When the world seemed new George H. W. Bush and the end of the Cold War

Jeffrey A. Engel

Book - 2017

"The untold story of how George H. W. Bush faced a critical turning point of history--the end of the Cold War--based on unprecedented access to heretofore classified documents and dozens of interviews with key policymakers"--

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New York, New York : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 2017.
Main Author
Jeffrey A. Engel (author)
Physical Description
viii, 596 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction
  • 1. Swan Song and Surprise
  • 2. Bush's Rise
  • 3. Gorbachev at the UN
  • 4. "We Know What Works"
  • 5. The Pause
  • 6. "A Special Relationship There"
  • 7. Cheney Rises and the Pause Ends
  • 8. From a Funeral to a Riot
  • 9. Crackdown
  • 10. Untying the Knot
  • 11. Eastern Europe Aboil
  • 12. Another Border Opens
  • 13. "It Has Happened"
  • 14. Germans Pause ... and Act
  • 15. Malta
  • 16. Not One Inch Eastward
  • 17. Camp David
  • 18. Concession
  • 19. "This Will Not Stand"
  • 20. With Us, or Not Against Us
  • 21. The New World Order
  • 22. "Disunion Is a Fact"
  • 23. "I Have Signed It"
  • Conclusion
  • A Note on Sources
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

IN MAY 1989, as the Soviet empire was imploding, President George H.W. Bush delivered a commencement speech at Texas A&M University declaring that the moment had arrived to move "beyond containment" and expressing the hope that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika would succeed. A day earlier, however, someone in his administration had wanted to deliver a very different message. "Buried deep in the archives of the Bush administration," Jeffrey A. Engel reports in "When the World Seemed New," rests an address that Bush's defense secretary Dick Cheney had drafted that breathed fire about the unrelenting Soviet threat: "It would be supreme folly to quit the struggle on what may well be the eve of a less threatening world." The White House put the kibosh on it. A few weeks later Bush prepared to visit Eastern Europe. "Whatever this trip is, it is not a victory tour with me running around over there pounding my chest," he instructed his speechwriters. "I don't want to sound inflammatory or provocative," and "I don't want to put a stick in Gorbachev's eye." Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at president Southern Methodist University and the editor of "The China Diary of George H.W. Bush," is an assiduous researcher and vivid writer who has conducted numerous interviews with leading Bush administration officials. To read his account of the administration's foreign policy is to yearn for an earlier era of American diplomacy, when blarney about the nation's omnipotence was not permitted to substitute for realistic prudence. Instead, Bush, together with Secretary of State James A. Baker III and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, represented the last spasm of Republican internationalism, working closely with the Western allies and the Soviet leadership to end the Cold War peacefully. Engel's excellent history forms a standing - if unspoken - rebuke to the retrograde nationalism espoused by Donald J. Trump. At the core of the Cold War was the division of Germany. All Soviet attempts to extrude the United States from West Berlin after 1945 had failed. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was a staunch Atlanticist who resisted a ferocious Soviet campaign to block the installation of intermediate-range Pershing missiles in 1983. But while West German politicians had routinely paid lip service to unification, an official goal since the founding of West Germany in 1949, it was widely viewed as a pipe dream. "I do not write futuristic novels," Kohl said in October 1988 when questioned about unification. Indeed, early 1989 polls showed that one-half of West Germans believed reunification shouldn't even be a long-term goal, but it soon became apparent that their brethren across the Berlin Wall had different ideas. When the wall was breached in November 1989, the movement toward a single Germany became unstoppable. It was Kohl who grabbed the opportunity, audaciously announcing a 10-point plan on Nov. 28 that set the basis for formal reunification. According to Engel, "he had effectively broken his word given to the British, the Americans, the French and the Soviets ... but Kohl succeeded in seizing the initiative while others dithered." What truly mattered to Bush, however, was Kohl's promise to him that a united Germany would remain in NATO. Bush didn't fear German unification but a Europe denuded of American troops. Engel focuses on the geopolitical tussle between Gorbachev and Bush over Germany's fate. Gorbachev aimed for a neutral and united Germany. Bush, by contrast, had no intention of surrendering America's dominant position. He wanted to cement it, and that is what he did. When Baker met with Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in February 1990, he stated that "there will be no extension of NATO's jurisdiction or military presence one inch to the east." What terms like "jurisdiction" and "military presence" meant precisely was left vague, but essentially Bush took Gorbachev to the cleaners. According to Engel, "the key was to wield power in a gentlemanly manner, forcefully yet tactfully, so hard feelings could be allayed without jeopardizing the outcome." By late May, Gorbachev, to the shock and consternation of his aides, and in direct contravention of the Communist Party's marching orders, capitulated to Bush's demands for a united Germany in NATO during a meeting at the White House, where he had arrived in the position of a mendicant pleading for financial aid for Mother Russia. Engel rightly observes, "Bush, as much as anyone else, and certainly more than any other foreigner, can lay claim to being the father of modern Germany." In Moscow, however, Bush's paternity of a new Germany was not met with equanimity: According to Engel, a ranking general raged, "We have lost World War III without a shot being fired." If the demise of the Warsaw Pact signaled Russian debility, the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when Saddam Hussein tried to gobble up Kuwait, confirmed it. Russia was unable to impede Bush. "We have a white flag from Saddam Hussein," Gorbachev claimed on the eve of hostilities, but Bush was having none of it. He and his aides displayed dexterous diplomatic footwork in constructing an international coalition to defeat Hussein. To his credit, after the Iraqi Army crumpled in the face of the American onslaught, Bush refused to continue on to Baghdad, as the hawks in his party demanded. He had gone to war to set a precedent, Engel observes, not to transform an entire region. Yet for all his prudence, Bush did go down some slippery slopes. In December 1989, he invaded Panama in "Operation Just Cause" to depose its thuggish leader Manuel Noriega and restore democracy. It was an early instance of a humanitarian intervention based on resurgent American military power. As James Mann astutely noted in his book "Rise of the Vulcans," "in this respect Panama was a forerunner of the later American effort against Saddam Hussein in Iraq." Indeed, the politically savvy Baker explained that Panama was about "breaking the mind-set of the American people about the use of force in the postVietnam era." Then there was Iraq itself, where Bush likened Hussein to Hitler and promoted an Amnesty International report on atrocities that Engel says "proved largely fictitious." After Operation Desert Storm concluded, Bush said, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome." IT WORKED all too well. Like Bismarck, who had united Germany and created a delicate balance of power in Europe, Bush and his aides forged a new international structure with America as leader of the pack. But his successors succumbed to hubris and folly. Although Bush was able to stymie Cheney in 1989, he re-emerged in George W Bush's administration as one of the principal supporters of a militant unilateralism that brought America to grief in the second Iraq war. Since then, the capital of the free world has suffered a reversal of fortune, culminating in a president who openly scorns the liberal order that Bush strove to protect and preserve. These developments couldn't be more welcome to the sinister new forces abroad for whom the Cold War has never really ended. After East Germany collapsed, Engel reminds us, a young K.G.B. colonel based in Dresden since 1985 packed up his bags and returned to Russia intent on revenge against the West. His name was Vladimir V Putin. George H.W. Bush, Engel says, can lay claim to being the father of modern Germany. JACOB HEILBRUNN is editor of The National Interest

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 4, 2017]
Review by Booklist Review

Many conservatives and Republican partisans love to chant the mantra that President Reagan won the Cold War. Supposedly, he did so by aiding Afghan rebels and expanding our military budget, helping to push the Soviet Union to near bankruptcy. But the Cold War actually ended (or petered out) under Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush. Engel, a history professor at Southern Methodist University, convincingly gives Bush and his administration great credit for managing the rapidly evolving and largely unanticipated series of events that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Engel covers a lot of ground here, from the various uprisings against Communist parties in Eastern Europe to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, and the hopeful but failed establishment of the New World Order. Bush is seen as neither innovative nor creative, and his initial attitude toward Gorbachev was wary. Yet he had the good sense to avoid a triumphal tone that would have provoked a Soviet reaction. Essentially, he wisely went with the flow of events with a do no harm approach. Engel has provided a justified tribute to a president whose caution and restraint helped keep a potentially bloody geopolitical transformation under control.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

Throughout his career-businessman, congressman, UN ambassador, CIA director, vice president under Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush (b. 1924) earned a reputation for being "reliable rather than revolutionary" and loyal to a fault, says Engel (director, Ctr. for Presidential History, Southern Methodist Univ.; Into the Desert). Engel maintains that Bush's impressive resume combined with a sturdy temperament made him uniquely qualified to manage the "most internationally complex" presidency since World War II. In his single term, the world watched the fall of the Berlin Wall; the dissolution of the Soviet Union; revolutions in China, Yugoslavia, and Romania; and American forces enter Panama, Somalia, and Kuwait. The author contends that Bush's style of "Hippocratic diplomacy," or striving to do no harm, led the way toward a new world order. Though settled within Bush's administration, the broader narrative is more focused on the geopolitical maneuvering of the era. It will intrigue fans of political history who are also interested in international relations. VERDICT General readers may struggle to get through the exhaustive political play-by-play, but Engel does justice to his subject and his monumental, if underrated, feats.-Chad Comello, Morton Grove P.L., IL © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Revisionist study of George H.W. Bush's term in the White House, which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the U.S. as the world's sole superpower.According to Engel (Director, Center for Presidential History/Southern Methodist Univ.; Cold War at 30,000 Feet: The Anglo-American Fight for Aviation Supremacy, 2007, etc.), the first George Bush skillfully negotiated a course around numerous treacherous shoals. One involved Mikhail Gorbachev, whom other leaders regarded in friendlier terms than did Bush. Early in his term, Bush shook off advice from Margaret Thatcher and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, and looked to "prepare in a serious way for a post-Gorbachev future," which in effect meant giving support to Gorbachev's competitor, Boris Yeltsin. Bush's attention to a collapsing Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War also meant careful negotiation with China, whose leadership, Engel argues, was terrified of the reforms sweeping other formerly communist regimes. The author praises Bush for his deft handling of numerous fraught situations, from the invasion of Panama to the much more extensive invasion of Kuwait. In this, however, he is not uncritical, and he notes that Bush was fortunate in facing modest resistance in the latter theater, even as he prepared for an extended conflict and significant casualties, writing in his diary, sanguinely, "sometimes in life you've got to do what you've got to do." Engel goes so far as to venture that Bush's views of Saddam Hussein "obscured his ability to tell fact from fiction when it came to the Iraqi leader." Even so, the author gives Bush credit for leaving office with a strong state and a global presence enhanced by the world's most dominant military, and he observes pointedly that the White House is not the best arena for the inexperienced; one thinks of the current president when reading Engel's caution that "the steeper the learning curvethe greater the danger." Useful reading for anyone with an interest in the first years of the post-Cold War era. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.