This month marks the 40th anniversary of when my parents, and older brother, emigrated from the Soviet Union to Rochester. I will always be grateful that we had Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush when we needed them the most. So many of my relatives and friends were able to leave the Evil Empire because of these two men.
The late 1970s was a time when America’s morale was low after Vietnam and Watergate. From 1974 to 1980, seven countries fell to the communists. From 1970 to 1978, the Soviet Union outspent the United States by 3 to 1 in terms of nuclear forces.
While President Jimmy Carter cancelled the B-1 bomber, the Soviets already had a comparable Backfire bomber. While Carter delayed the MX missile to upgrade the Minute Man III, he also slowed production of our Trident SLBMs to replace our Polaris missiles.
The team of Reagan-Bush reversed the tide as they doubled the defense budget from $157.5 billion in 1981 to $303.6 billion in 1989. By standing up to the Soviets, we were in position to peacefully end the Cold War, free over 1 million Soviet Jews, and bring down the Soviet Union.
In 2008, President Barack Obama told columnist David Brooks, “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush. I don’t have a lot of complaints about their handling of Desert Storm. I don’t have a lot of complaints with their handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
President Bush’s handling of the 1991 Gulf War was outstanding. He assembled a coalition that included Japan, and our major allies in Europe and the Middle East. Most of the war was actually funded by our allies. Our ground forces removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait in less than 100 hours.
Iraq and Kuwait both had roughly 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves at the time. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with over 100,000 troops. With only 16,000 troops, Kuwait was overrun in two days.
To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia’s National Guard only had 70,000 troops and could not stand up to Saddam Hussein’s million-man army without America’s help. With control of Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein would have dominated almost half of the world’s proven oil reserves.
While Bush’s management of the Gulf War was impressive, he benefited from years of Reagan’s military buildup. Beyond military capability, Bush had a competent and united national security team.
When it comes to Germany’s reunification and nonproliferation in the former Soviet Union, Bush’s national security team does not get nearly as much credit as it deserves.
When the Soviet Union broke up, four countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) became nuclear powers. Secretary of State James Baker successfully negotiated the Lisbon Protocol in 1992, which made all four of these former republics accountable to START I and quietly began the process of dismantling the nuclear arsenals of Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
In the early 1990s, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were giant North Koreas. The horrendous economic circumstances in each of these countries made all of them vulnerable to proliferation.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world after the United States and Russia. It had 1,900 strategic nuclear weapons. Because of Bush’s leadership, and President Bill Clinton continuing Bush’s policies, Ukraine dismantled its nuclear weapons program by June 1996.
By the end of 1992, Ukraine transferred all of its chemical weapons to Russia. All 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons that were dispersed in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan were returned to Russia before Bush left office.
Following the Soviet collapse, America was fortunate to have a president who saw nothing prudent about loose nuclear material. Bush was fortunate to have Senators Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar work together on the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This bipartisan program in Congress helped secure much of the weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union from rogue states, criminals, and international terrorists.
Bush’s other great achievement was Germany’s reunification. Despite the opposition of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Francois Mitterrand, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush and Chancellor Helmut Kohl assuaged their concerns and reunified Germany under Article 23 of the German Basic Law. This allowed East Germany to be incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany without adopting a new constitution.
Had the Soviets got their wish, Germany could have been reunited under Article 146, which would have forced the adoption of a new constitution in a reunified state. This could have undermined Germany’s standing in NATO. A united Germany, anchored in NATO, has been very useful to the U.S. and the Western alliance.
In 1990, memories of the war were still fresh in people’s minds. The fear of a united Germany dominating Western Europe was real. Today, Germany is the leading economy in the European Union and embraces Western values.
There were more triumphs. When Bush was in office, people thought Japan would become the No. 1 economy in the world. Since Bush was a World War II pilot in the Pacific, he had the credibility to fight against the bashing of Japanese businessmen, which was common in the early 1990s.
From 1950 to 1990, the Japanese economy went from just 1/20 of America’s economy to over half. After more than two decades of slow growth in Japan, the American economy is now over three times the size of Japan.
As for China, Bush was president during the Tiananmen Square massacre. He kept the relationship on life support while preventing people on the left and the right from trying to undermine the relationship.
After the Gulf War, the Madrid Conference brought the Arab States together with the Israelis. Before Madrid, Palestinians couldn’t publicly meet with Israel without fear of looking weak in front of other Arabs. Any Arab country that publicly met with Israel would be seen as betraying the Palestinian cause. President Anwar el-Sadat was killed for making peace with Israel. Putting Israel in the room with both Palestinians and other Arabs broke this taboo.
In domestic policy, Bush’s most important accomplishment was the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This act of Congress, among other things, made public accommodations easier for many Americans, including Bush, when he was largely confined to a wheelchair and a motorized scooter because of vascular Parkinsonism.
By the 1992 election, Bush’s opponents painted him as out of touch with the concerns of the American people. This was not true. He had a privileged life, but he was no stranger to pain. He lost his daughter Robin when she was only 3 years old. Earlier this year, he lost his wife of 73 years.
Bush led an incredible life. He saw the world and met hundreds of historic figures, including Babe Ruth when he was captain of the Yale Baseball Team.
I hope people will see him as a good man who skillfully looked after our national interests. At a time when being an outsider is favored over experience (Obama over McCain, Trump over Clinton) Bush had a resume and a life few could match.
Navy pilot, successful businessman, family man, congressman (1967-1971), U.N. ambassador (1971-1973), RNC chairman (1973-74). Envoy to China, which was effectively U.S. ambassador to China before we officially established relations (1974-75), CIA director (1976-77), vice president (1981-1989), and president (1989-1993).
Robert Zapesochny, who lives in Brighton, is a researcher and writer specializing in Russian policy and presidential history. He has worked with several senior officials in the Ronald Reagan administration.