A stroke of luck for Europe

A guest post by Mária Schmidt

“George Bush was a stroke of luck for Europe and the Germans”

Helmut Kohl

“I am here today to offer Hungary the partnership of the United States of America”

George H. W. Bush

In Budapest

I have never experienced the like of that storm. On June 11th 1989, Budapest’s Kossuth square was packed with us, the many thousands of Hungarians waiting for President George Bush of the United States. None of us went home. The President looked around. Right in front of him he saw the wind-torn banner of the Alliance of Free Democrats inviting him in Hungarian and in English to „Free us from Yalta!” The President suddenly took the decision to tear up the text of his pre-written speech and said: “I’m going to take this speech, and I'm going to tear it up. You've been out here too long. And I want you to know that I am here as President of the United States because we have in our country a special affection and feeling for the people of Hungary. Let me just speak to you from the heart, and I'll be brief -- tear that thing up.”  He spoke about freedom; about the United States as a friend that would always stand on our side and would never leave us alone any more. “We want to work with Hungary to continue the changes and the reforms that are going forward in Hungary.” The mere fact of a visit by the President of the United States was proof that we had put ourselves onto the World map, and the leader of the most important country of this world is paying attention to how we are faring. That was a source of self-confidence and hope for all of us and made us forget about the meteorological inferno. The day after, President Bush met not only with leading Communist party and government officials Károly Grósz,  Rezső Nyers, Miklós Németh and Imre Pozsgay, but also received, and by receiving, legitimized at the residence of the US ambassador Mark Palmer, the leaders of the opposition. G.H. Bush realized that the course of the events were not any more being determined by the cautious and frightened party leaders, but by their impatient and resolute opponents. He could see with his own eyes that the events were taking place in a much more rapid succession than foreseen. It became clear both for him and for us that the countdown over the party state had begun. In his speech at the Karl Marx University of Economics on the 12th of July, the President openly said: he intended Hungary to play a key role in reuniting Europe. G.H. Bush perfectly understood the significance of the reburial ceremony a month before, on the 16th of June, that on the one hand put an end to the Kádár regime and thereby to socialism on Hungarian soil, and on the other gave the opportunity to Viktor Orbán to proclaim to the country and to the world for the first time the claim of the people of Hungary for independence, free elections and a democratic society. The President called the reburial of Imre Nagy and his comrades in martyrdom a simple and dignified ceremony, which was however more than a gesture of reconciliation. “And in this simple, somber ceremony, the world saw something more than a dignified act, an act of reconciliation: We witnessed an act of truth. It is on this foundation of truth, more solid than stone; that Hungarians have begun to build a new future. A generation waited to honor Imre Nagy's courage; may a hundred generations remember it.  And Hungary, your great country, is leading the way. Then, he went on saying “The Soviet Union has withdrawn troops, which I also take as a step in overcoming Europe's division. And as those forces leave, let the Soviet leaders know they have everything to gain and nothing to lose or fear from peaceful change. We can -- and I am determined that we will -- work together to move beyond containment, beyond the cold war. No, there is no mistaking the fact that we are on the threshold of a new era. And there's also no mistaking the fact that Hungary is at the threshold of great and historic change. You're writing a real constitution, and you're moving toward democratic, multiparty elections. And this is partly possible because brave men and women have formed opposition parties. And this is possible because Hungarian leaders are going to show the ultimate political courage: the courage to submit to the choice of the people in free elections.” He compared the position of the Hungarian economy to a puzzle requiring the creativity needed to put together the elements of the Rubik cube, to which he promised help from the United States. He ended his speech on this note: „Let us have history write of us that we were the generation that made Europe whole and free.”

The 41st President

You cannot be President of the United States if you don't have faith.

George W. H. Bush

“George Bush is a man blessed with common sense. He is deeply religious and always successful. At the same time his life style is very modest; he is extremely cultivated and informed about world affairs. When taking over his office in the White House, he was better versed in foreign politics than any of his predecessors had been. He is also a multi-decorated World War II veteran, without making a big fuss about it. George Bush was a great blessing,” Helmut Kohl wrote about him in his memoires.

George Bush’s father, Prescott, was a businessman and politician himself, just like his son and his grandson would be. He had been a banker before becoming a senator. His son, born in 1924, also tested his skills in business. He founded then led an oil company which made him a wealthy man. Then, following the tradition of his nation and his family, he went into politics. It is in fact common practice among Americans who prove their skills in business to enter civil service or run for elected posts in order to put their talent at the service of the community. So did George Bush. He was elected to the House of Representatives, then represented Texas in the Senate, became GOP Chairman, then Ambassador first to the United Nations, then to Peking, before being appointed to the post of CIA Director (I'm going to be so much better a president for having been at the CIA that you're not going to believe it – George Bush), then serving for eight years as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, before being elected 41st President of the United States of America. A mere two months into his term in office, his aides warned him “We are in the midst of a period of transition that will yield changes as important as the ones in the post-war era” (On March 14, 1989). And how right they were! President Bush took over the leadership of the free world when a new, post-cold-war world order had to be shaped in accordance with the recent tilt in the balance of power in favor of the forces of freedom. In order to successfully manage such an epochal change, it was indispensable to fully understand the nature and the dynamics of the international balance of power, apart from possessing a few more basic qualities: courage, imagination, tact, tactical subtleness – and, of course, wisdom. In order to allow the world to make a soft landing after such turbulences (Thimothy Naftali: George H. W. Bush, Times Books, 2007. 139.), the President of the United States needed a life’s experience in combat as in home and international affairs. As a young pilot (I think I'd be a better president because I was in combat – George Bush), he hadn’t only learned the need to act resolutely in the decisive moments, but also the value of comrades in arms one can always rely upon. He also knew from personal experience that soft landing was indispensable but by no means sufficient for the success of an operation: it also took a great deal of effort and quite some luck. His combat and business experience taught him how to mobilize his colleagues behind his carefully pondered decisions.  For it always takes a team to do a great job. And he did have a good one. His national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, as well as his Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell were among the best and got on very well with each other. „I’ve always admired George Bush because he was willing to do things that were long shots,” James Baker, a life-long friend once explained.

George Bush was a World War Two veteran. He was eighteen when he joined the marines and flew 58 sorties as the youngest pilot of the Marine Corps. Following the family tradition, he went to study at Yale, where he founded, with his friend William Buckley, a moderate conservative movement which advocated liberalism in society and conservatism in the economy. He remained faithful to those values throughout his political career. As a diplomat, he learned how to listen to others and take their points of view in serious consideration. During his term as ambassador to the United Nations, he urged the Soviet and Arab missions to be put under special protection against terrorist threats by groups demanding Jewish emigration and even paid a personal visit to the Soviet ambassador after the latter had been attacked. He was the first ambassador to china to move around in a bicycle. He took his job as CIA chief in 0976. That was the time when he started seriously to study the Soviet Union. He set up an advisory committee, headed by Harvard professor Richard Pipes. He learned from those panelists that the Soviet Union was not just aspiring to military and political world-wide hegemony, but was already having the edge over the United States (Thimothy Naftali: George H. W. Bush, Times Books, 2007. 37.).

President Bush considered Richard Nixon as his mentor in politics, the same Nixon who, ever since the Hiss-affair was considered as the most anti-Communist politician in the United States, who had served as the youngest Vice-President in American history and who had recognized that the central issues of the era were linked to international politics. The major achievements of his presidency, just like President Bush’s main deeds, were the ones that contributed to changing the international scenery. Nixon had been the one to inflict perhaps the heaviest blow on the Soviet Union by making an alliance with China. And that is where the roots may be found that would later feed Bush’s interest in international politics and China in particular. But when, in the wake of the Watergate-scandal Nixon’s position became untenable, he as Chairman of the Republican Party invited him to resign, which was done By Nixon the day after.  Their relationship, however, was not interrupted. During the tense days of 1989, George Bush often sought Nixon’s advice in connection with his talks with the soviet leaders, and in April 1991 he sent Nixon with a mission to the Soviet Union. Apart from Moscow, Nixon also visited Georgia and Lithuania, and squeezed his impressions into one single sentence: “In the meantime, the Soviet Union has got tired of Gorbachev” (György Dalos).

Throughout the two terms spent on Reagan’s side as Vice President, Bush was a regular participant at the national security meetings held in the morning hours, and was getting the same homeland briefings that were being prepared daily for the president. He was in charge of the national security crisis center and the national security planning team. He shared Reagan’s political vision and contributed to his splendid achievements. He realized that sometimes it is the so called dreamers who turn out to be the true realists.

“Europe Must Be United and Free!”

“During the cold war we were fighting for liberty, the truth and justice. And we, the anti-Communists won.”

Margaret Thatcher

“We wanted to change the nation and changed the world,” President Reagan said, drawing the balance of his two terms in office, when handing over the job to his successor, George H. W. Bush, 41st President of the USA. By that time, the great enemy, the Soviet Union, the last colonial power was on the verge of collapse. As the Soviet military command saw it, their country had become strategically impaired by the Star Wars SDI program launched by the USA. As a result, the Soviet Union’s traditional self-assurance had evaporated.  The great issues unresolved since the end of World War Two, namely those of the divided Europe and divided Germany, were again on the agenda. “If there were two Germanies, then there were two Europes as well,” Raymond Aron said. But the same was expressed in a NATO declaration issued in 1967: “No final and stable settlement is possible in Europe without the resolution of the German question, which is at the source of the tensions within Europe”.  When on June 12, 1987, President Reagan said in West Berlin, at the Brandenburg gate that there was only one Berlin (“Es gibt nur ein Berlin”) and invited Gorbachev to tear down that wall, nobody thought that it would actually happen within a mere two years.

During the first spring after having taken the oath of office, President Bush paid a visit to the German Federal Republic. In a speech of historic significance in Mainz on the 31st of May 1989, he reiterated “that we're at the end of one era and at the beginning of another.  And for 40 years, the world has waited for the Cold War to end. The world has waited long enough. The time is right. Let Europe be whole and free. The Cold War began with the division of Europe. It can only end when Europe is whole”. He went on explaining that the world was witnessing an acceleration of event, for the Poles and the Hungarians were preparing to hold free elections. And he would visit them during the forthcoming summer to take them the following message: “The frontier of barbed wire and minefields between Hungary and Austria is being removed. Just as the barriers are coming down in Hungary, so must they fall throughout all of Eastern Europe. Let Berlin be next -- let Berlin be next! Nowhere is the division between East and West seen more clearly than in Berlin. And there this brutal wall cuts neighbor from neighbor, brother from brother. And that wall stands as a monument to the failure of communism. It must come down.  Europe become whole and free”. Finally, he said: “We want to help the nations of Eastern Europe realize what we, the nations of Western Europe, learned long ago: The foundation of lasting security comes not from tanks, troops, or barbed wire; it is built on shared values and agreements that link free peoples” (Mainz, May 31,)

A Long, Hot Summer

“Freedom was most important, but so was stability”

George Bush, July 11, 1989.

The Soviet empire was living its final hours. Gorbachev was a man of change who intended to give an impetus to the Soviet economy, to enable it to keep pace with the United States that was putting out new and new technologies. He realized that if left unchanged, their system would have no chances not only to win, but even to be a match in the competition between the Silicon Valley and the Donets Basin.  He tried to broaden his elbow room by curbing the influence of the KGB and of the Red Army, which resulted in stripping the Communist regime of its legitimacy based on fear and terror. “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform,” Alexis de Tocqueville warned. That is precisely what happened in the Soviet Union. The Soviet system was utterly disorganized and was fully paralyzed by Gorbachev’s reforms.

There was therefore no doubt about the régime’s immediate collapse, but it was not indifferent how loud the bang would be who would find themselves buried under the rubble and how long the implosion would last. Disintegrating empires usually demand as much blood and cause as much suffering as emerging ones. What was at stake for Bush was how to minimize the harmful consequences. He had to be extremely cautious and tactful. It was indispensable to preserve Gorbachev’s authority and to back him in his initiatives in order to help him keep his post as head of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. His internal enemies were not able to stage more than a failed coup, but had they prevailed, the reforms would have been halted and the disintegration would have taken much longer to be accomplished. Bush was following the Bismarckian principle of doing first what is necessary and only thereafter what is desirable. Thus he kept treating Gorbachev as an equal partner, while the soviet leader was making one unilateral gesture after the other to deserve that treatment. Ion the 7th of December 1988, he announced to the Un general Assembly that he would start pulling out Soviet troops from Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, which hi actually did, in Hungary’s case, starting from the 25th of March. Events then unfolded in a rapid succession throughout 1989. In February, the Solidarity movement was officially recognized by the Polish Communist leadership and would reap a sweeping victory at the parliamentary elections in June and would govern jointly with the Communists who kept 65 per cent of the mandates to themselves under a preliminary agreement. In Hungary the Iron curtain started being dismantled in May and East German refugees started filtrating through it into Austria. Many found refuge in the West German embassy. Before the end of the same month Chinese students claimed their right to Perestroika and Glasnost when Gorbachev was paying a visit to Peking. The Chinese party leadership put an end to their endeavors on Tienanmen Square on the 4th of June 1989. At the price of three thousand dead and ten thousand wounded. Bush, who was fully aware of the value of the alliance with China for the United States, was now facing the question if the United States was interested a closer Sino-Soviet co-operation marked by a common reform-policy, or it should prefer a situation where the Chinese leaders consider Gorbachev a threat to their grab on power and to their system. How would vacillating East European leaders, fearing for their command posts react to the Chinese example? Won’t they be lured into a violent, bloody showdown? In that volatile and delicate situation, Bush opted for moderation and tact. In a letter addressed to Teng Hsiao-ping he let the Chinese leader know he realized how important good relations with the West were for China and how concerned China was about the prospect of encirclement.  At the same time he asked for the arrested to be graced and sent personal envoys for talks in Peking (George Bush: All the best. My life in Letters and other Writings, Touchstone, 2000. 428-430. Teng replied within 24 hours. The envoys were Brent Scowcroft and Larry Eagleburger. Their mission was such a secret that their plane was almost shot down when it entered the Chinese airspace.). Barely a month later, he travelled to Hungary and Poland in a clear show of support for the cause of their liberty and independence. Based on the first hand impressions he gathered during those visits he asked Gorbachev to meet him, which he did late that year, in Malta. During that meeting, the President elaborated on the prospect of Russia’s involvement in the new international order in the making, in exchange for restoring the right of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to self-determination, “The totalitarian era is passing, its old ideas blown away like leaves from an ancient, lifeless tree,” he remarked at the end of that summit.

“By that fall, democracy and freedom were no longer marching through Eastern Europe they were racing,” Bush remembered later. “Hungary had opened its Austrian borders earlier that year, and a flood of ‘vacationing’ East Germans was using this as an exit to the West. As a result, even East Germany–the jewel crown of the Soviet’s Warsaw Pact–was teetering on the verge of collapse. It all came crashing down on November 9 when the Berlin Wall was opened. It was the beginning of the end for not only East Germany, but the entire Warsaw Pact. However, despite the euphoria, it was still a fragile and even frightening time. The Soviet Union still had troops and tanks stationed in East Germany, and we know it was not entirely impossible for Gorbachev to clamp down. We were all haunted by the crushing of the uprising in Hungary in 1956 and in Prague in 1968. We did not want to provoke a similar disaster.”   (Bush, 441.)

This is why Bush reacted so mutedly at his press conference on the 9th of November to the news of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "I'm very pleased," he said. And when the press questioned his lack of enthusiasm, Bush responded by stating, "I am not an emotional kind of guy."

But in reality he was emotional. He was actually deeply moved by the events in Hungary and in Poland, the German question, the quest for liberty and the enthusiasm of the people of Europe. He was a man of values, a dedicated person and a believer. He was convinced that all human beings had a right to be free and all nations were entitled to self-determination. “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world,” he said, and what is more important, so he thought.

The day after the collapse of the Berlin Wall this is what he noted in his diary: “Gorbachev sent a message yesterday asking us not to overreact. He is worried about the German demonstrations and about the situation getting out of hand. He asked for our understanding. In that same letter Moscow also warned us to take care lest gossip about reunification starts spreading again. That is a real problem for him, but I am of the opinion that the German people also have the right to self-determination and I don’t think he can prevent that. Now that East Germany is on the verge of collapse, Moscow is again afraid of a united Germany. As a matter of fact, not just Moscow, but almost the whole of Europe where the memory of World War Two is still fresh.”   (Bush, 442.)

German Unity

“I am grateful to George Bush, for Helmut Kohl would have never achieved German reunification without him”

Helmut Schmidt

Germany would never have been reunited is the 41st President of the United States of America had not taken the German People’s side and had he not supported, promoted and helped the job of the man who united the two Germanies: Helmut Kohl. Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand, as well as Giulio Andreotti were opposed to ending the Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe and thought that it was intolerable to allow Germany to enter the 21st century as the great winner of the 20th, despite having lost two World Wars. Despite the weaknesses Britain had shown in both World Wars as well as the vulnerability of its economy, in spite of the fact that the British Empire had practically ceased to exist, Margaret Thatcher was convinced that Great Britain was still destined or at least should have been destined to lead the World or at least Europe. That implied that Germany had to stay divided and the Soviet Union should stay in place to serve as a counterweight if necessary. Therefore Margaret Thatcher explicitly called upon the nations of the Soviet Union to remain loyal to their Union, a single nation of diverse peoples. Andreotti, on his part believed it was inadmissible for peoples to take their destiny into their own hands, for that was a matter concerning politicians and diplomats.  In the West Felipe Gonzáles and Charles Haughey were the only ones who had no reservations against German unity- The French élite, on the other hand saw all its ancient fears resuscitate at the thought of a united Germany. They felt their “grandeur” was in danger, although it had only existed in their imagination for the past two hundred years. For Franca, just as for Britain, the reunification of Germany looked indigestible because it coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union. What sort of a world order was the one in the making, where Europe would have in its center a united, strong, prosperous Germany which is a close ally of the United States and is on good terms with the Soviet Union and its successor, Russia? Those were real fears, but could not make their way through, for they were foiled by a series of diplomatic and political master moves by Chancellor Helmut Kohl who enjoyed Bush’s full support. In re-uniting Germany’s two halves at record speed, Kohl proved to be a worthy successor of the great Otto von Bismarck He kept his country inside NATO and the European Union, and was lending a helping hand to the Soviet Union which was in deep trouble to the extent that it was in need of German food and clothing deliveries. Throughout those months, Kohl never forgot Bismarck’s maxim: “The warranty of Germany’s destiny lays in good relations with Russia”. The German reunification was a diplomatic and political masterpiece. It took two statesmen, George Bush and Helmut Kohl. Two earnest believers, mutually respectful friends, followers of the same set of values. “George Bush never had any reservations vis-a-vis the Germans. George Bush was a great stroke of luck for us: a country cannot remain dismembered. He would have simple regarded that as a sin,”  Kohl wrote in his memoirs. With Germany’s reunification on October 3rd 1990, Adenauer’s dream came true: a free and united Germany came into existence in a free and united Europe.

The New Order

„George Bush was a great President of the United States of America because he is first and foremost a great man.”

George W. Bush, 43rd President of the USA

When Communism and the Soviet empire collapsed, the bipolar world born in the wake of World War II, which was based on the balance of powers between the two superpowers, ceased to exist. The United States remained with no rivals in the international arena and gained an opportunity to shape the new world order according to its own set of values. That was an exceptional historic moment that endowed America with almost unlimited responsibility for the future. Victory, in fact, entails first and foremost responsibility. Bush was fully aware of that, this is why he pulled the brake on the rush of the Baltic countries for independence and secession until a final agreement was reached about the interrogation of the new, united Germany into NATO.

While the world and the President of the United States were concentrating on the epochal changes in Europe, Saddam Hussein launched is 120 thousand strong army and 850 tanks on August 2, 1990 to invade Kuwait. “If we let it succeed, no small country can ever feel safe,” Margaret Thatcher said explaining what was at stake. The new American order was still in the making when it was already being challenged, and to make things worse, it was challenged in one of the most critical regions–the Middle East. Bush reacted by setting up a broad frame of international co-operation lead by the United States, which heralded a new Pax Americana where relations between the superpowers would be characterized by mutual responsibility, instead of the traditional attitude of ceaseless hostility. As a first sign of that new constellation, one day after the invasion of Kuwait, a Soviet-American joint declaration was issued, which would be later broadened by Bush into an anti-Iraq coalition of 33 countries. It was joined by Arab countries as well, including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Qatar, Morocco and Oman. The Gulf War was fought from January 16 to February 28, 1991 on the basis of a UN mandate. Saddam was forced to retreat, but his regime was not overthrown.

During the Bush presidency, the world underwent tremendous changes. To Europe’s and the world’s greatest luck, Communism lost its over seventy year long war against liberty. The Soviet Union imploded; its area was filled by free countries of free peoples. The President had done a good job. He had prepared the world to face the new challenges of the 21st century without being shackled by the burdens and the utopian way of thinking of the 20th.