The October 1986 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, may well rank as “the most bizarre summit in the history of the Cold War.”
The two countries did not even intend the event to be a summit. At their first meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed in Geneva in November 1985 to host each other for two reciprocal summits in the next two years, one in Washington and one in Moscow.
In late 1985 and throughout 1986, U.S.-Soviet relations suffered from a series of controversies. Nevertheless in September 1986, Gorbachev proposed a working meeting “maybe just for one day” so the two leaders could personally intervene to create some momentum and prepare for the real thing, a formal summit in Washington. Instead of an interim meeting, however, the two leaders acted out the all-time “what if?” superpower summit.
To read the transcripts from the October 11-12 meeting in Reykjavik is to marvel at how high the stakes were and how close Reagan and Gorbachev came to a landmark agreement on nuclear abolition. As Raymond Garthoff summed up the views of contemporaries, many saw Reykjavik’s “startling and far-reaching exploration of possibilities for the drastic reduction or even elimination of nuclear weapons” as “a spectacular missed opportunity.” Others viewed the meeting as “a perilous near disaster,” and believed posterity would judge it “for better or worse” a “historic near miss.” Ironically, as George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state at Reykjavik, commented in his memoirs, “[I]n the eyes of the world, Reykjavik would become the epitome of the very word ‘summit.’”
Gorbachev described in his memoirs the “Shakespearean passions” of Reykjavik and compared it to the Chernobyl nuclear accident as “equal in its effect on shaking the foundations on which the post-war world was built.” Reagan afterward presented two very different views of Reykjavik, depending on the audience, either emphasizing that he had refused to “back down” on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), as he told himself in his diary and conservative crowds on the campaign trail, or avoiding the blame for the failure by claiming that “the significance of that meeting at Reykjavik is not that we didn’t sign agreements in the end; the significance is that we got as close as we did. The progress that we made would’ve been inconceivable just a few months ago.”
Differing Game Plans
A man in a hurry, Gorbachev intended to come to Iceland with far-reaching proposals and concessions. In the middle of preparations during the first week of October, a Soviet submarine caught fire and ultimately sank off the U.S. coast. The Politburo debated whether Russia should ask the Americans for help; Gorbachev said of course it should, but others muttered that the captain should go down with his ship. At the October 8 Politburo meeting just before leaving for Reykjavik, Gorbachev reminded his colleagues, “Because of the submarine, which just sank, everybody knows, everybody saw what shape we are in.”
He told his top aides in preparing for Reykjavik, “[O]ur goal is to prevent the next round of [the] arms race…. And if we do not compromise on some questions, even very important ones, we will lose the main point: we will be pulled into an arms race beyond our power, and we will lose this race, for we are presently at the limit of our capabilities.” Gorbachev insisted, “I repeat, the leitmotif here is the liquidation of nuclear weapons, and the political approach prevails here, not the arithmetical one.” The Soviet positions included the long-standing proposal for a nuclear test ban, not least because this would prevent the U.S. SDI from developing space weapons fueled by nuclear explosions, and the reduction of intermediate-range nuclear weapons to zero, although still tied to an overall package of limits on strategic and space weapons. As Gorbachev remarked to his aides, “[K]eep in mind the task of knocking the Pershing II’s out of Europe. It is a gun pressed to our temple.”
The contrast between the Soviet and the U.S. preparatory documents is striking; the latter indicate no awareness of what was coming, and Gorbachev’s proposals would create consternation on the U.S. side. Shultz briefed Reagan with an October 2 memo claiming that the Soviets were talking from “our script,” when in fact the Soviets were writing a whole new script. Shultz and national security adviser John Poindexter downplayed the importance of the meeting, advising Reagan to proceed “without permitting the impression that Reykjavik itself was a Summit or raising false expectations for Summit II in the U.S.”
In contrast to the graduate course on the Soviet Union with briefing papers and videos worked up for Reagan prior to Geneva, this time there was no real preparation by Reagan, and there were no new initiatives. On the nuclear test moratorium, Shultz told Reagan they would “convince Gorbachev of the wisdom of our step-by-step approach.” Senior U.S. officials doubted Gorbachev would present much that was new and told Reagan, “[Y]ou will have to smoke him out during your discussions,” as if Gorbachev would not launch his proposals right away. As the Department of State’s postsummit paper on “Lessons of Reykjavik” noted for Shultz, “Reykjavik demonstrated once again how poor we are at guessing what the Soviets will do. The widespread prediction was that the Soviets would concentrate on INF [the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] and shun START [the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty], would hit hard on interim restraint, and press testing. Gorbachev was said to need a summit, and have trouble controlling his military. None of this was much in evidence.”
In keeping with the U.S. view of the meeting as “not a summit,” the U.S. group was much smaller than the Soviet team, with two significant holes in the lineup. First, the U.S. team featured no senior U.S. military officer, while the Soviets sent the chief of the General Staff, Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, to serve as the lead negotiator. In contrast, Paul Nitze on the U.S. side could do little more than convene the delegation rather than having Akhromeyev’s authority to make a deal. In the other key decision on the makeup of the U.S. delegation, top Reagan aide Jack Matlock, expecting only a short working meeting, recommended against having the first lady accompany her husband. Matlock later wrote that his worst mistake was not making sure Nancy came; if she had, he said, Reagan might have stayed the extra day or two to make a deal, rather than being impatient to get back to Washington. In contrast, Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, was the first person on the Soviet leader’s list for his delegation.
Knowledgeable observers believe that although instructions from the Politburo limited Gorbachev in what he could offer, he tried to push the limits. Indeed, foreign policy aide Anatoly Chernyaev’s notes of Politburo discussions do show a consensus there about the decapitating danger of space-based weapons and an insistence on keeping the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in force indefinitely. However, the Politburo session just before Reykjavik indicated Gorbachev did have some leeway. His future conservative critic Yegor Ligachev insisted that it was “right to link strategic weapons with negotiations over testing” and the ABM Treaty, but went on to say, “All the same, I think that if nothing comes of Reykjavik, we should not abandon the dialogue or [Gorbachev’s] future visit” to the United States because “[n]either we nor America can carry the burden of [the] arms race any longer.”
At Reykjavik, first Gorbachev and then Akhromeyev presented a whole series of major concessions: They embraced 50 percent cuts, including the huge Soviet advantage in heavy missiles, dropped British and French forces from proposed INF Treaty limits, excluded the short-range forward-based U.S. systems from the definition of “strategic,” moved toward Reagan’s July 25 proposal of nonwithdrawal from the ABM Treaty for seven and a half years (the original Soviet position was 15 years, then 10), and dropped the demand for a ban on SDI research, as long as testing was limited to laboratories.
Then, during their last session, the two leaders agreed to cut all U.S. and Soviet strategic offensive weapons (not just ballistic missiles) by 50 percent within five years and eliminate all nuclear explosive devices, including bombs, battlefield systems, cruise missiles, submarine weapons, and intermediate-range systems, by 1996. Reagan even suggested “getting together in Iceland in 1996 to destroy the last Soviet and American missiles under triumphant circumstances.”
Even the reason the deal crashed—the two leaders’ disagreement over limits on the SDI program—raises a question: What were they so worried about? The SDI still does not work, more than 20 years and tens of billions of dollars later. Transcripts show that the actual positions and aspirations of the two leaders were very close. In fact, their ultimate dreams, the total elimination of nuclear weapons, were identical. Their nightmares, however, were very different. For Reagan, as he said over and over, the SDI program would serve as the gas mask that people keep around even when the world has banned chemical warfare; the mask is insurance against an accident or a madman or “some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth approaching on Halley’s Comet.” For Gorbachev, the SDI was a potential blitzkrieg like Adolf Hitler’s, which took 30 million Soviet lives, in the form of a first strike from space.
Soviet scientists had told Gorbachev that the SDI probably would not work and would be cheap to counter with decoys and multiple launchers. Already in March 1986, he admonished the Politburo that it was “time to stop being scared” of the SDI and move on toward assertive proposals on disarmament. In the October 4 preparation session, Gorbachev named reducing strategic weapons by 50 percent, “not nuclear testing, as the top priority of our push-and-breakthrough position” and said that “[w]e should not link this position with space [issues].” Yet, in Reykjavik, Gorbachev got totally stuck on the SDI program as if he were channeling his Politburo hard-liners. He told Reagan that if he agreed to allow the United States to test SDI components in space, “they will call me a fool and irresponsible leader.” Gorbachev was especially aware of the discontent among the top brass of his military. The generals “are hissing among themselves,” he told the Politburo afterward, referring to the criticism of concessions he made at Reykjavik.
When Reagan offered for the tenth time to share the SDI with the Soviet Union, Gorbachev retorted that “you won’t even share milking machines. For the U.S. to give the products of high technology would be a second American Revolution, and it would not happen.” When Reagan asked Gorbachev to allow SDI testing and to “do it as a favor to me so that we can go to the people as peacemakers,” Gorbachev was completely unprepared for this highly personal request. Reagan emphasized that the “text [of the draft agreement] contains everything you have asked for.”
“I can do favors for your farmers, but this is no favor, this is a matter of principle,” replied the Soviet leader. The Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, was in the room along with Shultz and pleaded, “Let me speak very emotionally, because I feel that we have come very close to accomplishing this historic task. And when future generations read the record of our talks, they will not forgive us if we let this opportunity slip by.” Yet it slipped.
Why did Gorbachev not call Reagan’s bluff? In fact, it was not a bluff in Reagan’s eyes even though Gorbachev had good reason not to believe the president. After all, not a single Reagan cabinet member believed the United States could or would share the SDI. Former national security adviser Robert McFarlane later wrote, “Reagan did not realize that our military and intelligence officials would never go along with open labs.” Indeed, U.S. military objections to on-site verification, long after the Soviets were willing, would hold up completion of START for years, until 1991.
One answer to the burning question of why the talks collapsed came from a Soviet negotiator in the middle of the night at Reykjavik, when the staff was trying to flesh out and test the radical leaps their leaders were taking in the daytime. Soviet expert Georgi Arbatov commented to Nitze, “Accepting your offer would require an exceptional level of trust. We cannot accept your proposals.” That was the epitaph for Reykjavik’s failure. In fact, when the Politburo had discussed its plans and expectations for the summit, failure was one of the envisioned outcomes. It decided that if Reagan was not prepared to meet Gorbachev halfway, the Soviet leader would call the meeting a failure, announce that to the world at the final press conference, and put the blame squarely on Reagan by listing all the major concessions that the Soviet side was willing to make and citing Reagan’s intransigence on the SDI.
Yet, according to Chernyaev, as Gorbachev was walking to the press conference and stood there facing several thousand people who had already heard the Americans call the summit a failure, he decided to speak about Reykjavik as a breakthrough, not a failure, as a new start that would lead to rapid progress in arms control. The Soviet leader realized that Reagan was sincere in his faith in nuclear abolition and perhaps even in his willingness to share the SDI. That realization could not have occurred without a feeling of a major missed opportunity, but now Gorbachev was willing to build on Reykjavik, to fight to make it real. Already on the plane back to Moscow, he told his aides that he was now even more of an optimist because “everybody saw that agreement is possible.” Even then, however, he could not let go of the SDI focus or even “untie the package” so as to get rid of the Pershings. Precisely because the two leaders were talking about planning reduction and liquidation of nuclear weapons, Gorbachev said, “[W]e needed to close off all the roundabout ways that would allow one to rise to superiority,” such as getting rid of the ABM Treaty and building the SDI. The U.S. positions showed clearly that the United States “has not renounced the goal of superiority,” he said. Indeed, SDI advocates inside the Pentagon spoke frankly about “space dominance” as the goal of SDI spending, even while Reagan himself described the goal as abolishing nuclear weapons.
In his report to the Politburo on the summit, Gorbachev said that he and Reagan had “reached a new peak, which allowed us to look far beyond the horizon,” that the time had come for new ambitious proposals to move the process ahead on the basis of understandings reached at Reykjavik. Indeed, at an October 30 Politburo meeting, Gorbachev dropped his insistence on restricting the SDI to the labs —“[O]ur new positions are the following: testing is allowed in the air, on the ground test sites, but not in space”—thus accepting much of the U.S. position he had rejected at Reykjavik. However, when Shevardnadze took this new departure to Vienna for the November 5 meetings with Shultz, the Americans declined even to open the issue and took back Shultz’s starting offer at Reykjavik about banning ballistic missiles. The backlash in Washington and among the U.S. allies had the Reagan administration scrambling away from Reykjavik’s radical proposals.
The abolition moment was over. Reagan lost the initiative on the U.S. side, as the Iran-contra scandal in November 1986 sank his approval ratings and the allies, the U.S. military, and the foreign policy establishment registered their astonishment that he was prepared to junk the entire mutual-assured-destruction deterrence scheme. Reagan was serious about that, but he was the only one in Washington who was.
Meanwhile, Chernyaev saw a real change in Gorbachev’s perceptions after Reykjavik.
[A]pparently Reagan intuitively felt something naturally human in this initiative, so unexpected from a Soviet leader. His “hasty” agreement confirms it. But he was immediately halted by his entourage. Later he had to pay for this “mistake,” which was put down to incompetence. But in fact it showed a lot of simple wisdom long missing in world politics. Gorbachev saw it and repeatedly returned to this incident in Reykjavik. I believe it was then, at that very moment, that he became convinced that it would “work out” between him and Reagan. That the U.S. president, not much interested in the minutiae of the arms talks, had intuitively felt “the challenge of the times.” A spark of understanding was born between them, as if they had winked to each other about the future. And Gorbachev retained a certain sense of trust in this person. After Reykjavik, he never again spoke about Reagan in his inner circle as he had before.
After the summit, Gorbachev commented to the Politburo, “We understand the president’s problems, he is not free in his decisions,” emphasizing, “Indeed, before we were talking about limitations on nuclear arms. Now we are talking about their reduction and elimination.”
A Long Echo
The Reykjavik discussions produced a long echo. They should serve as a cautionary tale for the politicians of today. Although so much has changed in the international system in the last 25 years, many of the same obstacles still exist. In his Prague speech in April 2009, President Barack Obama declared global nuclear disarmament to be the official policy of the U.S. government, something that Reagan was unable to achieve. However, the trust that developed between the Soviet and U.S. leaders after Reykjavik no longer exists. Nuclear abolition is not the official policy of Russia, which sees its nuclear capability as an important part of its identity as a great power. There are significant forces in both countries’ legislatures that oppose not only full nuclear disarmament but even a deep rapprochement with the other. Today, moving toward a world without nuclear weapons would require “an exceptional level of trust” not only between the superpowers, but among a dozen nuclear countries and aspirants to nuclear status. Such trust would be very difficult to come by in a globalized and decentralized international system, especially when it involves countries such as Pakistan and North Korea.
In addition to trust, one still has to think about the position of the allies, who can be very vocal, as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher demonstrated after Reykjavik. In the complex situation of today’s world, negotiating with allies might be even more difficult than in the years of the Cold War. On both sides of the Atlantic, the entrenched interests of the military-industrial lobby are a significant factor in national decision making; the generals are hissing today just as they were in 1986. In 2012, Russia will see further militarization of its budget—a 58 percent increase from this year on defense and the country’s repressive apparatus.
The factor that should have disappeared but did not is the continuous presence of “old thinking” in the strategic debate in both countries. The thesis that nuclear weapons kept the peace during the Cold War is still very much alive and becoming more appealing to the smaller members of the nuclear club. In the age of terrorism and in the absence of a mechanism for reliable international arms control and verification, the lessons of Reykjavik are cautionary. However, they also allow for hope that leaders with vision who come from very different places on the political spectrum—Reagan and Gorbachev then, Obama today—can and will arrive at abolition as the only ultimate solution to nuclear danger. ACT
Thomas Blanton is executive director and Svetlana Savranskaya is director of Russian programs at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. They are co-authors (with Vladislav Zubok) of Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe 1989 (2010). This article is adapted from their forthcoming book, The Last Superpower Summits.
19. National Security Archive, “To the Geneva Summit: Perestroika and Transformation of U.S.-Soviet Relations,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, No. 172 (November 22, 2005), doc. 20.
37. See Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: HarperCollins,1993), pp. 470-471: “Hearing how far the Americans had been prepared to go [at Reykjavik] was as if there had been an earthquake beneath my feet. The whole system of nuclear deterrence which had kept the peace for forty years was close to being abandoned.”
Visions of Zero, Then and Now
In 1986, Max Kampelman was the chief U.S. negotiator with the Soviet Union on space and nuclear weapons. He recently spoke with Arms Control Today about the Reykjavik summit and current efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Kampelman recalled that at the end of the summit, the members of the U.S. delegation, including President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz, were “disappointed…no question about it.” He said that “it would have been constructive and useful had we extended the session for two or three hours, but that is a personal estimate, and the time following Iceland proved to be quite constructive.”
He emphasized that the Reykjavik summit laid the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. “I feel that the [Reykjavik] meeting, albeit incomplete, brought us closer to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, and he had time to learn more about us,” Kampelman said. When two sides find they have differences, they either can “exaggerate” those differences or “interpret those differences as a way to build something stronger,” he said.
Kampelman was an early member of the group of former government officials including Shultz, with whom Kampelman says he has remained in contact, that has been advocating global nuclear disarmament. He said he was spurred by the September 11 attacks and the prospect that terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons. “There’s a race between an exploding bomb and zero [nuclear weapons],” he said. — DANIEL HORNER