When reporters observed that the president seemed less elated than they thought he should be about the day’s dramatic events, he calmly responded, “I’m elated.” He then added, “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy.” Anticipating criticism, he remarked that “we’ll have some that’ll suggest more flamboyant courses of action for this country.”
Bush was right; his hard-line critics were appalled. After 40 years, the West had won! Didn’t the American president care? The moment, they believed, called for the eloquence of President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” or the forcefulness of President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Such soaring language had been critical to American leadership during the long stretch of the Cold War. But Bush’s focus was on the formidable task at hand — ensuring that the Cold War ended peacefully on terms that upheld American values.
In the ensuing years, the Bush administration built strong diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and negotiated the mother of all soft landings — the reunification of Germany inside NATO, freedom for the countries of the Soviet Bloc, and the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union itself. Along the way, he negotiated nuclear arms reduction treaties that greatly lessened the decades-long specter of global annihilation.
As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall at a time when our nation’s leaders are confronting their own unique set of international challenges, it is instructive to recall four factors that Bush kept in mind as seismic changes were underway in Europe and throughout the world.
First, he understood that timing is crucial to successful foreign policy. When the wall fell, the president went into full gear to take the next and much more monumental step of reuniting East and West Germany.
Second, domestic support is critical. Unless Americans back the policies of their presidents, those policies are doomed to wither. Echoing the wisdom of Arthur Vandenberg, a Republican senator from Michigan who supported President Harry S. Truman’s postwar vision, Bush told his fellow citizens, “Our differences end at the water’s edge.” Bush wasn’t afraid to go it alone. But he knew that he would be more successful with the broad backing of the American people, and he crafted a bipartisan foreign policy accordingly.
Third, international support is decisive. After the Berlin Wall fell, the other major powers that had a say over Germany’s future — the Soviet Union, Britain and France — were wary of reunification. In fact, all of Europe was wary of the prospect of a strong and united Germany — a country that had ignited two horrific world wars during the 20th century.
Bush overcame those international concerns because he understood the importance of the fourth factor in successful foreign policy: deft, sustained diplomacy. He had developed strong relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand. Each of them trusted the president as a leader who kept his word. They also recognized that Bush would search for pragmatic solutions in an effort to ease their concerns rather than ignore them. As a result, less than a year after the wall fell — on Oct. 3, 1990 — Germany became a single nation again.
Bush’s nimble diplomacy was instrumental in concluding the Cold War with a whimper rather than the nuclear bang I had feared for most of my adult life. And it cleared the way for democracy and freedom to spread.
In the end, no one individual was responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Bush, in many ways, followed in the path of every American president since Truman in his commitment to a free and undivided Europe. The actions of Gorbachev and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl were historic. And, above all, the enduring spirit of the citizens of the captive states finally tipped the scales toward freedom.
But Bush’s role was indispensable. Because of his adroit foreign policy during that time of global transition, he is routinely remembered as one of our nation’s most effective leaders and the very best one-term president ever.
It is a model that all American presidents should follow.