On the evening of November 9, 1989, thousands of East Germans—including a 35-year-old chemist named Angela Merkel—peacefully crossed into West Berlin amid chaos and the confusion at the Berlin Wall. Within hours, the gates of the most notorious symbol of the Cold War opened for good, as champagne flowed and jubilant Germans with pickaxes began to lop off large chunks of the wall.
It was midafternoon at the White House when Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, walked into the Oval Office to tell George H.W. Bush that initial reports suggested the wall had been opened. But any public jubilation was tempered by the guiding principle of Bush’s career—prudence. As Bush biographer Jon Meacham recounts in Destiny and Power, “Borrowing a phrase from Scowcroft, Bush was determined not to ‘gloat.’” Meeting with reporters in the Oval Office, Bush struck a tone so subdued that CBS reporter Lesley Stahl said, “This is a sort of great victory for our side in the big East-West battle, but you don’t seem elated.” Bush’s response at this epic turning point in modern history: “I’m not an emotional kind of guy.”
Even when the president met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December of that year to symbolically ratify the end of the Cold War, Bush’s words were muted. For more than four decades—through proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam and an eyeball-to-eyeball nuclear confrontation during the Cuban Missile Crisis—the world had teetered on the brink. But throughout his presidency, Bush never displayed half the enthusiasm over the collapse of communism that he had as a Yale first baseman every time his team defeated Harvard. Bush’s restraint has been praised by foreign policy experts—but it also deprived Americans of a stirring moment of national unity over the end of the Cold War and the fears of nuclear Armageddon.
In the current era of pandemic, polarization, insurrection, war in Ukraine, dramatic climate change, and the fraying of democracy, it is difficult to conjure up what the United States was like during the glorious, nearly 12-year period that began on November 9, 1989. With Russia on the ropes and China still emerging from its Maoist slumber, the United States dominated the world. As Michael Mandelbaum, an emeritus professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, asserts in his new book, The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy, “The international position that the United States assumed in the wake of the Cold War was one that no other country held or had ever held.” And, yes, that includes ancient Rome and the British Empire.
This period also brought with it, for the most part, boom times at home. Despite a short recession in 1990 and a dot-com stock market collapse in 2000, the era was marked by a steadily declining unemployment rate, which hit 4 percent in 2000, the lowest figure in three decades. The millennium ended with balanced budgets—in fact, Bill Clinton bequeathed George W. Bush a $236 billion surplus—and widespread talk of paying off the entire national debt. In April 2001, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan—no fan of “irrational exuberance”—predicted in a major address, “While the magnitudes of future federal unified budget surpluses are uncertain, they are highly likely to remain sizable for some time.”