He kept his cool as the world caught fire
George H.W. Bush came to the presidency with real experience in foreign affairs, from Mao Zedong’s China to the United Nations, from CIA director to the vice presidency with Ronald Reagan. An early campaign slogan once boasted, “A President We Won’t Have to Train.” But Bush learned about the world in an era of Cold War constancy that was turned on its head during his presidency, a period of heaving tumult far more dramatic than Bush or anyone else anticipated.
He kept his cool. He kept it because that is who he was, at the very core driven by his own personal code: prudence and stewardship. When the world blew up on his watch, Bush gripped the wheel, kept his eyes on the road and tried to avoid a wreck.
During his White House years, China’s leaders massacred pro-democracy student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square; Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and was repelled by an extensive U.S.-led war coalition; the Berlin Wall tumbled and Germany was
reunified in NATO; and Mikhail Gorbachev lost control of the Soviet Union, which imploded. In a period of immense flux and unpredictability, Bush was buffeted by surprises, made mistakes he regretted, harbored doubts about himself and never proved a visionary. But when it came to the hardest moments, he prized stability and practiced caution. He was a pragmatist, not an ideologue.
He had “grown up and come of age in a political world shaped more by a commitment to service than a contest of ideas,” wrote his biographer, Jon Meacham, who called Bush a balancer and a guardian, not a revolutionary.
He certainly did not see himself as the apostle of a new world order. As it turned out, the world remade itself during his four years as president.
Bush placed high value on personal relationships, cultivated over many years, and worked hard at them, often frenetically. Some aides called him the “mad dialer” for all his telephoning; he woke up British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the middle of the night. He relished a private word with King Hussein of Jordan on a speedboat in the Gulf of Aqaba, or with Gorbachev on a hiking trail at Camp David, or with French President François Mitterrand looking out at the sea at Walker’s Point. In a crisis, he called the White House Situation Room at 5 a.m. for updates. He didn’t like to be alone and was rarely idle.
He was old school, believing that a commitment was a word of honor and must be kept. His governing methods were those of a pre-Internet age, with decisions forged in private meetings and messages sent by personal letter through back channels. Bush respected the Washington establishment, including the Foreign Service, the intelligence community and the military, as well as Congress, and he surrounded himself with experienced policy hands who knew how to make government work.
His first big test came when China’s security forces massacred thousands of pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. He had been the U.S. envoy to China from 1974 to 1975, after President Nixon’s opening but before formal relations were established, and he was often seen pedaling his bicycle around Beijing with his wife, Barbara. He often quoted a favorite phrase of Mao, dismissing “empty canons of rhetoric,” which meant ignoring the daily headlines and paying attention to deeds and actions. When the Tiananmen massacre shocked the world, Bush ignored the demands for harsh retaliation and instead pursued a calibrated response. Ten days later, he sat down at his electric typewriter and wrote a private letter “from the heart” to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, asking whether he could send a secret emissary, which he did, dispatching national security adviser Brent Scowcroft with a message that he would give the Chinese some breathing room.
It was classic Bush: cautious, working behind the scenes, trying hard not to overreact and sending a secret message.
The most intense overseas crisis of his presidency followed with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Hussein’s forces rolled over international borders, looted the rich emirate and threatened oilproducing behemoth Saudi Arabia. Immediately after the invasion, Bush told reporters “we’re not discussing intervention,” but added he would not discuss it openly “if I were.” Calling around, he was alarmed to hear that Arab leaders, including Saudi King Fahd, might cave and reward Hussein’s aggression with some kind of deal. Within days, Bush declared, “This will not stand.”
Thatcher famously told Bush on that middle-of-the-night call, “This is no time to go wobbly.” But Bush’s dictated diary entries, revealed in Meacham’s landmark 2015 biography, “Destiny and Power,” show Bush wasn’t going wobbly. With his close friend, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the United States began to build a vast military coalition, eventually joined by 28 nations and 700,000 troops for “coercive diplomacy,” to persuade Hussein to either retreat or be driven out of Kuwait.
By the end of August, according to his diary, Bush was speaking privately of war, although the coalition-building and diplomacy would require many more months. The U.N. Security Council had set a deadline of Jan. 15, 1991. “It has been personalized,” Bush dictated to his diary of Hussein on Aug. 29. “He is the epitome of evil.”
In September, fishing one day with Scowcroft, Bush “asked impatiently when we could strike.”
But Bush’s eagerness was tempered by worry. The Vietnam War had left a lasting imprint on American politics: fear of another military quagmire. In private, Bush fretted about whether he was walking into an extended conflict that might ruin his presidency, much as the war had done to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“If it drags and there are high casualties, I will be history,” Bush dictated to his diary, according to Meacham, “but no problem — sometimes in life, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
The Democratic-controlled Congress was recalcitrant about war. Bush was determined to go to war without congressional approval, but he privately feared he might be impeached if he launched full-scale military operations without a congressional vote and the war went badly. According to Meacham, Bush alluded to impeachment in his diary on five different occasions between Dec. 12, 1990, and Jan. 13, 1991.
Just three days before the U.N. deadline, he won narrow approval from Congress to wage war under a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of “all necessary means” if Iraq refused to leave Kuwait by the set time frame. As it turned out, the war was brief, and Hussein’s military was crushed, in part, by American high-tech weaponry, deployed for the first time since Vietnam. The war essentially broke the spell of the Vietnam syndrome.
When it was over, Bush was not triumphant. He struggled with his caution and prudence.
He had determined early on that the goal of the war was limited — to eject Hussein from Kuwait — and that is what the Security Council approved. Bush ordered the ground war halted once that goal was accomplished. He stopped short of sending troops all the way to Baghdad to destroy the Iraqi leader and his regime. Baker recalled that all of Bush’s team urged him to stop at that moment.
Baker wrote in a memoir that had the troops gone to kill Hussein, the war could have been portrayed as one of conquest, not defense of Kuwait, and could lead to “a military occupation of indefinite duration,” with urban combat that could create “a political firestorm at home.” The prudent Bush certainly did not want that. He stuck by the rules he had created.
But he also had misgivings; Hussein survived. “As I think about it, it would be very good if we didn’t leave him intact,” Bush said to his diary in the early days of the war, speculating that maybe the Iraqi people or army would “take him out.” They didn’t.
“We need the clarity of purpose if we’re going to finally kick, in totality, the Vietnam syndrome,” Bush told his diary. “We need a surrender, we need Saddam out. And yet our objectives are to stop short of all that.” He did not get such a decisive end to the war, and probably erred by not demanding Hussein sign a humiliating surrender.
“Bush and his commanders had projected power and accomplished a carefully defined objective at minimal cost in American blood,” Meacham wrote. But the president lamented to his diary, speaking of Hussein: “Hitler is alive, indeed, Hitler is still in office.”
When it was over, the president struggled with a period of quiet “despondency,” his biographer found, that was hidden from the public. The letdown “was rooted in his failure to bring about Hussein’s fall.”
‘The Cold War is not over’
In May 1988, President Reagan delivered one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency at Moscow State University, celebrating the reforms and growing cooperation with Gorbachev. As he strolled around Red Square and the Kremlin, Reagan was asked if he still considered the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire.”
He replied, “No.” Surprised, reporters asked why. Reagan replied, “You are talking about another time, another era.”
Bush, then vice president and running for the White House, watched the Moscow spectacle from Kennebunkport, Maine. He had doubts about whether the Gorbachev reforms were real. A few weeks later, speaking in San Francisco to the World Affairs Council of Northern California, Bush said the United States “must be bold enough to seize the opportunity of change,” but also be prepared for protracted conflict. “The Cold War is not over,” he warned.
Despite dramatic moves by Gorbachev, including a United Nations speech on Dec. 7, 1988, that announced unprecedented Soviet unilateral troop reductions and a pullback from Eastern Europe, Bush remained wary. He saw the leader’s reforms as more of a competitive threat to U.S. dominance than an opportunity. Upon taking office, he ordered policy reviews, including one on the Soviet Union, hoping to put his own stamp on things. The policy review led to delay, and didn’t produce much. Bush didn’t seek an early summit with Gorbachev.
“I’ll be darned if Mr. Gorbachev should dominate world public opinion forever,” Bush wrote to a friend.
After Gorbachev announced he was unilaterally pulling some nuclear warheads out of Europe, the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, called the Soviet leader a “drugstore cowboy,” suggesting someone who makes promises they can’t keep. Fitzwater later regretted the remark as too glib, but it stuck in the headlines for days.
Bush’s caution was reinforced by Scowcroft, his national security adviser, who was even more skeptical of Gorbachev than the president. But pressure built on Bush that spring to become more proactive. His visit to Poland and Hungary in July exposed him to the torrent of change in Europe — leaders urged him to contact Gorbachev.
After months of waiting, Bush wrote to Gorbachev on July 21, suggesting “I would like very much to sit down soon and talk to you.”
The Soviet empire was cracking. Gorbachev’s national security adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev, wrote in his diary that socialism in Eastern Europe is “disappearing,” the planned economy “is living its last days,” ideology “doesn’t exist any more,” the Soviet empire “is falling apart,” the Communist Party “is in disarray” and “chaos is breaking out.” Chernyaev called 1989 “the lost year,” and in some sense it was.
On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was breached, 28 years after it was erected, and the long Cold War division of Europe was over.
In Washington, reporters were summoned to the Oval Office, where Bush was nervously twisting a pen in his hands. He later recalled feeling awkward and uncomfortable. He refused to crow or herald the moment with any ringing rhetoric.
He was worried that any comments he might make could trigger a Soviet crackdown, and the brutality of Tiananmen Square was still fresh in his mind.
When Lesley Stahl of CBS News remarked that he didn’t seem that excited about the epochal event, Bush replied, “I’m not an emotional kind of guy.”
Later, he often said he didn’t want to “dance on the wall,” a phrase that captured his modesty. But the comment also reflected his deep-seated caution and sense of stewardship. Bush recalled to his diary how years earlier the press was pounding on Reagan for too much “Evil Empire” rhetoric, and now they were criticizing him “for not being out front enough.”
He was having none of it. He said: “Just think if we had done something to exhort Eastern Europe to go to the barricades and . . . manifest freedom in the way we thought best. You would’ve had chaos, and the danger of military action, bloodshed, just to make a few critics feel good — crazy.”
Bush “went to great lengths not to poke Gorbachev in the eye,” Baker recalled.
The changes in the Soviet Union and Europe accelerated. Germany was reunited after a painstaking negotiation in which Baker and Bush played a leading role. Gorbachev came to Washington for a summit with Bush that included a flight on Marine One to Camp David. Two years before, Bush had been skeptical that the Cold War was over. On the chopper, he saw that both he and the Soviet president were accompanied by military aides carrying the nuclear codes by which the two nations could launch nucleararmed missiles at each other — symbols of an earlier era.
Bush tried, repeatedly, to show support for Gorbachev and his reforms, but the political winds shifted in both nations, and in opposite directions. Gorbachev faced more resistance at home to reform. Despite the surge in his popularity after the war, Bush faced a public weary of foreign engagements and a reelection campaign. Bush could simply not produce huge financial aid for the Soviet Union. Trying to help Gorbachev, Bush gave an address in Ukraine in the summer of 1991, when Ukraine was eager to break away from the Soviet Union and become an independent nation. Bush warned Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism.” It was a badly mistaken signal that the columnist William Safire dubbed Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech. The president was behind the curve — within months, Ukraine was independent and the Soviet Union gone. The pace of change was breathtaking for everyone.
On June 20, 1991, the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, Jack F. Matlock Jr., was told that hard-liners were plotting an imminent coup — maybe the next day — against Gorbachev. Matlock got the information from a close ally of Boris Yeltsin, who had just been elected Russian president and was Gorbachev’s rival. At that moment, Yeltsin was in Washington and due to visit the Oval Office at 3 p.m. Matlock sent the information to the White House.
Bush discreetly delivered the warning to Yeltsin, who scoffed that it wasn’t possible. Nevertheless, at Yeltsin’s suggestion, they tried calling Gorbachev from the White House to warn him. For some reason, the call could not go through. Matlock was sent to personally tell Gorbachev. The scene was telling: Bush at the center of the action, seeking to avert a disaster, the “mad dialer” reaching for the phone.
As it turned out, the coup didn’t come the next day but two months later, on Aug. 19, 1991.
More than ever, Bush was determined to avoid chaos. His instinct was not to do anything that would ignite trouble. While Gorbachev was held incommunicado by coup plotters, Bush’s remarks were measured, although he did note, “coups can fail.” The coup attempt collapsed in a few days, in part, due to Yeltsin’s defiance. “The thing is to be calm,” Bush told his diary during the coup. Afterward, he dictated, “We could have overreacted, and moved troops, and scared the hell out of people.” He didn’t — and was proud of having found “the proper balance.”
After the coup, and before the Soviet collapse, Bush took one of the boldest moves of his presidency. On Sept. 27, he delivered a nationally televised address, saying, “The world has changed at a dramatic pace, with each day writing a fresh page of history before yesterday’s ink has even dried.” He announced that the United States would eliminate and stand down a host of nuclear weapons, unilaterally. Gorbachev responded with his own pullbacks on Oct. 5. Suddenly, the arms race that had consumed both superpowers for decades was going downhill and in reverse.
On Oct. 21, Bush wrote a note to Scowcroft. “Please discuss,” he said. “Does Mil Aide need to carry that black case now every little place I go?” He was asking about the “football” with the codes for managing nuclear war. Bush did not think it still necessary for a military aide to shadow him with it — but this time it was others who were more cautious than the cautious president.
They convinced him that it was still necessary.