National Press Club

National Press Club in History: The Cold War ends in the Ballroom

January 3, 2019 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

Boris Yeltsin and National Press Club member Paul D'Armiento flash the thumbs-up sign, just before he addressed the Club in June 1991. Yeltsin looks a little unsure about the American thumbs up tradition.

Boris Yeltsin and National Press Club member Paul D'Armiento flash the thumbs-up sign, just before he addressed the Club in June 1991. Yeltsin looks a little unsure about the American thumbs up tradition.

Photo/Image: John Matelsky

In July 1989, three years after Soviet Union Premier Mikhail Gorbachev took office, his military advisor, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, told an astounded National Press Club Luncheon audience that Soviet satellites Poland and Hungary were free to go their own ways.

Akhromeyev was in the United States on a goodwill tour with Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as Gorbachev’s Glasnost Policy to reform the Soviet Union was beginning to take hold.

Club President Peter Holmes of the Washington Times asked him if Gorbachev had abandoned the previous policy that allowed military intervention in the Eastern bloc countries that trended away from Marxist socialism. The marshal said it had.

“Our external politics now proceeds from the following basis: that force should be excluded from mutual relations that one might have with independent countries, be they large or small; and secondly, that each country, each nation has the full right to choose that social order under which it wishes to live.

“This is not just theory,” he said. “This is practice that we are practicing now, and that’s what we are proceeding from – to build good relations not only with socialist countries, but non-socialist countries as well."

That led to the next question: Is that to say, then, that Poland and Hungary are free to become neutral nations if they choose?

To which the marshal responded: “They can be the kind of countries that they wish to become. Now, let’s see in the future what they choose to become.”

In Poland, the Solidarity Movement led by Lech Welesa had its own idea of what Poland should become as it revolted against the Soviet-backed socialist government. Welesa spoke to the Club on Nov. 6, 1989, just seven days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Welesa declared to a packed ballroom, “The Iron Curtain is no more. We have fought and we have won.” But he tempered his victory declaration by soberly saying, “I call it a house of cards … If we want real victory, we have to lay solid foundations under this house of cards by pouring economic concrete.”

Lothar de Maizier was the first and only popularly elected prime minister of East Germany when he visited with President George H.W. Bush on June 12, 1990,to talk about how to persuade the Soviet Union to accept a united Germany in NATO

The next day de Maizier spoke to the Club. “The primary objective of our government is to make ourselves unnecessary,” he said. “The more efficiently we do that, the sooner all of the wishes and aspirations of our people come true."

At the end of the talk, de Maizier presented a piece of the Berlin Wall enclosed in a glass case to the Club.

Vaclav Havel, the poet and playwright president of Czechoslovakia, came to the Club podium on Oct. 6, 1991, to talk about the advances his country had made in transforming itself from a socialist to a capitalist society while building new economic and strategic relations with Western European nations as well as the former East bloc and the Soviet Union.

He talked of privatizing what had been a totally state-run economy, doing away with central planning, providing fundamental human and property rights for all citizens, institutionalizing democratic procedures, and bringing inflation under control.
Conflict between the two peoples of his country, the Czechs and the Slovaks, has not been settled, he said.

“Whatever the solution to the problem, my country, unlike some other countries, has not experienced any violent manifestations of ethnic intolerance,” he said. “On both sides, there is a strong determination to resolve the problem through democratic and constitutional procedures.”

Less than two years the two groups would peacefully split into separate countries.

But it was Boris Yeltsin’s speech in June 1991 that electrified the Club. Fresh from victory as the first popularly elected president of Russia, Yeltsin was large and imposing physically, yet unaccustomed to the glare of television lights. He appeared nervous as he looked out at the expectant crowd in the ballroom.

“There will be no turning back from the path Russia has chosen,” Yeltsin said in a speech that lasted only five minutes. Then he took question after question from an insatiably curious audience, responding to queries ranging from the future of the Soviet Union to his own religious beliefs.

“I shall never be the advocate of slow, half-hearted change,” he said, “because along that path the system will take revenge on us.”

When he finally appeared at the Club on Oct. 25, 1996, Mikhail Gorbachev was warmly welcomed by Americans even though at home he was vilified as the man who caused the destruction of the Soviet Union and destroyed the economy.

Gorbachev did not speak at a Club Luncheon, but was here to talk about his new autobiography at a “Book Rap with Mikhail Gorbachev.”