Talking The Cold War To Death


By Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott

Little Brown - 498pp - $24.95

When historian Michael R. Beschloss and Time editor-at-large Strobe Talbott agreed in early 1989 to collaborate on a book on unfolding U.S.-Soviet relations, they had no idea the incredible turns history was about to take. Within months, the Berlin Wall fell, Eastern Europe abondoned communism, and the Soviet Union began teetering toward disintegration.

Now, four years--but seemingly an era--later, the two have produced a groundbreaking work, At the Highest Level: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War. From first page to last, the book presents new information, analysis, and detail about the most remarkable geopolitical shift since World War II. Drawing on State Dept. memorandums and interviews with aides to then-President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the authors let readers listen in on secret talks in the Oval Office, the Kremlin, the Pentagon, and over the Presidential phone.

Among the book's headline-making revelations: Both a senior KGB agent and then-Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov separately warned U.S. officials of an impending coup. The book also illuminates the internal Soviet battle that almost prevented German reunification. It sheds new light on arms-control negotiations. And it describes how Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, fearing a political reversal as early as 1990, on several occasions practically begged Secretary of State James A. Baker III for U.S. support. But most of all, At the Highest Level depicts President Bush's evolving political and personal attachment to Gorbachev and how it affected superpower policy during three historic years.

The saga opens with an intimate talk between the two men in the Soviet leader's ZIL limousine at the end of his first Washington visit, in late 1987. Bush was still Vice-President but hoped to win the Presidency. Warning Gorbachev that he would talk tough to gain conservative votes, Bush asked him to ignore the rhetoric. "Bush's heart is in the right place," the Soviet leader would later say, calling the conversation "the most important" the two ever had. From those seeds of trust, the friendship that helped end the cold war grew.

By December, 1989, when Bush met Gorbachev on stormy seas off Malta in their first summit, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and the anticommunist revolution enveloped Eastern Europe. Bush promised Gorbachev he wouldn't use Eastern Europe's tumult to humiliate or take advantage of the Soviet Union. And he pledged not to push for the next logical step--the independece of the Baltic states. "Had it been revealed to the world at the time that Bush had implied such an accommodation," the authors write, "the American Right would doubtless have cried that his captivation by Gorbachev had caused the President to make some kind of secret bargain to sell out the Baltics. But the conversation did not become public."

Throughout '90 and '91, Bush calibrated his comments to avoid fueling Soviet domestic criticism of Gorbachev. That gave Gorbachev breathing room to let Germany reunite inside NATO, despite the Soviet military's fierce opposition.

The friendship also encouraged Gorbachev to back the U.S. when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait. The gulf war coincided with the Soviet military's crackdown in the Baltics in early 1991, which Gorbachev failed to disown--and which led the U.S. to postpone a planned summit. But the joint announcement of the delay didn't mention the crackdown. Bush "said he did not want to be 'acting out of pique' or 'taking a slap at Gorbachev,'" write Beschloss and Talbott (whom President Bill Clinton recently named ambassador-at-large to deal with the newly independent states).

But the authors conclude that the friendship has "grave defects" as well as benefits. It caused Bush, for example, to wait too long to build ties with the leaders of the 15 republics--including Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin--who by 1991 were clamoring for independence. Only after Yeltsin defeated the hard-liners' coup in August, 1991, and pressed Gorbachev to disband the Communist Party did Bush accept that Yeltsin had become the Soviet Union's leading reformer.

Beschloss's and Talbott's rich text interweaves direct quotes from high officials with wonderful color (the antiseasickness patch Bush and Baker sported at Malta, the wrinkled suit Gorbachev wore to seek financial aid at the White House). But the narrative is marred by avoidable mistakes. The chronology of the failed coup is confused, for example. And because none of the vivid details or reconstructed conversations are attributed to particular sources, readers must rely on the authors' accuracy.

None of this detracts from the book's important themes. Clearly, Bush's support for Gorbachev helped speed the cold war's end by giving the Soviet leader the confidence to take such risks as endorsing German reunificaiton. But Bush could neither save Gorbachev from mounting domestic opposition nor stop him from making fatal errors--turning to the right, cracking down violently in the Baltics, and failing to move decisively on economic reform.

There may be lessons here for Yeltsin and Clinton as they prepare for their first summit this spring. Like Gorbachev in 1990-91, Yeltsin faces hard-line backlash, and Clinton must decide how vigorously to support him. Perhaps both men should dip into At the Highest Level before they launch the next phase of U.S.-Russian relations.

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