judging by the candid memoir authored by President Bush with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft (Note 1), the Bush mentality was marked by insecurity and anxiety that Gorbachev was more popular globally and had the initiative on proposing new departures in security policy – never quite recognizing that Gorbachev's proposals might well be in the U.S. national security interest. (Note 2)

Not until Bush went to Eastern Europe himself in July 1989, where he heard the reform Communists like Jaruzelski in Poland and Nemeth in Hungary plead with him to reach out to Gorbachev because that created political space for them to make change – and even more importantly, where he met the dissidents and oppositionists like Lech Walesa in Poland, who called U.S. aid proposals "pathetic," (Note 3) or Janos Kis in Hungary whom Bush quickly concluded should not be running his country – did Bush overrule his advisers and ask Gorbachev for a meeting, meaning to slow down the process of change in Eastern Europe. Bush wrote in his memoir: "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… I saw that the Eastern Europeans themselves would try to push matters as far as they could." (Note 4)