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Remarks and an Exchange With Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, on the Attempted Coup in the Soviet Union

August 19, 1991

The President. Let me make a few comments about these momentous and stunning events. While we're still watching the situation unfold, and it still is unfolding, all is not clear. It seems clearer all the time that, contrary to official statements out of Moscow, that this move was extra-constitutional, outside of the constitutional provisions for governmental change.

Clearly, it's a disturbing development; there's no question about that. And it could have serious consequences for the Soviet society and in Soviet relations with other countries including the United States. President Gorbachev is clearly an historic figure, one who's led the Soviet Union toward reform domestically and toward a constructive and cooperative role in the international arena. And it's important to keep in mind the enormous changes that have taken place: towards openness, towards reform, changes in Eastern Europe, the newfound cooperation with the United States and others in the Gulf, and many other areas. There's a whole new era of cooperation and we don't want to see that change, obviously.

Gorbachev's contributions have laid a foundation for progress that I am convinced the people in the Soviet Union want to see continue. This morning I've been in touch with other world leaders. I just hung up from talking to Chancellor Kohl; I talked to President Mitterrand; I talked to Prime Minister John Major. I'm sure I'll be talking to others today. I talked to the Secretary of State, and I talked to our DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] in Moscow, who, incidentally, tells me that all of our people there are safe, and all are properly accounted for. I say that to reassure any families that are involved. Their information there, as you can imagine, is probably as sketchy as the rest of the world's at this time.

So, what we'll do is follow the events very carefully as they unfold in order to determine the appropriate response that we, in consultation with our allies, should make. And we expect that the Soviet Union will live up fully to its international obligations. And clearly, any commitments that are outstanding on the part of the West will be judged and acted on in accordance with that statement that the Soviet Government must live up to its obligations. Obviously, the West is not going to retreat from its principles of reform, openness, commitment to democracy.

And there's a lot at stake here. I don't know whether to take heart or not from Yanayev's statement that this does not mean turning back the reforms, but there was such a statement made by him. So, the situation is still quite murky inside the Soviet Union -- have the notes here of my calls from, the calls I made to Kohl, Mitterrand, and Major. And I think it's fair to say that all of us are in total agreement with what I've said, with what John Major has said. President Mitterrand will be talking to the French television in a few hours, I'm told. And so, I think at this point what we do is simply watch the situation unfold, and we state and restate our principles. And we'll see where matters go. It's all still unfolding.


Q. Mr. President, you know Yanayev. You mentioned you met him at the airport the last time you were in Moscow. What do you make of him? What does your gut tell you about him?

The President. Well, my gut instinct was that he has a certain commitment to reform. The book on it so far has been something to the contrary. But I think it's not he that is calling the shots. And you see some of the other individuals involved; they have been real hard-liners. One of the reasons that we have conducted our policy the way we have is to encourage reform and democracy. And I've said over and over again that we did not want to see a coup backed by the KGB and the military. And apparently that is what is underway.

I think it's also important to know that coups can fail. They can take over at first, and then they run up against the will of the people. So, it's too early to say, but let's hope that Yanayev, when he made his statement, was speaking from conviction, his statement being that this will not mean setting back, as I understand it, setting back reform and commitment to go forward.

Q. Mr. President -- --

The President. Let me finish. We've got a followup over here.

Q. Have you or will you try to reach Gorbachev, Yanayev, or Yeltsin?

The President. Well, I have not called them yet. John Major placed a call, and I believe was told that the lines were down or that it was impossible to get through to them. But we may try to do that.

All this stuff is unfolding. It's just happened. And we will take a calm approach to it, but a firm stand based on principle.

Q. Mr. President, have U.S. forces been placed in any heightened alert because of this?

The President. No.

Q. And do you plan to cut short your vacation because of this?

The President. Well, I will do what's necessary and what I think will be helpful in making clear the United States position. And I'm not interested in show business, not interested in make-work. I am interested in following this with, based on the principles that we hold dear, and I will follow it very, very closely. Whether I go back to Washington or not is yet to be decided. If I thought it would help in any way, I would do that. But to -- as you know, we have very good communications. We're in touch with everybody here, both by secure line and by unsecure, just open lines.

So, it's a little early to say what I'll be doing, but you can rest assured I will do what is in the best interest of United States foreign policy.

Q. Has the United States detected any heightened alert on the part of Soviet forces in Central Europe or in the Soviet Union?

The President. Well, I don't think there have been any changed there, but certainly we've seen heightened use of Soviet force in Moscow and outside which concern us.

Q. What do you believe the motivation is, sir, behind the coup? Why did they remove him?

The President. We don't know that. We don't know that. Clearly, some of the hard-liners have been concerned about the rapidity of reform. They've been concerned about the demise of the Communist Party per se. And I think they've also been concerned about the Soviet economy. But in a coup of this manner, you never know what's going to happen. I think Gorbachev was as surprised as anybody, obviously. And let's just remain open on this as to whether it's going to succeed or not. We're seeing the first returns, you might say, coming in. But the people's commitment to reform and democracy and openness is very profound. And I think it's awful early to say that those changes are reversible.

I'm inclined to believe that when people understand freedom and taste freedom, and see democracy in action, that they're not going to want to change. And you have, of course, the whole force in conviction of the Russian Republic and what happened through its elections. And so, it's still early; it's very early to have a lot of final answers.

Q. Mr. President, do you actually know who's in charge right now, and more particularly, who's in charge of the Soviet nuclear arsenal? Is that a great concern?

The President. Well, I don't imagine there's been any change in that. And we don't know who's in charge, except that they say Mr. Yanayev is in charge.

Q. Has his government, or whatever it is, attempted to contact the administration in any way?

The President. So far, no. But we may contact them. But I don't want to do anything that we would give approval to these extra-constitutional, outside-the-constitution changes that have taken place.

Q. Are you going to stop the process of economic cooperation that's been unfolding in recent months with the Soviets?

The President. I think things will be on hold. If we're going to set back democracy, set back reform, obviously not only the United States, but Europe will put things on hold as well. There's a lot at stake in all of this, and certainly I wouldn't go forward with aid or assistance when you have this kind of extra-constitutional action taken by a handful of people backed up by the military there. We know most of these people that are involved in all of this, and this is a fairly hard-lined, a very hard-lined group that have elected to take matters into their own hands. But what hasn't been heard from yet are the people of the Soviet Union.

Q. Mr. Yeltsin seems to have called for a general strike and protest. Do you support that?

The President. Well, we'll just see what happens on that.

Q. Mr. Yeltsin has said that the Russian federation will not abide by the new decrees. Do you support that, sir?

The President. Well, I support what I've outlined here as our principles, and certainly I can understand where an elected leader like Mr. Yeltsin is coming from. One of the reasons his visit to the United States was so successful, and it was, and I've said it over and over again, is because he was elected by an overwhelming number of people in the largest Republic.

I think what he is doing is simply expressing the will of the people there to have these reforms and have democracy, the steps already taken to democracy, strengthened. I hope that people heed his call.

Q. Mr. President, in your conversations with Gorbachev a couple of weeks ago, did he give any suggestion that this was a possibility, and did U.S. intelligence detect any preparations for this?

The President. I don't know of any intelligence that predicted that there would be a coup at midnight U.S. time or whatever it was yesterday. There's always been a concern. I think if we go back, I think you would see that I've expressed concerns about the hard-liners taking over. But no, Gorbachev didn't mention that to me, and Gorbachev feels, and I expect he still feels this way: that the taste of democracy is such that people aren't going to regurgitate it, that they want it to go forward in spite of the very difficult economic times that are extant in the Soviet Union.

Q. Mr. President, what do you feel you could do at this point to affect events in the Soviet Union, if anything?

The President. There's very little we can do except to reiterate, in total cooperation with the European allies, our commitment to these principles of reform and openness and democratic change. And that's what we are going to continue to do. I've indicated that business will not be business as usual because we will not support economic aid programs, for example, if adherence to extra-constitutional means goes forward.

Q. Mr. President, you said the economic aid was on hold. What about the START treaty? Will you hold back on that as well?

The President. No. These treaties are in the interest of the United States clearly, and they have said that all treaties will be abided by. And that's good. We won't want to go back to the cold war days, and we're not going to do that. This is a very frustrating and unconstructive step. But we're not going to go back to that. We're not going to go back to seeing Europe as it used to be with Soviet forces all through Eastern Europe. So, we're not trying to go back to square one. What we're trying to do is say let the situation clear up but adhere to certain fundamental principles.

Q. How can you be sure the hard-line government would honor these in terms of the treaty?

The President. Well, hard-line governments in the past adhered to certain treaties that were enacted, and so I don't think we need to raise that specter at this point. Obviously if they weren't adhering to the treaty that would be a whole different, the treaties, the series of treaties, that would be a whole different ball game.

Q. Sir, can you tell us whether our Embassy has made any effort to get through there or whether there has been any official contact between our Government and theirs at any level that you know of?

The President. Right now I don't know. As I say, I talked to Jim Collins over there, and I think they're watching matters unfold. But whether they've talked to anybody in the hierarchy there, I simply don't know.

Q. Mr. President, the people who would seem most vulnerable at this point are probably the republican leaders. Is there anything that the U.S. or the West can do to help the Republics from being pulled back in by a military -- --

The President. There's very little we can do right now, except to reiterate what I've said here: that we will support those who adhere to these principles, democratic principles, and that includes reform and perestroika and glasnost, as they're referred to. But we are going to watch the situation unfold, and if we see ways to be helpful, of course, we will be. But we're dealing with a situation that, at best, is murky at this point and is very disturbing at this point.

Q. Sir, could you just give us a detail or two on when you learned of this, how late you stayed up on it, how early you got up?

The President. I learned about it last night around, what was it, Brent, 11:50 p.m. or 12 a.m. or something like that. And then I talked to the Situation Room early this morning, been talking to General Scowcroft from the early hours on, 5 a.m. on. And the question is, what can you do, Brit [Brit Hume, ABC News]? Is it show business, or should we really spell out these principles? And I know there's a lot of -- I've heard some of the commentators telling me how I ought to conduct this business. But my mind goes back to how it was a year ago in another very troubling international situation. So, we will follow it closely. We will conduct ourselves appropriately, be in touch with these foreign leaders, act with them to do whatever we can do to keep the reforms going forward.

And it's not a time for flamboyance or show business or posturing on the part of any countries, certainly, the United States. We have disproportionate responsibilities in handling these matters with confidence and cool and a, I think, informed way. And we're still gathering a great deal of information.

Q. Mr. President, the representation in Moscow is in transition right now. Is that causing a bit of a problem for Ambassador Matlock as well?

The President. No. No, it's causing none. The Embassy is in very firm hands, and I expect that Ambassador Strauss will hit the ground running when he gets over there.

Q. I'm sorry, sir, do you expect that he will continue to be sent -- --

The President. Well, as I say, if I have any announcements along those lines, or any other lines, I'll be sure to let you guys know right away because it's a matter of importance. But it just happened, as you know, a few hours ago, and a lot of wheels starting to turn.

Q. Mr. President, you said you don't want to go back to the cold war days. But at this point, do you feel that the Soviet Union may again be a threat to the United States?

The President. A threat in what sense?

Q. Military threat?

The President. I think we've always based our defense posture on the fact that Soviet missiles are aimed against the United States. One of the reasons I rejoiced in getting a strategic arms talk is that there will be fewer missiles aimed against the United States. But nobody in their fondest dreams has suggested that that is not a problem. We have other areas where we have divergent interests. Cuba is one of them.

I don't want to see us overstate things here so as to wipe out the progress that has been made in international cooperation on many fronts. And if you think there's some concerns here about this, try talking to the Germans about it; they don't want to see the clock set back. Nor do the Eastern Europeans. And I don't think that will happen. But I don't want to, in the wake of a very unfortunate and bad series of events taking place, act like we're going to go back into a status quo ante, go back and encourage through reckless statements something to take place that would set the clock back to where it was before these changes under Gorbachev took place.

Q. Would your preferred course of action at this point be for a return of Gorbachev to power?

The President. Well, I've always felt that he represented the best opportunity to see reform go forward. He's been in a bit of a balancing act, as we all know. One of the reasons we supported him, two reasons: one, he was the President of the Soviet Union, and thus we conducted our business as we should through the President. But secondly, he represented enormous productive and fantastic change. And I think throwing him out in this manner is counterproductive, totally. And I'm sure that the Western European leaders agree with that.

So, if he were there, obviously, I think the world would be sighing with relief now. And they understand, I think, more clearly why we have been trying to keep our foreign policy based on the fact that he offered the best hope. But we have other democratic forces there now, and we want to give them the kind of support we can without being counterproductive.

Q. Mr. President, have you tried the hot line, and who's on the other end?

The President. No, we haven't tried the hot line. We're not going to overexcite the American people or the world. And so, we will conduct our diplomacy in a prudent fashion, not driven by excess, not driven by extreme.

Q. How do you see this situation affecting the prospects for a hostage release and prospects for a Middle East peace conference in October?

The President. Well, I don't know. But there was one area where we've been working very cooperatively with the Soviet Union. Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh has been extraordinarily constructive in that, and so was President Gorbachev. But it is way too early. But here's an area where cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States was extraordinarily important and remains important. But as the situation unfolds, I don't know how this new leadership, if this coup is successful, are going to treat these matters. But I think it would be very counterproductive to have it go back to square one in the Middle East when we have an opportunity for a breakthrough and for peace. It's a good question, but it is way too early to give an definitive answer to it.

Q. Mr. President, do you have any back-channel intelligence on the whereabouts of Mr. Gorbachev?

The President. No.

Q. Mr. President, why do you say that using the hot line, attempting direct conduct, why do you suggest that might be some flamboyant kind of gesture?

The President. Because I think the hot line is -- there's other ways to call is one thing. Secondly, the hot line people connect with some kind of military problem between the Soviet Union and the United States. And do you think I want to suggest that to the American people or to the people in Europe? Absolutely not. And there's other ways to communicate other than the so-called hot line.

All right, you got it. Don't say we never give you any news up here.

Q. That's right. [Laughter] Guaranteed news.

Hurricane Bob

Q. Are you worried about that hurricane that's bearing down on us?

The President. This afternoon -- be coming in. Well, it's not the hurricane itself, we hope, but it looks like -- here's our Coast Guard Commander; he can give you the latest. What is it? Commander Justice.

Commander Justice. The storm this afternoon: 30- to 60-knot sustained winds; gusts, maybe, to 70, and 4- to 7-foot tidal surge.

Q. Good boating weather? [Laughter]

The President. Boats are out.

Brent Scowcroft. It's golfing weather. [Laughter]

Q. -- -- a storm like that here at Walker's Point or would you be inclined to get out of here if something like that -- --

The President. This wouldn't scare us a bit.

Q. You're not recommending evacuating?

Q. You're not?

Q. As of -- based on what you know now, or -- --

Commander Justice. As of right now we're not.

Q. Okay. Thank you.

The President. People in the Shawmut may want to reconsider. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 7:50 a.m. at his home in Kennebunkport, ME. In the exchange, the following persons were referred to: President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union; Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany; President Francois Mitterrand of France; Prime Minister John Major of the United Kingdom; Secretary of State James A. Baker III; Jim Collins, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; Vice President Gennady Yanayev of the Soviet Union; President Boris Yeltsin of the Republic of Russia; Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; Jack Matlock, former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union; Robert S. Strauss, Ambassador-designate to the Soviet Union; Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh of the Soviet Union and Lt. Cmdr. Wayne E. Justice of the U.S. Coast Guard. Parts of this exchange could not be verified because the tape was incomplete.

George Bush, Remarks and an Exchange With Reporters in Kennebunkport, Maine, on the Attempted Coup in the Soviet Union Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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