Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Governors Island Meeting, Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush (7 December 1988)

Summit meeting among Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan, and President-elect George H. W. Bush on 7 December 1988. By 1988, U.S.-Soviet relations had improved dramatically, as evidenced by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and Reagan's visit to Moscow in May 1988. Gorbachev, ignoring political opposition and economic difficulties at home as he pushed on with his perestroika and glasnost reforms, went to New York in early December to announce a dramatic international initiative at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. In his address, he first declared it impossible to maintain closed societies in the face of globalization. He went even further by embracing human rights and the need to free international relations from ideological constraints. Finally, he asserted the need to decrease the threat of the use of force. He then announced a unilateral 10 percent reduction in Soviet armed forces (nearly half a million men) to also include 10,000 tanks, 8,500 artillery pieces, and 800 combat aircraft, mostly stationed in Eastern Europe. In so doing, Gorbachev sought to give credibility to the idea that the Soviet Union had undertaken a fundamental change of course in the way it viewed and dealt with the world.

Following his UN speech, Gorbachev traveled to Governors Island in New York Harbor to bid farewell to Reagan and to establish a working relationship with President-elect George H. W. Bush. Gorbachev hoped to gain a commitment from Bush to build on his relationship with Reagan, but Bush remained aloof throughout the meeting. When Reagan announced his full support of Gorbachev's troop reduction initiative, Bush merely stated, "I support what the president said." Gorbachev, hoping to draw Bush out of his shell, replied, "That's one of the best answers of the year."

During the luncheon, Gorbachev directed most of his remarks toward Bush, trying to assure the president-elect that he could trust the Soviets, that he would not try to undermine or take advantage of Bush, and that his policies represented "real politics" that were necessary because of revolutionary changes in the Soviet Union. Bush asked Gorbachev what his reforms might produce in the Soviet Union over the next five years, to which Gorbachev replied, "Even Jesus Christ couldn't answer that one." Some discussion took place regarding chemical weapons, but American officials, fearful of surprises, refused to engage in serious negotiations.

In a gracious climax to their relationship, Reagan presented Gorbachev with a picture of their first walk at Geneva, stating that the two leaders had come a long way together to clear a path for peace. Reagan then offered a toast to the Soviet leader celebrating what they had accomplished and expressing his hope that such progress would continue once Bush assumed the presidency. Gorbachev, raising his glass toward Bush, declared, "This is our first agreement."

As the luncheon ended, Bush told Gorbachev that he looked forward to working with him "at the appropriate time." The three men then posed for pictures with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. Reagan viewed the meeting as a great success, writing in his diary that he believed Gorbachev viewed the United States as "a partner seeking to make a better world." Gorbachev had to rush home, canceling trips to Havana and London, in order to deal with an earthquake in Armenia that had killed 25,000 and left another half million people homeless. This crisis became a symbol of the domestic problems that preoccupied Gorbachev until the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991. Such problems made it increasingly difficult for the Soviet leader to undertake any new international initiatives and also influenced his decision not to interfere when Moscow's East European allies broke loose from their allegiance to the Soviet Union in 1989.

Upon assuming the presidency, Bush abandoned his initial caution in dealing with Gorbachev, negotiating agreements that increased Soviet-American trade, reduced chemical weapons and conventional forces in Europe, and achieved further cuts in Soviet and American nuclear arsenals.

Dean Fafoutis


Further Reading
Oberdorfer, Don. From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983–1991. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
 

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