The Malta Independent 25 June 2024, Tuesday
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December 1989: When the Cold War came to an end in Malta

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 2 December 2018, 09:30 Last update: about 3 years ago

The death of former US President George H.W. Bush was announced on Friday night in Texas, when 1 December had already dawned in Malta. He was 94 years of age. It is, coincidentally, the day of the 29th anniversary of the start of the Bush-Gorbachev Summit that was held in Malta and which saw the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era of the relationship between the United States and Russia.


Bush Sr will be remembered for many things but he may perhaps be best remembered, in Europe at least, for the Malta Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the cessation of Cold War hostilities once and for all.

The summit, held just a month after the Berlin Wall was famously dismantled brick by brick by a jubilant mob, marked the end of post-World War II hostilities between the world’s superpowers. As a Soviet official remarked at the time, the summit had “buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean” – where it rests to this day, presumably on the seabed somewhere between Marsaxlokk and Birzebbugia.

At the close of the talks, during a memorable press conference at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Gorbachev remarked: “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another. We are at the beginning of a long road to a lasting, peaceful era. The threat of force, mistrust, psychological and ideological struggle should all be things of the past.

“I assured the President of the United States that I will never start a hot war against the USA.”

Replying, Bush remarked from his podium placed alongside Gorbachev’s: “We can realise a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring cooperation. That is the future that Chairman Gorbachev and I began right here in Malta.”

In a tweet yesterday, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion Carmelo Abela said: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the demise of former US President Bush: a patriot who believed that the US should lead the world as a positive force. At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the American people.”

In 2009, The Malta Independent published a piece in which editor Stephen Calleja had reminisced on the happenings of that eventful weekend, also remembered for the heavy storm that had hit Malta, and had asked former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami for his recollections about the days in which Malta had served as the venue for one of the major events in world history.


When the Cold War came to an end in Malta

The weekend of 1-3 December 1989 will be remembered as the time when the Cold War was dumped in the heavy seas of Marsaxlokk as the then leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, met in Malta to literally draw a line on their previous differences and set sail towards a new era of world history. On the eve of the 20th anniversary, Stephen Calleja sought the recollections of that unforgettable weekend from Eddie Fenech Adami, then Malta’s Prime Minister.

It seems only yesterday that Malta became the centre of world attention when the leaders of the two world superpowers, the United States of America and the Soviet Union, met on board the Soviet cruiser SS Maxim Gorky, anchored off Marsaxlokk Harbour and declared the end of the Cold War.

It was the weekend of 1-3 December 1989, and many will remember that they were three days of storms and rough seas, hardly the sunny island portrayed by Malta in its tourist brochures.

I had just started working as a journalist at the time, and I still remember the strong winds that made it so hard for me to walk up Glormu Cassar Avenue on the way to Castille, and thinking: “Why are the fates being so hard on Malta? We promote our country as having mild winters but, on the weekend when the whole world is looking at us, we get the worst of storms.” It seemed that the weather “knew” that something extraordinary was going to happen, and reserved its worst for what was to be a most significant date in world politics.

History had turned full circle. On 2 February 1945, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had met in Malta before their meeting in Yalta with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. That meeting meant the end of World War II, but it was also the start of a new period of instability that culminated in what became known as the Cold War.

The political divide between East and West, physically established with the building of the Berlin Wall, kept the world on tenterhooks for decades, as the Americans and Soviets became entangled in a war of words that went beyond politics; for one thing, the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s was an attempt to affirm a “we-are-better-than-you” notion between superpowers at each other’s throats.

Sport, usually a uniting factor, was not spared either: first it was the US that ordered a boycott of the Olympic Games held in Moscow in 1980, and then the Soviet Union retaliated with its own boycott of the Games that were held in Los Angeles four years later.

The thaw in the relationship between the two superpowers began to appear when Mikhail Gorbachev, with his “glasnost” and “perestroika” (openness and restructuring) policies, became Soviet Union President. Growing unrest in some of the countries behind the Iron Curtain culminated in the bringing down of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.

Eddie Fenech Adami, then Malta’s Prime Minister, had been the first head of government to cross over from West Germany into East Germany soon after the Berlin Wall came down. And he was also the head of government of the country that hosted the Bush-Gorbachev meeting that signalled the end of the Cold War.

He remembers clearly that, a couple of weeks before the summit, he had received a telephone call from the United States Ambassador to Malta, who asked for an urgent meeting. “I did not know what had prompted it, but when the Soviet Ambassador turned up as well and they explained that Malta had been chosen as the neutral venue for the [Bush-Gorbachev] summit, I remember the exact words I said to them: ‘With open arms, they will be welcome’.”

Dr Fenech Adami said that he had welcomed Mr Bush and Mr Gorbachev in separate meetings at Castille, amid heavy security, before the two world leaders met each other in Marsaxlokk.

Part of my duties for The Times had been to cover Mr Bush’s meeting with Dr Fenech Adami, and I still remember, as if it were yesterday, feeling so cold on the steps leading up to Castille, where so many journalists had gathered.

Foreign reporters wore the most comfortable and warmest of clothes, but the Maltese Department of Information had demanded that Maltese journalists wear jackets and ties. Trying to move about as much as I could to help my blood circulation, I remarked to Georg Sapiano, who was next to me, how envious I was of the mufflers and coats our foreign colleagues were wearing.

Just then Mr Bush and Dr Fenech Adami emerged from Castille, and Georg had the temerity to shout a question in their direction. Mr Bush turned to face the voice that had broken through the murmur and, together with Dr Fenech Adami, walked towards us – creating some concern among the security people – to answer it as we stretched our recorders out over the heads of other journalists.

Dr Fenech Adami is right when he says: “They were extraordinary days. When I hosted [the two leaders] at Castille, they were still to hold their meetings and there were great expectations as to what the outcome would be. Then, when they announced the end of the Cold War at a joint press conference, a new era for world politics had been ushered in.”

At the press conference, Mr Gorbachev had said: “The world is leaving one epoch and entering another”, with Mr Bush replying: “We can realise a lasting peace and transform the East-West relationship to one of enduring cooperation. That is the future that President Gorbachev and I began right here in Malta.”

And it is this cooperation that Dr Fenech Adami highlighted. “History changed overnight. Instead of division, the two countries embarked on a road of co-operation.  Of course, there are still differences between the two, but what happened in Malta paved the way for a new era of political history.”

Dr Fenech Adami said that the summit gave Malta a new image on the world stage. The country was still finding its feet – the Nationalist Party had won the election in 1987, bringing to an end a period of turmoil that had characterised the early 1980s. “The summit enabled the world to see that Malta was a stable country, a nation that could be trusted,” he said.

Before they chose Malta, the US and the Soviet Union had discussed other venues, but they could not agree, Dr Fenech Adami told me. “It was Mr Bush’s brother William who mentioned Malta. He had been here for the celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of Independence in September of that year, and he suggested Malta to the US President. Mr Bush agreed immediately and, once informed, the Soviet Union had also agreed.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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