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The Reykjavik Summit 25 Years Later: Resources from Arms Control Today
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For Immediate Release: Oct. 7, 2011

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association, and publisher, Arms Control Today (202-463-8270, ext. 107)

(Washington, D.C.) – Twenty-five years ago this month, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland and moved to the verge of an agreement to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

In their article, “Reykjavik: When Abolition Was Within Reach,” in the October issue of Arms Control Today, Thomas Blanton and Svetlana Savranskaya of the National Security Archive at George Washington University delve into primary-source documents to fill out the historical picture of the October 11-12 summit.

According to the two scholars, “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.”

Blanton and Savranskaya write that “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 missile under triumphant circumstances.’”

The reason the deal crashed—the two leaders’ disagreement over limits on the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—raises a question, Blanton and Savranskaya note: “What were they so worried about? The SDI still does not work, more than 20 years and tens of billions of dollars later.”

Looking back from the vantage point of today, as new disarmament efforts are under way, Blanton and Savranskaya find that “[a]lthough so much has changed in the international system in the last 25 years, many of the same obstacles still exist.” For example, the two scholars write, “There are significant forces in both countries’ legislatures that oppose not only full nuclear disarmament but even a deep rapprochement with the other.”

“[T]he lessons of Reykjavik are cautionary,” conclude Blanton and Savranskaya. “However,” they write, “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 the nuclear danger.”

Previous Arms Control Today articles that provide additional material on the Reykjavik summit and the Reagan-Gorbachev era of arms control include:

Mikhail Gorbachev’s July/August 2005 article on the need to abolish nuclear weapons;

Daryl G. Kimball’s July 2004 essay on Reagan’s arms control legacy, and

Paul Boyer’s September 2009 review of Martin and Annelise Anderson’s book, Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World From Nuclear Disaster.

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The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent nongovernmental organization dedicated to addressing the challenges posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.
Arms Control Today is the monthly journal of the Arms Control Association.