Five months after Bush's inauguration, he was confronted with China's suppression of the pro-democracy movement — its bloody crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Although hundreds of demonstrators were killed, Bush responded with only limited sanctions.
In another five months, the Berlin Wall collapsed, on Nov. 9, 1989 — 28 years after it was erected. Bush greeted the historic event with a reactive response rather than with great enthusiasm.
"Of course, I welcome the decision by the East German leadership to open the borders," he told reporters in the Oval Office. "It clearly is a good development in terms of human rights. ... I'm very pleased with this development." Pressed about his low-key reaction, he replied: "I'm elated, I'm just not an emotional kind of guy."
"In retrospect, many people recognized that by refusing to gloat or declare victory over the Soviet Union, Bush probably helped avoid a backlash by hardliners in Eastern Europe," Stephen Knott, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote in an essay. "He also did not want to endanger future negotiations with the Soviet Union."
Indeed, two years later, the U.S.S.R. formally dissolved with the Dec. 25, 1991, resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush's negotiating partner.
In a Christmas speech to the American people, Bush praised Gorbachev's "revolutionary" policies that "permitted the peoples of Russia and the other republics to cast aside decades of oppression and establish the foundations of freedom."
"I'd like to express, on behalf of the American people, my gratitude to Mikhail Gorbachev for years of sustained commitment to world peace, and for his intellect, vision and courage," Bush said.
Closer to home, only a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall — matters reached a boiling point in Panama. After months of economic sanctions with Gen. Manuel Noriega over allegations that the Panamanian leader had engaged in drug trafficking and had rigged elections in the Central American country — Bush dispatched troops on Dec. 20, 1989, starting what was called "Operation Just Cause." The operation involved more than 24,000 troops in what was at that time the largest deployment of U.S. forces since the Vietnam War.
On the fifth day of the invasion, Noriega fled to the papal embassy on Christmas Eve. The building was surrounded by U.S. troops, who resorted to psychological warfare by blasting rock music. Noriega finally surrendered on Jan. 3. He was subsequently brought back to the United States and convicted of drug and racketeering charges. He served 17 years behind bars and died at age 83 in Panama City in May 2017.
Less than a year after the Panama invasion, another foreign crisis absorbed Bush. On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded oil-rich neighbor Kuwait. Bush responded by assembling an international coalition of nearly three dozen nations.