Christopher Maynard is professor and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at the University of North Alabama. He is author of Out of the Shadow: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.
Historians have already begun to assess the dramatic historic change that occurred during his presidency: When Mr. Bush relinquished the presidency in 1993, he did so with the satisfaction of knowing that he would be the last U.S. president to serve under the shadow of the Cold War.
In the spring of 1989, President Bush stood before the graduating class of Texas A&M University. Only months into his presidency, critics were already clamouring for Mr. Bush to follow up on the peace initiatives started by his predecessor, the larger-than-life Ronald Reagan, and the charismatic Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Bush did not have the communication skills of either of those men, nor did he embrace their strong ideological rhetoric.
Instead, as he gave the commencement address, Mr. Bush laid out his plan to move beyond the containment doctrine, a doctrine embraced by American presidents from Truman to Reagan. He wanted to end the division of Europe so the Soviet Union could be integrated into the existing international system.
Despite Mr. Reagan’s strong rhetoric, most notably in his “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin, he had not pushed for the reunification of Germany, preferring to focus on arms-control negotiations. By the time Mr. Reagan left office in 1989, Germany was still divided. Soviet troops still occupied Eastern Europe. This uncertainty needed to be resolved before the Cold War could come to an end.
Events in Europe were moving too quickly to wait for piecemeal arms-reduction agreements and were so unpredictable that any precisely laid out plan would have to be continually altered.
Mr. Bush, with his international background and diplomatic experience, excelled at this sort of ad-hoc policy making. When critics lambasted him for not celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, a prudent Mr. Bush knew that much diplomatic work still needed to be done before the Cold War could be concluded. Gloating would merely complicate matters.
Mr. Bush’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and vice-president of the United States uniquely prepared him for this challenge.
Mr. Bush’s foreign-policy achievements were not merely an extension of Mr. Reagan’s policies. Nor were they, as some observers have suggested, “clean-up” diplomacy. Mr. Bush did not simply continue on the foreign-policy path set by Mr. Reagan: He made a fundamental shift in foreign policy regarding the Soviet Union.
It was during the Bush administration (1989-93) that the Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, Germany reunified, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
This is not to say that Mr. Bush alone ended the Cold War; rather, it was a process that benefited from both the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Both Mr. Reagan’s grand symbolic gestures and Mr. Bush’s foreign-policy expertise were needed to end the Cold War, as was Mikhail Gorbachev’s willingness to embrace co-operation with the West in an effort to reform the Soviet Union.
Mr. Bush’s lasting legacy is that he led a transition – a transition from the Cold War to a post-Cold-War world. He recognized practical diplomatic problems and addressed them with practical diplomatic solutions.
The Cold War did not have to end peacefully. It was Mr. Bush’s adroit management – diplomatic and political – that allowed it to end with a whimper instead of a bang.