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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 111: Memorandum of Conversation of George H.W. Bush, John Sununu, Brent Scowcroft, and Helmut Kohl, December 3, 1989

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1This conversation immediately after the Malta summit marks a turning point in the process of German unification, where President Bush effectively joins Chancellor Kohl’s program—yet neither man expects unification to happen even in two years, much less by October 1990 when West and East would actually join. Bush gives Kohl a rundown on the conversation at Malta, describing Gorbachev as “tense” during talks about Germany and convinced that Kohl is moving too quickly: “I don’t want to say he went ‘ballistic’ about it—he was just uneasy.” Both men agree to reassure Gorbachev and “not do anything reckless.” The key moment here comes when Kohl tells Bush the opposite, in effect, of what Bush told Gorbachev about inviolability of borders under the Helsinki Final Act. Kohl reminds the American that Helsinki actually allows borders to be “changed by peaceful means;” and this seems to be the first time Bush internalizes this possibility. At the same time, Kohl outlines three deliberate steps: first, a free government in the former GDR, second, “confederative structures, but with two independent states,” and finally a “federation; that is a matter for the future and could be stretched out. But I cannot say that will never happen.” Kohl scoffs at predictions that this will take only two years: “It is not possible; the economic imbalance is too great.” He is using similar language to Gorbachev’s—“the integration of Europe is a precondition for change in Eastern Europe to be effective”—but says that European resistance to unification really comes from envy over Germany’s economic growth (“[f]rankly, 62 million prosperous Germans are difficult to tolerate—add 17 million more and they have big problems”). Bush asks about GDR opinions on unification, and neither he nor Kohl foresees the rush to reunification that would dominate the March 1990 elections there. As for European opinions, Kohl gives a candid summary, calling Mitterrand “wise” for disliking unification but not opposing it, while “Great Britain is rather reticent.” Bush exclaims, “That is the understatement of the year”—referring to Thatcher’s total opposition. Kohl says, “She thinks history is not just. Germany is so rich and Great Britain is struggling. They won a war but lost an empire and their economy.” The German version of this conversation contains more detail than the American version below, including an interesting discussion of Gorbachev and values (12 lines in the German, but only a parenthetical comment below) where Bush says “the entire discussion about economic issues had an unreal aspect to it more because of ignorance on the Russian side rather than narrow-mindedness. For example, Gorbachev took offense to the expression ‘Western values.’”


2The President: We had no particular agenda for our meeting in Malta, and President Gorbachev was very accommodating on that point. Gorbachev displayed little emotion, unlike my first meeting with him. The most contentious issues were discussed without rancor—the issue of Soviet bloc arms supplies to the Sandinistas, for example. This could have been a shouting match, but it was very calm.

3We spent much time on the German question. Gorbachev said you are in too much of a hurry.

4Chancellor Kohl: Can I tell you about what happened today in the GDR? Everyone has resigned. There is a crisis supposedly in just running the government. The people want to know about special privileges being given to the leaders. That is only the beginning. In Rostock people broke into a factory and found arms there. They will now want to find where the arms were going. (He then described Krenz’ situation.)

5I told Gorbachev it was not in my interest to invite things to get out of control. I think Modrow will be the new General Secretary. I will be in Hungary on December 18 to speak to the parliament, and then will go to meet the new leaders of the GDR.

6We cannot pay the 100 marks for each visitor anymore. It already amounts to $1.8 billion. (He then discussed how East Germans were taking advantage of this program.) It will be phased out at the end of the year. We will help the GDR in several areas; such as the country’s big shortage of doctors, environmental protection matters, and building-up the telephone system.

7Gorbachev said to me that he would not stand in the way of free, open elections. He has abandoned the old leadership. The Hungarians will be OK in two or three years; but this is not so in Poland.

8Let me say a word about my ten-point program. First, I want to thank you for your calm reception of the ideas.

9I will not do anything reckless. I have not set up a timetable. We are part of Europe and will continue as part of the EC. I have always planned carefully with President Mitterrand.

10The ten points are not an alternative to what we are doing in the West. Those actions are a precondition to the ten points. The integration of Europe is a precondition for change in Eastern Europe to be effective.

11Yesterday some of my colleagues said the ten points were OK. Andreotti was most difficult. Everyone in Europe is afraid of two things: (1) that Germany would drift to the East—this is nonsense; (2) the real reason is that Germany is developing economically faster than my colleagues. Frankly, 62 million prosperous Germans are difficult to tolerate—add 17 million more and they have big problems.

12Once the GDR has a really free government, we could set up confederative structures, but with two independent states. Phase III is federation; that is a matter for the future and could be stretched out. But I cannot say that will never happen.

13The President: Gorbachev’s chief problem is uncertainty. I don’t want to say he went ‘ballistic’ about it—he was just uneasy. We need a formulation which doesn’t scare him, but moves forward.

14Chancellor Kohl: That is one reason I will do nothing to disturb the smooth running course. The CSCE [Helsinki Final Act] says the borders can be changed by peaceful means. I don’t want Gorbachev to feel cornered. I need to meet with him. I don’t want to create difficulties. Newspapers write such nonsense. Even Henry Kissinger mentions two years. It is not possible; the economic imbalance is too great.

15The President: What is the attitude of the people in the GDR toward reunification? Are there difficulties between the parties in West Germany?

16Chancellor Kohl: In the GDR they are badly informed about the issues. The East Germans need time to figure out what they really want. I need a period of quiet development. One year ago talk like this would have been crazy.

17In the FRG most people and parties are supportive. The Greens see an opportunity. They want the army abolished and neutrality. They are against reunification. The SPD agreed last Tuesday. Now there is a feeling that this is Kohl’s victory. The liberals are in favor of the program but are angry because it is my success. The economy is good: never have my people earned so much as now, but now they want entitlements rather than work.

18The President: I think the answer is self-determination, and then let things work. Then avoid things which would make the situation impossible for Gorbachev.

19Chancellor Kohl: Did he talk about internal developments?

20The President: Oh yes. But that was very discouraging. (They then discussed how little Gorbachev knows about Western values.)

21Chancellor Kohl: We are helping Hungary and Poland. We are carrying the whole burden in Europe. Where is everyone else but you and me? It’s going to be a tough winter in Poland.

22The President: And in the Soviet Union. Are any of the EC leaders opposed to your ten points?

23Chancellor Kohl: Gonzalez was very positive. With respect to France, Mitterrand is wise. He knows it would be bad to oppose this. But he wants it to proceed moderately. On the future of the EC, Mitterrand also knows it will be difficult to maintain the current structure of the European Parliament. But he can remember, from the Fourth Republic, when the parliament was too strong. Now it is too weak. The attitude of the Benelux countries is fine. Great Britain is rather reticent.

24The President: That is the understatement of the year.

25Chancellor Kohl: Switzerland and Austria are OK.

26The President: Don’t the Dutch still harbor resentments from the Hitler period?

27Chancellor Kohl: Yes, very much so. The Nazis were very tough on the Netherlands. They were the worst Nazis from Vienna.

28Thatcher says the European Parliament can have no power because Whitehall cannot yield a bit of sovereignty. Her ideas are simply pre-Churchill. She thinks the postwar era has not come to an end. She thinks history is not just. Germany is so rich and Great Britain is struggling. They won a war but lost an empire and their economy. She does the wrong thing. She should try to bind the Germans into the EC. (There was then a discussion of Thatcher and the EC, and of French pride.)

29Did Gorbachev talk about arms control?

30The President: Yes. (He described the discussions.)

31Chancellor Kohl: Was there a discussion of the follow on to Lance?

32The President: No. Did Cheney’s comments here cause a stir?

33Chancellor Kohl: No. Reagan had the reputation as a hardliner. Toward the end he changed—too quickly. Then you were elected, the Vice President to Ronald Reagan, and the groups under you just continued. Your visit last spring changed all that. Barbara helped that a lot.

34These days now will be very important. Your leadership is essential and you will have every respect from me.

35The President: (He elaborated further on the arms control discussions at Malta, mentioning agreement to a CFE Summit in 1990, START signed hopefully in 1990, and an agreement on chemical weapons—which Kohl especially hoped could be concluded in 1990 for electoral reasons.)

36Chancellor Kohl: The schedule you outline would be fantastic. Let’s work these things closely. If we can do something in CFE, chemicals, and START this would have a big impact on the Soviets and Eastern Europe. Nobody now believes that the East European troops would fight, so the numbers have changed dramatically.

37The President: That is true. But I will still feel better when the Soviet divisions pull back.

38The Chancellor: But that creates problems for Gorbachev.

39[Source: George Bush Presidential Library. Obtained through FOIA. On file at the National Security Archive.]

© Central European University Press, 2010

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