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Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989

September 21, 2010 // 4:00pm5:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
History and Public Policy Program
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Event Summary

Speakers: Thomas Blanton, director, National Security Archive; Svetlana Savranskaya, research fellow, National Security Archive; David Hoffman, contributing editor, The Washington Post

One of history's greatest achievements is the peaceful resolution of the Cold War. After twenty years, the "masterpieces of 1989," as Canadian scholar Jacques Levesque called them, still pose many unanswered questions. Why exactly did the Cold War end, and how did it end so peacefully? When did Soviet policy change towards Eastern Europe? What factors determined Moscow's response to the events of 1989, and was the use of force ever considered by the Gorbachev government?

On September 21, 2010 Thomas Blanton, director at the National Security Archive, and Svetlana Savranskaya, research fellow and director of Russian Programs at the National Security Archive, addressed these questions in presenting Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989, an edited collection of 122 top-level Soviet, European, and American records on the superpowers' role in the events of 1989. David Hoffman, contributing editor to The Washington Post commented on the book and the events.

Blanton opened the discussion describing the choice of the title. When Levesque described the role played by the Soviet Union in the Cold War, he posited that the way the Soviet Union ended, was perhaps, its most beneficial contribution to history. The events of 1989, Levesque, continued, were in themselves "masterpieces of history." In choosing the title, Blanton argued, the authors wanted to pay tribute to the many actors who played central roles in those events.

Their book, Blanton suggested, sought to debunk what the authors saw as enduring American myths about the end of the Cold War: the myth that Reagan defeated communism through strength, and the myth of the Bush administration actively guiding the events of 1989. The documents selected in the book, the smallest tip of a giant iceberg of thousands of documents from all sides of the Cold War, challenge the orthodox understanding of the end of the Cold War as put forth by former members of the Reagan and Bush administration.

Reagan's central role, Blanton argued, was his ability to connect on a personal level with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and their mutual desire to abolish nuclear weapons and danger of nuclear war. Their relationship allowed Gorbachev to shift from a focus on US-Soviet Union competition to domestic problems and the reform of perestroika and glasnost.

The documents also support the idea that the main contribution to the events of 1989 by the George H.W. Bush Administration was not an active management of the end of the Cold War, but rather to put active engagement on hold while reviewing the entire U.S. policy toward Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This review, which made quick decisions by the White House impossible in the increasingly fluid situation in Europe, created a vacuum of agency in Europe which was filled by the East European people themselves.

Svetlana Savranskaya discussed how the documents presented in this collection showcase that economic factors were of vital importance to Soviet foreign policy, that the Gorbachev administration completely rejected the use of force or coercion and considered it to be counterproductive and politically ineffective, and that the real change in Soviet policy was developed much earlier than originally perceived.

Savranskaya also suggested elements of missed opportunity at the end of the Cold War. Gorbachev believed in his plan of a "common European home," which included the West and the East and anchored the Soviet Union (or its successor states) in a united Europe. This vision of the common European home never materialized. As the Berlin Wall fell and the communist governments from Berlin to Sofia were replaced, East Europeans used this opportunity to the fullest. The dominant paradigm became integration in the West, not the creation of a new order. This paradigm precluded (or prevented) Russia participation. To date, Savranskaya argued, Russia continues to remain outside of an integrated Europe, especially politically.

David Hoffman, who covered the Reagan and Bush administrations for The Washington Post, as well as working as a foreign correspondent during the events of the late 1980s, discussed the evidence presented in the book and what it adds to the coverage of the day. Hoffman stressed that the Gorbachev decision not to use force was unexpected, was little understood at the time, and remains the central piece of the 1989 puzzle. Hoffman argued that Gorbachev's non-use of force was "baked in the cake" upon his accession to power, but that the Bush administration, continued to be concerned about Gorbachev's "realness," believing he was just a PR man. The real villain of the 1989 story, Hoffman concluded, was the Cold War mindset that had taken over the Bush administration and some West European governments, which inhibited their ability to properly gauge the events.

Christian Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program
Drafted by Allison Lyalikov, History and Public Policy Program

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project