Five years ago today I wrote “The Soviets, The Sinatra Doctrine and the Beginning of the Cold War’s End” which I posted here on WhirledView.
As I read recently published historical accounts and personal reminiscences in commemoration of that fateful night, it occurred to me that something important has been largely forgotten: Namely, the earlier decision of the Gorbachev government to end the Soviet Union's continued military support for the Communist regimes then in place in Eastern Europe. This included the Honecker government in East Germany. ("Check Point Charlie" July 1989 photo by PHKushlis; Crosses at the Berlin Wall, July 1989 photo by WJKushlis)
By November 1989, the Soviet economy was in shambles, the Kremlin erroneously expected Eastern European hardline regimes to soften and embrace “perestroika” and “glasnost” as it had. Besides, the USSR could no longer afford to keep its friends in office through massive Soviet troop presence in their countries and had announced “freedom of choice” at the Warsaw Pact Summit in Bucharest in July. Meanwhile, East Germany’s stiff-necked Erich Honecker, no favorite of the Kremlin, had been replaced by Egon Krenz – more amenable to Gorbachev’s thinking - in a surprise meeting of the East German Politburo in mid-October.
The Kremlin’s crucial policy change was cryptically referred to in public by Gorbachev's press spokesman Gennady Gerasimov. He nicknamed it "the Sinatra Doctrine" not long before November 9 in a few seemingly off-handed remarks in the West.
I was US Embassy Press Attaché in Helsinki when just 16 days (October 25-27) before November 9,1989 Gorbachev made a presidential visit to Finland. The Finns had given a few of us press credentials that allowed us to attend the media events at Finlandia Hall as well as obtain copies of transcripts of speeches and press conferences held during the visit. (Finlandia Hall, spring 1992 by PHKushlis)
Few western journalists were present so the visit was largely ignored by the western media but, not surprisingly, it was heavily covered by the Finns, the Swedes and the Russians. This was how and when the U.S. Embassy Helsinki first came across Gerasimov’s term for this new “doctrine.” The term was contained in a transcript of a Gerasimov press conference. The political counselor pointed it out, questioned its meaning and reported it to Washington. Yet, did any of us know then what the “Sinatra Doctrine’s” future ramifications would be?
I doubt it. Conventional wisdom had it that the nearly still Stalinist East Germany would be the last to change. The Wall had looked invincible when I had visited East Berlin in July. Although East Germans in the thousands had begun to flee to the West in May – a trickle that had led to a flood by summer - as they circumvented the Wall through Hungary after the Hungarian government had opened its western borders to them. Then, once the threat of Soviet military force had been removed it was only a matter of time before the Soviet-backed Eastern European regimes toppled like the proverbial house of cards. (Graffiti on the Wall, July 1989, Photo by PHKushlis)
Here is a link to the post I wrote in 2009. It's still worth reading: I read it again last night. The Wall may have fallen in a matter of hours and shocked US Embassy officials and others in East Berlin and elsewhere - but the events and factors leading up to it had already been set in motion months, if not years before.