Saturday, December 1, 2018

29 Years Ago: A Visit from the Commander-in-Chief

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum blog commonly features stories about the great battles and campaigns our Navy's ships and personnel have participated in and what roles they played within them.  Ships and Sailors play a vital role in making war, but they also play a less-heralded yet no less important role in diplomacy.  In light of the death last night of former President George Herbert Walker Bush, it is an appropriate time to mention a brief visit he made to the aircraft carrier Forrestal (CV 59) off Malta on December 1, 1989, to express his appreciation for the Navy's support the day before his first meeting as president with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union.  

Although the carrier played no direct role in the history-making meeting, which was supposed to take place between Soviet and American cruisers, Forrestal was there to lend support or provide overwhelming force as needed.  Her aircraft also provided airborne early warning and guarded against allowing any unauthorized aircraft approaching the area of the summit.  Before arriving at his ultimate destination, the Norfolk-based guided missile cruiser Belknap (CG 26), which was floating around 400 yards from the Soviet guided missile cruiser Slava in Marsaxlokk Bay, the former naval aviator spent about three hours touring around Forrestal, eating lunch with the crew in the enlisted mess, watching flight operations, as well as opining about the importance of the summit in a speech made to the crew made in the aircraft carrier's hangar bay. 
Near the carrier-controlled approach radar platform aboard USS Forrestal (CV 59), President George H.W. Bush reacts to Sailors and members of the international press calling out from above him near the Pilot Aid Landing Television (PLAT) camera station aboard the aircraft carrier on December 1, 1989.  Showing him around for the flight operations segment of his three-hour tour is the commander of Carrier Air Wing Six, Captain Fields Richardson. (Photo by M.C. Farrington)
To understand how important the Malta Summit and those like it were, one must see it within the context of the times.  Throughout the decade, the specter of nuclear war was a staple in Western popular culture.  Television shows such as The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) and feature films such as The Terminator (1984) underscored the fatalistic undertones of the day.  That sense of fatalism also extended behind the Iron Curtain (possibly intensified by President Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech on March 8, 1983), which arguably contributed to the September 1, 1983 shootdown of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by a Soviet fighter over the Sea of Japan and the tactical nuclear strike the Soviets came within a hair's breadth of launching against NATO forces participating in Exercise Able Archer in Europe that November; the second most serious incident of its kind after the Cuban Missile Crisis. 
Because of the unexpectedly rough weather, neither the Soviet nor American warships turned out to be stable enough to hold the Malta Summit, so the talks were moved to the Soviet cruise liner Maxim Gorky.  While House photographer David Valdez captured the proceedings between General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (far left) and President George H.W. Bush (far right). (National Archives and Records Administration)
President Ronald Reagan subsequently launched the initiative to reach out to Premier Gorbachev, whose courage and fortitude, not to mention his popularization of the word glasnost (openness), brought the two superpowers back from the brink.  The openings made by their meeting in Reykjavik in 1986, plus others held in Washington, Moscow, and New York over the following three years, resulted in the conditions that facilitated Gorbachev's summit with President Bush in Malta.  Yet the frenetic changes overtaking the streets of Germany and Eastern Europe in late-1989 were beginning to overshadow the comparatively sedate high-level discussions taking place in the Mediterranean, which NBC veteran Tom Brokaw quipped were "already being described as the seasick summit."

Only three weeks before Bush's visit to the Forrestal, on live TV, East German Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski responded to a reporter's question as to when the checkpoints between his country and West Germany would be opened, and he simply replied, "...this is immediately, without delay." Spontaneously, citizens of East and West Berlin came together and began whacking away at the infamous Berlin Wall with pick axes, hammers, and anything else they could find in a cathartic cacophony.  

President Bush brought a piece of that wall with him on his visit to the Forrestal; literally a piece of the peace he was helping foster on that short visit 29 years ago. 

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