Grósz was right. But it was not so much a carefully worked-out plan as a conviction that they would let the satellite states go the way they wished and the Soviet Union would live with the consequences. They wanted to withdraw troops gradually, though, for domestic reasons. At a private meeting just before the Hungarian delegation arrived, Gorbachev said that as far as he was concerned he was ready to remove all Russian forces from Eastern Europe. Shevardnadze said he agreed but saw the pitfalls. ‘Once we start withdrawing troops, the howling will begin,’ he said. ‘They will say “what did we fight for? What did twenty-seven million of our soldiers die for in World War Two?” Are we going to renounce all that?’5
When the East German leaders heard that the Hungarians were dismantling the border, they instinctively felt the threat to themselves. The Iron Curtain was vital to them to keep their compatriots imprisoned. ‘When the Hungarians opened the border, it was especially important because the socialist bloc as a whole took no part in the decision,’ said Günter Schabowski, the East Berlin Party boss. ‘It was threatening to the leadership [who] didn’t want to believe it at first.’ Honecker called his Defence Minister, Heinz Kessler, and demanded: ‘O K , tell me, what have the Hungarians been up to? Do you know anything about it?’ Did the Hungarians comprehend the consequences, he wanted to know. Kessler replied that he had been as surprised as Honecker. Kessler then called his opposite number in Budapest, Colonel-General Ferenc Kárpáti, and demanded an explanation. Kárpáti had been briefed by Németh, who told him to play for time and obfuscate if he was asked any direct questions from Berlin. ‘If we start to explain the full situation we’ll give ourselves away and get into even worse trouble.’ Kárpáti prevaricated and told Kessler that he did not agree with the decision either, ‘but don’t get agitated, it was done entirely for financial reasons’. He assured him that the Hungarians would secure the border to make certain that East Germans could not get through. Honecker was not entirely convinced. He dispatched the GDR’s Foreign Minister, Oskar Fischer, to Moscow to protest against Hungary’s action. Shevardnadze gave a simple, curt answer that ‘we can’t do anything about it. This is a matter between the GDR and Hungary.’6
According to Schabowski, that was the moment that some of the Party bosses realised ‘that we could not rely 100 per cent on Moscow. The opening of the border was the beginning of the end of the socialist bloc . . . Some people in the GDR, myself included, thought that the GDR was not safe, because Moscow was no longer protecting it and who else could guarantee its existence?’7
Twelve days after the Hungarian delegation returned home from Moscow, a vast demonstration clogged the streets of central Budapest. The Fifteenth of March had for a century been an important traditional holiday. It was the anniversary of the start of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburg empire. That had been crushed by the armies of Tsar Nicholas I, which had gone to support the Austrians. Under the Communists any celebrations of the day were banned, as they could prompt anti-Russian protests. But an estimated 100,000 people marched through the Hungarian capital. Some demonstrated for environmental causes under the Danube Circle banner; some were demanding better treatment for the Transylvanian refugees; some were members of the newly formed political parties like the Democratic Forum or the Association of Free Democrats, which had existed as legal political parties for only a few weeks. On that morning the government had declared that 15 March would again be a national holiday, and that talks with the opposition would begin within a few weeks, leading to free elections within a year. At a vast gathering in Kossuth Square, in front of Hungary’s extraordinary nineteenth century Parliament building, the dissident philosopher János Kis, one of the main opposition thinkers of the past decades, said: ‘History has pronounced its death sentence on the system called socialism.’ That he could say it, without a policeman in sight, showed how complete was the surrender of Hungary’s old regime.
THE CAUTIOUS AMERICAN
Washington DC, Saturday 1 April 1989
PRESIDENT BUSH WAS A cautious man. It was his greatest virtue according to his Secretary of State, James Baker, the crucial factor in the resolve he showed in the years when the Soviet empire was imploding. His chief adviser on Russia, the gifted, ambitious and determined Condoleezza Rice, has said that Bush’s immense, reassuring calm was a vital factor in bringing about the end of the Cold War. His great contribution, as another American politician said, ‘was what he didn’t do, as well as what he did. He played it cool. He helped to grease the skids on which the Communists were slid from power. There was little Bush could have done to promote the revolutions of 1989 . . . There is much an American President could have done to derail [them].’ For those who did not work for him, Bush’s caution could be maddeningly frustrating.I
Bush decided he would take his time to decide how to deal with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. Soon after he was elected to the White House, but before he was inaugurated, he sent a message to the Soviet leader via the former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, still an immensely influential man in the making of American foreign policy and diplomacy. Kissinger went to Moscow at the start of the year for a highly secret meeting with Gorbachev and his key adviser Alexander Yakovlev. He delivered a handwritten letter to Gorbachev in which the President promised to continue the progress made in Soviet/US relations under Reagan, but not immediately. He hoped Gorbachev would understand, he wrote, if the new administration took time for ‘a pause’ to consider various options. Gorbachev was not sure he did understand. He was expecting a seamless transition, that Bush would simply start where Reagan had left off. Though he learned to respect Reagan, Gorbachev was getting tired of hearing the same anecdotes repeated over and over again when they met. He wanted to deal with someone whose attention span and grasp of detail were equal to his own. He hoped Bush would be a brighter, younger version of Reagan and that America was too committed to their ‘partnership of understanding’, as he put it, to change course now.
Bush wanted to convince himself that Gorbachev was not ‘too good to be true’. He ordered a thoroughgoing review of American policy on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In his first weeks as President, he held a series of seminars at the White House and at weekends in his mansion at Kennebunkport, in Maine. They were delivered by a wide range of historians, economists, academics, journalists and staff from America’s most influential foreign policy think-tanks. Most of them pointed to Afghanistan, the Polish talks, Hungary, all of the Soviet talk about the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ to show how the world was being transformed. He took seriously the advice from Condoleezza Rice that even if Gorbachev was ousted, ‘it would be hard for the Soviets to reverse . . . to put the genie back in the bottle’. Baker, though as cautious as the President was, thought ‘there was no other show in town . . . and Gorbachev has a good show’.2
Yet for Bush there remained doubts. He well recalled their last conversation, at a reception on Governors Island in New York City, shortly after Gorbachev’s triumphant UN speech. At one point during the lunch Reagan said that a recent poll showed that 85 per cent of Americans supported the new US relationship with Moscow. Gorbachev directed his response to Bush: ‘I’m pleased to hear that. The name of the game is continuity.’ Bush said, ‘What assurances can you give me that I can pass on to American businessmen who want to invest in the Soviet Union that perestroika and glasnost will succeed?’ Gorbachev shot back a curt reply that Bush thought petulant: ‘Not even Jesus Christ knows the answer to that question.’ Later, in more emollient mood, he told Bush:
I know what people are telling you now - that you’ve won the election, you’ve got to go slow, you’ve got to be careful, you’ve got to review, that you can’t trust us, that we’re doing all this for show. You’ll see soon enough that I’mnot
doing this for show, and I’m not doing this to undermine you or surprise you or take advantage of you. I’m engaged in real politics. I’m doing this because I need to. I’m doing this because there’s a revolution taking place in my country. I started it. And they all applauded me when I started it in 1986, and now they don’t like it so much. But it’s going to be a revolution nonetheless . . . don’t misread me.3
That left Bush uncertain. So did the sceptics who warned Bush about Soviet intentions. His National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, thought Gorbachev was the ‘clever bear’ who followed the Brezhnev practice of pursuing expansionist goals while lulling the West into a false sense of security. Gorbachev was a threat precisely because he appeared so reassuring. ‘Gorbachev’s goal was to restore dynamism to the Socialist system and to revitalise the Soviet Union domestically and internationally to compete with the West,’ Scowcroft said.
Gorbachev is potentially more dangerous than his predecessors, each of whom, through some aggressive move, had saved the West from the dangers of its own wishful thinking about the Soviet Union before it was too late. Gorbachev was different. He wanted to kill us with kindness rather than bluster. He was saying things we wanted to hear, making numerous seductive proposals to seize and maintain the propaganda high ground in the battle for international public opinion . . . My fear was that Gorbachev could talk us into disarming without the Soviets doing anything fundamental to their own military structure and that, in a decade or so, we could face a more serious threat than ever before.4
Scowcroft was a highly experienced soldier, an acknowledged foreign affairs expert as well as a close friend of the President. Bush trusted him. Both of them were still receiving daily reports from the CIA about the strength of the USSR, including its economic power. These were helpful only up to a point. The CIA somehow missed the fact that its main enemy was dying and its empire was withering away, said Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bush, later. ‘They talked about the Soviet Union as though they never read the newspapers, much less developed clandestine intelligence,’ he commented. Every intelligence agency, for its own bureaucratic as well as ideological reasons, has a vested interest in overstating the threat posed by an adversary. Often they tend to base their analyses on the ‘better to be safe than sorry’ principle.
Many operatives in Langley had a more accurate picture of the chaos and bankruptcy of the system. ‘But even if we knew, we would never have been able to publish it,’ said the CIA’s chief Soviet analyst for two and a half decades, Douglas MacEachin. ‘Had we done so, people would have been calling for my head.’ Heretical views seldom reached the White House or the upper reaches of the National Security Council. So the CIA was constantly reporting that the economies of the Soviet Union and some of the satellite states were growing. ‘They used simply to take what the Soviets officially announced, discount it a per cent and put it out,’ Mark Palmer, Ambassador to Hungary and later a distinguished State Department Kremlinologist, said. ‘And it was just wrong. Anybody who had spent time . . . [there] in the towns and villages could look around and see that it was just crazy.’5
Unusually, on 1 April Robert Gates, the former CIA Director and now the Agency’s main point man in the White House, went public with his doubts. He said in a speech in Brussels that neither Gorbachev nor ‘his power structure were irrevocably committed to reform’ and warned of ‘prolonged turbulence’ in the Soviet Union and its empire. He repeated his claim that Gorbachev was still committed to the dictatorship of the Communist Party, which remained untouched and untouchable. Soon afterwards another ardent Cold Warrior in the Bush administration questioned the point of further rapprochement with the Soviets. The new US Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney, appeared on a TV talk show. He speculated: ‘If I had to guess today I would guess that Gorbachev will ultimately fail . . . and [be] replaced by someone far more hostile to the West.’ Both were told by the President to keep silent about their doubts in public. But the Soviets were seething.
Gorbachev’s long-term objective was to reach further arms limitation agreements with America, massively reduce Soviet defence spending and obtain huge loans from the US to prop up the Soviet economy. He was prepared - if it came to the point - to dismantle the ‘outer empire’ to achieve these goals. But the lack of enthusiasm for him and his reforms that came from the US made things harder for him at home. He constantly had to watch his back in case the Kremlin conservatives and the Soviet military delivered blows against him. The Russian generals were deeply unhappy about some of the criticism they were now hearing from Washington. After he saw Cheney’s television performance the Chief of the Soviet General Staff, General Mikhail Moiseyev, thundered: ‘Are we sure we know what we are doing with these people? Haven’t we made a mistake in believing that we can do business on a mutual basis with them?’ He was further enraged at the beginning of April when the Pentagon leaked a story claiming - wrongly, as it turned out - that the Soviets had been sending long-range bombers to Libya. Even the patient and cheerful Shevardnadze was infuriated when, three days after Gates’s Brussels speech, the US State Department made a claim - which turned out to be true - that the Soviets had been caught trying to place listening devices in the American Consulate in Leningrad. He said that the Americans were ‘waging an old and disagreeable kind of campaign against us’. It was sounding like the Cold War language of a decade or more earlier.6
Gorbachev complained to his old sparring partner and one of his earliest supporters in the West, Margaret Thatcher. They met at the start of April when Gorbachev made a brief visit to the UK. He told her in private at 10 Downing Street that he was ‘enraged’ by Washington. Bush’s ‘pause’ was an obstacle, he said. ‘Why does it take so long for a President who was part of the previous administration to work out his own approach? You have several times vouched for President Bush,’ he added. Had she not assured him that the new President would pick up where Reagan had left off? That was not happening. ‘Instead . . . nothing except a lot of petty harassments. The whole situation is intolerable.’ Thatcher advised him to be patient. ‘I know George Bush and James Baker very well,’ she replied. ‘I do not see how they could . . . contradict President Reagan’s course. Of course, Bush is a very different person. Reagan was an idealist . . . Bush is a more balanced person. He gives more attention to detail. But on the whole he will continue the Reagan line.’7