This Electronic Briefing Book (EBB) is part of a much larger collection of historical records about the annus mirabilis of 1989 (and about Eastern Europe in the Cold War generally) which the National Security Archive has been gathering for almost 20 years. In Spring 2010, the Archive will publish "Masterpieces of History:" The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton and Vladislav Zubok (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010), a special compilation consisting of some 122 of those records, along with the transcript of a phenomenal roundtable of former Gorbachev advisers and U.S. officials, interpretive essays and other resource materials. The significance of these documents is already clear. In fact, they're at the heart of some of the most essential new books that have recently come out on the period -- such as Mary Sarotte's acclaimed 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, 2009) -- books whose authors have made such excellent and welcome use of the Archive's resources. (For a thorough review of the latest literature that begins by highlighting several of these remarkable documents, see Timothy Garton Ash, "1989!", The New York Review of Books, November 5, 2009.) All too often the people who actually obtained and made these documents available are taken for granted, either relegated to obscure footnotes or ignored altogether.
With the publication of this EBB, the second in the series on 1989, the Archive would like to pay a small tribute to the many archivists, scholars and translators, particularly in the former Soviet Union and Central Europe, who have created a small "miracle" of their own -- by opening up and sharing with the rest of the world this extraordinary history. Obviously, and unfortunately, there isn't nearly the space to acknowledge all of these individuals and institutions by name. We can't even list everyone it's been our privilege to partner with for the past two decades, ever since we began to travel to the former Soviet Union and Central Europe in search of "the new Cold War history." (For several specific sets of acknowledgements, see our previous publications on the events of 1953, 1956, 1968 and 1980-82 under the CEU Press imprint!)
Nonetheless, we do want to pay special note to a few organizations from that region that have been responsible for some of the most important archival revelations on 1989. At the top of the list is the Gorbachev Foundation, an absolutely vital resource in Moscow for the history of the final chapter of the Soviet Union and a model for openness in the states of the former Soviet Union. Anatoly Sergeevich Chernyaev has been our invaluable partner in our mission to document history and to make it available to future generations of historians and citizens. His diaries from 1972-1991, which he donated to the National Security Archive, represent the most important primary document on Soviet internal decision making in the last 20 years of the existence of the Soviet Union available now. In Eastern Europe we want to thank our partners at the Institute for Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences; the Cold War Research Group and the 1956 Institute in Hungary; the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre and Institute for Contemporary History in Prague; and the "Cold War Research Group - Bulgaria" in Sofia who provided us with remarkable primary sources from those countries' Politburo and Central Committee records, opposition movements, and secret police files, a selection of which are included in our forthcoming book and all of which informed our research. As always, we acknowledge the invaluable work done in this field by our partners at the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
It's all the more regrettable that the availability of these historical treasures around the world is not always matched by our own archives in the United States. Even though the U.S. rightly sees itself as at the forefront of freedom of information, and the professional staffs throughout the National Archives and presidential library system are among the most dedicated in the world, documents from the end of the Cold War still remain to a large extent classified in the United States while similar records are frequently available in Russian and East European Archives.
The National Security Archive Cold War Reader series editor.
Washington, D.C., November 7, 2009 - The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago generated major anxiety in capitals from Warsaw to Washington, to the point of outright opposition to the possibility of German unification, according to documents from Soviet, American and European secret files posted on the Web today by the National Security Archive.
Solidarity hero Lech Walesa told West German chancellor Helmut Kohl on the very day the Wall would fall that "events in the GDR [East Germany] are developing too quickly" and "at the wrong time," that the Wall could fall in a week or two (it would be a matter of hours) and then Kohl and the West would shift all their attention and aid to the GDR, leaving poor Poland "in the background." And indeed, Kohl cut short his visit to Warsaw and flew back to Germany as soon as the news arrived of the breach of the Wall.
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher earlier had told Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev that "Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communiqué may sound different, but disregard them." Top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev concluded that Thatcher wanted to prevent unification "with our hands" and not her own.
Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski informed Soviet Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev, "I openly said that I am in favor of Poland and Hungary remaining in the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Both blocs should not be disbanded right now. I do not know what will happen if the GDR ceases to exist. There will be one Germany, united and strong. This does not correspond to either your or our interests."
One of the few highest-level expressions of joy over the fall of the Wall actually occurred in Moscow, in the diary of Gorbachev aide Chernyaev, who wrote on November 10, "The Berlin Wall has collapsed. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over… That is what Gorbachev has done. And he has indeed turned out to be a great leader. He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel."
The new documents, most of them appearing in English for the first time, are part of the forthcoming book, "Masterpieces of History": The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989, edited by the National Security Archive's Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladislav Zubok and published by the Central European University Press (Budapest/New York) in the Archive's Cold War Reader series edited by Malcolm Byrne.
Read the Documents
Document 1: CIA Intelligence Assessment, "Gorbachev's Domestic Gambles and Instability in the USSR," September 1989
This controversial assessment from the CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis separates SOVA from the consensus of the rest of the U.S. intelligence community regarding Gorbachev and his chances for success, or even survival. (Note 1) The document carries a scope note calling it a "speculative paper" because it goes against the general view that would soon be expressed in a Fall 1989 National Intelligence Estimate. That NIE would predict that Gorbachev would survive the coming economic crisis of 1990-91 without resorting to widespread repression (only targeted acts of suppression, as in Tbilisi)--a relatively optimistic conclusion that would play a major role in the Bush administration's embrace of Gorbachev at Malta in December.
In the assessment below, authored by senior analyst Grey Hodnett, SOVA takes a much bleaker view, essentially concluding that Gorbachev's reforms will fail, precipitating a coup, a crackdown, and perhaps even the piecemeal breakup of the empire. The United States "for the foreseeable future will confront a Soviet leadership that faces endemic popular unrest and that, on a regional basis at least, will have to employ emergency measures and increased use of force to retain domestic control." The paper further predicts that "Moscow's focus on internal order in the USSR is likely to accelerate the decay of Communist systems and growth of regional instability in Eastern Europe, pointing to the need for post-Yalta arrangements of some kind." What exactly "post-Yalta" means is unclear, but may simply be a reference to the new non-communist government in Poland (installed in August), that explicitly chose to remain a part of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Under any circumstances, orchestrating such an arrangement would be a major challenge for the United States.
Document 2: National Security Directive (NSD) 23, "United States Relations with the Soviet Union," September 22, 1989
This National Security Directive, representing the formal expression of U.S. foreign policy at the highest levels, was apparently drafted as early as April 1989, and its conclusions duly reflect how divorced U.S. policy in this period is from the radical transformations occurring in Eastern Europe. Among the document's hesitant predictions: "[t]he character of the changes taking place in the Soviet Union leads to the possibility that a new era may be now upon us. We may be able to move beyond containment to a U.S. policy that actively promotes the integration of the Soviet Union into the existing international system." First, however, "Moscow must authoritatively renounce the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine' and reaffirm the pledge of signatories to the U.N. Charter to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." It is almost as if the authors never read Gorbachev's United Nations speech in December 1988, much less his Strasbourg address in July 1989. Perhaps the most sterile prescription in the document is the president's directive to the secretary of state to eliminate "threatening Soviet positions of influence around the world." Precisely what positions were these in the latter half of 1989? Again reflecting a sense of caution that willfully ignores the events on the ground in Eastern Europe, the authors declare hopefully: "[w]e may find that the nature of the threat itself has changed, though any such transformation could take decades." These policy recommendations would perhaps be appropriate for 1986, but they are completely outdated in 1989.
Document 3: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, September 23, 1989
These notes of Margaret Thatcher's conversation with Gorbachev contain the British leader's most sensitive views on Germany--so confidential that she requests no written record be made of them during the meeting. Chernyaev complies but immediately afterwards rushes outside and writes down her comments from memory. The talks open with a candid exchange in which Gorbachev explains the recent (September 19-20) Party Plenum's decisions on ethnic conflict, and why he does not believe in the Chinese model: "how can you reform both the economy and politics without democratizing society, without glasnost, which incorporates individuals into an active socio-political life?" Thatcher replies, "I understand your position [on Eastern Europe] in the following way: you are in favor of each country choosing its own road of development so long as the Warsaw Treaty is intact. I understand this position perfectly."
At this point, the prime minister asks that note-taking be discontinued. Her words are indeed forceful, and imply a certain tradeoff--I understand your position on Eastern Europe, please accept mine on Germany: "Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communiqué may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany." Of course, "[w]e are not interested in the destabilization of Eastern Europe or the dissolution of the Warsaw treaty either ... I can tell you that this is also the position of the U.S. president." No doubt the Russians took note that the U.S. reassurance only applied to Eastern Europe and not to German unification; but the vehemence of Thatcher's opposition to the idea of unification provides a certain comfort to Gorbachev that he would rely on until it was too late for him actually to prevent the merger.
Document 4: Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev regarding German Reunification, October 9, 1989
This diary entry reflects the overestimation, by Gorbachev and his top aides, of the strength of West European opposition to German reunification. Chernyaev notes with approval the chorus of French official voices that have spoken quietly against "one Germany," as well as the earlier Gorbachev conversations with Margaret Thatcher (see Document No. 3). But a note of realism emerges as Chernyaev concludes that the West Europeans want Moscow to do their dirty work: "they want to prevent this [reunification] with our hands."
Document 5: Record of Conversation between Vadim Medvedev and Kurt Hager, October 13, 1989
Just a week after Gorbachev's visit to Berlin, senior GDR party leader Kurt Hager and the Soviet Politburo member in charge of ideology, Vadim Medvedev, meet for several hours in Moscow. This memorandum provides an ample dose of the kind of party jargon that was the staple of such "fraternal" conversations in the Soviet bloc. Rote invocations of eternal Soviet-East German friendship are followed by rhetorical commitments to continuing the building of socialism. But the real problems of the day continually force their way into the discussion. Hager admits that an "inconsistency" between "everyday experiences" and "official reporting" has led to the spread of "a justifiable discontent" across society. Yet, the two party loyalists conclude, all this is really the result of "a massive campaign by the enemy" of "psychological warfare against the GDR, the SED, and socialism." For them, the campaign has been a "complete failure," notwithstanding the thousands of recent East German émigrés, the church dignitaries joining the political opposition, the street demonstrations, and all the other visible evidence of the GDR's imminent collapse.
Document 6: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Willy Brandt, October 17, 1989
In this conversation, Brandt and Gorbachev discuss changes under way in Eastern Europe and Germany and note the closeness of Soviet-West German contacts after Gorbachev's visit to Bonn in June 1989. The Soviet leader calls for stability and gradual character of processes, informing Brandt that "I said to Mitterrand, Kohl, and Thatcher: it would be unacceptable for someone to behave like an elephant in a china shop right now." In the one-on-one portion of the conversation Brandt and Gorbachev talk specifically about unification of Germany but set it in the framework of the "all-European process," in other words, building of the common European home comes first and then within that home gradual unification could take place.
Document 7: Record of Telephone Conversation between George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl, October 23, 1989
Not only does Helmut Kohl initiate this telephone call, he also leads the entire conversation, giving the American president a detailed briefing, country-by-country, about the changes in Eastern Europe. Kohl says he is supporting the Hungarian reform communists "quite vigorously," and that "our Western friends and partners should be doing more" to aid Poland. He foresees more than 150,000 refugees from the GDR by Christmas, and reaffirms his commitment to NATO. Bush's response shows his concern from media stories "about German reunification resulting in a neutralist Germany and a threat to Western security"--"we do not believe that," he insists--and he almost plaintively seeks credit for the $200 million that the U.S. will contribute to a Poland stabilization fund (hardly the new Marshall Plan that would be called for by, among others, Lech Wałęsa in his November 15 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress). But Bush, characteristically, is determined not to move "so fast as to be reckless."
Document 8: Record of Conversation between Aleksandr Yakovlev and Zbigniew Brzezinski, October 31, 1989
The leading Soviet reformer on the Politburo finds surprising agreement on the German question in this meeting with the Polish-American observer, Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom the Soviets had vilified as an enemy of détente when he served as President Carter's national security adviser in the late 1970s. (Cementing his reputation for iconoclasm, Brzezinski would subsequently endorse Ronald Reagan for re-election in 1984.) In a tribute to glasnost, Brzezinski thanks Yakovlev for permitting a ceremonial visit to Katyń, the site of the World War II massacre of Polish officers by Stalin's NKVD, which Soviet propaganda had long blamed on the Nazis.
This frank discussion of the future of Europe features Yakovlev's repeated notion of the mutual dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact versus Brzezinski's argument that the blocs should remain stable, and even the new governments of Poland and Hungary should remain part of the Warsaw Treaty Organization. Like Gorbachev's quotation of Giscard d'Estaing, Yakovlev foresees a Europe with "a common parliament, common affairs and trade relations," along with open borders. He warns against any intervention by the U.S. or Western Europe in the processes underway in the East; and he declares that the lesson of Afghanistan is that "not one Soviet soldier should be in a foreign country with the purpose of conducting warfare." Yakovlev wants the "same understanding" from the American side.
For his part, Brzezinski makes a number of prescient observations, contrasting the state of reform in the USSR (a "rift" between political and economic reform, with the former much further along) to that of China (economic but not political change), predicting that Czechoslovakia would soon follow the path of Poland and Hungary (this would happen only seven weeks later), and warning that any crumbling of the East German regime would soon lead to German unification--a development that "does not correspond to either your or our interests." Here we see the Polish nationalist worried about "the Prussians" and preferring to keep Europe divided into two blocs rather than deal with "one Germany, united and strong." The next day at a Politburo meeting, Gorbachev would compliment Brzezinski for possessing "global brains."
Document 9: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Egon Krenz, November 1, 1989
Here the Soviet leader receives the new East German replacement for Honecker, Egon Krenz. As interior minister, Krenz had declined to use force to suppress the Leipzig and other demonstrations, yet he would later serve time in unified German jails (unlike Honecker, who would be excused for health reasons) as punishment for the GDR's policy of shooting Berlin Wall jumpers. Krenz tells Gorbachev, in effect, that his country's policy has changed, citing "orders to our border troops not to use weapons at the border," as part of an attempt to address the pressing refugee crisis.
Apparently meeting with Gorbachev's approval, Krenz mentions in passing a new draft "law on foreign travel" that would loosen restrictions. This proposed law would figure directly in the most dramatic moment of the entire period. On November 9, a party spokesman's unplanned announcement of the new law's immediate effect (rather than the gradual change intended by the SED) at a Berlin press conference would lead to huge crowds pressing through checkpoints at the border with West Berlin culminating later that night in the actual tearing down of the Wall itself. Perhaps at this point Gorbachev is already resigned to the refugee exodus and this presages Moscow's relative calm when the Wall would fall.
With such developments as yet unimagined, the two leaders commiserate about the failures of Krenz's predecessor. Gorbachev even claims that Honecker might have survived had he reformed earlier, but Krenz says Honecker was too threatened by Gorbachev's own popularity. They frankly discuss their mutual economic problems, including Soviet resentment over providing the raw materials for the GDR's factories, and Moscow's sense of Eastern Europe as a burden. The Soviet general secretary also tells a remarkable story about the Politburo's own ignorance of economic matters, describing an episode in the early 1980s when Gorbachev and Ryzhkov tried to obtain some budget information only to be warned away by then-leader Yuri Andropov.
On the German question, both the Soviet and the East German take comfort that "the majority of Western leaders do not want to see the dissolution" of the blocs nor the unification of Germany. But within a month the East German parliament would revoke the leading role of the communist party, and Krenz himself would resign on December 6.
Document 10: Notes of CC CPSU Politburo Session, November 3, 1989
In this excerpt of the Politburo notes, head of the KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov makes an accurate prediction about the rallies that would take place next day in Berlin, showing that the Soviet leadership had a pretty good understanding of the developments on the ground. They also realize that they need the help of the FRG to "keep the GDR afloat." In an surprising proposal, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze suggests that the Soviets should take down the Wall themselves. Gorbachev shares his view that "the West does not want unification of Germany, but it wants to prevent it with our hands."
Document 11: Cable from U.S. Embassy in Sofia to the State Department, "The Nov 10 CC Party Plenum: Little Prospect for Major Changes," November 9, 1989
On the day the Berlin Wall would fall, few could imagine that dramatic events were about to take place across the bloc. Typical of the cautious diplomatic discourse only hours before the ultimate Cold War symbol cracked is this cable from the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria predicting calm and continuity, no "major personnel changes" and no "major change towards a more reform-minded system" as a result of the communist party plenum about to meet in Sofia. The Embassy's information comes from limited sources--two Party officials and a published plenum discussion paper. In fact, at this moment, the 78-year-old Bulgarian party boss Todor Zhivkov is trying to fire his more moderate foreign minister, Petar Mladenov, who within a day would take Zhivkov's job, promise a "modern, democratic, and law-governed state" and receive effusive public congratulations from Gorbachev.
Document 12: Notes of CC CPSU Politburo Session, November 9, 1989
On this historic day featuring the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Politburo pays no attention at all to Eastern Europe. The leadership's regular weekly meeting mentions not a word about the changes in East Germany, but the reason becomes understandable when one realizes that the subject is the even more chilling prospect of the dissolution of the USSR itself. There is a sense of fatalism in the air about the inevitability of the Baltic countries seceding, and even Gorbachev can propose only a media strategy to try to convince the Balts that separating from the USSR will "doom their people to a miserable existence." As he often does, Prime Minister Ryzhkov plays the role of the panicked Cassandra: "What we should fear is not the Baltics, but Russia and Ukraine. I smell an overall collapse. And then there will be another government, another leadership of the country, already a different country." This time, his prediction would come true.
Document 13: Record of Conversation between Helmut Kohl and Lech Wałęsa, November 9, 1989
When the Berlin Wall is breached, West German Chancelor Helmut Kohl is out of the country--visiting the new democratic leaders of Poland. The Poles, represented by Solidarity hero and Nobel Prize winner Lech Wałęsa, are not at all eager for more change in East Germany. Wałęsa is virtually the only major political figure who foresees the Wall coming down soon--"he wonders whether the Wall will still be standing in one or two weeks"--and is anxious that "events in the GDR are developing too quickly." He even suggests to Kohl that "one must try to slow them down" because "what would happen if the GDR completely opened its border and tore down the Wall--must the Federal Republic of Germany rebuild it [East Germany] again?" The problem for Poland, Wałęsa explains, is that West Germany "would be compelled to direct its gaze toward the GDR as a top priority" and no longer help Poland with its reforms. Kohl demurs and reassures Wałęsa that no matter what, Poland's reforms would remain a priority. Besides, he adds, "[t]here is no military alternative [in the GDR]--either involving their own or Russian soldiers." So events in the GDR, he declares, would remain under control. Within hours, however, the news of the Wall would arrive and Kohl would scramble back to Berlin--and ultimately fulfill Wałęsa's prophecy.
Document 14: George H. W. Bush Remarks and a Question-and Answer Session with Reporters on the Relaxation of East German Border Controls, November 9, 1989
In this press conference, which took place just as first reports on the fall of Berlin Wall started coming in President George H. W. Bush expresses his cautious and uneasy reaction to the developments in Berlin. To the question why he does not seem "elated," he responds, "I am not an emotional kind of guy."
Document 15: Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev regarding the Collapse of the Berlin Wall, November 10, 1989
This extraordinary diary entry from inside the Kremlin on the day after the Wall's collapse captures the "snapshot" reaction of one of the closest and most loyal of Gorbachev's assistants. Chernyaev practically cheers "the end of Yalta" and the "Stalinist legacy" in Europe, and sees "the shift in the world balance of forces" towards ideas like the common European home and the Soviet Union's integration with Europe. All of this he attributes to Gorbachev leading, not standing in the way.
Document 16: Record of Telephone Conversation between George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl, November 10, 1989
This memorandum of conversation reads as if the agenda had been set before the Berlin Wall fell. The West German chancellor leads off with a report on his trip to Poland, where the new leaders are "fine people" but with "too little professionalism" because they "spent the last couple of years in prison, not a place where one can learn how to govern." Only after the president says he has no questions about Poland does Kohl launch into a description of the extraordinary scene in Berlin, "a dramatic thing; an historic hour," "like witnessing an enormous fair" with "the atmosphere of a festival" where "they are literally taking down the wall" and "thousands of people are crossing both ways." Kohl hopes that the opening will not lead to more brain drain since 230,000 East Germans have already moved to the West this past year alone. Bush especially appreciates the political gesture Kohl mentions of publicly thanking "the Americans for their role in all of this;" and the president emphasizes his wish to be thoroughly briefed by Kohl before the upcoming Malta summit with Gorbachev. Bush repeats his recurring refrain about wanting "to see our people continue to avoid especially hot rhetoric that might by mistake cause a problem." (In other words, no dancing on the Wall).
Document 17: Record of Telephone Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, November 11, 1989
With the tearing down of the Wall, the West German chancellor takes the initiative in Europe, reaching out to both Moscow and Washington with assurances of stability in the two Germanys--the epicenter of the Cold War--while simultaneously pursuing his ultimately successful campaign for German unification. Here Kohl calls Gorbachev to express some of the same points made in the previous day's telephone conversation with Bush: the need for more dynamic reforms in the GDR, the crossing back and forth of hundreds of thousands through the open Wall, and the potential impact of high numbers of East Germans migrating to the FRG. But Kohl's core message is that he opposes destabilization in the GDR, and he indicates that he will check in with Gorbachev on all relevant topics immediately after his upcoming trip to Poland.
This appears to reassure the Soviet leader, who mentions their previous "philosophical" discussions about "relations between our two peoples" and how "mutual understanding is improving" as "we are getting closer to each other." Gorbachev also applauds what he calls "a historic turn toward new relations, toward a new world;" but his worries show through when he urges Kohl to "use your authority, your political weight and influence to keep others within limits that are adequate for the time being ... " On a day when banners calling for German unification are billowing on both sides of the former Wall, Gorbachev resorts to euphemisms about this touchy subject, and hears what he wants to hear in Kohl's commitment to stability.
Document 18: Record of Telephone Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Francois Mitterrand, November 14, 1989
Alarmed by "all the excitement that has been raised in the FRG around the issue of German unification," Gorbachev reaches out to the French president to confirm that "we have a mutual understanding" on this issue. Mitterrand's tone is reassuring: "There is a certain equilibrium that exists in Europe, and we should not disturb it." But his words are more equivocal than Gorbachev would have wanted. The French position is to "avoid any kind of disruption," but Mitterrand does not think "that the issue of changing borders can realistically be raised now--at least until a certain time." When that time would be, however, he does not say. Gorbachev believes he has assurances from Kohl that he will "abide strictly by the existing agreements" and that "the Germans should live where they are living now;" but such categorical commitments are not in evidence in the actual texts of Kohl's conversations.
1. The background for this document comes from Lundberg, "CIA and the Fall of the Soviet Empire."