President Bush Comments on the Relaxation of East German Border Controls
Soon after President George H. W. Bush learned the news that the Berlin Wall had opened allowing East Germans to crossover into West Berlin, his press secretary convened an impromptu press conference in the Oval Office. Bush’s wary responses to reporters’ questions, included in the excerpt below, left an impression that he was less than moved by the historic event. The Washington Post noted that Bush “appeared cautious” and “somewhat downbeat as he swiveled in his chair.” In fact, Bush worried that an overreaction might antagonize the Soviets. The previous day he had written in his diary, “if we mishandle” the dramatic changes occurring in Eastern Europe “and get way out looking like [promoting dissent is] an American project, you would invite crackdown, and . . . that could result in bloodshed.” With similar concerns, Gorbachev cabled Bush the day that the Wall opened urging him not to overreact and expressed fear that possible out-of-control demonstrations could provoke “unforeseen consequences.” In appreciation to Bush’s muted response to the situation, a Soviet spokesman told the press, “I think he’s handling it as a real statesman.”
George H. W. Bush, interview by Lesley Stahl, The Whitehouse, Washington, D.C., November 9, 1989, Bush Presidential Lbirary, Public Papers, Bush Library (accessed April 2, 2008).
The President. . . . [O]f course, I welcome the decision by the East German leadership to open the borders to those wishing to emigrate or travel. And this, if it's implemented fully, certainly conforms with the Helsinki Final Act, which the GDR [German Democratic Republic] signed. And if the GDR goes forward now, this wall built in '61 will have very little relevance. And it clearly is a good development in terms of human rights. And I must say that after discussing this here with the Secretary of State and the national security adviser, I am very pleased with this development. . . .
Q. What's the danger here of events just spinning out of control? Secretary Baker commented earlier about how rapid the pace of change has been in Eastern Europe. Nobody really expected this to happen as quickly as it did. Is there a danger here that things are accelerating too quickly?
The President. I wouldn't want to say this kind of development makes things to be moving too quickly at all. It's the kind of development that we have long encouraged by our strong support for the Helsinki Final Act. So, I'm not going to hypothecate that anything goes too fast.
Q. So, you don't see -- --
The President. But we are handling it in a way where we are not trying to give anybody a hard time. We're saluting those who can move forward with democracy. We are encouraging the concept of a Europe whole and free. And so, we just welcome it. . . .
Q. In what you just said, that this is a sort of great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don't seem elated. And I'm wondering if you're thinking of the problems.
The President. I'm very pleased. And I've been very pleased with a lot of other developments. And, as I've told you, I think the United States part of this, which is not related to this development today particularly, is being handled in a proper fashion. . . .