About this speech
George H. W. Bush
May 12, 1989
President George H.W. Bush describes the success of containment in dealing with the Soviet Union, the superiority of free societies and markets, and the necessary steps toward an open relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
May 12, 1989: Commencement Address at Texas A&M University
Thank you, Governor. Thank you all very much for that welcome. Good luck, good luck to you. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all. Chairman McKenzie and Dr. Adkisson and Dr. Mobley, thank you for having me here. And to the Singing Cadets, thank you for that very special treat. And to my Secretary of Commerce, Bob Mosbacher, I'm delighted that he's with me today.
I want to pay my special respects to our Governor, Bill Clements; to your Congressman from this district, Joe Barton; and then, of course, to Senator Phil Gramm. He said he taught economics here and in Congress. It's hard to be humble. But nevertheless—[laughter]—the point is the guy's telling the truth, and we are grateful to him every day for his leadership up there in Washington, as we are for Joe Barton as well. So, we've got a good combination—Phil Gramm in the Senate and today Joe Barton in the United States Congress—a wonderful combination, with these Aggie values in the forefront.
I was brought here today by an Aggie, and I brought him here to this marvelous ceremony with me. He was mentioned by Congressman Barton, but I would like to ask the pilot of Air Force One, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Barr, to stand up so you can see another Aggie all suited up, up there. And you met my day-to-day inside Aggie, Fred McClure. We work every minute of the day on matters affecting the legislative interests of this country, but I won't reintroduce Fred. But I am delighted to be back among my fellow Texans and friends. And for those of you who are Democrats, there is no truth to the rumor that Phil Gramm and I are ready to take our elephant walk. [Applause]
My sincerest congratulations go to every graduate and to your parents. In this ceremony, we celebrate nothing less than the commencement of the rest, and the best, of your life. And when you look back at your days at Texas A&M, you will have a lot to be proud of: a university that is first in baseball and first in service to our nation. Many are the heroes whose names are called at muster. Many are those you remember in Silver Taps.
We are reminded that no generation can escape history. Parents, we share a fervent desire for our children and their children to know a better world, a safer world. And students, your parents and grandparents have lived through a world war and helped America to rebuild the world. They witnessed the drama of postwar nations divided by Soviet subversion and force, but sustained by an allied response most vividly seen in the Berlin airlift. And today I would like to use this joyous and solemn occasion to speak to you and to the rest of the country about our relations with the Soviet Union. It is fitting that these remarks be made here at Texas A&M University.
Wise men—Truman and Eisenhower, Vandenberg and Rayburn, Marshall, Acheson, and Kennan—crafted the strategy of containment. They believed that the Soviet Union, denied the easy course of expansion, would turn inward and address the contradictions of its inefficient, repressive, and inhumane system. And they were right—the Soviet Union is now publicly facing this hard reality. Containment worked. Containment worked because our democratic principles and institutions and values are sound and always have been. It worked because our alliances were, and are, strong and because the superiority of free societies and free markets over stagnant socialism is undeniable.
We are approaching the conclusion of an historic postwar struggle between two visions: one of tyranny and conflict and one of democracy and freedom. The review of U.S.-Soviet relations that my administration has just completed outlines a new path toward resolving this struggle. Our goal is bold, more ambitious than any of my predecessors could have thought possible. Our review indicates that 40 years of perseverance have brought us a precious opportunity, and now it is time to move beyond containment to a new policy for the 1990s—one that recognizes the full scope of change taking place around the world and in the Soviet Union itself. In sum, the United States now has as its goal much more than simply containing Soviet expansionism. We seek the integration of the Soviet Union into the community of nations. And as the Soviet Union itself moves toward greater openness and democratization, as they meet the challenge of responsible international behavior, we will match their steps with steps of our own. Ultimately, our objective is to welcome the Soviet Union back into the world order.
The Soviet Union says that it seeks to make peace with the world and criticizes its own postwar policies. These are words that we can only applaud, but a new relationship cannot simply be declared by Moscow or bestowed by others; it must be earned. It must be earned because promises are never enough. The Soviet Union has promised a more cooperative relationship before, only to reverse course and return to militarism. Soviet foreign policy has been almost seasonal: warmth before cold, thaw before freeze. We seek a friendship that knows no season of suspicion, no chill of distrust.
We hope perestroika is pointing the Soviet Union to a break with the cycles of the past—a definitive break. Who would have thought that we would see the deliberations of the Central Committee on the front page of Pravda or dissident Andrei Sakharov seated near the councils of power? Who would have imagined a Soviet leader who canvasses the sidewalks of Moscow and also Washington, D.C.? These are hopeful, indeed, remarkable signs. And let no one doubt our sincere desire to see perestroika, this reform, continue and succeed. But the national security of America and our allies is not predicated on hope. It must be based on deeds, and we look for enduring, ingrained economic and political change.
While we hope to move beyond containment, we are only at the beginning of our new path. Many dangers and uncertainties are ahead. We must not forget that the Soviet Union has acquired awesome military capabilities. That was a fact of life for my predecessors, and that's always been a fact of life for our allies. And that is a fact of life for me today as President of the United States.
As we seek peace, we must also remain strong. The purpose of our military might is not to pressure a weak Soviet economy or to seek military superiority. It is to deter war. It is to defend ourselves and our allies and to do something more: to convince the Soviet Union that there can be no reward in pursuing expansionism, to convince the Soviet Union that reward lies in the pursuit of peace.
Western policies must encourage the evolution of the Soviet Union toward an open society. This task will test our strength. It will tax our patience, and it will require a sweeping vision. Let me share with you my vision: I see a Western Hemisphere of democratic, prosperous nations, no longer threatened by a Cuba or a Nicaragua armed by Moscow. I see a Soviet Union as it pulls away from ties to terrorist nations like Libya that threaten the legitimate security of their neighbors. I see a Soviet Union which respects China's integrity and returns the northern territories to Japan, a prelude to the day when all the great nations of Asia will live in harmony.
But the fulfillment of this vision requires the Soviet Union to take positive steps, including: First, reduce Soviet forces. Although some small steps have already been taken, the Warsaw Pact still possesses more than 30,000 tanks, more than twice as much artillery, and hundreds of thousands more troops in Europe than NATO. They should cut their forces to less threatening levels, in proportion to their legitimate security needs.
Second, adhere to the Soviet obligation, promised in the final days of World War II, to support self-determination for all the nations of Eastern Europe and central Europe. And this requires specific abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine. One day it should be possible to drive from Moscow to Munich without seeing a single guard tower or a strand of barbed wire. In short, tear down the Iron Curtain.
And third, work with the West in positive, practical—not merely rhetorical—steps toward diplomatic solution to these regional disputes around the world. I welcome the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Angola agreement. But there is much more to be done around the world. We're ready. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.
And fourth, achieve a lasting political pluralism and respect for human rights. Dramatic events have already occurred in Moscow. We are impressed by limited, but freely contested elections. We are impressed by a greater toleration of dissent. We are impressed by a new frankness about the Stalin era. Mr. Gorbachev, don't stop now!
And fifth, join with us in addressing pressing global problems, including the international drug menace and dangers to the environment. We can build a better world for our children.
As the Soviet Union moves toward arms reduction and reform, it will find willing partners in the West. We seek verifiable, stabilizing arms control and arms reduction agreements with the Soviet Union and its allies. However, arms control is not an end in itself but a means of contributing to the security of America and the peace of the world. I directed Secretary [of State] Baker to propose to the Soviets that we resume negotiations on strategic forces in June and, as you know, the Soviet Union has agreed.
Our basic approach is clear. In the strategic arms reductions talks, we wish to reduce the risk of nuclear war. And in the companion defense and space talks, our objective will be to preserve our options to deploy advanced defenses when they're ready. In nuclear testing, we will continue to seek the necessary verification improvements in existing treaties to permit them to be brought into force. And we're going to continue to seek a verifiable global ban on chemical weapons. We support NATO efforts to reduce the Soviet offensive threat in the negotiations on conventional forces in Europe. And as I've said, fundamental to all of these objectives is simple openness.
Make no mistake, a new breeze is blowing across the steppes and the cities of the Soviet Union. Why not, then, let this spirit of openness grow, let more barriers come down. Open emigration, open debate, open airwaves—let openness come to mean the publication and sale of banned books and newspapers in the Soviet Union. Let the 19,000 Soviet Jews who emigrated last year be followed by any number who wish to emigrate this year. And when people apply for exit visas, let there be no harassment against them. Let openness come to mean nothing less than the free exchange of people and books and ideas between East and West.
And let it come to mean one thing more. Thirty-four years ago, President Eisenhower met in Geneva with Soviet leaders who, after the death of Stalin, promised a new approach toward the West. He proposed a plan called Open Skies, which would allow unarmed aircraft from the United States and the Soviet Union to fly over the territory of the other country. This would open up military activities to regular scrutiny and, as President Eisenhower put it, "convince the world that we are lessening danger and relaxing tension." President Eisenhower's suggestion tested the Soviet readiness to open their society, and the Kremlin failed that test.
Now, let us again explore that proposal, but on a broader, more intrusive and radical basis— one which I hope would include allies on both sides. We suggest that those countries that wish to examine this proposal meet soon to work out the necessary operational details, separately from other arms control negotiations. Such surveillance flights, complementing satellites, would provide regular scrutiny for both sides. Such unprecedented territorial access would show the world the true meaning of the concept of openness. The very Soviet willingness to embrace such a concept would reveal their commitment to change.
Where there is cooperation, there can be a broader economic relationship; but economic relations have been stifled by Soviet internal policies. They've been injured by Moscow's practice of using the cloak of commerce to steal technology from the West. Ending discriminatory treatment of U.S. firms would be a helpful step. Trade and financial transactions should take place on a normal commercial basis.
And should the Soviet Union codify its emigration laws in accord with international standards and implement its new laws faithfully, I am prepared to work with Congress for a temporary waiver of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, opening the way to extending most favored nation trade status to the Soviet Union. After that last weighty point, I can just imagine what you were thinking: It had to happen. Your last day in college had to end with yet another political science lecture. [Laughter]
In all seriousness, the policy I have just described has everything to do with you. Today you graduate. You're going to start careers and families, and you will become the leaders of America in the next century. And what kind of world will you know? Perhaps the world order of the future will truly be a family of nations.
It's a sad truth that nothing forces us to recognize our common humanity more swiftly than a natural disaster. I'm thinking, of course, of Soviet Armenia just a few months ago, a tragedy without blame, warlike devastation without war. Our son took our 12-year-old grandson to Yerevan. At the end of the day of comforting the injured and consoling the bereaved, the father and son went to church, sat down together in the midst of the ruins, and wept. How can our two countries magnify this simple expression of caring? How can we convey the good will of our people?
Forty-three years ago, a young lieutenant by the name of Albert Kotzebue, the class of 1945 at Texas A&M, was the first American soldier to shake hands with the Soviets at the bank of the Elbe River. Once again, we are ready to extend our hand. Once again, we are ready for a hand in return. And once again, it is a time for peace.
Thank you for inviting me to Texas A&M. I wish you the very best in years to come. God bless you all. Thank you very much.