Washington, D.C., December 3, 2009 - President George H.W. Bush approached the Malta summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago this week determined to avoid arms control topics and simply promote a public image of "new pace and purpose" with him "leading as much as Gorbachev"; but realized from his face-to-face discussions that Gorbachev was offering an arms race in reverse, according to previously secret documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive (www. nsarchive.org).
Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev with Pope John Paul II, December 1, 1989
The documents include the most complete transcript of the Malta summit ever published – excerpted from the forthcoming book, "Masterpieces of History": The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (edited by Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladislav Zubok for the Central European University Press). The transcript is a translation of the Soviet record from the Gorbachev Foundation, since the U.S. memcons remain, astonishingly, still classified at the George H.W. Bush Library in Texas.
The posting also includes the transcript of Gorbachev's historic meeting before Malta with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, featuring remarkable agreement on values and the "common European home," including the Polish pontiff's statement that "Europe should breathe with two lungs." From the American side, the documents include the before-and-after National Security Council talking points prepared for Bush, the preparatory memos to Bush from Secretary of State James Baker and other top aides, intelligence briefings for Bush from the CIA and the State Department, and the Bush script and briefing book contents list for Malta itself – all obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents show profound misjudgments of Gorbachev on the American side, including the President's assumption that the Soviet leader would press for the removal of U.S. troops from Europe, not realizing until talking to Gorbachev directly that, just as Gorbachev had already announced publicly on multiple occasions, he believed the U.S. presence along with the NATO alliance to be a stabilizing force in Europe, particularly against any danger of German revanchism.
The documents signal a major missed opportunity at Malta to meet Soviet arms reductions proposals halfway, and suggest that the Bush "pause" in U.S.-Soviet relations during 1989 effectively delayed both strategic and tactical demilitarization for at least two years (the START treaty would not be signed until 1991, and only in September 1991 would Bush withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. Navy ships), at which point Gorbachev had effectively lost the domestic power to deliver on his side.
Gorbachev had sought to engage president-elect Bush as early as the Governor's Island meeting in New York in December 1988, but Bush demurred, instead launching a strategic review of U.S.-Soviet relations that cloaked the reality that the transition from Reagan to Bush was one from doves to hawks, that is, disbelievers in Gorbachev as a true reformer. Throughout 1989, judging by the candid memoir authored by President Bush with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft (Note 1), the Bush mentality was marked by insecurity and anxiety that Gorbachev was more popular globally and had the initiative on proposing new departures in security policy – never quite recognizing that Gorbachev's proposals might well be in the U.S. national security interest. (Note 2)
Not until Bush went to Eastern Europe himself in July 1989, where he heard the reform Communists like Jaruzelski in Poland and Nemeth in Hungary plead with him to reach out to Gorbachev because that created political space for them to make change – and even more importantly, where he met the dissidents and oppositionists like Lech Walesa in Poland, who called U.S. aid proposals "pathetic," (Note 3) or Janos Kis in Hungary whom Bush quickly concluded should not be running his country – did Bush overrule his advisers and ask Gorbachev for a meeting, meaning to slow down the process of change in Eastern Europe. Bush wrote in his memoir: "I realized that to put off a meeting with Gorbachev was becoming dangerous. Too much was happening in the East – I had seen it myself – and if the superpowers did not begin to manage events [!], those very events could destabilize Eastern Europe and Soviet-American relations… I saw that the Eastern Europeans themselves would try to push matters as far as they could." (Note 4)
Minister Genscher presents Bush with a piece of the Berlin Wall during his visit to Washington on November 21, 1989
Characteristically, on the plane ride home from Europe in July when Bush sent a note to Gorbachev inviting the Malta meeting, the President spent more time (and far more space in his memoir (Note 5)) reaching out to the Communist dictators in China who had murdered their pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, than to the Communist reformer in Moscow who had refused to do so.
Gorbachev's own frustration with the Bush "pause" and review of policy made the Soviet leader more than eager for such a meeting; but between the July idea and the December reality, Eastern Europeans rushed in and took apart the Stalinist empire including the Berlin Wall. Originally intended as an "interim" meeting to prepare for a full-scale summit in 1990, the Bush-Gorbachev meeting at Malta would take on a life of its own, symbolically closing the Cold War. Stormy weather and raging seas in Malta would play havoc with the meeting planners' idea of alternating U.S. and Soviet ships as picturesque sites for the meetings – thus providing something of a metaphor for the rush of events in Eastern Europe that ran out of the control of both superpowers.
Going into the Malta summit, the Bush team was determined to do the opposite of what Ronald Reagan had so successfully achieved in relieving the Soviet sense of threat through substantive arms control discussions, including remarkable commitments to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Instead, as the NSC preparatory points make clear, Malta was meant to avoid any substantive discussion of arms control, and simply convey, as Secretary of State Baker wrote in his briefing memo on November 29, "a public sense, here and abroad, of a new pace and purpose to the U.S.-Soviet dialogue with you leading as much as Gorbachev" – public relations in place of substance. The briefing memo from arms negotiation advisor Gen. Edward Rowny described the START treaty as having "potential risks and few gains" and any reductions in naval weapons "all losers for us" – recommending that Bush should say up front that the "US Navy is not on the bargaining table."
Bush's briefing book for Malta betrays the administration's actual priorities – Eastern Europe and its revolutionary changes were way down the contents list, along with arms control. Pride of place was Central America, where Bush's right flank in domestic politics believed Castro was the devil, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas were a Communist beachhead pointed at Texas, and Gorbachev himself was merely a new glove around the iron fist. In the Malta discussions, the Soviet leader called the American presumptions laughable: "It is not quite clear to us what you want from Nicaragua. There is political pluralism in that country, there are more parties than in the United States. And the Sandinistas – what kind of Marxists are they? This is laughable. Where are the roots of the problem? At the core are economic and social issues." Likewise on Cuba: "The issue now is how to improve the current situation. There is a simple and well-proven method: one has to speak directly to Castro. You must learn: nobody can lord it over Castro."
Malta's most significant outcome would simply be the reassurance it provided to the two leaders through a face-to-face meeting, and the building of a personal relationship on which both would rely in the difficult next two years. Gorbachev, for example, told Bush: "First and foremost, the new U.S. president must know that the Soviet Union will not under any circumstances initiate a war. This is so important that I wanted to repeat the announcement to you personally. Moreover, the USSR is prepared to cease considering the U.S. as an enemy and announce this openly."
Gorbachev also made an impact on Bush in the discussion of values. He bristled at Bush's repeated reference to "Western values" (a phrase found throughout the U.S. briefing materials for Malta) and argued that the U.S. approach of "exporting ‘Western values'" would cause "ideological confrontations [to] flare up again" in "propaganda battles" with "no point." Just before Malta, Gorbachev had found agreement on this point with Pope John Paul II, when the two of them discussed "universal human values" and the Pope commented, "it would be wrong for someone to claim that changes in Europe and the world should follow the Western model." Even though Bush told Helmut Kohl on December 3 that Gorbachev did not understand Western values, the American president subsequently adopted Gorbachev's phrasing, saying in his Brussels remarks immediately after the summit that the need to end the division of Europe was in accord with "values that are becoming universal ideals."
After Malta, the Americans raced to catch up with the arms control opportunities on offer from Gorbachev. NSC aide Condoleezza Rice wrote the preparatory memo for the NSC meeting on December 5, 1989, saying "The President has now committed himself to an ambitious arms control agenda before the June 1990 summit" and "the bureaucracy must not get in the way of the completion of the treaties" – yet the START deal would not be done until 1991 because of recalcitrance from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and the U.S. Navy over on-site verification (the Soviets were willing to be more open than the American sailors) and cherished weapons like submarine-launched cruise missiles (in a classic contradiction between actual national security interest and the parochial interest of the military service involved, the U.S. had far more coastal metropolises that could be threatened with these weapons than the Soviet Union did).
Department of State, U.S. Embassy Moscow, "Preparing for Malta: Trade Policy Toward the USSR," [cable from Ambassador Jack Matlock], November 14, 1989
The U.S. Ambassador to Moscow starts his recommendations for Malta with the objective that "we should be searching for ways in which we can, in a practical way, signal U.S. support for perestroyka." At the same time, he finds that this support should be the mission of primarily the private sector because "the United States government can have little direct economic impact, since there is no way in which we can or should practically or politically mount an economic aid program for the USSR." While expressing his preference that the Jackson-Vanik amendment limiting aid to the USSR should be waived, he realized that it would probably not be done before Malta. In this situation, he suggests that even before the formal waiver of the amendment, the President should send a signal of encouragement to the U.S. business community to "enter trade and investment relations with Soviet firms."
Department of State. Information Memorandum to Secretary Baker from Douglas P. Mulholland (INR). "Regional Issues at Malta: Gorbachev's Agenda." November 17, 1989
This assessment of Gorbachev's positions on regional issues, from State's Intelligence and Research bureau, is quite accurate in pointing out that regional issues, apart from Afghanistan, do not represent priorities for the Soviet leader, and that he would prefer to discuss arms control and Eastern Europe instead. On Afghanistan, the memo correctly states that "Gorbachev will probably claim Pakistani and at least implicitly US violations of the Geneva accords" and draw implications for the ability of the US and the USSR to work together on other regional issues. The memo underestimates Gorbachev's willingness to engage in constructive discussion on Central America. However, one prediction comes very close—Gorbachev does seem to "decide that the best approach [on Central America] is to go on the offensive"—which he does during the summit, questioning the US use of force in Colombia, Panama and the Philippines.
Department of State. Information Memorandum to Secretary Baker from Gen. Edward L. Rowny [Special Adviser for Arms Control]. November 17, 1989
This concise memo sums up the American position going into Malta, that "the meeting must not become an ‘arms control summit'" – since the Bush administration believed that Reagan had gone much too far in embracing Gorbachev and major arms reductions. Long-time SALT negotiator and retired Army general Rowny even goes so far as to recommend "If Gorbachev says that Malta should move arms control forward, we should focus the discussion on process and not engage on substance…" since "there are potential risks and few gains in discussing START," various potential Gorbachev offers such as "moratoria on fissionable materials and production of strategic weapons" "are all losers for us," and naval arms control is a "no-win situation." By 1991, of course, Bush would reverse course on almost all these positions, but too late to help Gorbachev demilitarize the Soviet Union.
National Intelligence Estimate 11-18-89. The Soviet System in Crisis: Prospects for the Next Two Years
This consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community two weeks before Malta helps explain the lack of urgency on the part of the Bush administration to wrap up arms control deals with Gorbachev. This Estimate assumes that the current crisis in the USSR would continue even beyond the two-year timeframe, that "the regime will maintain the present course," that Gorbachev was "relatively secure" in his leadership role, and there was a less likely scenario of "unmanageable" decline that would lead to a "repressive crackdown." In hindsight, the dissenting view from the CIA's Deputy Director for Intelligence, John Helgerson, is more correct, predicting more progress towards a "pluralist – albeit chaotic – democratic system" in which Gorbachev's political strength would "erode" and he would "progressively lose control of events."
Department of State. Information Memorandum to Secretary Baker from Douglas P. Mulholland (INR). "Soviet Thinking on the Eve of Malta." November 29, 1989
This prescient memo clearly draws on reporting from recent interlocutors with Gorbachev such as Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and predicts Gorbachev's agenda at Malta as "a chance to polish his image and probe US thinking" on such issues as arms control and Eastern Europe. The assessment of Gorbachev's substantive priorities is generally accurate, as well as the prediction of the Soviet leader's push for faster START and CFE negotiations and concrete results. In contrast to the Cold War suspicions that dominated thinking in the Bush White House, Mulholland is aware that Gorbachev is not trying to push the United States out of Europe, but in fact "is more likely, however, to argue that US and Soviet forces in Europe have a stabilizing effect." He correctly predicts that Gorbachev would insist that German unification "can only occur in the context of the creation of a "common European home," but misses the point in suggesting that "given the Kohl [10 point] proposal, Gorbachev might raise the eventual creation of a German ‘confederation.'"
Department of State. Memorandum for The President from Secretary of State James Baker. "Your December Meeting With Gorbachev." November 29, 1989
This five-page memo from President Bush's most trusted long-time friend and adviser provides a scene-setter and a provisional script for the President to use with Gorbachev. Baker's summary details the limited expectations on the American side for the Malta meeting, merely "to gain a clearer understanding" and to "probe Gorbachev's thinking" while kicking the major issues down the road to a full-scale summit in 1990. Perhaps most interesting is the third sentence of the first paragraph, which reveals the underlying public relations concern of the Bush administration about Gorbachev's popularity and criticisms of Bush's "pause": "Further, Malta could promote a public sense, here and abroad, of a new pace and purpose to the U.S.-Soviet dialogue with you leading as much as Gorbachev."
The White House. Memorandum to The President from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. "National Security Council Meeting, November 30, 1989." [With attachments: Agenda, Points to be Made, List of Participants]
This preparatory memo for the NSC meeting just before Bush went to Malta is perhaps most interesting for the contrast with the NSC meeting that occurred when Bush returned (see Document 12 below). Here the focus is to "put a damper on expectations" about Malta, to stop people from "getting carried away" given the changes in Eastern Europe, and to reiterate that the President is determined not "to negotiate arms control; the future of Europe; or economic issues."
Transcript of Gorbachev-John Paul II Meeting, Vatican City, December 1, 1989 [Transcribed notes by Aleksandr Yakovlev.]
On the way to the Malta summit, Mikhail Gorbachev stops in Vatican City for his historic meeting with Pope John Paul II, the Polish pontiff from Krakow who had been such an inspiration to the Solidarity movement. Only the second time a leader of Russia had met with a pope, the first being the meeting between Tsar Nicholas I and Pope Gregory XVI in 1845, (Note 6) here the Soviet leader and his wife Raisa would hear the Vatican band performing the Internationale first and then the Papal Hymn. In this conversation, transcribed from notes by Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev (and published here for the first time in any language), the Pope raises concerns about religious freedom in the Soviet Union and the Vatican's relations with various Orthodox and Catholic denominations, while the Soviet leader talks about issues that he planned to discuss with President Bush in Malta, such as the concept of universal human values, particularly objecting to the use of the phrase "Western values" as the basis for world order. Gorbachev describes his vision of Europe and the new world where "universal human values should become the primary goal, while the choice of this or that political system should be left up to the people." That vision would also include gradual change of structures with respect for human rights and freedom of conscience. The Pope responds by saying he shared Gorbachev's vision, especially as far as values are concerned—"[i]t would be wrong for someone to claim that changes in Europe and the world should follow the Western model. This goes against my deep convictions. Europe, as a participant in world history, should breathe with two lungs."
The President's Meetings with Soviet President Gorbachev, December 2-3, 1989, Malta [Briefing Book for the President]. Excerpts (contents pages, selected released pages). Source: George H.W. Bush Library, FOIA request 99-0273-F
The table of contents for President Bush's briefing book going into the Malta meeting provides a useful summary of American priorities for the discussions with the Soviet leader. The highest priority does not go the revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe, which come second on the American list to regional issues and specifically developments in Central America and Cuba – issues of greatest interest to President Bush's conservative critics in the Republican Party, not to mention his electoral base in Florida. And arms control issues, where Gorbachev is ready and eager to move forward, rank sixth on the list. The complete set of background papers has not yet been declassified, but included in this package are several interesting summary papers, including the first three on Central America and Cuba, two on U.S. policy toward Eastern Europe and the GDR, one on the Soviet domestic situation, and one on the conventional forces negotiations.
Transcript of the Malta Meeting, December 2-3, 1989. Source: Gorbachev Foundation, Fond 1, Opis 1
The Soviet record of the Malta meeting has been available to scholars at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow starting in 1993, and the Foundation's documents books as well as memoirs by Gorbachev aides and the former Soviet leader himself have published a variety of lengthy excerpts amounting to an almost complete transcript of the Malta meeting from the Soviet side, while the American transcripts still have not been declassified at the George Bush Library (Texas A & M University) despite Freedom of Information requests that date back at least 10 years. Here, National Security Archive experts combine the various published and unpublished excerpts to produce and translate the most complete transcript yet available anywhere.
The transcript shows little trace of the fierce winter storm that disrupted the planned back-and-forth between U.S. and Soviet ships as the meeting venues at Malta, but instead demonstrates the growth of personal reassurance between the American and Soviet leaders, along with a few tempests over issues like "Western values" (see discussion above) and American pressures on Central America. Interestingly, in an extended discussion with Baker and Shevardnadze, the two sides approach agreement on a negotiation to end the protracted war in Afghanistan, where the Soviets had already completed their withdrawal but the Najibullah government had not fallen as the Americans had expected. Baker bluntly remarks, "Stop your massive assistance to Kabul" – to which Gorbachev responds, "Leave this empty talk behind" and tells the Americans that tribal leaders are already talking with Najibullah, that the Afghan "dialogue itself will clarify this issue" in a "transition period" and "If the Afghans themselves decide that Najibullah must leave – God help them. This is their business."
Apparently the biggest surprise to the Americans is Gorbachev's insistence that the U.S. should stay in Europe, that the U.S. and USSR "are equally integrated into European problems" and that they need to work together to keep those problems from exploding. (Note 7) The American president responds with classic expressions of reserve and prudence, insisting that he does not intend to posture over East Germany even though he was under severe domestic political pressure to "climb the Berlin Wall and to make broad declarations." Bush affirms his support for perestroika, and reassures Gorbachev that they both remember the Helsinki Final Act's pronouncements on the inviolability of borders. In general, the American wants to talk about practical details, such as specific congressional amendments on the U.S. side or arms deliveries in Central America from the Soviet bloc, while Gorbachev initiates broader philosophical discussions: "The world is experiencing a major regrouping of forces."
But both men are clearly uneasy about the dramatic transformations taking place. Bush frankly pronounces himself "shocked by the swiftness" while Gorbachev says "look at how nervous we are." After warning Bush not to provoke or accelerate the changes, the Soviet leader in particular seems to ask what kind of collective action they should take. He stresses the Helsinki process as the new European process and also mentions the Giscard d'Estaing comment in January 1989 about a federal state of Western Europe: "Therefore, all of Europe is on the move, and it is moving in the direction of something new. We also consider ourselves Europeans, and we associate this movement with the idea of a common European home." Gorbachev hopes for the dissolution of the blocs – "what to do with institutions created in another age?" – and suggests that the Warsaw Pact and NATO become, to an even greater degree, political organizations rather than military ones.
On the German question, neither leader expects events to move as fast as they would the following year. Just days before Malta, on November 28, Helmut Kohl announced his "10 Points" towards confederation in a Bundestag speech that the Soviet Foreign Ministry denounced as pushing change in "a nationalist direction." At Malta, Gorbachev attributes the speech to politics and said Kohl "does not act seriously and responsibly." But then Gorbachev asks whether a united Germany would be neutral or a member of NATO, suggesting that at least theoretically he imagined the latter, although he may simply have been acknowledging the U.S. position. His clear preference is for the continuation of two states in Germany and only very slow progress towards any unification: "let history decide." Bush is not eager for rapid progress either: "I hope that you understand that you cannot expect us not to approve of German reunification. At the same time ... [w]e are trying to act with a certain reserve."
Directives for the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the USSR and the United States. Draft by Soviet delegation at Malta. December 3, 1989. Source: George H.W. Bush Library, FOIA request
This draft prepared by Gorbachev's aides envisions quick progress across the entire spectrum of U.S.-Soviet relations, starting with the proclamation that the Presidents at Malta "came to a common conclusion that the period of cold war was over and that the emerging era of peace opened up unprecedented opportunities for multilateral and bilateral partnership." The draft calls for preparation for a full-scale "watershed" summit in 1990, and puts "harmonizing national interests with universal human values" as a top priority for the two countries. The Soviet proposal outlines a comprehensive program of arms control with the goal of "creating a fundamentally new model of security." In addition to quick progress on START and "radical reduction of Soviet and U.S. stationed forces in Europe," the Soviet draft calls for discussion of "Open Skies, Open Seas, Open Land and Open Space" proposals. This draft shows that the Soviet side came to Malta with an ambitious arms control program – exactly what the Bush administration was trying to avoid – but the Malta discussions would lead directly to a growing Bush embrace of the arms reduction possibilities on offer.
National Security Council. Memorandum for Brent Scowcroft from Condoleezza Rice. December 5, 1989. [With attachments: Memo to the President. Points to be Made. List of Participants (for NSC meeting on December 5, 1989). Agenda.]
The contrast between the NSC meetings before Malta ("dampen expectations," no negotiating arms control) and after Malta comes through clearly in this concise cover memo from Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice to her boss, the national security adviser, enclosing the briefing memo and talking points that Scowcroft would then forward to President Bush. "The President has now committed himself to an ambitious arms control agenda before the June 1990 summit" and "bureaucracy must not get in the way," Rice writes. If such urgency had been present at the White House earlier in 1989, perhaps it would not have taken two more years to finish the START treaty or make the withdrawals of nuclear weapons that would not be accomplished until the month after the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev.
Excerpt from Anatoly S. Chernyaev's Diary, January 2, 1990
In this entry Gorbachev's senior foreign policy aide reflects on Gorbachev's meeting with the Pope and the legacy of the Malta summit, since in the press of events, he had not managed to write down his commentary in the moment. The main point Chernyaev sees about Malta, a month later, is the "normalcy" of the summit, the shared understanding that the Soviet Union and the United States are partners and nobody would attack the other, therefore, the threat of nuclear war is a thing of the past, as is the Cold War itself. Chernyaev sees Gorbachev making an intentional effort at Malta to discard this old reality of the Soviet threat, of the "terror" projected by the Soviet Union in Europe as a result of its invasions and repressions. In Malta, according to Chernyaev, Gorbachev and Bush "gave hope to all humanity," and at the Vatican, Gorbachev and the Pope "spoke like two good Christians." The world has changed indeed.
1. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), see for example pp. 40, 43, 71, 78, 114.
2. For extended analysis of the Bush administration's characteristic insecurity, see Thomas Blanton, "U.S. Policy and the Revolutions of 1989," in Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton and Vladislav Zubok, eds., "Masterpieces of History": The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (Budapest/New York: Central European University Press, 2010).
3. For the colorful details of these uncomfortable meetings, see Victor Sebestyan, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (New York, Pantheon Boooks, 2009), pp. 303-305.
4. Bush and Scowcroft, p. 130.
5. Bush and Scowcroft, p. 132 compared to pp. 156-159.
6.Victor Sebestyen, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, (New York, Pantheon Books, 2009), p. 401.
7. Condoleezza Rice subsequently called Gorbachev's position at Malta on the U.S. staying in Europe "revolutionary change" and "something I never imagined I would hear from a Soviet leader" (see Victor Sebestyan, Revolution 1989, p. 403), but Gorbachev had explicitly made such assurances to the Trilateral Commission delegation in January 1989 in answering a question from Henry Kissinger, repeatedly in conversations with Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, among other leaders, and publicly in his famous Strasbourg speech on June 6, 1989. The Americans were apparently not listening, and as late as November 21, 1989, President Bush had suggested to West German foreign minister Genscher, much to the latter's surprise and disagreement, that Gorbachev would propose at Malta the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany and Europe – the old American fear that the Soviets were attempting to "decouple" the U.S. from Europe. See Bush-Genscher memcon, November 21, 1989, George Bush Library, released under 2007-0051-MR.