Primary Sources

President-Elect Bush Informs Mikhail Gorbachev of His Need for Time to Formulate New Policies


Soviet-American relations thawed during the second term of President Ronald Reagan as he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev developed a personal rapport, signed the first treaty between the superpowers to reduce nuclear weapons arsenals, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and moved forward on further arms negotiations. In December 1988, Gorbachev delivered what he called a “watershed” address at the United Nations, announcing that he planned unilaterally to reduce Soviet military forces by 500,000, cut conventional armaments massively, and withdraw substantial numbers of armaments and troops from Eastern European countries. Gorbachev spoke of freedom, individual rights, and national self-determination, declaring that “the use of threat or force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy.” Following the speech, Gorbachev met with Reagan and President-elect George H. W. Bush before quickly returning home after learning of a devastating earthquake in Armenia. Subsequently, Bush’s son Jeb and grandson traveled to Armenia with an American relief organization, as noted in the following letter that Bush sent to Gorbachev shortly before his inauguration. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger delivered the letter, having offered to serve as a “back channel” envoy to discretely work out a policy with the Soviets concerning the future of Eastern Europe that would serve the interests of both powers. The Bush administration eventually decided not to entrust diplomacy to Kissinger or to continue on the path laid out by Reagan, one that some of Bush’s advisers considered foolhardy in its movement away from nuclear deterrence. In February, Bush ordered a “strategic review” to help determine his own course. What became known as “the pause” in US-Soviet relations lasted until the spring, leading Gorbachev to charge that momentum for negotiations was dissipating.


George H. W. Bush to Mikhail Gorbachev, 17 January 1989, trans. Svetlana Savranskaya, Notes of A.S. Chernyaev, Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation, Cold War International History Project, Virtual Archive, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

Handed by Henry Kissinger to Mikhail Gorbachev
January 17, 1989

Dear President Gorbachev,

I am using the opportunity of Henry Kissinger's visit to Moscow to send you a short personal letter.

First of all, I would like to tell you that I very much appreciate the attention given to my son and grandson during their recent trip to Armenia. They both are deeply shocked by this terrible tragedy, which they witnessed on the spot. They came back with the feeling of deep respect for the strength and devotion of the people who repair and rebuild all that was destroyed in the catastrophe.

Also, I would like to reiterate what I said to you last year, when you came to the United Nations. As I explained then, my advisers responsible for national security and myself will need some time to think through the entire range of issues, especially those concerning arms control, that occupy the central place in our bilateral relations, and to formulate our position in the interest of further development of these relations. Our goal is to formulate a solid and consistent American approach. We are not talking about slowing down or reversing the positive process that marked the last two years.

I am very serious about moving our relationship forward in the interest of our two countries and peace itself. I believe that we should elevate the dialogue, especially between you and me, above the details of arms control proposals, and discuss more general issues of more extensive political relations to which we should aspire.

I am ready to do everything possible in order to build and improve a reliable and solid relationship. I hope that we will continue personal contacts in the process of solving common problems that our countries are faced with.

George Bush

How to Cite this Source

President George H. W. Bush, "President-Elect Bush Informs Mikhail Gorbachev of His Need for Time to Formulate New Policies," Making the History of 1989, Item #140, (accessed October 18 2021, 8:12 pm).

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