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George H.W. Bush Officials Reflect on Tiananmen Square

June 4, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. It was a topic that came up in several interviews for the George H.W. Bush Oral History Project. Below are some excerpts.

James Baker, Secretary of State

"We confronted it in China, we handled it—again, this is an arrogant thing to say, but we handled Tiananmen Square just right. We sanctioned China; we said, This is not the way you treat your people, but we kept the relationship going, an extraordinarily important relationship. We don’t need to be an enemy of China and they don’t need to be our enemy, and George Bush was able to thread that needle and walk that line. We didn’t give up on our principles and values, but we didn’t go to war against the Chinese government because they didn’t share those principles and values."

Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser

"There is one picture that is shown over and over on television, even now, of one small person standing in front of a tank with a satchel in his hand, and the tank trying to maneuver around him and him moving back and forth. That is a very telling picture in two ways. First, the bravery of the demonstrators, but also the fact that that tank commander was not trying to run down this young person, whoever it was, but trying to avoid damage to him. Tiananmen Square has become an image, an icon of meaning. If you actually analyze that period of a little over a month, it becomes much more complex with many more forces at work. Did we understand them all? No. Not even close. Not even close."

Robert Gates, Deputy National Security Adviser

"Yes, in fact, one of those little tidbits that’s gotten lost is the fact that the United States government was the first government in the world to impose sanctions on China after Tiananmen Square. For all the criticism of Bush for his inaction, he acted first and with, in most respects, the most severe measures of any of the governments around the world in terms of imposing the sanctions that we did on the Chinese. It got kind of lost in the congressional uproar over the thing. So I think there was a sense—again, I would have to go back and read the materials because my memory on this is really vague—of inevitability that there was going to have to be a crackdown or the Chinese were going to lose control. And, so we had, we had already talked about some of the sanctions and that was one of the reasons why, I think he imposed the sanctions within 24 hours. So I think we probably had already prepared some contingency plans."

Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary

"The thing with China is in better shape than it is today. You’re still in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square and that had required us clearly to put the military relationship on hold, which we did. Brent (Scowcroft) went to Beijing with (Lawrence) Eagleburger; we’d been through that whole exercise. But even in spite of all that, the President—we used to joke about him being the guy running the China desk, with some justification. But he knew more about it than anybody else did. The China role in the Desert (Storm) crisis through the UN had been important. They had a veto. They could have shut us down anytime they wanted in the UN Security Council and they didn’t. Sometimes they abstained, but that account had been managed very carefully and very successfully throughout that whole period of time. And it’s still too soon to have a big public re-embrace, if you will, of China, but at that stage, we don’t see China as a strategic threat."

Frederick McClure, Assistant for Legislative Affairs

"When we had to do Most Favored Nation trading status for China on the heels of the Tiananmen Square and human rights stuff, one of the coolest things we got involved in was we actually got President [Richard] Nixon and President Ford to help lobby for us on that. I wrote President Nixon this great note after, thanking him for what he’d done. President Ford remembered who I was, but with Nixon I said, You don’t know who I am, but I have this job that I do that so-and-so did for you. And I got this wonderful note back from Nixon talking about how wonderful it was to kind of be back in the flow of things because we got him to make some great phone calls that helped in the lobbying process. So that was kind of one of those things where the power of the presidency and the power—Nixon can’t be questioned on China, or couldn’t be questioned on China very authoritatively, just like Bush could not be because he was there—because Nixon put him there."

You can read these and other George H.W. Bush Oral History Project interviews in their entirely at http://millercenter.org/president/bush/oralhistory.

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