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The Reagan-Bush-Gorbachev Meeting on Governors Island: A Debriefing and a Walk

On December 7, 1988, President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Governors Island, then the headquarters for the Coast Guard. Documentation of the events that day remained secret for twenty years, but the release of both Soviet and American materials, analyzed and posted by the National Security Archive (see sources at end of post), provides a vivid picture of the dramatic events that unfolded around the meeting. Furthermore, now that Governors Island is open to the public, including the Commanders House where the leaders met for lunch, it is now possible to reconstruct the historic events by matching the words of a declassified memorandum describing the lunch with images of the interiors of the house today. The small talk that characterized the lunch, however, does not betray the extraordinary surprise that the Soviet leader unveiled earlier that morning in a speech to the United Nations.


Standing in front of the 43rd U.N. General Assembly, Mikhail Gorbachev began his speech by describing the sweeping changes of revolutionary history, acknowledging the surge of recent change sweeping the Soviet republics. He tells the members of "the profound democratic reform of the entire system of power and government," including the end to state control over public associations, an end to political imprisonment, the end of travel restrictions, and a firmer commitment to the notion of human rights.

"Gorbachev said each time they met the weather got better. The President replied jovially that we arranged that."

"Turning to substance, Gorbachev said he hoped what he had said at the UN had not contained surprises."
(Gorbachev) "As for this meeting, it was not for negotiations; it resulted from his being in New York, and the President's and Vice President's invitation to meet on that occasion. He hoped it would be a useful meeting."
Gorbachev then made his most surprising announcement. "Now about the most important topic, without which no problem of the coming century can be resolved: disarmament." He then released news of the Soviet Union's decision to substantially reduce its armed forces in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, with a goal to disband them by 1991. As history shows, the reduction in forces would lead to the eventual collapse of the former Soviet Union. Importantly, following the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987 that reduced short-range nuclear weapons, Gorbachev prepared to advance a plan for further and substantial disarmament. In addition to catching the CIA and NATO by surprise, he also had to contend with the hawks in his own military. The documents, now public, demonstrate that the speech, one that in essence declares the end to the Cold War, was carefully crafted to continue the disarmament momentum with the incoming Bush administration.

"A journalist asked if there was opposition to the cuts in his country. Gorbachev said the answer was 'no.' The President commented that Gorbachev's Russian 'nyet' sounded a little like 'yes.' Gorbachev replied with a smile that the answer was still 'no.'
"Referring to the camera lights, Gorbachev commented that they were between a burning fire and bright lights. The President said that as a veteran of television he had found that the lights can make you look twelve years younger."
"Gorbachev asked why the island was called 'Governors' Island. The Vice President replied that it had been given to the British governors for their use in colonial times, and the name had stuck. The President said it was now the headquarters for our Coast Guard, and they were meeting in the commandant's residence."
As explained in the essay accompanying the documents on the website of the National Security Archives, members of the incoming Bush administration were far more skeptical of Gorbachev's unilateral gestures than the outgoing Reagan administration. The hard liners of the Bush administration were already applying the brakes to Gorbachev's overtures. Bush indicated he would need more time to think about it. From the National Security Archive: "The two men would not meet again for an entire year (until the Malta summit in December 1989), and by that time, the world would have changed around them, the Berlin Wall would be gone, German unification would be the absorbing controversy, and Gorbachev would be losing the ability on his side to deliver more of what he announced at the U.N. that very day."

"The President asked Gorbachev if he had ever told him about President Lyndon Johnson's remark concerning the press. Johnson had said that if he ever walked from the White House to the Potomac and walked out on top of the water, the press would report that the President could not swim. Gorbachev laughed, and said the President had indeed told him the story before."
(after the press had departed) "Gorbachev said he knew Mr. Bush would become President only in January. He would (be) bringing new people with him."
"Gorbachev said he fully understood, and found it important that the Vice President was thinking in terms of tackling and solving problems. The Vice President said he had no intention of stalling things.
…The President suggested again that they go in to lunch."

This meeting on Governors Island had come about because Gorbachev had requested one last meeting with President Reagan before Bush assumed the presidency. The conversation at the lunch meeting on the island on a cold December day, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, was characterized by a genial though rather superficial small talk. Press members were allowed a photo op of the meeting, and the highly symbolic images of the leaders standing at the water's edge that day were broadcast around the world. The text accompanying the images (above) of the Commander's house comes from Document 8: Memorandum of Conversation, "The President's Private Meeting with Gorbachev," December 7, 1988, 1:05-1:30 p.m., Commandant's residence, Governors Island, New York," available as a pdf from the archives page.


NOTES ON SOURCES:
These materials are reproduced from www.nsarchive.org with the permission of the National Security Archive. George Washington University. For more, please read The National Security Archive's "Reagan, Gorbachev and Bush at Governor's (sic) Island," posted December 8, 2008. About the archive: "An independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University, the Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act."

The text of Gorbachev's UN speech may be found at this page from Temple University.

VISITING GOVERNORS ISLAND
Governors Island is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through October 10.
For additional information about Governors Island on this website, read A Beginner's Guide to Governors Island.

The walk from the ferry landing at Governors Island to the Commander's house is a short stroll.


View Governors Island in a larger map

Images of the Commander's House by Walking Off the Big Apple from July 17, 2010. Image of Bush, Reagan, and Gorbachev from the National Security Archive.

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