As most of Washington was getting ready to bolt for the long Thanksgiving weekend, a confidential top-level meeting was convening in the White House. President George H.W. Bush’s advisers were divided: Three months after the 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, should the United States still be trying to prop up the Soviet Union?
Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, and James Baker, the secretary of state, said yes. Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense, said no.
It was a remarkable question. In Russia and the other remaining Soviet republics, there was almost no sentiment to keep the U.S.S.R. together; there was certainly no political will to do so. Yet the Bush administration had clung stubbornly to the idea that an intact Soviet Union was less dangerous than one that was breaking up. Americans liked Mikhail Gorbachev, the feckless Soviet leader, and were wary of Boris Yeltsin, the populist anti-Communist.
Yeltsin and millions of others were envisioning a total overthrow of a system that had been America’s chief adversary since the end of World War II. In Washington, the president was not so sure.