Gorbachev on His Legacy, and Obama's Chance to Lead an American Perestroika
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KVH/SFC: That is, after the Soviet elections in March 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable?
KVH/SFC: Did you already foresee the outcome?
MG: Everyone claims to have foreseen things. In June 1989 I met with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and we then held a press conference. Reporters asked if we had discussed the German question. My answer was, "History gave rise to this problem, and history will resolve it. That is my opinion. If you ask Chancellor Kohl, he will tell you it is a problem for the twenty-first century."
I also met with the East German Communist leaders, and told them again, "This is your affair and you have the responsibility to decide." But I also warned them, "What does experience teach us? He who is late loses." If they had taken the road of reform, of gradual change--if there had been some sort of agreement or treaty between the two parts of Germany, some sort of financial agreement, some confederation, a more gradual reunification would have been possible. But in 1989-90, all Germans, both in the East and the West, were saying, "Do it immediately." They were afraid the opportunity would be missed.
KVH/SFC: A closely related question: when did the cold war actually end? In the United States, there are several answers: in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down; in 1990-91, after the reunification of Germany; and the most popular, even orthodox, answer, is that the cold war ended only when the Soviet Union ended, in December 1991.
MG: No. If President Ronald Reagan and I had not succeeded in signing disarmament agreements and normalizing our relations in 1985-88, the later developments would have been unimaginable. But what happened between Reagan and me would also have been unimaginable if earlier we had not begun perestroika in the Soviet Union. Without perestroika, the cold war simply would not have ended. But the world could not continue developing as it had, with the stark menace of nuclear war ever present.
Sometimes people ask me why I began perestroika. Were the causes basically domestic or foreign? The domestic reasons were undoubtedly the main ones, but the danger of nuclear war was so serious that it was a no less significant factor. Something had to be done before we destroyed each other. Therefore the big changes that occurred with me and Reagan had tremendous importance. But also that George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan, decided to continue the process. And in December 1989, at our meeting in Malta, Bush and I declared that we were no longer enemies or adversaries.
KVH/SFC: So the cold war ended in December 1989?
MG: I think so.
KVH/SFC: Many people disagree, including some American historians.
MG: Let historians think what they want. But without what I have described, nothing would have resulted. Let me tell you something. George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state, came to see me two or three years ago. We reminisced for a long time--like old soldiers recalling past battles. I have great respect for Shultz, and I asked him: "Tell me, George, if Reagan had not been president, who could have played his role?" Shultz thought for a while, then said: "At that time there was no one else. Reagan's strength was that he had devoted his whole first term to building up America, to getting rid of all the vacillation that had been sown like seeds. America's spirits had revived. But in order to take these steps toward normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and toward reducing nuclear armaments--there was no one else who could have done that then."