Bush and Gorbachev in the Red Room of the White House, June 1, 1990.
Washington, D.C., June 13, 2010 - The Washington summit 20 years ago this month between Presidents George H.W. Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev brought dramatic realization on the American side of the severe domestic political pressures facing the Soviet leader, produced an agreement in principle on trade but no breakthrough on Germany, and only slow progress towards the arms race in reverse which Gorbachev had offered, according to previously secret Soviet and U.S. documents posted today by the National Security Archive.
The largely symbolic achievements of the Washington summit memorialized in the documents contrast with subsequent published accounts claiming that the summit was a crucial turning point for German unification. (Note 1) The documents suggest other (non-American) points were more important, such as the March 1990 elections in East Germany, and the July 1990 meeting between Gorbachev and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, in which Kohl offered significant financial aid and support for the Soviet troops in East Germany during a multi-year withdrawal process. (Note 2)
The documents show that Gorbachev came to the Washington summit in May 1990 under severe constraints from his own Central Committee (in marked contrast to previous summits). His marching orders, published here for the first time, reflect the dismay within leading Soviet circles over the loss of the Eastern European empire, resistance to Gorbachev’s demilitarization policy, and opposition to the unification of Germany.
Retrenchment on the Soviet side found something of an echo on the U.S. side, as a combination of the U.S. Air Force desire for thousands of air-launched cruise missiles (conventional warheads only, but the Soviets saw the possibility of nuclear conversion in a crunch), and U.S. Navy resistance to on-site inspections for mutual verification on ship-board nuclear warheads, prevented real progress on major arms cuts proposals such as the 50% ballistic missile cut discussed by Gorbachev and President Reagan at Reykjavik four years earlier. In fact, completing the START treaty – which Gorbachev originally sought to sign at the Washington summit – would take an entire additional year.
The documents show that Gorbachev came to Washington determined to make one final push for his idea of a European security structure, or the “common European home.” He envisioned a gradual transformation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact into political organizations and their subsequent dissolution as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) would become institutionalized and subsume NATO security functions. For Gorbachev, this was the answer to Soviet Union’s pressing issues—modernization and integration into Europe. At the same time, the Soviet leader was not going to alienate Germany as a potential friend and donor by opposing German unification—even in NATO if other alternatives did not work.
This situation created a strange dichotomy, where Gorbachev showed surprising flexibility on the issue of German unification—proposing, in fact, that Germany should be allowed to choose alliances herself, but at the same time he wanted to slow down the pace of unification to let the European processes come first. At the Washington summit, Gorbachev says that he would prefer to see “united Germany as the mediator of the European process,” that his preferred model of unification would be “a model that would include some length of time and be synchronized with the European processes.” The documents show Gorbachev being painfully aware of the reverse connection between German unification and the European process—fast unification would negate his vision of the common European home. Although Baker for the first time states that the United States now accepts the idea of building European security structures, and the Americans would go on to lead a NATO summit focused on altering alliance policy in ways that would help Gorbachev, here Bush emphasizes that “unification is unfolding faster than any of us could have imagined,” and that “united Germany is right around the corner.”
In his conversations with Bush, perhaps for the first time in the history of U.S.-Soviet summits, the Soviet leader talks about his parliament almost as much as his American counterpart—and in a similar fashion as well. Partly, Gorbachev sincerely admits that political pressures from the Supreme Soviet do impose severe limits on his freedom of maneuver on most of the issues of the negotiations, but also he uses this issue as leverage with the U.S. President. However, especially on the issue of the Lithuanian drive for independence, Gorbachev is truly under fire from the left and from the right in the Supreme Soviet. He also badly needs to show the summit as his success, which domestically would hinge on signing the trade agreement, securing Western credits, and a fast signing of START. The transcripts show that Gorbachev repeatedly addresses the looming economic crisis in the Soviet Union and the need for support of the Soviet reform by the West.
The two leaders’ very first one-on-one discussion on May 31 (according to the memoirs, but unfortunately largely missing from the available documentary record) spends significant time on economic reform in the Soviet Union, and requests for assistance. During that discussion, the Soviet leader asks his American counterpart what kind of Soviet Union would the U.S. want to see in the future. He in turn emphasizes that the new Soviet Union would be a democratic, open and stable state with market economy, but that change would have to come gradually. Gorbachev finds Bush very sympathetic regarding Soviet domestic problems but unable to deliver what he wants most—credits to support investment and purchase consumer goods. Instead, Bush goes ahead with the trade agreement, despite political criticism over the Lithuania issue, to make sure Gorbachev has at least one success to point to. After the trade agreement is signed, the Camp David discussions feature a true tour d’horizon of the regional issues and show a genuine cooperation between the Soviet and American leaders.
The documents posted today include Soviet memcons of the Washington summit itself (the American memcons remain classified today, in a surreal testimony to the decrepitude of the U.S. secrecy system), the preparatory documents from both Soviet and U.S. files for the preceding ministerial meeting in Moscow between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (and Gorbachev), the National Security Directive signed by George H.W. Bush defining the American arms control goals and limits, the transcript of Kohl’s call to Bush just before the summit on May 30, 1990, and the U.S. Embassy cables from Moscow about Gorbachev’s political crisis before the summit and Soviet reaction afterwards, including the observation that the summit played in Moscow as if it were a political campaign against insurgent Russian politician Boris Yeltsin.
Read the Documents
Document 1. “Gorbachev Confronts Crisis of Power,” Moscow 15714, Cable from U.S. Embassy Moscow to U.S. Department of State, 11 May 1990.
This remarkable cable from U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock in Moscow just weeks before the Washington summit describes for the summit planners in Washington the severe “crisis of political power” facing Gorbachev, who seems “less a man in control and more an embattled leader.” The cable details the many signs of crisis, which is “of Gorbachev’s making, if not of his design” because “[f]ive years of Gorbachev’s perestroika have undermined the key institution of political power in the Soviet Union, the Communist Party” without replacing it with any coherent, legitimate governance system. Full of specifics about “the powerful social forces his reforms have unleashed” and prescient about the various possibilities to come, the Matlock cable implicitly signals that Gorbachev would be coming to Washington on the downward curve of his power and his ability to deliver any of the items on the American agenda. In effect, the arms race in reverse that had been on offer from Gorbachev at the previous summits with Presidents Reagan and Bush now would be slowed to a crawl.
Document 2. “Draft U.S.-Soviet Summit Joint Statement,” U.S. Department of State, R.G.H. Seitz to the Secretary, 14 May 1990.
The State Department prepared this CONFIDENTIAL nine-page script two weeks before the Washington summit, summarizing what the U.S. government expected from the meeting, in prose that reads preemptively in the past tense. The cover memo from the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Raymond Seitz, proposes giving the draft to the Soviets at the very beginning of Secretary Baker’s ministerial meeting in Moscow, or alternatively waiting to “gauge the tone of the ministerial” and “adjust[ing] our draft accordingly before handing it over.” Notable are the passages that propose, related to START and to CFE, that “all major substantive issues have been resolved” yet kick the can for completing these agreements until “the end of 1990” (for START, this moment would not come until July 1991). Also interesting is the absence of any mention of NATO, at a time when a unified Germany’s prospective membership in that alliance was at the center of the political debate (and of the Americans’ concerns); and instead, the draft emphasizes the CSCE processes that most appealed to Gorbachev’s vision of a common European home.
Document 3. National Security Directive 40, “Decisions on START Issues,” 14 May 1990.
The language in this SECRET five-page Directive signed by President Bush takes the reader back to the intricacies of Cold War arms control negotiations between the superpowers, with a profusion of acronyms, subceilings, devilish details, and not-so-hidden agendas. The story behind the very first item on the list, the non-nuclear air-launched cruise missile Tacit Rainbow, reveals the real reason why it took so long to complete the START treaty (it wouldn’t be signed until July 1991). Tacit Rainbow, at the time of this Directive still in development and not yet in production, was intended to be a jet-powered mini-drone that could hover over enemy targets (assuming massive air attacks were on their way), wait for enemy radar to light up, then destroy those air-defense radars. This system would be cancelled in 1991 before even entering production in part because of cost overruns and also because of audit findings that decoys would be more effective against ground radars. Yet the hard line taken by U.S. START negotiators attempting to leave open this kind of U.S. option for developing non-nuclear cruise missiles added years of delay on overall cuts in strategic weapons. Likewise, the language on submarine-launched cruise missiles – allowing 875-1000 of them to be deployed without any on-board verification procedures – was more the product of U.S. military service rivalries for new weapons systems than any real assessment of U.S. national security. After all, many more U.S. cities were on the coasts and thus vulnerable to Soviet SLCMs than were Soviet cities vulnerable to U.S. SLCMs – a zero option would have made the U.S. more secure.
Document 4. Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, “On the directives for negotiations with the U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in Moscow on May 16-19th, 1990,” 16 May 1990.
This package of Soviet documents from Gorbachev Foundation files includes the Politburo’s approval of what are in effect marching orders for Gorbachev’s and Shevardnadze’s dealings with the Americans up to and including the Washington-Camp David summit, starting with Secretary Baker’s ministerial visit to Moscow. The tone-setting document is the May 15th memo from six senior officials including Shevardnadze of the Foreign Ministry, Zaikov from the military-industrial complex, Kryuchkov from the KGB, Yakovlev (in charge of ideology), and Yazov from the Defense Ministry. This memo declares that “[t]he main task is to prepare the principle provisions of a Soviet-American treaty on a 50-percent reduction in strategic offensive weapons, to be coordinated during the summit” and the following specific directives even expect the agreement “to be initialed by the USSR and US leaders during the meeting…” But on Germany, the memo includes the position that the Soviets had already presented at the Two Plus Four negotiations in Paris, that “it would be politically and psychologically unacceptable for us to see a united Germany in NATO. We cannot agree to the destruction of the balance of power and stability in Europe that would inevitably result from this step.” Top Gorbachev adviser Anatoly Chernyaev had earlier in May debated this position with Gorbachev, who well understood that it could not be sustained, yet this was Gorbachev’s official brief as he went into the summit. As the further documents show, he would seriously exceed his brief in Washington; yet the memo gives the sense of limits and domestic political pressure under which Gorbachev was operating. Combined with the directives that follow, the memo clearly attempts to limit the possibility of any further Gorbachev concessions during the negotiations, and details very specific positions on each of the contentious issues to be covered. Interestingly, the specific instructions include a paragraph on biological weapons—the only indication we have in the documents that this subject becomes an important part of discussion at the summit, taken up directly by Gorbachev with Bush at Camp David, according to David Hoffman’s account in The Dead Hand.
Document 5. Record of conversation, M.S. Gorbachev and U.S. Secretary of State J. Baker (with delegations), Moscow, 18 May 1990 [excerpts].
The fascinating excerpt presented here covers the arms control portion of the Gorbachev-Baker conversation, in preparation for the Washington summit, while the full text of this memcon includes extensive but inconclusive discussion of the issues of German unification and of tensions in the Baltics, particularly the standoff between Moscow and secessionist Lithuania. Following the official directives, Soviet negotiators are trying to avoid making further concessions while agreeing with the U.S. insistence on making an exception for Tacit Rainbow missile, which exceeds the Soviet-sought range limit on cruise missiles, and by accepting – after some debate – the U.S. demand that the issue of inspection of SLCMs on naval ships be resolved by a separate non-binding political statement and not be part of the treaty. Here we find the Soviet leader channeling President Ronald Reagan’s famous proverb, “trust but verify,” while the Americans duck any verification measures. Baker even rejects Gorbachev’s proposal for what would be purely symbolic inspections of “two ships a year,” something that would help Gorbachev with his domestic critics. When Gorbachev retorts, “does your position consist of the condition that an alien foot should never be able to step on an American ship?”, Baker finally admits, “We, of course, would prefer precisely this solution. We do not want to start movement on this slippery road.” Gorbachev’s frustration is evident when he points to the START “concession that the American side did not even anticipate. I am talking about the agreement to cut the number of our heavy missiles by half. We agreed to that in Reykjavik. Compared to that, American concessions are just sunflower seeds.” For his part, Shevardnadze laments that “two days will not be enough to list all our concessions” during the recent negotiations. For perhaps the first time in such negotiations, the Soviets match the U.S. concern for how the Congress will view the treaty in ratification debates with their own references to the Supreme Soviet’s consideration – perhaps reflecting the new opposition groups from right and left in that body.
Document 6. Talking Points, Secretary Baker’s Briefing to Members of the White House Press Corps, 22 May 1990.
Back from Moscow, the Secretary of State appears in the White House press briefing room to set the stage for the summit, outline the issues, and shape the press coverage going forward. The cover memo from Baker’s senior aide, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Margaret Tutwiler, gives Baker the scenario and the 30-minute time limit for the briefing. The Talking Points in outline format express cautious hopes for completing the START treaty (“In Malta the Presidents set a goal of resolving all major substantive START issues by the summit. Progress at the Moscow ministerial has certainly put them in a position where that is possible.”). At the very end is the summary of the potential trade agreement that would become the primary (although primarily symbolic) outcome of the summit.
Document 7. “Press Fact Sheets for the Summit,” U.S. Department of State to Brent Scowcroft, The White House, 28 May 1990.
This 28-page set of CONFIDENTIAL drafts provided by the State Department to the White House gives one-page summaries of each of the agreements expected at the summit, together with those “that could be signed or announced if political decision made” and those “not yet fully negotiated” – the latter including START as well as “Bering Sea Fisheries.” The package gives a detailed sense of what kept both countries’ bureaucracies busy before and during the superpower summits. Even though ultimately intended to turn into public press statements, these drafts contain some insider insights, including in the cover memo reporting that “[i]n cases where texts are still being negotiated with the Soviets, we have tried to predict the result and drafted the fact sheets on that basis.”
Document 8. “Status Update on Agreements and Joint Statements for the Summit,” U.S. Department of State to Brent Scowcroft, The White House, 29 May 1990.
This memo from the State Department to the White House updates where each of the proposed agreements stand, with candid language about each, including the fact that emigration legislation is unlikely to pass in Moscow before the summit – which was one of the original U.S. conditions for a new trade agreement. For the uninitiated, the memo helpfully explains that “agreement texts must be conformed (U.S. and Soviet sides agree the English and Russian texts are the same) and then certified (State interpreter confirms the final texts are identical) before signature.”
Document 9. “Telephone Call from Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany,” Memorandum of Telephone Conversation [with President Bush], The White House, 30 May 1990.
The West German chancellor rings President Bush to make three points before Gorbachev arrives in Washington for the summit. First was the joint Kohl-Bush position on the “future membership of a united Germany in NATO without any limitations.” Second was Kohl’s intention to “find an sensible economic arrangement” with Gorbachev because he “needs help very much” – meaning major West German financial aid and credits. Third, “it is of immense importance that we make further progress in disarmament.” Interestingly, in the Bush-Scowcroft version of this conversation that would be published in their joint memoir, A World Transformed, Kohl’s third point about disarmament is left out altogether (p. 278). And the memcon is circumspect on Bush’s side about Gorbachev’s need for financial aid, with Bush saying only that he “remember[s] your private conversation with me. Subsequently, that has been raised, with Jim Baker. We have problems with that, related to Lithuania.” The U.S. was also running its own budget deficit, and Bush had no intention of providing major financial support to Gorbachev – that would be up to Kohl.
Document 10. Record of Conversation, M.S. Gorbachev and G. Bush, Washington D.C., The White House, 31 May 1990 [First One-on-One, Excerpt].
The documentary record of the first one-on-one (actually with translators) meeting in the Oval Office between the U.S. and Soviet leaders remains incomplete, since the Gorbachev Foundation has only published the two pages of excerpts translated here, and the American memcons of the entire summit remain ridiculously classified, even though President Bush published lengthy quotations from them in his 1998 memoir co-authored with Brent Scowcroft. Bush’s memoir (p. 279) describes this discussion as “largely philosophical, the kind each of us had hoped to have at Malta.” This first conversation of the summit went significantly longer than planned, forcing the cancellation of the first plenary session, but the tone between the leaders is striking, direct and candid. They assure each other of their commitment to cooperation and further arms control negotiations. Bush draws Gorbachev’s attention to the situation in Lithuania and how difficult it is for him politically to sustain the position of supporting perestroika while Moscow is putting pressure on Lithuania to stay in the Soviet Union. Bush says he will try to continue to show patience, but he mentions that the Lithuanian opposition leaders were comparing him to Chamberlain, the appeaser of Hitler, “for supporting you [Gorbachev] and not the great American principles of democracy and freedom.”
Document 11. Record of Conversation, M.S. Gorbachev and G. Bush, Washington D.C., The White House, 31 May 1990 [Plenary with delegations, Excerpts].
In this famous “two anchor” discussion, the U.S. and Soviet delegations discuss the process of German unification and especially the issue of united Germany joining NATO. Bush is trying to persuade his Russian counterpart to reconsider his fears of Germany based on the past, and encourage him to trust the new democratic Germany. Baker repeats the nine assurances, a package of various American pledges put together for maximum impact, including the one that the United States now agrees to support the pan-European process and transformation of NATO to remove the Soviet perception of threat. Gorbachev’s preferred position is Germany with one foot in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact—the “two anchors”—in some kind of associated membership, which Bush calls “schizophrenic.” After the U.S. President frames the issue in the context of the Helsinki agreement, Gorbachev proposes the formulation that German people would have the right to choose their alliance—which he in essence already affirmed to Kohl during their meeting in February 1990. In stating and then reaffirming this position, Gorbachev significantly exceeds his brief and incurs the ire of other members of delegation, especially the Soviet official with the German portfolio, Valentin Falin, and Marshal Sergey Akhromeev. On the future of NATO itself, the Soviet leader suggests that if NATO becomes “a genuinely open organization,” then the Soviet Union “could also think about becoming a member of NATO”—surprisingly, he already suggested it to Vaclav Havel on May 21, during the Czechoslovak president’s visit to Moscow. The key warning about the future comes in Gorbachev’s caution that “if the Soviet people get an impression that we are disregarded in the German question, then all the positive processes in Europe, including the negotiations in Vienna [over conventional forces] would be in serious danger. This is not just bluffing. It is simply that the people will force us to stop and to look around.” This is a remarkable admission about domestic political pressures, from the last Soviet leader.
Document 12. Record of Conversation, M.S. Gorbachev and G. Bush, Washington D.C., The White House, 1 June 1990 [Excerpts from One-on-One and from the Plenary with delegations].
These brief excerpts published by the Gorbachev Foundation are translated here for the first time. After showing flexibility on German unification during the previous day’s discussions, the Soviet leader is trying here to achieve his major political goal—to get Bush to agree to sign a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in the absence of the expected law on emigration. Gorbachev explains how important for him this agreement would be and asks the U.S. President for a “political gesture” in the one-on-one conversation. In the plenary portion of the talks on strategic arms control, Gorbachev states his ultimate goal—“we have a firm intention to reach a signing of this treaty already in this year. This is the most important [thing].” But no breakthroughs on either issue are reached until later in the day when Bush decides to sign a trade agreement by finessing the emigration law requirement and adding a secret codicil requiring the USSR to suspend its blockage of Lithuania and begin serious dialogue.
Document 13. Record of Conversation, M.S. Gorbachev and G. Bush, Camp David, Maryland, 2 June 1990 [Excerpts from Camp David discussions].
The only publicly available excerpt, published by the Gorbachev Foundation, shows Gorbachev thanking Bush for agreeing to sign the trade agreement. The Soviet leader is satisfied with this outcome that gives him a victory to take home, to allay the criticism of the conservatives, and at least symbolically to address the economic crisis at home. He is also very sensitive to the public assessment of the summit and wants to pronounce it a victory. Bush and Gorbachev together discuss what they would say at the press conference the next day, especially on reaching the trade agreement. What the excerpt leaves out is the discussion on biological weapons that took place during Gorbachev’s visit to Camp David, during which Bush confronted Gorbachev with information that the U.S. received from their British partners after the defection of Soviet biological weapons expert Pasechnik in the fall of 1989. Only two weeks earlier, on May 14, the British and American ambassadors to Moscow, Rodric Braithwaite and Jack Matlock, had presented a demarche on biological weapons to the Soviets, according to David Hoffman’s pioneering research.
Document 14. “Washington Summit Briefing Points,” U.S. Department of State to Deputy Secretary [Lawrence] Eagleburger, 4 June 1990.
Immediately following the summit, the State Department sends these SECRET talking points to the Deputy Secretary, Lawrence Eagleburger, away from Washington in Paraguay. The cable notes that separate (and presumably more expansive) Presidential letters are being sent to U.S. embassies in NATO countries as well as in Warsaw, Prague, Berlin and Budapest. Here we see the basis for subsequent accounts claiming that the meeting “was essentially different from any previous U.S.-Soviet summit” – “beyond containment to an era of enduring cooperation.”
Document 15. “Soviet Reactions to the Summit,” U.S. Embassy Moscow to U.S. Department of State, Moscow 19444, 12 June 1990.
This remarkable summary of Soviet assessments of the summit points out that “for the average Soviet, the summit story could not compete with concerns over food supplies and the election of Yeltsin to the RFSFR [Russian republic] presidency.” The cable goes on to remark, “From here, especially judging from the television coverage, the summit seemed part of a Gorbachev political campaign to gain support at home.” Bizarrely, the entire section headlined “Dissenting Voices” – giving a “more jaundiced view of the summit” – is blacked out by State Department declassification officers, claiming “B1” which means damage to U.S. national security.
Document 16. “Briefing Allies on Washington Summit,” U.S. Department of State to U.S. Embassies in NATO Capitals, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra [and info to Moscow], 15 June 1990.
This 13-page cable two weeks after the summit provides the Bush administration’s fullest version of the summit results in the form of briefing points for U.S. diplomats to deliver to the allies. Classified SECRET (or one level up from the CONFIDENTIAL version sent to all diplomatic posts), this briefer includes several additional paragraphs of description just for the allies, as well as quotes from the “candid” exchanges with Gorbachev. For example, the cable quotes Gorbachev as saying were it not for the development of close working relations with Washington, the “rapid pace of change in Europe could have provoked a real clash of interests between the two countries, like “putting a match to a bonfire.”
1. Citing an interview with Anatoly Chernyaev by the scholar Hannes Adomeit, Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice call the summit “a turning point. From this time on, Gorbachev never again voiced adamant opposition to Germany’s presence in NATO.” Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 283. Robert Hutchings goes even further, catching the reader’s attention early in his narrative by writing, “The Bush-Gorbachev Summit thus emerged as the most important U.S.-Soviet meeting ever held. It was a summit essentially unlike any that had gone before.” Yet Hutchings is too scrupulous a scholar to sustain this argument, and by the end of this section he consigns the Washington summit, along with its trade agreement and the London NATO summit, to the status of “essential backdrop for the dramatic meeting in the Caucasus between Kohl and Gorbachev.” Robert Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of U.S. Policy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997), pp. 131-137.
2. The best recent explication of these dynamics, based in significant part on the National Security Archive’s collections, may be found in Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), see specifically pp. 167-169 on the Washington summit. For the long view of Gorbachev’s vision for Europe, see Svetlana Savranskaya, “The Logic of 1989,” in Savranskaya, Blanton, and Zubok, eds., Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (Budapest/New York: Central European University Press, 2010), pp. 1-47.