Mikhail Gorbachev Primary Source eText

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Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left), U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and Vice President George Bush look at the Statue of Liberty in December 1988. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (left), U.S. president Ronald Reagan, and Vice President George Bush look at the Statue of Liberty in December 1988. Published by Gale Cengage Corbis Corporation
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the United Nations in December 1988. He announced cuts in the Soviet military budget as well as a withdrawal of fifty thousand troops from Eastern Europe. Photograph by Robert Maass. Reproduced by permission of th Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the United Nations in December 1988. He announced cuts in the Soviet military budget as well as a withdrawal of fifty thousand troops from Eastern Europe. Published by Gale Cengage Robert Maass

Excerpt from "Address to the 43rd United Nations General Assembly Session, December 7, 1988"

Found in United Nations General Assembly, Provisional Verbatim Record of the Seventy-Second Meeting

"We are witnessing the emergence of a new, historic reality: a turning away from the principle of super-armament to the principle of reasonable defense sufficiency."

On December 7, 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) spoke to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) at the UN headquarters in New York City. Gorbachev was general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). In other words, he was head of both the Soviet Communist Party and the government of the Soviet Union. The speech would mark another major step toward ending the Cold War, a prolonged conflict for world dominance from 1945 to 1991 between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The occasion of the speech also came several weeks before U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89) ended his term of office and George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) began his.

Before the entire world, Gorbachev plainly announced the Soviet reforms that he had begun over the previous three years. Describing his reforms as containing "a tremendous potential for peace and international co-operation,

" Gorbachev charted a course never heard expressed by a Soviet leader before. He spoke of "profound social change" and "new nations and States." People, he claimed, were "longing for independence, democracy and social justice." He declared this was in large part due to the growing mass media that brought a greater exchange of ideas around the world. Keeping societies closed to the outside world, such as the Soviet society since the 1920s, was no longer practical.

Related to this change was a globalization of trade. No country could economically develop and thrive without taking part in the newly developing worldwide economic system. At this time, Gorbachev still held fast to maintaining communist rule, though with a reformed Communist Party allowing greater personal freedoms and public participation. He spoke of respecting differing viewpoints and tolerance among the nations, of living "side by side with others, while remaining different." Gorbachev stressed a key step toward greater world stability was disarmament, and he desired to build on the INF treaty signed the previous December. He called for "radical economic reform" by lessening government control of industry and business. Gorbachev thanked President Reagan and U.S. secretary of state George Shultz (1920–) for supporting his reforms. In conclusion, he expressed a desire to continue the growing relationship with the United States through newly elected president Bush.

Things to remember while reading "Address to the 43rd United Nations General Assembly Session, December 7, 1988":

  • Mikhail Gorbachev came into the Soviet leadership position in 1985 when the economy was in disarray and the United States, under President Reagan, was pursuing another period of expensive rapid arms buildup. Soviet citizens had lost faith in the communist system and dramatic reform was desperately needed.
  • Reagan and Shultz had overcome hard-line anticommunist opposition in the U.S. administration to negotiate arms control agreements and support Gorbachev's efforts at Soviet reform.
  • Gorbachev differed from previous Soviet leaders by being from a later generation, being college-educated, and being quite socially outgoing in public.

Excerpt from "Address to the 43rd United Nations General Assembly Session, December 7, 1988"

We have come here to show our respect for the United Nations, which increasingly has been manifesting its ability to act as a unique international center in the service of peace and security.…

The role played by the Soviet Union in world affairs is well known, and in view of the revolutionary perestroika under way in our country, which contains a tremendous potential for peace and international co-operation, we are now particularly interested in being properly understood.

That is why we have come here to address this most authoritative world body and to share our thoughts with it. We want it to be the first to learn of our new, important decisions.…

We are witnessing the most profound social change. Whether in the East or the South, the West or the North, hundreds of millions of people, new nations and States, new public movements and ideologies have moved to the forefront of history. Broad-based and frequently turbulent popular movements have given expression … to a longing for independence, democracy and social justice. The idea of democratizing the entire world order has become a powerful sociopolitical force.…

Thanks to the advances in mass media and means of transportation the world seems to have become more visible and tangible. International communication has become easier than ever before. Today, the preservation of any kind of closed society is hardly possible. This calls for a radical review of approaches to the totality of the problems of international co-operation as a major element of universal security. The world economy is becoming a single organism, and no State, whatever its social system or economic status, can develop normally outside it.…

However, concurrently with wars, animosities and divisions among peoples and countries, another trend, with equally objective causes, was gaining momentum: the process of the emergence of a mutually interrelated and integral world. Today, further world progress is possible only through a search for universal human consensus as we move forward to a new world order.…

The international community must learn how it can shape and guide developments in such a way as to preserve our civilization and to make it safe for all and more conducive to normal life.…

In the past differences were often a factor causing mutual rejection. Now, they have a chance of becoming a factor for mutual enrichment and mutual attraction.

Behind differences in social systems, in ways of life and in preferences for certain values, stand different interests. There is no escaping that fact.…

This objective fact calls for respect for the views and positions of others, tolerance, a willingness to perceive something different as not necessarily bad or hostile, and an ability to learn to live side by side with others, while remaining different and not always agreeing with each other.…

These are our reflections on the patterns of world development on the threshold of the twenty-first century.…

Forces have already emerged in the world that in one way or another stimulate the arrival of a period of peace.…

Those politicians whose activities used to be geared to the Cold War and sometimes linked with its most critical phases are now drawing appropriate conclusions. Of all people, they find it particularly hard to abandon old stereotypes and past practices, and, if even they are changing course, it is clear that, when new generations take over, opportunities will increase in number.

In short, the understanding of the need for a period of peace is gaining ground and beginning to prevail. This has made it possible to take the first real steps towards creating a healthier international environment and towards disarmament.…

The whole world welcomes the efforts of this Organization [United Nations].…

Under the sign of democratization, perestroika has now spread to politics, the economy, intellectual life and ideology.

We have initiated a radical economic reform. We have gained experience. At the start of next year, the entire national economy will be directed to new forms and methods of operation.…

Let me now turn to the main issue without which none of the problems of the coming century can be solved: disarmament.

International development and communications have been distorted by the arms race and the militarization of thinking. As the Assembly will know, on 15 January 1986 the Soviet Union put forward a programme for building a nuclear-weapon-free world. Translated into actual negotiating positions, it has already produced material results. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the signing of the Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles—the INF Treaty. I am therefore particularly pleased to note that the implementation of the Treaty—the elimination of missiles—is proceeding normally in an atmosphere of trust and businesslike work. A large breach has thus been made in a seemingly unbreakable wall of suspicion and animosity. We are witnessing the emergence of a new, historic reality: a turning away from the principle of super-armament to the principle of reasonable defense sufficiency.…

Finally, since I am here on American soil, and also for other obvious reasons, I have to turn to the subject of our relations with this great country. I had a chance to appreciate the full measure of its hospitality during my memorable visit to Washington exactly a year ago. Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States of America have a history of five and a half decades. As the world has changed, so have the nature, role and place of those relations in world politics. For too long they developed along the lines of confrontation and sometimes animosity, either overt or covert. But in the last few years the entire world has been able to breathe a sigh of relief, thanks to the changes for the better in the substance and the atmosphere of the relationship between Moscow and Washington.

No one intends to underestimate the seriousness of our differences and the toughness of our outstanding problems. We have, however, already graduated from the primary school of learning to understand each other and seek solutions in both our own and the common interest.

The USSR and the United States have built the largest nuclear and missile arsenals; but it is those two countries that, having become specifically aware of their responsibility, have been the first to conclude a treaty on the reduction and physical elimination of a portion of their armaments which posed a threat to both of them and to all other countries. Both countries possess the greatest and most sophisticated military secrets; but it is those two countries that have laid a basis for and are further developing a system of mutual verification both of the elimination of armaments and of the reduction and prohibition of their production. It is those two countries that are accumulating experience for future bilateral and multilateral agreements.

We value this. We acknowledge and appreciate the contributions made by President Ronald Reagan and by the members of his Administration, particularly Mr. George Shultz.

All this is our joint investment in a venture of historic importance. We must not lose that investment, or leave it idle.

The next United States administration, headed by President-elect George Bush, will find in us a partner who is ready—without long pauses or backtracking—to continue the dialogue in a spirit of realism, openness and goodwill, with a willingness to achieve concret results working on the agenda which covers the main issues of Soviet/United States relations and world politics.…

We are not inclined to simplify the situation in the world.

Yes, the trend towards disarmament has been given a powerful impetus, and the process is gaining a momentum of its own. But it has not yet become irreversible.

Yes, the willingness to give up confrontation in favor of dialogue and co-operation is being felt strongly. But it is still far from becoming a permanent feature in the practice of international relations.

Yes, movement towards a nuclear-weapon-free and non-violent world is capable of radically transforming the political and intellectual identity of our planet. But only the first steps have been taken, and even they have been met with mistrust in certain influential quarters and face resistance.

The legacy and the inertia of the past continue to be felt.…

We are meeting at the end of a year which has meant so much for the United Nations and on the eve of a year from which we all expect so much.

I should like to believe that our hopes will be matched by our joint efforts to put an end to an era of wars, confrontation and regional conflicts, to aggressions against nature, to the terror of hunger and poverty as well as to political terrorism.

That is our common goal and we can only reach it together.…

What happened next …

Not long after the UN speech, Gorbachev introduced major political reforms within the Soviet Union. A revised Soviet constitution created a new parliament known as the Congress of People's Deputies. To fill seats in the new parliament, elections were held in the various fifteen Soviet republics in March. Gorbachev was surprised how badly hard-line communist candidates had lost. One new reform-minded communist who won was Boris Yeltsin (1931–) in the highly important Moscow district of Russia. Gorbachev had not expected such a shift in political power away from the Communist Party. On the international scene, President Bush's new secretary of state, James Baker (1930–), and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–) met several times through the early months of 1989, forming a close working relationship.

Did you know …

  • During his visit to the UN headquarters in New York City, Gorbachev posed with President Ronald Reagan and President-elect George Bush in front of the Statue of Liberty. It later proved a powerful image representing the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War.
  • President George Bush's secretary of defense Richard Cheney (1941–) warned Bush against aiding Gorbachev, predicting the reforms would fail and hard-line communists would regain control. Other advisors would warn that Gorbachev's reforms were a trick to weaken the United States by agreeing to disarmament measures. This was old-line, long-adhered-to U.S. philosophy concerning the Soviet Union. Letting go of this line of thinking was difficult for many old-line U.S. diplomats.
  • A major feature of Gorbachev's UN speech was his renouncing longtime communist assumptions that conflict between capitalism and communism was inevitable.
  • In the speech, Gorbachev shocked other nations by announcing a withdrawal of a half million Soviet troops and thousands of heavy conventional weapons from Eastern Europe.

Consider the following …

  • Gorbachev claimed that mass media made it almost impossible for a government to maintain a strict control over a society closed to outside influences. What kinds of influences do you think young Soviets may have been exposed to in the 1970s and 1980s?
  • Why do you suppose Gorbachev did not intend to end communism, but basically reform it?
  • What did Gorbachev mean when he asserted that U.S.-Soviet relations through the Cold War were "distorted by the arms race and the militarization of thinking" and that "the first steps" of disarmament "have been met with mistrust in certain influential quarters"?

For More Information


Gorbachev, Mikhail, and Zdenek Mlynar. Conversations with Gorbachev. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Kelly, Nigel. Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Cold War Ends. Chicago: Heineman Library, 2001.

Mandelbaum, Michael. The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002.

McCauley, Martin. Gorbachev. New York: Longman, 1998.

Morrison, Donald, ed. Mikhail S. Gorbachev: An Intimate Biography. New York: Time Books, 1988.

Stokes, Gale. The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

United Nations General Assembly, Provisional Verbatim Record of the Seventy-Second Meeting, A/43/PV.72, December 8, 1988. New York: United Nations, 1988.

Web Site

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. http://www.mikhailgorbachev.org (accessed on September 22, 2003).