Primary Sources

National Security Directive 23: United States Relations with the Soviet Union


As President George H. W. Bush took office in January 1989, factions within his administration disagreed concerning the approach to take with regard to US-Soviet relations. In December 1988, Gorbachev had delivered what he called a “watershed” address at the United Nations, announcing that he planned unilaterally to reduce Soviet military forces by 500,000, cut conventional armaments massively, and withdraw substantial numbers of armaments and troops from Eastern European countries. Gorbachev had spoken of freedom, individual rights, and national self-determination, declaring that “the use of threat or force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy.” Some in the Bush administration advised that the US should support Gorbachev’s liberalization efforts, while others doubted the Soviet leader’s sincerity, believing he was scheming to divide the US from its NATO allies and that Soviet force remained a real threat. In February, Bush ordered a “strategic review” of foreign policy to help determine his course. Disappointed that the vague document that holdovers from the Reagan administration presented one month later did not offer a new direction in policy, Bush’s national security advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, ordered experts on his staff to work on a national security directive. Although Bush did not sign the new directive, excerpts of which appear below, until September, the phrase “beyond containment,” coined in the document, became the slogan of his new policy—one of “testing” the Soviet commitment to reform—once he publicized it in speeches beginning in May.


U.S. State Department to the Vice President et al., "United States Relations with the Soviet Union," 22 September 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

For forty years the United States has committed its power and will to containing the military and ideological threat of Soviet communism. Containment was never an end in itself; it was a strategy born of the conditions of the postwar world. . . . The U.S. challenge was to prevent the spread of Soviet communism while rebuilding the economic, political and social strength of the world's long-standing and new democracies. Those who crafted the strategy of containment also believed that the Soviet Union, denied the course of external expansion, would ultimately have to face and react to the internal contradictions of its own inefficient, repressive and inhumane system.

This strategy provided an enduring pillar for the growth of western democracy and free enterprise. While the most important goal of containment has been met -- the development of free and prosperous societies in Western Europe and in other parts of the world -- the Soviet military threat has not diminished. Rather, in the last two decades, Soviet Union has increased its military power across the spectrum of capabilities, drawing on that power to exacerbate local conflicts and to conduct a global foreign policy opposed to Western interests. . . .

The character of the changes taking place in the Soviet Union leads to the possibility that a new era may now be upon us. We may be able to move beyond containment to a U.S. policy that actively promotes the integration of the Soviet Union into the existing international system. The U.S.S.R. has indicated an interest in rapprochement with the international order and criticized major tenets of its own postwar political-military policy.

These are words that we can only applaud. But a new relationship with the international system can not simply be declared by Moscow. Nor can it be granted by others. It must be earned through the demilitarization of Soviet foreign policy and reinforced by behavior consistent with the principles of world order to which the Soviet Union subscribed in 1945 but has repeatedly violated since. . . .

U.S. policy will encourage fundamental political and economic reform, including freely contested elections, in East-Central Europe, so that states in that region may once again be productive members of a prosperous, peaceful, and democratic Europe, whole and free from fear of Soviet intervention. . . .

The goal of restructuring the relationship of the Soviet Union to the international system is an ambitious task. The responsibility for creating the conditions to move beyond containment to integrate the Soviet Union into the family of nations lies first and foremost with Moscow. But the United States will do its part, together with our allies, to challenge and test Soviet intentions and, while maintaining our strength, to work to place Soviet relations, with the West on a firmer, more cooperative course than has heretofore been possible

How to Cite this Source

U.S. State Department, "National Security Directive 23: United States Relations with the Soviet Union," Making the History of 1989, Item #416, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:24 pm).

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