George H.W. Bush, rest in peace. The 41st president died in Houston last night. Rod Dreher shared Joshua Treviño’s H.W. reflection, and I’m sharing that same reflection here because I think it’s one of the best:
Here is the one thing you need to know about him, among all the things of his crowded and extraordinary life: his most enduring legacy is the war that did not happen. It is a commonplace that his predecessor in the Presidency defeated the Soviet Union, and there is truth to it, but it is not the whole story. President George H.W. Bush was the man who managed, deftly and successfully, the Western portion of the implosion of the Soviet empire. It was a perilous passage — the abrupt collapse of an imperium and a pillar of world order — that would have almost certainly produced great-power war under nearly any other circumstance. It did not largely because of the men who were President at the moment: President, that is, of both the failing USSR and the ascending United States.
Think back to the revolutions of 1989, and the triumphant scenes of Europe liberated at last, of the Second World War reaching its final conclusion after six long decades. Think back to the realization that Soviet Communism, the specter haunting free men throughout most of the century, was in its death throes. Then think back to what you didn’t see: American triumphalism in Europe, the imposition of terms, the march of Western armies to the Oder and Vistula, the spiking of the ball.
President George H.W. Bush, unnoticed and uncredited by his nation, steered a victorious America — flush in the defeat of its sixth empire in just over seventy years, standing upon the precipice of global hyperpower — with restraint, prudence, and even modesty in its moment of triumph. It was an exemplary achievement not just for the virtues inherent in those qualities. It was an exemplary achievement because of the people who lived.
Under nearly anyone else, in nearly any other era, the generation of 1989 would have been sacrificed to wars of succession, wars of revision, and wars of revenge. Under George H.W. Bush, these men and women lived, and their children are with us today.
It is a curious thing to have as the most enduring achievement a thing that did not happen. The former President understood it. The American people did not. They still don’t.
I was a small child living with my mother in Bayreuth, West Germany in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall began to fall. She was on a Fulbright there, and I was along with her. We visited Berlin, and we brought back a piece of that wall when we came home. Here’s a photo of us in Bayreuth’s Hofgarten from that autumn:
In reading Joshua Treviño’s reflection, I think about how easy it would have been for President Bush to have “spiked the ball” in some way that would have blown up in our faces. Even in Daniel McCarthy’s blunt epitaph for a man he believes essentially created our present geopolitical dilemmas, he points out the sort of restraint Bush demonstrated in presiding over the U.S.S.R.’s collapse:
Bush refused to encourage Ukrainian efforts to break free from the Soviet Union in summer of 1991 and warned of ‘suicidal nationalism’ on the part of Ukraine. Bush was right, not because the Ukrainians did not deserve their independence—which they soon peacefully obtained—but because US involvement would have been a goad to Russian nationalism and could only have complicated the necessary work of dismantling the Soviet Union, work that could only be carried out by Soviet subjects (including Russians) themselves.
I was in Kennebunkport, Maine over Memorial Day in 2010 with friends, and we had the chance to meet Bush briefly. He had a tradition of coming out for the Memorial Day parade there. It was one of his last years before age and disability made a wheelchair a necessity, and he was milling about and greeting everyone in a low key way. Shaking his hand and offering him a simple “thank you” for his service was a memorable moment, the sort that I hope continue to exist even despite the increasingly imperial nature of the U.S. presidency. I hope, through the countless number of Americans who have similar experiences with our presidents, that the best instincts of an older America are carried forward for generations to come.