Vice President George H. W. Bush confided in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that he believed Ronald Reagan was an “extreme conservative” supported by “blockheads and dummies,” the former Soviet leader claims.
“In 1987, after my first visit to the United States, Vice President Bush accompanied me to the airport, and told me: ‘Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him, and when he says that something is necessary, they trust him. But if some Democrat had proposed what Reagan did, with you, they might not have trusted him,'” Gorbachev said in an interview with The Nation.
Gorbachev added that he had been informed that, following their first summit in 1985, Reagan reportedly described his Soviet counterpart as a “die-hard Bolshevik” — this despite the fact that Gorbachev would soon come to be known as a reformer who opened up the Soviet Union politically and ushered in an era of co-operation between east and west.
It’s no surprise that there were tensions between Reagan and the elder Bush. In 1980, the two politicians ran aggressive campaign against each other to secure the Republican nomination for president. During that campaign, Bush famously described Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics.” Many historians believe Reagan picked Bush as his running mate after the primaries because of Bush’s popularity with some segments of the Republican electorate.
In his interview, Gorbachev had praise for Reagan, commending the president for coming to agreements with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms reductions despite large policy differences between the two countries, and some personal animosity between the two leaders.
By telling you this, I simply want to give Reagan the credit he deserves. I found dealing with him very difficult. The first time we met, in 1985, after we had talked, my people asked me what I thought of him. “A real dinosaur,” I replied. And about me Reagan said, “Gorbachev is a diehard Bolshevik!”
And yet these two people came to historic agreements, because some things must be above ideological convictions. No matter how hard it was for us and no matter how much Reagan and I argued in Geneva in 1985, nevertheless in our appeal to the peoples of the world we wrote: “Nuclear war is inadmissible, and in it there can be no victors.” And in 1986, in Reykjavik, we even agreed that nuclear weapons should be abolished. This conception speaks to the maturity of the leaders on both sides, not only Reagan but people in the West generally, who reached the correct conclusion that we had to put an end to the Cold War.
As the Cold War fizzled in the late 1980s, observers gave Gorbachev credit for reducing tensions between the east and west, but as time went on, many historians began to give credit to Reagan’s foreign policy for forcing the Soviet Union to back down from the nuclear brink. Many historians argue Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” forced the Soviet Union into bankruptcy by keeping them chasing an arms race they could no longer afford.
But, in his interview, Gorbachev argued that principle, rather than balance sheets, motivated his transformation of the Soviet economy and society.
Sometimes people ask me why I began perestroika. Were the causes basically domestic or foreign? The domestic reasons were undoubtedly the main ones, but the danger of nuclear war was so serious that it was a no less significant factor. Something had to be done before we destroyed each other. Therefore the big changes that occurred with me and Reagan had tremendous importance. But also that George H.W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan, decided to continue the process. And in December 1989, at our meeting in Malta, Bush and I declared that we were no longer enemies or adversaries.
Gorbachev also noted that, three years ago, he received a five-minute standing ovation from a US Midwest audience when he called for an “American perestroika” to reform the US’s economic and social policies. He has since reiterated that call.