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LOOKING BACK: The 1986 Reykjavik Summit

Ambassador James E. Goodby

The story of the 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting is a tale of two visionary leaders and an “impossible dream.” It was the most remarkable summit ever held between U.S. and Soviet leaders. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev seriously discussed the elimination of all ballistic missiles held by their two countries and aired the possibility of eliminating all nuclear weapons.

As Gorbachev said in these pages, “[T]he 1986 U.S.-Soviet summit in Reykjavik, seen by many as a failure, actually gave an impetus to reduction by reaffirming the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and by paving the way toward concrete agreements on intermediate-range nuclear forces and strategic nuclear weapons.”

The world has changed since those heady days, but it is clearer than ever that the twin challenges of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism must be addressed “by reaffirming the vision of a world without nuclear weapons.” At a time when the international community is struggling to prevent a cascade of decisions by more and more states to acquire nuclear weapons, the ideas that briefly occupied center stage at Reykjavik look like the best answer we have.

Reagan and Gorbachev brought two great nations close to the end of the era of the Cold War. Two revolutionaries, each in his own way, became history’s catalysts for change. Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union needed radical economic reform, and that to do it, he had to end the ideological confrontation with the West. Reagan was unlike any other U.S. president in his revulsion against the immorality of nuclear war, his willingness to do something about it, and his ability to act on his instincts. Turning away from classical arms control, he insisted on nuclear disarmament and succeeded to a remarkable degree. Reagan and Gorbachev found common ground at their first summit in Geneva in 1985; the two leaders declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The road to Reykjavik began with proposals made by Reagan in 1981 to eliminate all intermediate-range ballistic missiles and in 1982 to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads by at least one-third. This was a departure from arms control thinking as it had developed since 1960, but it was rooted in an older paradigm: disarmament. Soviet leaders prior to Gorbachev saw these ideas as one-sided and insincere and rejected them.

The Soviet leaders had reason to be skeptical. Although Reagan had told his administration from the beginning of his presidency that he wanted reductions in nuclear warheads, he presided over a nuclear buildup to close the lead that he believed the Soviet Union had opened up over the United States. He never saw any contradictions in this, but had his administration ended in 1985 instead of 1989, it would have been remembered mainly for an enormous increase in defense spending and for arms control proposals that seemed designed to fail. Reagan’s second term changed all that.

Reagan wanted to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete,” and he saw two ways of doing that. One was to eliminate them, and he started that process in 1981 and 1982. The other way was to build a defense that would deflect an attack. He started that in 1983. Linking the two methods offered a way forward. What if it were possible to reduce nuclear weapons mutually while building up a defensive system jointly? In principle, there should be a crossover point where defense would have dominance over offense. This idea lay at the heart of the drama at Reykjavik.

Reagan had long mused about the inability of the United States to defend itself against a missile attack. Hydrogen bomb pioneer Edward Teller and Reagan’s own “kitchen cabinet” had encouraged him to think that a defense against ballistic missiles might be possible. On March 23, 1983, Reagan finally announced that he was asking U.S. scientists “to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” Thus was born the idea that a shield could be built that would protect humanity from nuclear attack.

Still, the idea required more confidence between the Soviet Union and the United States than existed at the time. General Secretary Yuri Andropov saw in Reagan’s proposal a scheme that would force the Soviet Union to ever greater defense expenditures and end the period of relative stability that had marked General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s relations with Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Furthermore, it came at a time when tensions were high because of the planned deployment in Europe of U.S. intermediate-range missiles, as had been decided by NATO at the end of the Carter administration. Andropov denounced the Reagan speech, and a period of bitter relations ensued. Significant progress in arms control and disarmament would have to wait until Reagan’s fellow visionary, Gorbachev, succeeded Andropov as leader of the Soviet Union.


Reagan’s ideas were met by a bold initiative from Gorbachev in January 1986, when he proposed the elimination of all nuclear weapons in three stages by the year 2000. Reagan responded by letter on July 25, 1986, and revealed the gist of that letter in an address to the UN General Assembly on September 22. Reagan raised the possibility of radical reductions in offensive ballistic missiles, a multiyear moratorium on deployment of ballistic missile defenses, an obligation to share the benefits of strategic defenses, and the total elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces on a global basis.

Gorbachev expressed uncertainty about Reagan’s thinking and suggested a meeting in Iceland or the United Kingdom to talk about the issues directly. On September 30, 1986, Reagan announced that he had decided to accept Gorbachev’s offer to meet in Iceland. The meeting would take place in less than two weeks, on October 11-12.

The administration thought that the Reykjavik meeting would be an informal exploratory session with a limited agenda, a “base camp,” not a “summit.” Yet, Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with dramatic proposals covering all aspects of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiation: a 50 percent reduction in strategic offensive arms, complete elimination of intermediate-range missiles of the Soviet Union and the United States in Europe, nonwithdrawal from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty for 10 years, and prohibition of testing of space-based elements of a defense system “except research and testing in laboratories.” These were unveiled at the first session on the morning of October 11. A subsequent all-night meeting between senior officials in the two delegations took place and hammered out key parameters for limits on strategic offensive forces. At the session the next day, Gorbachev added to his proposal to eliminate all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Europe by calling for a ceiling on such missiles of 100 each in Soviet Asia and in the United States. A major agreement on offensive forces was within sight, but everything depended on an agreement on ballistic missile defense.

When the discussion turned to that question, Gorbachev proposed that an extra, unscheduled session be set up in the afternoon to discuss the issue. Reagan agreed, and the two delegations met first in a session chaired by the foreign ministers. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze insisted that there must be a 10-year period when there would be no withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. If this could be agreed, all other issues could be solved.

Late in the afternoon of October 12, when the two leaders met again with their foreign ministers to discuss the offense-defense link, Reagan presented the following draft text:

The U.S.S.R. and the United States undertake for 10 years not to exercise their existing right of withdrawal from the ABM treaty, which is of unlimited duration, and during that period strictly to observe all its provisions while continuing research, development and testing, which are permitted by the ABM treaty. Within the first five years of the 10-year period (and thus through 1991), the strategic offensive arms of the two sides shall be reduced by 50 percent. During the following five years of that period, all remaining offensive ballistic missiles of the two sides shall be reduced. Thus, by the end of 1996, all offensive ballistic missiles of the U.S.S.R. and the United States will have been totally eliminated. At the end of the 10-year period, either side could deploy defenses if it so chose unless the parties agree otherwise.

The final session was a scene of high drama. Gorbachev said he wanted to eliminate all strategic forces, not just ballistic missiles. Reagan said, “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.” The break point began to appear when Gorbachev, following the script laid out in his initial presentation, insisted that all research and testing of space-based ballistic missile systems be restricted to laboratories.

In the final minutes at Reykjavik, Reagan, as reported by Secretary of State George Shultz, re-read the key clause to Gorbachev: “Listen once again to what I have proposed: during that 10-year period [of nonwithdrawal from the ABM treaty], while continuing research, testing, and development which is permitted by that treaty. It is a question of one word.” Reagan did not want to enter into a negotiation that he viewed as amending the treaty. He had accepted a “broad” interpretation of the treaty, under which wide latitude was allowed for space-based testing, although the treaty’s original negotiators, the Soviets, and the Senate supported a more restrictive interpretation.

Gorbachev insisted on the word “laboratories.” Over this one word, the negotiations broke off. Washington read Gorbachev’s proposal as an attack on the missile defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative. That one word, “laboratories,” obviously rang alarm bells in the minds of those who had been operating under tense conditions for two days.

So ended “the highest stakes poker game ever played,” as Shultz described it. In Reagan’s words, “We proposed the most sweeping and generous arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles—Soviet and American—from the face of the earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons.”

One of the great imponderables of history is what would have happened if Gorbachev had dropped the word “laboratories” and his objections to testing in space or if Reagan had accepted the limitation that Gorbachev sought? With the hindsight of history, it seems likely that the deployment of an effective ballistic missile defense system would not have been affected one way or the other. What we do not know is whether a treaty of the kind discussed at Reykjavik would have released Russia and United States from the nuclear deterrence relationship in which they are still entrapped.

Aftermath and Lessons

Nonetheless, Reagan and Gorbachev achieved a great deal at Reykjavik. They had stretched the envelope of thinking about reducing the nuclear danger. They had clearly distinguished between nuclear weapons and all other weapons and had stigmatized nuclear weapons as immoral, their use unacceptable in conflicts among nations. They reinforced the tradition of the non-use of nuclear weapons, and despite the famous word “laboratories,” the Reykjavik meeting led to the signing of the U.S.-Soviet treaty on banning intermediate-range nuclear forces and to a draft treaty on reducing strategic-range nuclear forces that was almost complete by the time Reagan left office. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed in 1991, is still in force. The first treaty to cut strategic nuclear arms significantly, it also provides the basis for verification of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) concluded by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, which endorsed further strategic weapons cuts. Reykjavik was a long stride toward one part of Reagan’s dream, the elimination of nuclear weapons.

As things stand, however, each country is still hedging in its nuclear weapons programs so as to be prepared for an adverse turn of events in the other. Nuclear weapons are still a major factor in international relations. Rather than pursuing Reagan’s genuine interest in eliminating all nuclear weapons, the Bush administration, for example, has conflated nuclear and conventional weapons in its definition of offensive forces in its new “strategic triad” and refused to consider further reductions in operationally deployed nuclear forces, below SORT levels, even in response to appeals from non-nuclear-weapon states.

These policies contrast sharply with Reagan’s thinking about nuclear weapons. Of course, the world has changed since Reagan left office, and new threats have emerged. Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs were not the problems in the 1980s that they are in 2006. Nuclear-armed terrorist groups were imaginable then but not the real possibility that they are today.

I would argue, however, that Reagan’s ideas about nuclear weapons are as salient today as they were then. There is no doubt that national decisions to acquire nuclear weapons are motivated by regional rivalries, a desire to have an equalizer against the conventional weapons superiority of a global adversary, and by prestige and a sense of entitlement. Iran and North Korea are motivated by these considerations. U.S. policies have to be targeted on local and regional specifics in each case.

The decisions of potential nuclear-weapon states to acquire nuclear weapons also are affected by and very likely heavily influenced by their expectations of what other states will be doing. India was very explicit about this in the years before its decision to conduct nuclear weapons tests. A solid front of the present nuclear-weapon states against further proliferation will be more effective and persuasive if they are seen to be moving toward elimination of nuclear weapons, rather than updating them and threatening to use them against non-nuclear-weapon states.

The Bush administration is well positioned to pick up Reagan’s mantle and to continue where he left off. In fact, it is difficult to imagine an administration more likely to win a bipartisan majority in Congress for pursuing Reagan’s nuclear policies. A Reagan-like initiative to cut back the U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear forces as a first step toward a freeze and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons on a global basis would have a powerful anti-proliferation impact. As in Reagan’s vision, ballistic missile defense technology could be shared with other countries as these drawdowns proceed. Would this have any effect on the threat posed by nuclear-armed terrorists? Certainly. More weapons in more hands adds up to a situation where the use of a nuclear bomb by a terrorist group that is able to buy or steal one will become almost inevitable.


Ambassador James E. Goodby was vice chair of the U.S. START delegation during 1982-1983 and chief negotiator of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program during 1993-1994. This essay draws on his latest book, At the Borderline of Armageddon—How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb (2006).