'Seducing us, with kindness'
Top U.S. officials from the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations comment on Mikhail Gorbachev
Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft on Mikhail Gorbachev (from the George H. W. Bush Oral History Project):
Scowcroft: When we came into office in 1989 … we had a new General Secretary of the Communist Party, a very different kind of person. [Mikhail] Gorbachev was not the old [Leonid] Brezhnev type individual. But I had détente very much in mind. What I was fearful of was that Gorbachev—as I thought he had actually done with the [Ronald] Reagan administration at the end—was seducing us, with kindness rather than with new missiles. The danger was we’d fall into the same trap that we had with détente.
I was fearful that Gorbachev was seducing us, with kindness rather than with new missiles
I said, atmospherics are not enough. That’s what détente was, atmospherics. We have to see not only Gorbachev saying that things are different, we’re prepared to do all these things and so on, but actually see some actions. People as important as Maggie Thatcher and a number in the Reagan administration said, The Cold War’s over.
I said, The Cold War is not over. All of the elements of the Cold War are still in place. The only thing that’s changed is the rhetoric, and we cannot once again go down the path that we went on détente, because you can only turn the ship of state around very, very slowly. If we get seduced again this time by a Gorbachev whose goal is really to re-energize, modernize the Soviet Union, modernize the economy, so that they can compete stronger, then we would be making a fatal error.
So that was the mindset that I came into the administration with. I don’t think President Bush ever bought on completely to my theory, but he listened carefully, and I think it affected the way we operated early on.
In terms of substance of policy and the world we were facing during the [1988-89] transition, yes, I’d thought about it a lot—especially about this issue: Is Gorbachev for real? Does he really want to transform things? Or did the old men of the Kremlin—who certainly didn’t think they were putting somebody in who would overturn the system—were they right? Was this a man who was going to make the system run more efficiently so that they could compete in a better manner?
Is Gorbachev for real? Does he really want to transform things?
I had the sense at the end of the Reagan administration that they had come to the conclusion, It’s all over. I wasn’t at all sure that was the case, principally because there had been zero movement about Eastern Europe. So I came in with a fairly specific notion of what to do about U.S.-Soviet relations, which are the key to it all. That was to change our policy toward the Soviet Union—which had been one based on arms control directly—to a policy focused primarily on Eastern Europe, and changing what we sought in Eastern Europe.
The German situation moved faster than anybody thought—than we thought, than Gorbachev thought, than [Helmut] Kohl thought. So we were scrambling.
In all of our efforts, what we tried to do was to keep the process moving, but try to keep it underneath the level of Soviet alarm that would bring, either with or against Gorbachev, the hardliners in the Soviet Union in, saying, No more, too far.
As I looked at the scene when we came into office—which was dramatic rhetorical changes from the old Soviet Union, but little concrete evidence of any change in policy on the East, as opposed to the rhetoric—I was convinced that we had to move with caution. At the end of the Reagan administration, Gorbachev had given a speech at the U.N. in which he said he would cut back on a lot of troops in Europe. Critics have pointed to that as saying, Look, this is a fundamental change. You people are still mired in the Cold War. That was the charge hurled at us.
To me it was a part of a strategy. The Soviet Union had periodically rescued us from ourselves by some act of singular brutality to remind us what they were really like and that we couldn’t let our guard down. That was clearly a mistake for the Soviet Union, however you look at it. I thought the chances were that here was a new man—a man who had a history unmarked by any signs of sympathy for a different sort of system, selected carefully by his comrades in the Politburo—and that the most likely approach he was taking was that they’d get a lot more with kindness than they would get by threatening the West.
The Soviet Union had periodically rescued us from ourselves by some act of singular brutality to remind us what they were really like and that we couldn’t let our guard down
And indeed, by the time we came into office, Europe was basking in the thought that here was a new man and that the Cold War was over, despite that fact that nothing fundamental had really happened, and that the end result—if my worst fears were realized—was that we would unilaterally dismantle the defenses of the Cold War all the time that Gorbachev was restructuring a creaking Soviet economy to become more efficient. And we’d wake up one morning with a rejuvenated Soviet Union and a West that was in shambles. I thought that was fundamentally what we had to guard against.
How to deal with that? I’ve mentioned what I thought our policy ought to be: to move slowly, carefully, and attack the core of the Cold War, which was Soviet control over Eastern Europe. We were accused time and again of nostalgia for the Cold War, of sticking with Gorbachev too long in the later period. But Gorbachev never showed any interest in transforming the Soviet Union. He did do one thing. He did remove terror as the instrument that drove the Soviet Union. There’s no question about that. So he was in that sense a humane person. It didn’t help him because what he wanted to do was replace it with incentives, but he could not replace it with incentives because he didn’t control enough of the machinery to know how to put the incentives in. But other than that, his goal was to improve productivity. It wasn’t to transform the system.
I thought our policy ought to be: to move slowly, carefully, and attack the core of the Cold War, which was Soviet control over Eastern Europe
All the things he was doing were in our interest as he went along, so we wanted to encourage him in his liberalizing moves to increase productivity. How did he want to get the reforms in? He wanted to cut absenteeism, drinking, corruption and so on. None of his programs were popular in the Party, so what he turned to was to threaten the Party with exposure of their corruptions and to hold elections so they’d have to run. What in fact he was doing was pulling apart the sinews that had kept the system together.
That was very much in our interest. What was not in our interest is that he move in such a way, or developments arise in such a way, that the guardians of the system—the KGB, the military, the Party officials—who were opposed to this whole thing, would energize themselves enough to either throw him out or force him to turn and back away. That’s what we saw as our task. Could we have simply relaxed and let it all happen? I don’t know. History never reveals its choices. I think it’s unlikely. Gorbachev made a lot of serious mistakes, and most of them were beneficial to us.
As we started out in Eastern Europe with our strategy toward Eastern Europe, Gorbachev also had his strategy toward Eastern Europe, which was to create in the Bloc little Gorbachevs, little reforming Gorbachevs, totally misunderstanding the character of Communism in Eastern Europe. There was no halfway house between a Soviet system and a non-Soviet system the way he was seeking to do it in the Soviet Union. There maybe wasn’t one there either. But there certainly was not any way to relax Soviet control over the satellites and have little Gorbachevs who would help him make his own reforms inside the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev also had his strategy toward Eastern Europe, which was to create in the Bloc little Gorbachevs, little reforming Gorbachevs, totally misunderstanding the character of Communism in Eastern Europe
So he looked benignly, or at least indifferently, to what we were doing, and to what was happening inside Eastern Europe until the Wall fell. Then he got scared. But up ’til then, he was very relaxed. In fact, he was helping us—helped us in Poland, helped us in East Germany.
The intelligence community was divided on: a) what was happening inside the Soviet Union; and b) what the U.S. should do about it. I tried to follow it closely. Indeed, at one time when [Boris] Yeltsin was becoming prominent, we had people holding contending views down to the White House, and in the Oval Office, and let them set forth their theses in front of the President. I don’t know whether I knew the depth of the disagreements. I think one of the difficulties with intelligence is that it’s hard to know when you should take action of the basis of any particular report. One of the things I watched closely was for indications that Gorbachev was running into deep trouble and perhaps facing a coup or something like that. The other was, were there openings for us to move more rapidly than we were, and increase the pressure on him in any particular way.
Then there was the debate about Gorbachev and Yeltsin themselves. The CIA was predominantly pro-Yeltsin, anti-Gorbachev when we had this debate. I thought they were wrong. Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as probably the two most influential in the system, were to me fairly clear-cut types. Gorbachev was an intellectual. He was not a democrat by any stretch of the imagination. He was not trying to transform the Soviet Union into a modern democracy. He moved more and more and more in that direction, but he was never right there. Even at the time when he came back from the Crimea and the attempted coup, he tried to defend the Communist Party and what they had done. So that’s where he was. He had no rapport, no feel for the people. And he disliked Yeltsin, his protégée, who he thought had betrayed him.
I doubt Yeltsin was a democrat. I’m not sure. Not much of a convinced Communist; he was an opportunist and a populist. He saw, as his way to power, a finger on the pulse of what was popular. He split with Gorbachev in the Politburo in favor of more far-reaching reforms because he thought that was the popular thing to do, I think. They’re two very different kinds of people. We didn’t have a real choice between them, although we were widely criticized for supporting Gorbachev. Gorbachev, after all, was the General Secretary and the President, but Gorbachev was also doing our work for us. To have shifted significantly in 1990, say—when Yeltsin became Mayor of Moscow and subsequently President of Russia—would have, to put it mildly, alarmed the conservatives and perhaps precipitated the coup that we were trying to avoid.
I doubt Yeltsin was a democrat. Not much of a convinced Communist; he was an opportunist and a populist
Now the coup, when it did come, I have to say, was laughably inept. All of the people whom we feared in the Soviet Union turned out to be almost hapless. But we didn’t know that beforehand. And, had the coup been more carefully planned, had it occurred in ’89 or ’90 instead of 1991, the results could have been quite different, quite different. So I think we perhaps can be criticized in not judging this narrow course we were trying to play, between moving at a rate that we thought was sustainable, but not that would overturn the apple cart.
The coup, when it did come, I have to say, was laughably inept
We probably didn’t have it exactly right, but it worked. When you look at the possibilities in this particular situation, or in any pattern of the demise of the world’s great empires, their death throes are usually much less benign than was this one.
So could we have done it better? Undoubtedly we could have done it better. Did we use all the intelligence? Yes we did, but the intelligence was extremely confused at this period. As a guide to action, what it did clearly say is, Things are getting worse. They’re not getting better. Gorbachev has set things in motion he can’t control. He’s not likely to be able to hold on. All that was true. And by ’90 we were starting to prepare for the fact that either Gorbachev was going to stop this or somebody would stop him. We were trying to consolidate the progress we had made so that we wouldn’t lose it all.
But I don’t know what we would have done differently. If we had known, for example, a year ahead of time, that there was going to be a coup in 1991, we probably would have tried to avoid it taking place by doing some things for Gorbachev that might have helped him avoid it. But that’s real speculation. I’m not faulting the intelligence community. I don’t know how you do something like this other than to show trends. To predict a specific end of something—either a coup or that somebody’s going to lose power—is awfully hard to do.
It seems to me that they did their job. They said the situation is getting worse and worse and worse, and that Gorbachev now—rather than having a plan, which maybe he had in 1989—was just trying to hold on and placate the reformers, placate the conservatives, back and forth, just to stay in power. We thought all along—or at least I did—that Yeltsin, in fact, was interested only in power, and that there was little for us to gain and perhaps much to lose by visibly switching horses to a man more likely to create a coup than was Gorbachev.
The president had a mindset, though, when he came in. What he said was that he wanted to take the initiative on changes in our military posture. That [Mikhail] Gorbachev had been running around Europe promising this, promising that. He was the darling of Europe, and we looked like we were mired in the Cold War. He wanted to innovate--to get out with some proposals. Now, not directly budget-related, necessarily--but it was very hard to do. He succeeded, but only with as much effort as he put into anything.
Well, one of the questions I had one time was to compare Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin. And I did—and Yeltsin came out on the short end of that comparison, which I think was accurate. It got turned into stories, imputed quite clearly to me, that I was anti-Yeltsin. At that time, Yeltsin was the darling—he was the Democrat. Gorbachev was the Communist and so on. That we were tilting toward Gorbachev. It was accurate, but it was not helpful—the way it came out at the time.
At that time, Yeltsin was the darling—he was the Democrat. Gorbachev was the Communist and so on. That we were tilting toward Gorbachev
It became clear, as 1989 rolled on, that Gorbachev was running out of steam, that resistance was growing to his reforms inside the Soviet Union. That we were making such progress in Eastern Europe and in very late '89 with the possibility of German unification, that the strains in the Soviet Union could get very strong as they saw a shift in the military balance in Europe, at least. Very, very sharp.
After all, East Germany was the jewel in the Soviet crown. It's what they pointed to as the result of World War II. Their position in Eastern Europe was crumbling. I thought the possibility of a reaction by the conservatives, with unknown consequences, was sufficiently enough to?. I don't think the group was my idea. I don't remember. It may have been Gates. But I thought the notion of people simply talking about what might happen, what the possibilities were, was a useful thing, so that we would not be surprised and simply floundering if one day we woke up and things were different.
There were constant reports in the intelligence community about gloom and doom about Gorbachev and his prospects, that he was not going to succeed. Gates was fully imbued with that notion. I think that if you read the intelligence analysis of the period, you will see them getting increasingly gloomy. Not necessarily forecasting a dramatic shift in the structure, but that Gorbachev's progress was slowing--and would probably stop.
I think [the Malta summit] has been amply dissected. It simply was a chance for the two leaders to sit down and talk in a relaxed atmosphere, take the measure of each other, see their various hopes and fears, and establish a kind of a rapport that helped as they went down this path. That's about all it was.
Lithuania was an extremely emotional issue in the United States. It was the issue which I think most Americans saw as the epitome of the evil of the Soviet Union.
If you asked, Americans looked with pride on the fact that, during the interwar period, the Baltic States maintained their legations here. We never recognized their incorporation. They were heroic little people—that's what I mean. If the American people thought about it, it was of warm feelings toward the Baltic States, and negative feelings toward what the Soviet Union had done. So what it did is put us in a box. We had very little freedom of action. As far as the Baltic lobbies are concerned, they were very strong.
I don't think it's an elite issue. I think it's a romantic issue for the American people. Czechoslovakia, bad as it was in '68, Czechoslovakia was run by a Communist system. It was a liberal Communist, but it was a Communist system. Here are the poor Baltics—overrun by force, had it jammed down their throats, restive all the time—we maintained diplomatic relations with them and so on and so forth. There was an emotion to it that did obtain in the case of Czechoslovakia. That's what made it so delicate for us. Now, part of it was the Baltic lobby was very strong in some very key areas. Stronger than anything the Czechs had—or the Hungarians before—they're stronger now. On the Soviet side, it was probably the most sensitive issue, so that either side, it was a very emotional issue. The President, at Malta, had told Gorbachev, not in so many words but he made it quite clear that the use of force would be an enormous complication in our relations. "Don't use force," was basically his message. So here is Gorbachev, for whom Baltic nationalism is a disease, spreading to the rest of the Soviet Union--like Byelorussia, like Ukraine and elsewhere.
It's a romantic issue for the American people. Czechoslovakia, bad as it was in '68, Czechoslovakia was run by a Communist system
We, in a way, are seen as aiding and abetting it. It was explosive. The President could do almost nothing to understand the Soviets' position--or to take account of it. We had a summit coming up. We thought that what Gorbachev was doing overall was quite positive, in terms of U.S. interests. We also saw that the Baltics were the possible occasion for an internal eruption inside the Soviet Union--if they were allowed to break free. That made it, for both sides, gave it a tenseness which is all out of proportion to its intrinsic importance to the United States.
We, in a way, are seen as aiding and abetting it. It was explosive
I thought we had to move more sharply to defend, or to support, the Baltics. In my mind, while the actual words were ambiguous, Gorbachev had understood what the President had said, and was, by the nature of his actions--which were overt and belligerent--was ignoring it. To me, that was beyond the pale. We had to make clear to Gorbachev that we were really serious here. And that if we didn't make clear to him, it might change his whole impression about the President and what he could and could not do, in term of his relations with the President. I would have been tougher than, in fact, we were.
In the end, we didn't advocate much, other than to stop. I would have threatened not to have a summit in June. We never got to that point. We did threaten--we did stop negotiations for a trade agreement with the Soviet Union--which Gorbachev wanted, more than anything else. As it turned out, they backed away just enough so that we didn't do anything dramatic. The President was criticized, as a matter of fact, Landsbergis called him a [Neville] Chamberlain. It never quite got--had the Soviets persisted, I think we probably would have canceled the summit. Much more than that, we couldn't do, which was another one of the dilemmas. We had no capability, in fact, to help the Baltics.
Q: Were you prepared to see a disruption of ongoing negotiations on Germany and arms control as the price for such a rupture?
Scowcroft: I didn't like it, but I thought it was important enough that we couldn't let Gorbachev get away with it. If we did, we would lose our authority in dealing with him.
I thought it was important enough that we couldn't let Gorbachev get away with it
Q: Who was on the other side of the argument?
Scowcroft: [James] Baker, as I recall.
Q: Where were Bob Gates and Condi [Rice], do you remember?
Scowcroft: I don't recall. The only one I recall is Baker, who was toying around with some ways out of it.
Q: So would you say that the solution that the president adopted was a middle ground, or that he leaned more toward the approach that Baker had advocated?
Scowcroft: It was the middle ground. He had a meeting with the non-NSC members, senior members, of his government—Commerce, Treasury, STR. They all brushed aside the arguments in favor of the Baltics.
Q: They wanted to go ahead with the trade agreement?
Scowcroft: Yes. They were not at all interested in the Baltics.
Q: Was [Dick] Cheney an ally—or was he out of it?
Scowcroft: I don't recall. So theirs was all on the trade thing, not on the president's political problems.
Q: You sent the message, urging this compromise solution, in March. The message to the Lithuanians was sent with [Richard] Lugar as the emissary. Did you want the Lithuanians to suspend their declaration of independence?
Scowcroft: Yes. That's my recollection.
Q: Did you personally think that the Lithuanians ought to suspend?
Scowcroft: Yes, I did—because I thought that they were pushing us further and faster than we were prepared to go. They had been encouraged in that by some Lithuanian Americans—to think that they would get support that we couldn't, in the event, give them. So I thought they were being foolhardy. Especially Landsbergis. Prunskiene was much more moderate. I thought we could have worked with her. I thought the Baltics were throwing gasoline on a flame.
I thought that they were pushing us further and faster than we were prepared to go
Former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Kenneth Adelman (from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Oral History Project):
Adelman: I was very skeptical [of Gorbachev] at first, obviously, and I thought Gorbachev was wrong about his future and, you know, that communism would last and had to be reformed. I thought a reformed communism was like fried snowballs. It just was not going to happen. But when all was said and done, I was too harsh on Gorbachev. Gorbachev at the end of the day was a humanist. At the end of the day he would not spend and tax forever. At the end of the day he would not have the jackboots, down the hall and bang on the door—he just didn’t want to do that. He just didn’t want to have a vision like that. So I think Gorbachev, in terms of humanist, was really very good.
Former White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of State James A. Baker, III (interview #1 and interview #2) from the George H. W. Bush Presidential Oral History Project):
Q: Were there those in the White House who didn’t see Gorbachev along the same lines as Thatcher did?
Baker: Were there? Sure. Plenty. And hard-core. It’s like when we were there and Dick Cheney went out one day, in ’89 or ’90—I can’t remember when it was—and said, “Gorbachev’s not going to make it. He’s going to fail.” Well, we were dealing with Gorbachev, and we didn’t want that to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was in ’89.
Dick Cheney went out one day and said, 'Gorbachev’s not going to make it. He’s going to fail.'
I picked up the phone and called the president. I said, “You have to have a unified approach on your foreign policy. You can’t have everybody out here speaking about pure foreign policy issues.”
[Robert] Gates wanted to give a speech. I quashed it. President Bush quickly walked away from Cheney’s remarks, and he never went out again. There’s nobody I’m any closer to than Dick. He got me into national politics. But you have to have an organized and coordinated approach. You can’t just let everybody who wants to go say something publicly say it. Your allies don’t know where you are. Your adversaries don’t know where you are. Pretty soon, you’re no longer feared by your adversaries, and you’re no longer admired by your allies. And that’s a bad thing.
Pretty soon, you’re no longer feared by your adversaries, and you’re no longer admired by your allies. And that’s a bad thing
But sure, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to see him negotiate. They thought it was squishy, we weren’t letting Reagan be Reagan.
I have the first letter [Gorbachev] wrote to [Leonid] Brezhnev—I have a handwritten copy of it here; we can’t put our hands on it right now—saying he was going to dissolve the grain embargo and hoped that they could work together and so forth. He wrote those letters in his own handwriting. And he didn’t change them just because the State Department didn’t think a particular phrase was appropriate. The story about “Gorbachev, tear down his wall.” He wrote a lot of letters to people in his own handwriting. The press missed all that. They thought he was just an actor. “What are we going to do today, fellas?”
I have the first letter he wrote to [Leonid] Brezhnev...saying he was going to dissolve the grain embargo and hoped that they could work together