Gorbachev and Bush: The world's massive missed opportunity for peace

George H.W. Bush could have helped Gorbachev in 1991. Instead, he paved the way to Vladimir Putin and the oligarchs

Published September 5, 2022 10:44AM (EDT)

Pres. Bush (R) & Soviet Pres. Gorbachev shaking hands, all smiles, holding summit press conference, 1989 (Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
Pres. Bush (R) & Soviet Pres. Gorbachev shaking hands, all smiles, holding summit press conference, 1989 (Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)

The recent death of Mikhail Gorbachev is reason to consider the lost opportunity that his leadership of the Soviet Union presented to the world. President George H.W. Bush is often granted much credit for taking no action to hinder the collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War. Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, however, gives us much reason to reconsider that lack of response. Putin's actions have deeper roots than just the expansion of NATO.

In terms of 20th century history, the failed response to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 can only be rivaled in impact by the failed response to the defeat of Germany in 1918. Abandoning Germany after the First World War created an environment of hunger and desperation in which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis could thrive. The end of World War II gave the Allies another chance, and the United States — with its allies and through enormous financial aid and commitment — helped create a world where the defeated foes, Japan and Germany, became allies, not future enemies.

That did not just happen. Creative and assertive conceptions and actions by leaders in the Truman administration made it happen. Recognition of what the end of the war meant to a devastated Europe, as well as the slow breakdown of the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, triggered action, not caution. The programs and initiatives were boundless: the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, the UN, the United National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration — the list goes on. All this happened not just because the U.S. had the money to do it. Policymakers also had the foresight to try to create a better world. 

Contrast that with the Bush administration's reaction to the cataclysmic collapse of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev presented the U.S. with a great opportunity. His policies of perestroika (restructuring the economy) and glasnost (openness, freedom of the press and expression) opened the door for dramatic change, as did the adoption of a range of market-oriented policies by the Supreme Soviet. As early as a 1989 meeting with Bush in Malta, Gorbachev must have thought there was great potential in a partnership with the U.S. "The world is leaving one epoch and entering another," Gorbachev said. "We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era."

A creative decision to aid Gorbachev in a major way might have helped his reforms succeed and could have fostered a far more positive transformation of Russia than the one we face today. Gorbachev was almost begging for such aid and as he himself said: History punishes those who act too late.

A creative decision to aid Gorbachev could have fostered a far more positive transformation of Russia than the one we face today.

Instead, despite the virtual revolution Gorbachev had unleashed across eastern Europe, Bush and the old Cold Warriors exercised enormous caution, only going so far as to drop policies of open hostility, offer arms reduction talks and tell Gorbachev he should seek financial help elsewhere. Bush complained that the U.S. had its own financial woes, yet he found plenty of money to attack Panama and then spend more than $116 billion in a war against Iraq in 1991. In that case, perhaps spurred by his obsession with Saddam Hussein, Bush was assertive, forceful and opportunistic in creating a coalition with a purpose — everything that was missing in his response to the Soviet Union. Panama and Kuwait were "liberated." Russia was lost. 

Failing to receive useful financial aid from the U.S., Gorbachev asked to meet with the Group of Seven industrialized nations, where he planned to ask for $100 billion in assistance. Gorbachev told the New York Times on May 23, 1991, that the problems facing the Soviet Union deserved more attention and support from the G7. The Soviet Union has become "one of the solid reliable pillars of today's world," he told the Times. "If that pillar disappears, we should consider all of the possible consequences."

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Yet, Bush, amazingly, felt that aid from the G7 nations would only raise Gorbachev's hopes of financial support for his reforms. In July, the G7 leaders chose not to provide Gorbachev any financial aid. Shortly thereafter, without any financial support and with domestic turmoil rapidly mounting, Gorbachev was ousted and the opportunity was gone. Much as the Germans had been left to fester in their humiliation after World War I, the Russians watched their world fall apart as the West mainly stood by and watched, smug in Cold War victory. It would have not been necessary to throw money at the Soviet Union, but certainly more creativity was called for in facing such an opportunity.

The world's problems with Vladimir Putin today do not stem from nations trying to find safety within NATO. They are the direct result of Bush and other narrow-minded politicians allowing the creation of an environment in which Putin and the oligarchs could thrive and block or reverse democratic reforms. The Bush administration failed to seize that critical historical moment, and we are all now facing what Gorbachev termed those "possible consequences."

By John T. McNay

John McNay is a Cold War historian who teaches at the University of Cincinnati. He is currently at work on his fourth book, "Sparking the Cold War: Confrontations in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, 1945-1950," for Bloomsbury.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cold War Commentary George H.w. Bush History Mikhail Gorbachev Russia Soviet Union Vladimir Putin