If you’re over 30 years of age and you lived in Malta during the end of the 1980s you might remember the historical summit held here between US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev which brought the Cold War to an end.
This summit was broadcast internationally and Malta was at the very heart of this event, with journalists from around the world crowding the seaside village of Birżebbuġa to report the emerging news. But what led to all this and why was Malta chosen for this delicate and historical summit?
The Cold War
World War II came to an end in 1945 after Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy surrendered to the Allies after the Normandy Invasion, code-named ‘Operation Overlord’, resulted in the liberation of Paris and the restoration of the French Republic.
These landings, which commenced on June 6, 1944, (known as ‘D-Day’) were a significant turning point in the war. This war left Europe in economic devastation and ruins. Aggravating the situation was the unstable political climate throughout Europe.
Germany was split into two separate countries. In Berlin, a boundary wall was built to distinguish the western part controlled by the European capitalists and the eastern part controlled by the communist Soviet bloc. Several European countries were still prostrated by communism and, as a result, unemployment and poverty led to many injustices.
But even if the war was over, there was lack of political agreement between two ideologies: capitalism and communism.
This led to a political conflict between two superpowers: the United States of America and the Soviet Union (in short USSR for Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, with Moscow being the capital city).
It was a conflict between a country with a strong economy and a communist bloc with a political philosophy based on a centrally controlled economy and moral degradation.
After World War II, the Soviet Union took control of several countries including East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and later Czechoslovakia. Later on, the Soviets took control of parts of Austria (till 1955), the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
In time, all these countries achieved their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For several years the Cold War dominated the international scene as numerous crises took place and nuclear weapons for mass destruction were on the increase.
One might ask how these two superpowers could go to war against each other shortly after attaining a great victory against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It would be a mistake to think that friction between these two sides commenced after World War II.
Adolf Hitler was their common enemy and this joint objective led them to fight together a successful war; but when the war ended, this conflict appeared again. In fact, George Patton, who was an American general, urged the Allies to remain united so that after defeating the Nazi army, they would fight against the Soviet ‘Red Army.’
It’s quite interesting to note that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was irked when the Soviet Army marched alone before all allies along the streets of Berlin, giving the impression that it was thanks to them that the war was won.
Moreover, a situation started developing between the Soviet Union with its strong army and the Americans in possession of the deadliest weapon, the A-Bomb. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin discovered its disastrous potential after two of these bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Stalin’s main concern was the amount of these nuclear weapons that the Americans possessed.
Why call it a Cold War?
The conflict between these two superpowers emerged towards the end of World War II, precisely during a conference held between February 4 and 11, 1945, in the City of Yalta in Crimea (which formed part of the USSR) and ended in Malta in December 1989. In fact, there is still a phrase linked with this war – ‘from Yalta to Malta’. Although during this period the two sides didn’t physically attack each other, this does not mean that there weren’t other indirect conflicts.
At this stage it might be worth mentioning the Vietnam War during which the US provided the needed weapons to the anti-communist allies to fight the communist counterparts who were provided with weapons by the Soviets and China. The same happened in 1979 when the US provided the weapons to the Afghan rebels to combat the Soviets. Therefore, it would suffice to say that indirect military issues were evident between these two superpowers.
The end of the Cold War
During the 1970s and 1980s there were several European countries that were conditioned by communism and hence there was a wide appeal for freedom and liberty based on democracy. The presence of Pope John Paul II hailing from the communist-dictated Poland under the Soviets also influenced the scene by insisting that communism shall make room for other ideologies that back human life.
Furthermore, The Iron Curtain, as described by Churchill on March 5, 1946, symbolised the barrier that separated the Soviet states from Western democracies. During the late 1980s, the communist ideology was set back as the Soviets followed their own outdated political principles.
During this time several pro-liberty movements flourished, mostly in communist East Germany. This was thanks to the USSR leader, Mikhail Gorbachev who believed that the way forward was unity with the Western European countries. His determination brought the Cold War to a halt and in recognition he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
Buried in the rough Maltese waters
The year 1989 was a year of radical political change, mostly in Germany, Poland and Hungary. On November 9, the East German government announced that citizens were allowed to cross the border to the West without any restrictions. Crowds of Germans from both sides gathered along the Berlin Wall that separated the two sides and began pulling down parts of it.
This was a historical moment leading to the reunification of Germany which officially took place on October 3, 1990, three months after West Germany won its third World Cup title.
The summit in Malta was planned for December 2 and 3, 1989, on the Soviet vessel SS Maxim Gorkiy that was moored at Kalafrana Bay in Birżebbuġa. A few days before, two destroyers from both sides anchored in the middle of the bay.
There, the two superpower leaders buried their political conflict in the storm-lashed waters of the Maltese islands. Although several international critics still say that this summit was just symbolical due to the fact that no official agreement was signed, in reality this summit provided an occasion in which the two leaders discussed the radical changes that Europe was experiencing as a result of the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In a news conference, both leaders pledged to work for peace and unity. Gorbachev said: “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 US that I will never start a hot war against the US.”
The US president replied: “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.”
For several political critics these statements were a clear declaration of an end to the Cold War.
Following the summit
This summit was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union which took place on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev resigned from his position and declared his office extinct. He passed the leadership of the Soviet Army to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
The end of the Soviet era, and the birth of Russia together with other countries, were conceived by the West as a victory for liberty and democracy over totalitarianism and dictatorship.
In memory of this historical event a square in Birżebbuġa was named Misraħ is-Summit 1989. A monument was also built facing the place where the SS Maxim Gorkiy was moored, as a memorial of this summit.
To commemorate this anniversary, a symbolical ceremony will be held in front of the monument in Birżebbuġa on Wednesday at 10am.
This event is being organised by the Għaqda Storja u Kultura Birżebbuġa under the patronage of the President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca.
Conrad D’Amato is PRO of the Għaqda Storja u Kultura Birżebbuġa.