By the time George H.W. Bush was sworn into office as the 41st president of the United States, the Cold War was already winding down. The accession to the top of the communist party hierarchy by Mikhail Gorbachev and the willingness to push Gorbachev’s octogenarian predecessors to the brink of war by president Ronald Reagan had set the stage for the dramatic developments that occurred during President Bush's tenure in office. This should not, however, be interpreted as an attempt at minimizing President Bush’s contributions to the end of the Cold War. On the contrary, Bush had served in several important foreign policy and national security positions prior to his election as president and had consistently represented a pragmatic, informed perspective. That perspective would prove to be immensely important as the Cold War entered its final tumultuous stages in 1989, soon after Bush’s presidency began.
It is important to remember when assessing George H.W. Bush’s role in ending the Cold War the suspicions and fear that continued to exist among some on both sides of the conflict. Hard-liners in both the Soviet Union and the United States deeply mistrusted each other and there were some in America, despite the dramatic transformations that Gorbachev had initiated, who believed that those transformations were part of a ruse intended to weaken the West. Bush’s most important contributions to the end of the Cold War, then, lied in his acceptance of the sincerity of Gorbachev’s interests—in radically altering the existing structure of international relations—and in his, Bush’s, willingness to work with Gorbachev and Gorbachev’s ally and successor Boris Yeltsin in formally eliminating the last vestiges of the Cold War. Among Bush’s contributions to the end of the era was his agreement with Gorbachev in December 1989, formally ending the Cold War, and his cautious reaction to the attempt by Soviet hard-liners to launch a coup against Gorbachev—an event that both marginalized important figures in the Soviet security apparatus and catapulted Yeltsin to the pinnacle of the Russian political establishment. Bush and Gorbachev concluded the landmark Strategic Arms Reduction Talk (START) agreement, which, far more than earlier arms control agreements, pushed the two superpowers towards serious, if apparently temporary, nuclear disarmament.
The end of the Cold War was not entirely peaceful. The violence in Romania, as the communist regime resisted the movement across Eastern Europe towards democracy, the Russian military activities in the Baltics, former Soviet republic of Georgia, and elsewhere, and the aborted coup attempt all represented opportunities for the final days of the Cold War to devolve in the wrong direction. Bush’s level-headedness and experience all played a very important role in the era’s end.