The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Cold War’s Last Days

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

Frank Elbe

Former Deputy Head, Department for Issues of Nuclear Disarmament, Foreign Office; Former Head, German Policy Planning Staff; Former Director, Foreign Minister Hans-Deitrich Genscher's Cabinet

Vitaly Churkin

Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations

Mary Elise Sarotte

Visiting Professor of Government and History, Harvard University; Author, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

CFR Senior Fellow Robert D. Blackwill, Vitaly Churkin, permanent representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, and Frank Elbe, former director of German Foreign Minister Hans-Deitrich Genscher's cabinet, join Mary Elise Sarotte of Harvard University to discuss the factors and steps that led to the end of the Cold War. Recounting firsthand experiences in U.S., German, and Soviet leadership, the panel describes why the Cold War ended how it did, and the degree to which personalities mattered in diplomacy and decision-making.

This meeting is part of the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall Symposium.

SAROTTE: My name is Mary Sarotte, and I am—I am Dean's Professor of History at the University of Southern California, and I'm currently a visiting professor at Harvard. And I've just written a book called The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall and as part of that, I have the great honor and privilege to interview dozens and dozens of participants in events.

And as part of this fall of anniversary commemorations, I've been doing a number of events like this. These are my favorite kind of events, where we actually get people who were there, on the stage, to talk about their experience in their own voices. And we've got three wonderful participants in events for you here today.

We have—seated to my immediate left—Ambassador Blackwill. You have, of course, the bios in your packets. The ambassador has a long career. He was ambassador to India, a number of other important posts. He did teach at Harvard, but nobody's perfect. We won't hold it against him. And he will be talking about his experiences in 1989.

Then we have Ambassador Churkin, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N. since 2006. He's held another ambassadorial posts and, importantly for me, has a PhD in history, of which I approve heartily.

And then we have Ambassador Elbe, who was particularly generous to me when I was researching my previous book, "1989." Gave me a number of interviews about his career in the former West German and then German Foreign Ministry, where he worked very, very closely with Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. So, we have a terrific panel for you. And we will try to avoid the creeping determinism that my friend—colleague, Jeremi Suri, mentioned, and actually look critically at the end of the Cold War.

So, I'd like to start with just a very general question for each of you. Since, we've been talking a lot about dates, about when things began and ended, I'd like to put a slight twist on that question and ask all of you to give the reasons you believe the Cold War ended when it did. And I'm consciously avoiding giving an end date. I'd like to leave that up to you. And, before you start answering that in detail, please, for the benefit of the audience, and the members and also the people—the audience on live stream, please just say where you were in November 1989, when the wall came down. Ambassador Blackwill, should we start with you?

BLACKWILL: Sure. Thank you. I was in the White House. I was the Senior Director for Europe and the Soviet Union in '89, '90. So, from the beginning of the administration through the end of German unification process in September of '90, I was there. Starting to answer your question about why then, let me first say that when President Bush took office, and those of us who worked for him at the White House, and I think Secretary Baker and Bob Zoellick would say the same thing over at the State Department, we of course did not dream—in our wildest imagination—that within six months we would be in the midst of these transformational events in Eastern Europe.

And I would begin by saying, why did this happen when it happened? It happened because of the people of Eastern Europe, who came out into the streets and forced the process forward. And they couldn't be ignored, and as the months in 1989 went forward, they put great pressure on all the governments to respond. Without them, we would not have had the evolution of events that occurred.

But, the second, I would say why, is Mikhail Gorbachev, and Ambassador Churkin can speak to this better than I, obviously, but he had, at least from the American perspective, as we were trying to understand him, he had an idea that reform was possible in Eastern Europe in a way that substantiated, continued Soviet rule over Eastern Europe in a different form. And it turned out, at least in my view, that was an enormously misguided proposition. And it, along with the people, played back and forth. The people and decision making by Gorbachev to produce the opening, which then the American government—and Frank can speak to this—the German government took advantage of. And it was presented to us, we didn't produce it, I want to stress that. We did not produce that. We were enormously surprised at the outset that it was happening.

SAROTTE: When you say, 'it,' you mean the opening of the Berlin Wall?

BLACKWILL: No, I don't mean the opening of the Berlin Wall, I mean the process which began in the late spring of 1989, and went forward, which culminated, in one sense, with the—with the fall of the wall, but the movement had enormous propulsion by that time. And so, as often in, I think, the history of diplomacy, the statesman's challenge is often not to create opportunity, but to recognize it and exploit and that's what I think President Bush, Secretary Baker, General Scowcroft and then their counterparts on the German side did.

SAROTTE: Ambassador Churkin?

CHURKIN: Well, thank you very much. In November of 1989, my job was called the Counsellor to the Foreign Minister. In practice, I was Press Secretary to Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, and I recall that, on a certain day, we were sitting in his office, together with some of his advisors, and the call came about the Berlin Wall. And the surprising thing was that Shevardnadze was not really surprised about getting this call. I cannot—I don't know other details of that, but this is my recollection.

Why it happened when it happened. Well, first of all, sometimes I think that the Cold War is not really dead. It's sort of comatose, but from time to time it would come back—back to and give a few kicks, and then will go into this comatose state again. So, I think we need to make sure that that's definitively dead. Actually, I—I do believe that we ended the Cold War, but we did not end the transition to a new state of things, which would be sorted enough and interactive enough, to use a popular word, in order to provide a new framework of our countries, Russia and the West, the international community dealing with each other productively on those various issues we have to deal with.

Now, well, when it ended, because the time has come for it to end. And I think it was from our perspective for two reasons. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze and others realized that the situation in the country was pretty bad economically, socially. Some fundamental transformation was required. And that things were wrong, also, in international relations. I'm sure they thought that a new kind of relationship with the West, with the United States, would help them resolve their economic problems. In fact, I think—even though I don't want to beat up on Mikhail Gorbachev, I think he's a great figure in history—he counted too much on hoping to get some help from the United States and the West in sorting out those problems, and that, of course, was not about to happen.

So, that was one of the factors. But then I also believe that intellectually, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, and others who were supporting them, they thought that the Cold War was a crazy state of existence for the international community. Remember that one of the fundamental sort of tenets—and I don't remember was it Gorbachev or Shevardnadze who made that first pronouncement—was that the competition between two social economic systems, capitalism and socialism, do not have to determine international relations. It was a fundamental statement for them to make. And they sort of started moving from that and they—Gorbachev published in 1987 his famous book, "New Thinking for the Country and for the World," which was basically saying that we don't have to look at ourselves as enemies on—on both sides. So, to me, that was—those were the fundamental factors which made the end of the Cold War possible. Thank you.

SAROTTE: Ambassador Elbe?

ELBE: In November 198—no, '89, I was Chief of Staff of Foreign Minister Genscher's, main ghost writer on security issues. On that day I was a member of the delegation of the chancellor and the foreign minister to Poland. And, at one point, around seven o'clock, the local correspondent of Deutsche Nachrichtenagentur, (inaudible), a close friend of mine, approached me and said, Frank, the wall is coming down. And I immediate called the Foreign Office, the crisis department and, indeed, a colleague of mine confirmed that there were strange movies on the TV. He saw people dancing on the wall.


And I immediately informed Genscher. Now, what is interesting was the first reaction that we got from the Poles the next day. We had breakfast with Walesa, and his foreign political advisor, Geremek, later became foreign minister, and Walesa was appalled. He was shocked, and he used a typical Polish expression, said to be used by one of their national heroes—"Finis Poloniae"—this is the end of Poland. And Geremek intervened and said, no, no, no. You see it all wrong. This is a chance for Poland. This is a chance for Europe as a whole.

Now, how did we get there? Actually, it started with the Cuban crisis, and with the understanding of both President Kennedy and President Khrushchev that more communication is necessary. They were under the impression of—of the risk of a nuclear war, and which was only prevented accidentally in the Cuban crisis, and they had no ways to communicate, so they decided to have the red telephone.

The next step was the test stop agreement, which was very important. And then you had agreements on arms control, and disarmament. And then the process of CSE was triggered off, which brought a lot of changes, new ideas to the countries in—in the Warsaw Pact. Germany started its policy, but not as something as it has been depicted by Ambassador Blackwill.

The point of departure was the Harmel Report of NATO of 1967. And the Harmel Report had two important messages. The first one was that it is the highest goal of the alliance to establish a just and lasting order of peace in Europe. And the second element was that we would pursue to get there, by using a dual track strategy, sufficient military security on the one hand, and a policy of detente, cooperation, disarmament on the other.

And we—we took this seriously in Germany. But when Bahr went to—to Moscow, it caused irritations. I don't think so much because he did what he did, but it was him, a German, who did it, which caused a certain element of insecurity, in particular in the United States of America. However, Bahr and Brandt acted loyally to the interests of—of the alliance. And just to prove how loyal and persistent we were in our approach, following the Harmel Report, I wish to remind you it was Chancellor Schmidt who detected the threats stemming from the SS-20 missiles in his famous speech at the London Institute of International Studies. And that we were the one who pushed—who pushed the idea that we should have some counterbalance to cope with this threat, running into an enormous difficultly, first Schmidt and then Kohl, when we tried to implement the second part of the NATO dual track decision, namely the—the deployment of Pershing II and Cruise missiles. So—so much for German softies.


SAROTTE: You've actually anticipated the question that I wanted to ask next, Ambassador Elbe, which is for what reasons did the Cold War end how it did? So, perhaps, either Ambassador Churkin, or Ambassador Blackwill, you'd like to build on what Ambassador Elbe has already started saying on that question.

BLACKWILL: Well, I've already mentioned the crucial role that Gorbachev played, and I will be perhaps less generous than the ambassador. Let me give you a sense of this, and I'll start on the day the wall ended. I was in the Oval Office with the president and with General Scowcroft, and we were watching this, as the world was watching it, with great fascination and being Americans with great joy.

But, in the hour or so after the wall fell, and the dancing was going on, there was a wave of sentiment, especially in Washington, that President Bush should fly to Berlin, and should signal the joy he felt on behalf of all of his predecessors who had dreamed of the day when that wall would come down since—since '61. And Bush's reaction, because he was about to see the press, and knew he was going to get the question, was first to describe the journalists who were pressing for this as bubbleheads.


BLACKWILL: But then to say, if I fly to Berlin, how will this be seen by Gorbachev? And this story is just beginning. It isn't ending. And what I would say is, the first thing, just from the American point of view, is that fortune smiled during this crisis with the president we had. Which is rather unusual in American history, where we often elect governors. We had a president who had been vice president for eight years, had been director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had been envoy to China, and who was enormously experienced in international affairs.

Imagine if we'd had a governor, and we do elect governors, if we'd had a governor in his first year in office, right? In his first year in office, confronted with this crisis, and the end of the last panel, and to some degree the first panel, stressed what I think was very much true during this period, which was personalities mattered a great deal. And I'll just make two final points about those, because we'll develop the themes.

One was I've worked in the White House four times, and often in situations where there was great stress and strain between the State Department and the White House—I see people in the room who've lived with that—this was a period when there was no such strain. Part of the reason was that the president's best friend was the secretary of state and that made—made an enormous difference, because there was no bureaucratic maneuvering between the State Department and the White House, and that's unusual as we know in our system.

But, the second was the trust—again, personalities—that was built between the president and the German chancellor. And they met, by my count, ten times during this period. The president joked once with Chancellor Kohl that he thought he should just put a bedroom permanently at Chancellor Kohl's disposal because they were seeing each other so often. And Frank will know better, but Shevardnadze—sorry, Baker and—and Genscher, not only were meeting every three weeks or whatever it was, but were on the phone virtually every day. And this trust that built up between these four men was crucial to the way that the Cold War ended.

And I'll contrast it just to go back to what Frank said earlier. I was working for Henry Kissinger during the period of the beginning of Ostpolitik, and there was—it's no secret there was great suspicion by Henry and in the White House about Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt's objectives with respect to Ostpolitik, if and that suspicion was even poisonous at periods. It worked out fine in the end, but it was—there was great suspicion. If that had been the case during these months, these 300 days, between the fall of the wall and the—the unification of Germany, we couldn't have gotten it done. So, again, the personalities mattered a lot on—in Moscow, in the U.S. and in Germany.

SAROTTE: Ambassador Churkin?

CHURKIN: Well, it's good to know that Cold War also existed between the United States and Germany. I thought it was between the ...


CHURKIN: ... the U.S.—U.S. and the Soviet Union.


CHURKIN: Just a few—just a few words about the Eastern European part of it, which I, frankly, with all due respect, think that in the general nature of things was on the part of—of this entire situation, but I think it's pretty obvious that once the Gorbachev started this perestroika new thinking, he became the most liberal Communist leader. The most liberal Communist leader. And in—in Eastern Europe he was confronted which—with a much more hard line politicians, who were hoping that Gorbachev was going to be toppled, and then things will get back to normalcy.

And, at the same, this revolutionary sentiment was brewing in Eastern European countries, so Gorbachev, I think, was confronted with a simple proposition. Is he going to do what has happened in the past, in Hungary in 1956 and in Poland in 1980? In Poland, of course, we were helped by the fact that Jaruzelski did a certain thing which allowed the Soviet Union not to interfere militarily.

I remember I was sitting as a junior diplomat at the U.S. desk of the Foreign Ministry, on March 31, 1980, and we were expecting for some reason that our troops are going to move into Poland. Fortunately, did not happen. I don't know what caused the rumor, but—and it was just six months after we've moved into Afghanistan so it will have caused a completely different kind of a relationship, but maybe it would still be in the Cold War if that had happened.

But, anyway, Gorbachev realized that he had two options. One is to try to use force, with catastrophic consequences, dooming his perestroika policy—policy domestically, dooming his new relationship which he was trying to build with the West. Or he will have to let them go. He didn't want to try to preserve regimes who were critical of him, and were sort of hoping that he would not survive politically. So, they just decided to let them go.

If I may add a little kind of a personal thing, on the 20th anniversary, I think, of the wall, somebody sent me a tape of an interview I gave at that time, through satellite, so it was the first time I saw it on the screen, and actually the other guy who was interviewed was Mr. Baker. And when I was watching this tape, it was amazing what I was making this point that the Soviet Union is not going to suppress anybody in Eastern Europe. Now, for the first time, I could see the great surprise on the faces of, you know, those people I was talking to through satellite at—at that time.

So, that was—that was the bottom line for Gorbachev. He didn't—he wasn't prepared to use force with catastrophic consequences. He needed to go for ending the Cold War and, you know, trying to establish a new relationship, a kind of new modus vivendi in Europe and—and in relations with United States. Thank you.

SAROTTE: And I'd like to ask one more question to the group, before we'll then go to members—members' questions. What do you think is the one or two most important consequences of the way the Cold War ended for politics—for global politics today?

BLACKWILL: Before you get there, can I just chime in and reinforce what the ambassador just said, but with a different viewpoint. I think that the consequential decision that the ambassador just described, by Gorbachev, that he was not going to use force then set off this series of events that ended in the unification of Germany.

However, there were a lot of other outcomes that might have occurred short of the one that did occur, which is the unification of Germany inside the North Atlantic Alliance. And just to give you a flavor for this, we in Washington kept waiting for a strategy to emerge from Gorbachev—and he was a one man band, and we had an audience of one for our diplomacy—which would take advantage of the fact that all the polls showed in the spring of 1990 that about 70 percent of the German people would have been satisfied with a unified Germany outside NATO. And were—and that percentage was very worried that this crisis could evolve into conflict and the Soviets out of their garrisons in East Germany and so forth.

And Gorbachev could have exploited that, and our nightmare, which Bob Zoellick and I would return to once a week, would be—was that Gorbachev would announce to the German people that he was willing—this was March 1990—just as the two plus four was getting underway-- that he was willing to accept German unification as long as Germany was not in NATO. And we waited every day for that diplomatic initiative of his, which would have caused us enormous difficulty. We waited—we anticipated a strategy by Gorbachev and I think from the beginning, the spring of 1989 through September of 1990, he had no strategy. And he was making decisions every day.

And I want to say one thing last about this. What was striking to me, as a card carrying Cold Warrior, was—who had negotiated a lot in my professional life with Soviet diplomats—that I think the quality of Soviet diplomacy over the decades, at least in my experience, was quite high. Of course, I didn't agree with what they were trying to accomplish, but the quality of the diplomacy, the professionalism with which it was conducted, was quite impressive.

This ended when Gorbachev insisted, beginning in the Spring of 1989, on excluding all of those—that professionalism that had characterized Soviet policy, both from the military and from the professional diplomats, and carried on on his own with Shevardnadze's help. And I think the outcome might well have been very different if you had had traditional—the traditional quality of Soviet diplomacy. But that didn't happen, praise be, because Gorbachev ignored that very professionalism within the Soviet government, went out on his own, acted day by day, with no particular idea of what he would do tomorrow until he was put in a position by the summer of 1990 where he had to acquiesce to Germany, unified inside NATO.

SAROTTE: With important consequences for today. Ambassador Elbe, you wanted to jump in on this one?

ELBE: Yes, on this one. Of course I know this all, but you have to see it in—in a different light. Germany simply could not imagine that unification could be possible outside NATO. So, therefore, since they were left with no other choice, they said, all right then, it has to be a—a neutral state. But, the events from the 12th of December, when President Baker (sic) made a speech in Berlin, telling us that we would get the support of the United States government for unification provided that the united Germany would become member of the North Atlantic Alliance posed enormous difficulties. Oops, we said, how can we do it?

And, I must tell you, we were left alone. Neither had you any—taken any imitative with the Russians, to solve this problem. Neither did you consult with us how to tackle this problem. And the period between Christmas and the end of January, I would describe as perhaps the loneliest episode in the life of Hans-Dietrich Genscher. And we have been sitting on the so called Tutzing speech, which he then gave at the protestant academy near Munich, in which he said, Germany should not be neutralistic. It would make sense if Germany joins NATO. It is then for NATO to—to declare that we find certain cooperative structures which will eventually lead to different systems of alliances. And he also said that NATO, under the present circumstances, should not move one centimeter further east.

He instructed me to fly to Washington, at the same time while he was giving the speech. We had prepared everyone, the foreign minister's dumas, Shevardnadze heard, and Baker, in advance of the speech, and I had come to the State Department and to explain what we meant. And I felt—I met happy people here. I talked with Daniel (inaudible), and Bob Zoellick, and later on with Baker, and said that's it, let's do it like this. And then it was Jim Baker who took the initiative, who made a—a trip to Moscow on the 7th of February and discussed these issues with—with Gorbachev, and that was the breakthrough, because a week later we got the—the yes from Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl was there. And a couple of days later we signed the agreement on the two plus four treaty.

So, you may be right, Bob, that Gorbachev had no idea on this, and that he would not rely on the professional service that the Russian diplomacy could provide. But, in reality, it was a professional service of—of the Soviet diplomacy who made this all possible. It was Shevardnadze who keep—kept pushing, and who gave the first signals to us that this was something the Russians could eventually accept.

Gorbachev had to face one great difficulty that was the (inaudible), and Shevardnadze, during this time, kept talking about putsch any time. And he gave us an idea how to go ahead, if we would work—if we would negotiate too quickly, we would never get unification because the Russian public was not prepared to accept it. If we would negotiate too slowly, we wouldn't get unification because then the enemies of Gorbachev would rally together and prevent the process of unification.

SAROTTE: Ambassador Churkin, do you want to make some comments on this before we go to questions?

CHURKIN: Well, maybe, a couple of hopefully quick comments. First of all, I do believe—and thank you very much for your praise for the quality of Soviet—and Russian diplomacy.


CHURKIN: And I -I must say, I -I do remember those people, we had really top notch people in Germany, top notch. Yuli Kvitsinsky, some others.

ELBE: Right.

CHURKIN: And I think, in part, you are right. I cannot say that they were sort of not consulted, or taken out of the equation, but I think that politicians but especially the one to achieve a breakthrough, they need to make balance on their head, arrive at some balance. How much do they want to rely on the experts, who would produce the expected recommendations? Well, forget about the experts and move to something radically different.

And I do remember one of the—the definitive meetings between Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl, I think it took place at (inaudible), some place in the Caucasus. And, actually, those German experts were sitting on the plane, who were going somewhere else from (inaudible), and Gorbachev was talking to Chancellor Kohl, walking by some river, and when they learned what was the outcome of those discussions, they were quite surprised and I -I think upset.

But, you—if I recall correctly, when Gorbachev and Shevardnadze said then, having announced their very far reaching decision, which allowed those talks to proceed successfully, we trusted German people. We trust the German people. And I suppose there was some understandings which were reached, or were believed to have been reached in the course of those talks, which were supposed to be pillars of our coexistence—relationship in the decades to come, and somehow they were not borne out, which makes you try to learn some lessons from that, the extent of this relationship of trust can be counted on in—in international relations.

Now, on some of the issues addressed, I—I think politicians and Gorbachev was one of them, are often in difficult circumstances, are faced with this predicament. They cannot make important decisions before the time is right, and when the time is right, it is already too late to make—to make a certain bargain. You mentioned that in December of 1990, he could have announced Germany outside of NATO, but the—the agreement to have two plus four discussions were only reached in February. So if he, all of a sudden, said to the Communist party, to the people, yes, I am prepared to accept reunification of Germany before those talks have had a chance to proceed, I think he would have been faced -would have seen a lot—a lot of political—political problems.

So, that I believe was the situation. But also German reunification was an important element of ending the Cold War, but I don't think it is the entire story. It's only part of this whole set up we have been discussing today.

SAROTTE: Excellent. Well, we've got a whole bunch of weighty topics there, and we're now going to open it up to member questions. Please remember this meeting is, in fact, on the record, and it is being livestreamed. Could you wait for the microphone, and identify yourself. And if you could please be brief, because I can already see a number of people who'd like to ask questions, and, of course, we want to all have lunch punctually at 12:15. So, perhaps, Professor Taubman, we'll start with you, and then we'll proceed to other questioners.

QUESTION: This is primarily to Ambassador Blackwill. You're quite right, of course, that Bush was very sensitive to how Gorbachev would feel, and didn't go dance on the wall and all the rest. But when looks -but when one looks at the way the United States responded to Gorbachev's efforts to get economic assistance, and other assistance, during those months, I think he ended up with more strokes than dollars.

And when you compare what happened to what the former British Prime Minister Thatcher had said, which was—this is almost word for word—something like well, Ron and I, you know, Gorbachev has delivered far more than Ron and I—Ron Reagan and I—could ever have imagined, and this is the equivalent to the defeat of -of the Nazis in World War II. And what are we giving them? So, in retrospect, although Gorbachev may not have handled this very well, it does look to me as if the United States was really rather stingy in the way it attempted to respond to Gorbachev's begging, in effect, for economic aid as the Cold War came to an end.

BLACKWILL: Yes, I think, though you put your finger on an important element in this story, which the ambassador also mentioned at the outset, which was Gorbachev's feeling that the Soviet Union was in deep financial crisis, and that it needed assistance from the West. But when Helmut Kohl came to Camp David at the end of February, there were two important decisions made between the president and the chancellor.

One of them was that it would be Germany, and not the United States, that would provide the financial assistance which Gorbachev so desperately needed. And that—the chancellor did not object to that, and that of course is the way it turned out, which Frank can speak of in great detail. But, the second, and I want to go back to the point about timing, which both my colleagues have mentioned.

The other important decision made at Camp David was that we would go as fast as we possibly could to unify Germany within NATO because of a worry that the forces within the Soviet Union who opposed this would replace Gorbachev. And President Bush, on the Saturday night, made this proposition to the chancellor, and said, we want to go as fast as we possibly can. Do you agree? And Kohl said, I want to sleep on it...


BLACKWILL: ...let me think about it because his worry was, and it was Genscher's worry too, was that if we got our timing wrong, we could trigger a war. And the next morning, which was a Sunday morning, Horst Teltschik, who was his national security advisor, came to me just as we were going into church, and said, the faster the better. And the then the president and the chancellor discussed that. That was a momentous decision by these two men.

So, back to your basic point, the—the pressure on Gorbachev, with respect to the near collapse of the Soviet economy, was another structural issue here that I think led him to acquiesce in—in the way events evolved. And I want to reinforce something that the ambassador said. In May, when Gorbachev came to Washington, we were sitting in the White House, and he's speaking without notes, which was always the case, Shevardnadze on his left, and he was rambling. But in the rambling he said, it's up to the people of Germany to decide the future of whatever alliance they wish to be in. And, of course, this was being translated. And the Soviet side, their heads snapped to look at him. Shevardnadze leans forward and tries to talk to him, and Gorbachev brushes him off. I sent a note back to the president saying return to the subject, and ask him again if you understood him correctly. President did. Gorbachev repeated himself. And across the table there were ten distinguished Soviet diplomats who looked as if their mother had just died.

ELBE: Fainted.

BLACKWILL: They were—and upset is a mild way to describe this reaction, and it reminded me, just to conclude, of what a Soviet general once said to me. At the end of this story, in the mid-90s, he said, when Gorbachev went to the United Nations in December of 1988, and announced the unilateral reduction of the Soviet armed force by 500,000 with no consultation with the Ministry of Defense, when he returned to Moscow, we should have shot him on the tarmac.


BLACKWILL: And I think if you were talk to the Russian military—the retired Russian military, they felt the same way. This story need not have happened the way it happened. And this combination of events, which we're describing, I think it was the most dangerous period since the Cuban Missile Crisis. If the diplomacy had failed. If Gorbachev had made other choices. If you hadn't had, I think, the—the exquisite leadership by these four men, Genscher, Baker, Bush, Kohl—sensitive, as Frank said earlier-- to trying to manage this very, very delicate situation in Moscow, we could have had conflict across Berlin and who knows where it would have gone from there.

SAROTTE: Ambassador Elbe or Churkin did you want to respond to Professor Taubman?

CHURKIN: I think I'm a learning a very important lesson that we should really drive a harder bargain when talking to the United States.


ELBE: The future's all yours.


SAROTTE: Ambassador Elbe, did you want say...

ELBE: No, thank you.

SAROTTE: No? Great. Then the gentleman here in the front row. Please identify yourself.

QUESTION: Bill Luers, Columbia University. Maybe Vitaly, you would answer this. When do you think Gorbachev made the decision not to use military force in '89? And when did we know about it, Bob? I was very close to Vaclav Havel during that period, and as the demonstrations were growing in the Czech Republic, the issue of, particularly in Czechoslovakia, when would the Soviet troops come in, was a major factor in determining how far they went. And I'm convinced that even after the first big demonstration, which created the end of—of the Czech government—the Czechoslovak government—he still didn't know. He was still guessing. When do you think the decision was made? Was it a big debate within the Soviet government? And when did we know?

SAROTTE: Thank you.

CHURKIN: First of all, it will be very interesting to see if there are some documents, some records of some discussions of this sort. Probably not. I personally believe that he was never entertaining this thought. He was not this kind of a man. He was not a politician. He was not a person who would want to use force on kind of a large scale in order to attain his political objective. And then, as I mentioned before, that would have overturned his entire sort of political strategy.

And then there is another thing which you need to remember, which probably he did not exploit sufficiently. And which then Boris Yeltsin exploited quite a bit, was that, along with some hardliners, which I'm sure were there, even though I must say, like, from where I was sitting, I never heard, like, rumblings like this which you have described. But also there was a very strong democratic way in the Soviet Union, which he could have turned to in order to get sort of more support, but he never did. That was one of his political tragedies, I think.

BLACKWILL: We, of course, could never be sure, one, whether as the crisis blossomed, the moment might arrive when he would use Soviet forces inside Eastern Europe. But as time passed, it became at least more and more an assumption on our part that he would not, for whatever reason and it might have—he might have decided early, he might have decided late. And that affected our strategy, because you can go faster if you're not worried about the use of Soviet military force in Eastern Europe, and especially in East Germany, you can go faster. But it was always in our mind, and always the question, which was Genscher's—one of his favorite questions—which was we have to go fast enough to get this done, but not so fast that we overthrow Gorbachev.

ELBE: Yes.

BLACKWILL: And that was that very, very delicate balance that we were trying to do. But, by February so much had happened in Eastern Europe, the wall had come down. It looked less and less likely that Gorbachev, at that late date, would suddenly say, this is the time to use force. And that freed us to go as fast as we could.

SAROTTE: As someone who was actually studying abroad in West Berlin in 1989, that's where I was in 1989, I just remember the scenes of jubilation, but it was somewhat chilling in getting into the historical details, to have a better sense of the kind of risks that you're actually describing here. Let me take another member's ...

ELBE: Let me just ...

SAROTTE: Oh, I'm so sorry. Thank you. Yes, Ambassador Elbe?

ELBE: As to the use of force, there was one delicate moment in—on the 10th of November. There were two ambassadors, Soviet ambassadors, naming Kvitsinsky, and Kochemasov, one was in Bonn, the other one was in East Berlin, who were actually concerned about the security of the 300,000 Soviet soldiers in East Germany, and their families. And their reports were absolutely alarming, perhaps even exaggerating and distorting a little bit the danger for the troops in East Germany.

Shevardnadze read it—and this is a detail I'm happy to betray—and asked one of his junior officers to call Kvitsinsky and tell him that he was displeased by this sort of reporting. That—that was helpful in the situation.

The second thing was that during the critical time that you are describing we made a lot efforts to de-demonize NATO. And one of the most beautiful contribution of NATO to this process was the declaration in the NATO summit, which I would like to read out to you: "The Atlantic Organization turns to the countries in Central and East Europe, who were adversaries in the Cold War and extends to them the hand of friendship."

This formula was already worked out at the meeting of the foreign ministers of NATO, at their ministerial meeting in Canberry, and it was necessary to have this formula already, because it came in time for the beginning party convention in Moscow. Whereas the summit formula would have been—the same—the same wording would have been too late for—to influence the Communist Party convention. And, as matter of fact, against all fears, the Russian president was reelected.

But it was one of the toughest Party conventions in the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

QUESTION: Ambassador Churkin ...

SAROTTE: Could you please identify yourself?

QUESTION: Oh, my name is Roland Paul, I'm a lawyer. I've been in the U.S. government couple of times. Maybe it's an easy—to what extent, if any, did the course of events in—in the Russian, or the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan play in what happened in Eastern Europe?

CHURKIN: I—I don't think it had much of an effect. I think it had a lot of effect in terms of undercutting the stability of the country. It was a very traumatic experience for the Soviet Union. I think, probably, eventually played a role in the disintegration of the country, but the—and, you know, this also showed the aversion of Gorbachev to the idea of using force, because he was trying to extricate our country from Afghanistan, and he did that. But I don't—I don't see a direct relationship.

SAROTTE: Any other comments?

ELBE: Just one, please. I remember having—being—participating in a luncheon in Halle, the native town of Genscher. And Shevardnadze was talking very privately about his relationship with Gorbachev. And he referred to the point when they had decided to cooperate very closely, namely the day of the Russian intervention in Afghanistan. They both had agreed that this should not happen to them again.

SAROTTE: Other questions? Perhaps one in the back? Ah, that's you, Jeremi. I couldn't see you in the lights.

QUESTION: Sorry. Sorry. Thanks for calling on me, Mary. Jeremi Suri. I have a question that comes from a basic historical perspective on these issues. I remember living through these events, but I was student at Stuyvesant High School when all of this was happening.


QUESTION: What's—what's striking to me is that the question that Tolstoy asks, right? Which is, do individuals make history or do masses of individuals moving outside of the control of diplomats really make history? This is his response to Clausewitz, right? And I remember in '89, and as I've studied these events, as Mary has and so many others in this room, it's extraordinary how fast things are moving on the ground.

ELBE: Right.


QUESTION: And first of all, I'd like to hear you reflect on how you reacted to what was happening on the ground. And where in this discussion should we bring in the—the large number of German citizens, and Russian citizens and others, who were moving with their feet, and changing their opinions? And, in many ways, one could read the record to say they were the actors, and you were simply trying to make sense of what they were doing on the ground.

BLACKWILL: Actually, that's what I said at the outset, so, your attention was wandering.


BLACKWILL: That's not the first time I've encountered that when I have something to say.


BLACKWILL: Anyway, but absolutely right. I tried to say at the outset that the trigger for this were these people in Eastern Europe, and especially in East Germany. And what we saw, and found, we—in Germany and the U.S. was an opportunity that they created. And that Gorbachev created. And that, I tried to say at the outset, that statesmanship didn't create the situation. It exploited it to a very happy ending.

I wanted to say one other thing, though, about which comes from the same—the same well—about leadership. And you may be amused by this. One of the major events, as we remember, in the evolution of this story was the summit in Malta between Gorbachev and Bush, in which Bush unveiled seventeen initiatives which he told Gorbachev reflected his wish to transform the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, including a relationship between the Soviet Union and NATO, and lots of others.

But I want to get to the point of the importance of presidential leadership. So, these initiatives were developed with myself, Phillip Zelikow, who was here earlier, and Condi Rice, and then over at the State Department, Bob Zoellick and Dennis Ross. And we had finished them a week before the summit, and the president had approved them a week before the summit.

Three days before we left, the president decided that he would ventilate these ideas with his cabinet, but not tell his cabinet that he'd already decided. And so to finish the story, so he says, initiative number one, he says, what about this? The cabinet unilaterally—unanimously rejected it. Number two? No, no, no, this is still the Soviet Union, no, no, no. Number three? He got to about four or five, and they were all rejected and he gave up, and went to Malta and tabled them all. Undoubtedly to the consternation of some of his cabinet.

But it's—it's back to what the earlier panels were saying, and that is at the heart of your question. There are these big forces in play, but it really means a lot who's running the country, and the decisions that those—and we were very lucky, in my judgment, on the western side, the U.S. and German side, to have the quality of people we had. Very experienced people. And that is not always the case in our government, as we know, and this could have been fumbled. And if it had been fumbled we could have had a much different outcome than the one we had, which, of course, was the liberation of Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany.

SAROTTE: Ambassador Elbe?

ELBE: Diplomats and the masses. We had people on the streets since the end of World War II, again and again, and everywhere. In 1953 in East Germany. In 1956 in Hungary. In 1956 in Poznan in Poland. In 1968 in Prague. In 1970 in Gdansk in Poland. All these demonstrations were crushed, and blood was shed. Solidarnosc was not crushed. Although General Jaruzelski imposed martial law, but to prevent worse.

By the way, I was always against the NATO strategy to call upon Jaruzelski to finish martial law. I was, of course, not in agreement with the idea that prisoners should be held in concentration camps. But someone who imposes martial law upon a country and begins by dismantling the red flag flying over the Central Committee and replacing it by the national flag of Poland is someone who should be encouraged to go on like this.

But, let me come back, Solidarnosc was not crushed. Why? Because it was a combination of a political process and the—an interaction with the people for Europe was the final act of Helsinki.

And I remember that I was in Warsaw at that time, as a junior officer, that the countries who signed—had signed the final act, were under obligation to publish the text of the final act, that was in '75. And you cannot imagine how does the atmosphere changed in Poland. All of the sudden people started to have hopes. So you need a frame in which your hopes can realize. And I would like to say that we wouldn't have had this frame unless the Soviet Union would have contributed to it.

SAROTTE: We're now in what's basically our final minute. Ambassador Churkin, would you like to make a few closing observations?

CHURKIN: No, not really. I—I'll just also briefly respond to this question. I think diplomats are not important if diplomacy is adequate, and quality—it's not important. Politicians are. Of course the movement of people, the mood of history is very important, but politicians also do matter. And since you are voting today, I cannot but recall another vote you were taking. Had that court in Florida allowed the recount to continue, the invasion of Iraq would not have taken place, and we would be living a different world now.

So politicians do matter.


SAROTTE: Well, the Council has asked me to remind you all that there is now a lunch available in the Greenberg Room, and they hope you will stay. Thank you to the audience watching on livestream and join us in thanking our participants.

Top Stories on CFR

South Africa

The provincial and national elections on May 29 come amid waning support for the ruling African National Congress thirty years after South Africa transitioned to democracy.


In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 

Election 2024

The European Union (EU) began implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) this year, just in time to combat online disinformation and other electoral interference in the dozens of elections taking pl…