Giles Whittell: The tide of history George Bush Sr was too timid to navigate

Roundup: Talking About History

Tear down this wall, Ronald Reagan had demanded. His grasp on the subtleties of foreign affairs was often weak but he saw the sweep of history as clearly as if it was being presented to him in a movie. He understood better than his aides the significance of the scar through Berlin.

His successor did not. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the moment the West won the Cold War. It was not quite the end of the Soviet Union but it was the moment the myth of Soviet omnipotence within the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the moment Mikhail Gorbachev started losing authority as fast as East Germany was losing people.

Yet this was not how President George Bush Sr saw it. As a former head of the CIA, he devoured detailed regional analysis but was gripped by what the New York Times columnist William Safire later called “a policy paralysis he calls prudence”.

Encouraged in his caution by the equally timid General Brent Scowcroft, he made no important speeches acknowledging the courage of the East Berliners who had crossed the Wall or the symbolism of its fall, and he waited three weeks before bowing to intense pressure to reset the US-Soviet relationship at a summit in Malta...

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