Brent Scowcroft on the fall of the Berlin Wall

Atlantic Council president and CEO Frederick Kempe interviewed Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Chairman of the Atlantic Council International Advisory Board on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago, you were a central player as National Security Advisor to President George H.W. Bush. Looking back, who or what would you say won the Cold War?

The Cold War ended when it did principally because of the personality of Mikhail Gorbachev. If, instead of Gorbachev, the Politburo had chosen another hardliner, the Cold War would not have ended in 1989. The Soviet system wasn’t working, but another figure like [former Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev would have kept it going for a while.

What was it about Gorbachev that provided the key?

His personality. He saw the political and economic liberalization that was going on in Poland and Hungary as being run by mini-Gorbachevs who were doing what he was trying to accomplish in the Soviet Union. So he supported, by-and-large, or acquiesced in what was going on in Eastern Europe – until the Wall came down, and then he got scared.

What we were seeing was another of the recurrent surges in Eastern Europe that the Soviets had cracked down on before, in Berlin 1953, Hungary 1956 and Prague 1968. But, unlike previous leaders, he saw the changes in Eastern Europe as helping him in what he was trying to achieve in the Soviet Union. Communist party officials were resisting his reforms, so he threatened the party by saying, “I’m going to have party elections if you guys won’t shape up and do what I want. I’ll run people against you in the party.”

But he was not a democrat, and he was not trying to dismantle the Soviet Union. He was trying to make it more efficient because it was badly run down. What he started was a program of reforms to improve productivity by addressing issues such as absenteeism, corruption and alcoholism. He also cut back on brutality and repression. But what he was doing – and he did not realize it – was dismantling the whole apparatus.

You say that Gorbachev didn’t recognize what he was unleashing. How about you? Did you have a sense at the time that history was unfolding?

Yes, we did. When we came into office, a lot of people were saying, “The Cold War is over.” I and the President, however, felt that it was not over because the heart of the Cold War really was the division of Europe. And Soviet troops were still everywhere in Eastern Europe. The rhetoric had changed dramatically. Gorbachev was saying things we liked to hear, but nothing had fundamentally changed. And so we decided the key was really to get Russian troops out of Eastern Europe.

How did you go about doing that?

We altered the strategy toward Eastern Europe. We had focused previously on arms control with the Soviets, but that became less of a priority. We had also favored the Soviet’s satellite states that had made the most trouble for the Soviet Union, but we shifted our emphasis to promoting the countries that were leading the liberalization measures. That means we reversed our support for Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. He was a dyed-in-the-wool communist, but he was a pain in the neck for the Russians with his independent foreign policy. So, Ceausescu went to the bottom of our list and those that got greater support were Poland and Hungary. We wanted to encourage those liberalization movements at a pace and in a way that would not be so fast that the Soviet Communist party leadership would react, either to repress those countries or overthrow Gorbachev because he was losing control.

How did you do that?

It wasn’t easy. No one knew what would be exactly the right pace of change. One of the things that frightened me in the summer of 1989, when President Bush went to Poland and Hungary, was that in Poland, in particular, there could be big demonstrations supporting him. That could panic the Russians and lead to a crack down. So I argued that we should have no big public events. That became the general strategy – not to provoke the Soviets.

Was it your aim to end the Soviet empire?

The aim was to liberate Eastern Europe – to get Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe. We thought that would really mark the end of the Cold War. It was not to destroy the Soviet Union. Did we think they were having some troubles? Yes. Were there things being written, intelligence information that said [Soviet collapse] might happen? Yes, but that was not our goal. It was rather to bring the Cold War to an end by getting their soldiers out of Eastern Europe.

Aren’t you giving Gorbachev too much credit? What about the West’s own strengths as the reason for Cold War victory? What about NATO? How does all this factor in?

Of course, all of that made it possible, but Gorbachev was the enabler. Even more than Gorbachev it was [Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze. He was the one who really encouraged Gorbachev in these policies. It was clear when Shevardnadze quit [in December 1990] that Gorbachev became a somewhat different person. He became much more resistant, much more reluctant to go down the path we wanted him to go.

You give individuals a great deal of credit in shaping historical outcomes. Historians have argued for some time between the role of individuals and underlying forces. Yet this was a time of decisive individuals – Reagan, Bush, the Pope, Walesa, Havel, Kohl, Gorbachev.

That is why I emphasize Gorbachev, because he was a curious amalgam. He was intelligent, very cerebral and I would say rather indecisive. And that stood in our stead. For example, Helmut Kohl and George Bush were the only ones that wanted German reunification. The Russians didn’t; the French didn’t; the British didn’t. Had Gorbachev been a different kind of a person he might have mobilized the British and French with him and together they probably could have kept German unification from happening. He didn’t do that.

Why did Gorbachev accept German unification?

He didn’t have a better alternative. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t know what to do. I think he realized the notion of a divided or neutral Germany between the East and the West would mean a Europe that would not be stable.

When was it clear to you that he could accept German unification?

The issue of unification was all tied up with the issue of whether a united Germany would remain in NATO.  We had a meeting in May 1990 in Washington. We were not able to get him to talk about reunification and NATO. He just wouldn’t do it. We were getting nowhere in the meeting, and then Bush said, “Do you agree that the Helsinki Accords give the right to all members to join or not join any alliance, any group?” And he said “Yes.” Well, his colleagues just about collapsed. They started remonstrating with him and they went off into the corner of the room to sort it out.

He had said too much.
When they came back and sat down, Gorbachev tried to backtrack. Gorbachev said, “This is a complicated question; we need to think about it; we need to plan it; let’s turn it over to our foreign ministers.” Shevardnadze said, “Nothing doing, this is something that has to be done by the heads of state.” So that was sort of where we left it, but we had broken the dam and Gorbachev had admitted that, yes, it was the right of the Germans to decide whether or not to stay in NATO.

That was the moment at which you believe Gorbachev accepted German unification? He didn’t try to roll it back after that?
That was more about Germany in NATO.  Unification was more or less settled by the East German elections in March. We didn’t press it too hard in the joint communiqué after the meeting. We put some flowery language in, but not that. He was going to meet with Kohl in June. We told Kohl all this. And, sure enough, when he met with Kohl, Gorbachev said yes to Germany in NATO and thus to unification.

You talked about how Bush and Kohl were the only ones who really wanted unification. You were skeptical as well?

I was skeptical only because I thought we had so much on our plate – with what was going on in Poland, in Hungary and with the exodus of refugees from East Germany. I thought we ought to delay the controversial issue of German unification as long as we could because we didn’t know what would happen there and whether the Kremlin would respond negatively. Even the Germans were divided about whether or when it should happen. But in December 1989, Kohl and Bush had dinner together the day before a NATO meeting. Kohl outlined his notion for unification. It was a slower timetable than actually happened, but Bush just said, “Go for it.” For me, it was a fait accompli from that time on.

Did you feel pressure from Thatcher and Mitterrand against it?

Thatcher was quite open. People credit Mitterrand, but I think it was Thatcher who said, “I like Germany so much I think there ought to be two of them.” They were not sympathetic, they were reluctant, but they didn’t actually stand in the way. The momentum within Germany was so powerful it sort of swept everybody else along.

President Bush was criticized for having responded to the Berlin Wall’s fall in a muted manner when it occurred. No “Mission Accomplished” banners.

Yes. It was a tumultuous day in Berlin, but just an ordinary day in the White House. The East Germans had announced the wall between the two Germanys would open, but it was unclear whether that would include the Berlin section. Crowds pressed against the Berlin border crossings and the guards did not resist. I had gone to the President to explain this and tell him that the picture was still very confused. We still were unclear whether they would crack down, or whether they wouldn’t crack down. [White House Spokesman] Marlin Fitzwater came in and said, “You’ve got to say something to the press.” Well, the President said, “I don’t want to give a press conference; I don’t have anything to say because we don’t know what’s going on!”

And so we compromised by inviting a small press contingent to the Oval Office, and they gathered around the President’s desk. [Journalist] Lesley Stahl was standing right next to the desk, and she said something like, “Mr. President, you don’t seem very elated; I would think you’d be dancing.” And he says, “I’m not an emotional kind of guy” – or something like that. What we were really afraid of is that this could be one of those events that would force the conservatives in Russia to crack down, like Hungary of 1956.

So playing it down was intentional.

Yes. The worst thing, we thought, would be for the President to gloat that we’d won, because what we wanted was for this momentum to keep going. I think the President behaved admirably. Many people advocated that the President ought to be going to Berlin to dance on the Wall.  But I think the President strategically had exactly the right approach. What he kept trying to say was, “Look, nobody won or lost here; we both won with the end of the Cold War.”

What was the mood in the White House? How were you trying to steer things?

It was a very heady mood, but one also of nervousness and apprehension because we were trying to keep this thing at a pace that could continue without a crackdown. There were internal differences on how fast we ought to be pushing things, based on differing assessments of the perils versus the opportunities.

A different Dick Cheney (than when it came to Iraq)?

A different Dick Cheney – a very different Dick Cheney.

The issue that still haunts us regards what we had agreed to in terms of restricting NATO troop deployment in the former Soviet bloc. What did you agree to at the time?
What we promised when it was clear that a unified Germany would be free to come into NATO was that we would not station NATO troops in the East German part of a unified Germany. Subsequently, the Russians argued that we said that we wouldn’t station NATO anywhere east. Well, my recollection is that applied only to Germany, because we had no notion of expanding NATO at that time. That wasn’t on the horizon, let alone the agenda.

There were differences in the German government about how to execute unification and whether a unified Germany should be within NATO. Could you characterize what the differences were between German National Security Adviser Horst Teltschik and Hans-Dietrich Genscher – and how this played out at that time?
Well, Horst Teltschik was my interlocutor and was aligned with Helmut Kohl. We talked frequently, once a week or more. Jim Baker’s interlocutor was Genscher. And Genscher had a somewhat different perspective on unification. His notion, as I recall, was that of an East Germany and a West Germany that would be something of a confederation; semi-joined countries united by the parties he thought would probably win the elections in both countries, and those were the Socialists because they were a natural majority over East and West Germany.

The Communists were not likely to win, but he never thought that the Christian Democrats would win. There was a lot of to-and-fro in the German government and with us.

Genscher expressed this notion directly with us?

Oh, yes. Genscher came here and met with us, I believe in a meeting preparing for Gorbachev’s visit in May. As I recall, there were still some differences of opinion on just where we ought to go. But the President’s mind was made up at this time. And so was Kohl’s.
Why was it so important to have a reunified Germany in NATO? Why did Helmut Kohl want it so much?

Well, there was still a lot of debate about Germany. They had started two world wars. What do you do with Germany? A neutral Germany in the heart of Europe had the potential of being a vicious nuisance, to say the least. And I think even the British and the French realized that. My sense is Gorbachev realized that as well. What do you do with a unified Germany? You can’t keep Germany separated, based on the rush of events in early 1990. So the safest thing to do is anchor them in an alliance where they’re bound. 

What you’re saying is that Genscher was prepared to preemptively negotiate away what Gorbachev actually wasn’t demanding in negotiations? 

Well, Gorbachev wasn’t demanding anything. Gorbachev was just trying to hang on to his hat at this time. Things in East Germany were moving very rapidly, and it was almost a matter of chasing after events.   

What was your impression of Helmut Kohl during this period? 

Kohl was a fascinating individual. He was a student of military leaders and leadership. Whenever we had free time he would ask me what I thought of one military leader or another, going back as far as our Civil War. He once came a day early on a trip to Washington so that I could take him through Arlington cemetery and visit some of the graves. Well, the day he came turned out to be above 90 degrees, but he insisted on walking among the graves and not driving. Here’s Kohl, this large man, sweating profusely, walking through Arlington with me, fearing he was about to pass out.

How would you judge his role in history?

He was an uncanny natural leader. He understood what he had to do was to tame Germany and embed it so thoroughly in Europe that the old impulses would disappear. And so he visibly accepted French leadership in Europe and signed on to the French as a loyal, almost subordinate, partner even as Germany unified. And I think that was a crucial development in Europe at the time.

When did the Cold War end in your mind? 

Well, there are two logical dates. I think probably the most logical, in terms of what I’ve laid out and what our strategy was, is that it ended with the unification of Germany in October 1990. One can also argue, and I think fairly persuasively, that it ended earlier than that, when we and Moscow jointly denounced the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. It depends how you look at it.

Do you regret anything in the aftermath of this period?

I’m sorry that because we were fixed on near-term goals that we didn’t think hard enough about how NATO had to change going forward. We focused on a “Europe whole and free,” but what did that mean? What did it mean to NATO to have the reason for the alliance, the glue that held it together, disappear? We never faced up to that.

What should we have done instead?

We should have asked ourselves, What are we trying to do? What are we trying to do with Russia fundamentally? What is NATO for? We are still struggling with that question. For example, what does Albania bring to NATO? You can say well, it helps us democratize Albania, but is that the job of NATO?

What do you think today’s NATO is for? 

Well, that’s a very good question. We need to decide that. We wanted to anchor Eastern Europe as closely to Western Europe as possible. Now, to me, the obvious way to do that is the European Union, but the Europeans didn’t want to move that fast. So we pushed the expansion of NATO on the West Europeans, and they were so happy not to have us hector them about EU expansion that they went along with it.

Do you feel you were right in your opposition to NATO enlargement?

I remember being surprised at the Russians acquiescing to NATO expansion. They complained, but they acquiesced. And I think I underestimated what it was really doing to Russian attitudes. I think we all did. We were humiliating Russia, not intentionally, but nevertheless that was the net result.

This piece is selected from Freedom’s Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.