At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War

At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War

by Michael Beschloss, Strobe Talbott

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The landmark story of Bush-Gorbachev diplomacy: “No one has ever given as complete and compelling an account of the higher reaches of foreign policy” (Time).

December 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Millions across the Eastern Bloc were enjoying new freedoms. And the USSR was falling apart. But the peaceful end of the Cold War was far from assured, requiring the leaders of rival superpowers to look beyond the animosities of the past and embrace an uncertain future.
At the Highest Levels is the fascinating story of that unlikely partnership, a real-time exposé of the negotiations between US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Granted extraordinary access to private conversations and closed-door meetings at the Kremlin, White House, Pentagon, CIA, and KGB, Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott reveal the high-stakes international diplomacy that ended the nuclear arms race and decades of proxy wars.
The result is “an accurate first draft of the Cold War’s last days,” wrote David Remnick in the New Yorker, “filled with gaudy historical riches.” Each an acclaimed author in his own right, Beschloss and Talbott together deliver journalism at its best: an “intimate and utterly absorbing” record of this critical meeting of minds (The New York Times).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504039345
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 08/16/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 518
Sales rank: 248,234
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Michael Beschloss is a historian and the New York Times–bestselling author of nine books, including Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance (1980); Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986); The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963 (1991); The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany (2002); and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789–1989 (2007). Born in Chicago and educated at Williams College and Harvard University, Beschloss is a contributor to NBC News, PBS NewsHour, and the New York Times, and has been called “the nation’s leading presidential historian” by Newsweek. He lives with his wife in Washington, DC.
Strobe Talbott is the president of the Brookings Institution and the author of twelve books, including Deadly Gambits:The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control (1984); At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (1993), written with Michael Beschloss; The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy (2002); and The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation (2008). A former Time columnist and Washington bureau chief, Talbott served as deputy secretary of state for seven years and was the architect of the Clinton administration’s policy toward Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. He translated and edited two volumes of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs in the early 1970s and founded the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization in 2001. Talbott currently lives in Washington, DC.


Washington, D.C.

Date of Birth:

November 30, 1955

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


Williams College, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

At the Highest Levels

The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War

By Michael Beschloss, Strobe Talbott


Copyright © 1993 Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3934-5


"His Heart Is in the Right Place"

On Thursday, December 10, 1987, at the end of his first visit to the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev stepped out of the White House, bade farewell to Ronald Reagan, and then slipped into the backseat of his black ZIL limousine, where he was joined by Vice President George Bush.

As the car rolled down the White House driveway, under a soft rain, for the trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Bush told Gorbachev that he had something on his mind and would prefer that Gorbachev never publicize what he was about to say. Gorbachev nodded.

Even though the presidential election year of 1988 would not begin for another three weeks, the vice president was already campaigning hard for the Republican nomination. His party's Senate leader, Robert Dole of Kansas, was running ahead of him in several polls.

Bush said, "There's a good chance that I'm going to win the presidential election next year. Dole looks pretty dangerous right now, but I think I'll get the Republican nomination. If I'm elected — and I think I will be — you should understand that I want to improve our relations."

Bush said that during his seven years as Ronald Reagan's vice president, he had had to keep his moderate views to himself. He explained that-Reagan was surrounded by "marginal intellectual thugs" who would be delighted to seize on any evidence that the vice president was a closet liberal. Therefore, during the 1988 campaign, he would have to do and say many things to get elected. Mr. Gorbachev should ignore them.

Gorbachev said that he understood. Long afterward, he recalled this conversation as the "most important talk Bush and I ever had." Over the next four years, each time the Soviet leader's close aides complained that Bush was pandering to Republican conservatives, Gorbachev would remind them of their talk in the limousine, saying, "Don't worry. His heart is in the right place."

The first forty-six years of George Bush's life gave him only occasional opportunities to deal with the Soviet Union. As Richard Nixon's ambassador to the United Nations in 1971 and 1972, he took his Soviet counterpart, Yakov Malik, to see the New York Mets (owned by his friend Joan Whitney Payson), without notable diplomatic result.

When Bush was director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the administration of Gerald Ford, conservative critics of détente and proponents of an American arms buildup accused the agency of having consistently underestimated the Soviet military threat. Rather than standing up for the professional intelligence officers over whom he presided and shielding the agency from political pressure, Bush tried to mollify the right wing. He invited a group of outsiders to serve as a kind of visiting committee to monitor the CIA's methods. He gave them security clearances and authorized them to prepare a report second-guessing the agency's evaluation of top-secret intelligence data on various Soviet activities.

Predictably, the group, called Team B, pronounced the CIA guilty of being soft on the USSR and added its voice to the rising chorus calling for new American weapons programs. One of Bush's CIA lieutenants recalled that his boss "never showed deep convictions when reviewing strategic estimates. His main concern was to try to reconcile differences of opinion. ... He's a problem solver. 'Get the goddamned problem solved. If it takes a Team B, do it.'"

After Ford was defeated, in 1976, Bush offered to stay on as CIA director, but Jimmy Carter refused. In the fall of 1978, Bush flew up from Houston for a private dinner in New York. Other guests included eminent figures in the Northeastern foreign policy community, most of them Democrats. After dessert, Bush denounced Carter's failure to stand up to the Soviet threat. He cited Communist advances in Somalia and Ethiopia and the president's waffling over deployment of the neutron bomb.

One Democratic alumnus of the Kennedy-Johnson State Department derided Bush's monologue as "simplistic" and "ignorant." Bush angrily retorted that the Democrat was "arrogant" and "soft," just like the liberal foreign policy establishment he represented — no wonder it was in trouble!

The Team B experience and Ronald Reagan's nearly successful challenge to Ford in 1976 had demonstrated that the Republican party's soul had moved toward the Southwest and the Right. The internationalist, Atlanticist wing of the party was losing ground to its more conservative elements. In 1978, Bush publicly resigned from the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, which he pronounced "too liberal."

When Bush was sworn in as vice president in 1981, he knew that both his ideological purity and his mettle were objects of suspicion among the Reaganites. Reagan was determined to put Moscow on notice that there was a new, hard-line regime in Washington. He did not wish to dilute that message by giving prominence in foreign affairs to Bush, with his reputation for moderation.

The vice president admitted, though only in private, that he was uncomfortable with some of Reagan's harsh rhetoric and gestures toward the Soviets at the start of their first term. In November 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev died, Bush and his wife, Barbara, were traveling in Africa. Bush hoped that Reagan would choose him to represent the United States at the Moscow funeral, but he did not wish to seem to be grabbing at it. He barked at his national security aide Admiral Daniel Murphy, "No planning!"

When Reagan gave him the assignment, Bush flew to Frankfurt, where he was briefed by a young CIA Soviet analyst, Robert Blackwell. Blackwell scoffed at widespread rumors that the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, the former chairman of the KGB, was a closet Americanophile who gorged himself on Jacqueline Susann novels and guzzled scotch: Andropov could be expected to use strong leadership and his "formidable intellect" to reassert "socialist order and discipline" after years of drift under Brezhnev, Blackwell believed.

When Bush met Andropov in Moscow, he joked that as former intelligence chiefs, the two of them had been "in the same business." Afterward, the vice president retired with Ambassador Arthur Hartman, Secretary of State George Shultz, and their aides for caviar and champagne at Spaso House, the official U.S. residence. Hartman reminded the others that the old mansion was bugged. The vice president said he had found the new leader hard-nosed and abrasive: "I feel he's intelligent. Maybe we can deal with him. But let's be careful."

In February 1984, when Andropov died of kidney failure, Reagan asked his vice president to fly back to Moscow. In Bush's private quarters aboard Air Force Two, Robert Blackwell gave him a cursory CIA report on the new Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko. He confessed that the agency was startled that Chernenko had won the top job in the Kremlin, especially after losing out to Andropov in 1982.

Many in Washington recalled Chernenko as the man who had lighted Brezhnev's cigarettes for him when Brezhnev was trying to cut down on his smoking. The CIA considered him a "weak sister." But even Chernenko had made a speech in 1982 in Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia, warning that the Soviet Union was on the precipice of an internal crisis.

Bush's national security aide Donald Gregg, a former CIA man, told him that Finnish intelligence was predicting that the seventy-two-year-old Chernenko would be a transitional figure. After his passing there would be a mammoth struggle for the future of the Soviet Union, between the regressive, hard-drinking Leningrad party chief, Grigori Romanov, whom the Finns by proximity knew all too well, and someone who might be a change for the better, "this new guy Mikhail Gorbachev."

In Moscow, after seeing the ailing Chernenko atop the Lenin Tomb and at close range, the vice president expected to be back soon for another funeral. He gave Ambassador Hartman's wife, Donna, a photograph of himself, inscribed, "Next time the funeral's on me (Don't show this around)." To embassy staff members he cracked, "See you again, same time, next year!"

The change in Soviet leadership and the approaching 1984 presidential election moved Reagan to seek a summit with Chernenko, preferably in July, just before the two political conventions. The Democrats were already complaining that American-Soviet relations were in crisis, and that Reagan was the first president since Herbert Hoover who had not met with his Soviet counterpart.

Bush encouraged the president to pursue a summit. To sound out the Soviets, he suggested that Reagan send General Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford's national security adviser, to Moscow with a private letter from the president to Chernenko. Reagan agreed. When Scowcroft arrived in Moscow, however, not a single high Soviet official would see him. One asked Ambassador Hartman, "If they've got something to tell us, why don't they tell us officially?" Chernenko wrote the president to refuse his summit offer.

In March 1985, Chernenko died. In Geneva, on his way to Moscow, Bush learned that the new chief would be Gorbachev. When Robert Blackwell met the vice president in Moscow, he reported that the CIA had been predicting Gorbachev's succession for months: Gorbachev was already the number two man in the Soviet Communist party; Andropov had been his principal patron.

Members of Bush's party joked about how well they knew the funeral routine by now: the viewing of the corpse, the military parade in Red Square, the reception in Saint George's Hall, the spaghetti dinner prepared by the excellent Italian chef at Spaso House.

The vice president and Blackwell were startled by how glad Muscovites seemed to be rid of their "doddering old men." Not more than thirty minutes after the funeral procession, they saw workmen tearing down Chernenko posters and throwing them into the trash. Bush said that their hosts seemed hardly able to wait to get the old man buried and to turn the fate of their country over to their new, fifty-four-year-old leader.

Gorbachev received Bush and Secretary of State Shultz in Saint Catherine's Hall. In a forty-five-minute monologue, he said that the Soviet Union was not interested in confrontation with the United States. He hoped that Washington would negotiate seriously in Geneva with the Soviets over nuclear arms. When Bush and Shultz brought up human rights, however, Gorbachev, like his predecessors, reacted with indignation at the American attempt to "interfere in the internal affairs of the USSR."

After the meeting, Blackwell predicted to Bush that Gorbachev would move fast. One clue was Gorbachev's obvious self-confidence; also, the military was already less visible on Soviet television than it had been before. The vice president agreed that there was "something different" here. Unlike Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, Gorbachev was "very smooth. He's young, tough, wants to change the Soviet Union, testy on human rights. A formidable man."

Asked by reporters whether such a vigorous Soviet leader was good for the West, Bush said, "That depends on us. We clearly want the Soviet Union to change. Here's a man who wants to change it. But how he does so depends in part on how we interact with him. The challenge is not to 'help' him but to put forward U.S. interests in a way that affects his policy the way we want."

In October 1986, Reagan met Gorbachev at Reykjavik, where the Soviet leader sprang a surprise proposal to reduce drastically both countries' nuclear arsenals. The two men could not agree on final terms, but both endorsed the idea of eliminating all offensive strategic arms within ten years, a plan that would revolutionize the system of mutual deterrence that had kept the peace since the 1950s.

When Bush, who had stayed behind in Washington, learned about what had happened in Reykjavik, he was appalled that Reagan would deal on such fundamental issues without preparation or consultation with his Western allies. But he did not hint publicly at his disapproval.

In December 1987, Gorbachev made his visit to Washington, where he and Reagan signed a treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles. During the three-day summit, Bush went to the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street for a breakfast of blinis and caviar with the Soviet leader. Gorbachev kept him waiting for almost two hours, which made the vice president furious.

Bush was accompanied at the breakfast by supporters from his upcoming presidential campaign, including John Sununu, the combative, deeply anti-Soviet governor of New Hampshire, who regularly observed Hungarian Freedom-fighters Day and Lithuanian Freedom Day — causes that in 1987 still had a quaint, quixotic ring. Avoiding controversy, Sununu rhapsodized to Gorbachev about American and Soviet accomplishments in science.

After the meeting, Gorbachev offered Bush a lift back to the White House in his limousine. "Welcome to my tank!" he said as they got in. The vice president said, "It's too bad you can't stop and go into some of these stores, because I think you'd find warm greetings from the American people."

When they passed crowds at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street, Gorbachev told his driver, "Stop the car!" He emerged from the limousine and cried in Russian, "I want to say hello to you!" Some of the onlookers gasped. As Gorbachev shook hands, Bush climbed out of the car and posed with him for photographers, but the cameras — and the crowds — were clearly focused on Gorbachev.

As they drove on to the White House, Bush, obviously impressed by the visitor's mastery of public relations, asked, "Do you do this a lot?" Gorbachev said, "I do it in Moscow and I do it every time I go to the provinces. ... Leaders should be equal to the people."

Bush's chief campaign pollster, Robert Teeter, advised the vice president that the more anxious Americans were about whether their next president was up to dealing with Gorbachev, the better it was for Bush; he should, therefore, play up the Soviet threat. In January 1988, Bush began using the kind of public rhetoric that he had just privately asked the Soviet leader to ignore. He told the National Press Club that Gorbachev was not a "freedom-loving friend of democracy" but an "orthodox, committed Marxist."

As Reagan approached the end of his presidency, he unwittingly served as a smiling, glad-handing foil for Bush's efforts to appear less captivated by Gorbachev's charm and more inclined to drive hard bargains with the Kremlin. In a famous incident during Reagan's visit to Moscow in June 1988, Gorbachev had picked up a small boy in Red Square and asked him to "shake hands with Grandfather Reagan." A reporter asked Reagan if he still believed that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." The president said, "No, I was talking about another time, another era."

Vacationing at his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush sounded a very different note. He warned reporters, "The Cold War isn't over." The following month he cautioned against a "euphoric, naively optimistic view about what comes next." Privately he was disturbed by Reagan's "sentimentality" about Gorbachev. He felt that the president and Secretary of State Shultz were "crashing too hard" to make a final deal with the Soviets before Reagan left office.

In September 1988, Bush invited Gorbachev's foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, to a breakfast at his official residence on Massachusetts Avenue. Except for a State Department interpreter, the only other American present was Shultz. In the spirit of his limousine conversation with Gorbachev the previous December, Bush told Shevardnadze that after he was elected, he hoped to continue the relationship forged under President Reagan.

Bush knew that Reagan, as the nation's most popular conservative, had more latitude to make deals with the Kremlin than he himself would have once he came into office. Therefore he quietly urged Shevardnadze to finish as much business as possible with the outgoing administration. Terrified that a leak of his relatively conciliatory remarks might be used against him in the campaign, he asked Shultz to give him the interpreter's notes of the session and to make no copies.

During the fall campaign, Bush said that he wished to keep the "pressure on Moscow to change." He opposed cuts in the defense budget or the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan's pet project for a space-based antimissile shield. In his first debate with the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, Bush insisted that "the jury is still out on the Soviet experiment."

Viewing the campaign from the Kremlin, Gorbachev wondered whether Bush was backing away from the assurances he had offered in the limousine. His advisers reminded him that Bush had to placate his right wing; the vice president had to show some "muscles." Once he was elected, they said, Bush would probably resume Reagan's policies.


Excerpted from At the Highest Levels by Michael Beschloss, Strobe Talbott. Copyright © 1993 Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1 “His Heart Is in the Right Place”
  • 2 “I Don’t Want to Do Anything Dumb”
  • 3 “More! You Must Do More!”
  • 4 “Look, This Guy Is Perestroika!”
  • 5 “The Makings of a Whole New World”
  • 6 “I’m Not Going to Dance on the Wall”
  • 7 “Eye to Eye”
  • 8 “I’m Going to Hold a Seminar on Germany”
  • 9 “I Don’t Want to Make the Wrong Mistakes”
  • 10 “Two Anchors Are Better”
  • 11 “A Fantastic Result”
  • 12 “This Is No Time to Go Wobbly”
  • 13 “You Can’t Back Off”
  • 14 “I Want to Preserve the Relationship”
  • 15 “You’ve Got to Understand”
  • 16 “He’s All They’ve Got”
  • 17 “I Really Hit Him over the Head”
  • 18 “Business Is Business”
  • 19 “We’re Counting on You”
  • 20 “We’re Not Going to Let Him Use Us”
  • 21 “I’m Afraid He May Have Had It”
  • 22 “What We Have Accomplished Will Last Forever”
  • Afterword
  • Epilogue to the Paperback Edition
  • A Chronology: Three Eventful Years
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index
  • About the Authors

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