Former Arms Control director Ken Adelman has written a new book about an important event three decades ago: “Reagan at Reykjavik: 48 Hours that Ended the Cold War.” The subject deals with a mini summit between President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in the fall of 1986 at the halfway mark in Iceland’s capital.
Well into his second term as president, Ronald Reagan was criticized because he didn’t meet with his Soviet counterpart. Reagan passed this off with the quip, “I’d like to meet the other fellow, but they keep dying on me,” a reference to the fact that three Soviet leaders had died in quick succession. That calculus changed with the elevation of Gorbachev in 1985 who was a younger, more robust leader. At Gorbachev’s suggestion, Reagan agreed to meet with him at Reykjavik in the North Atlantic to air out their differences.
It was supposed to be a quick meeting (arranged in less than a month) between the two leaders who had met the previous year at a large arms control conference in Geneva. Reagan arrived with minimal staff while Gorbachev came with full entourage. Over a weekend in mid-October, they sat across from each other and directly negotiated. Reagan wanted an arms reduction agreement while Gorbachev was determined to stop America’s missile defense program.
Three years before, President Reagan had launched SDI – the Strategic Defense Initiative – which his detractors dismissed as Star Wars. Reagan was something of a paradox: while he promoted nuclear modernization (B-1 bomber, MX missile, and Trident submarines), he hated these destructive weapons and instinctively rejected the concept of MAD, mutually assured destruction, as a Cold War strategy. If America could defend itself against the most destabilizing weapons, nuclear tipped missiles, then logic followed that we would require fewer of these costly strategic weapons.
Reagan went so far to alter the terminology, changing the “limitation” in SALT to “reduction” in START; he was not satisfied to limit nuclear weapons growth but actually reduce them.
SDI frightened the Soviets because they felt it was destabilizing. While they were far ahead in strategic ICBM missiles, their technology and economic problems could not match America’s ability to develop strategic defense. Essentially, what Reagan envisioned was a system like Israel’s “Iron Dome” now being used to intercept incoming Hamas rockets from Gaza. While it is more complicated to shoot down an incoming ICBM than a short range rocket, the concept of a “bullet hitting another bullet” is identical.
For two full days during the weekend of 11 and 12 October, the two leaders sat across from each other in a small conference room on the second floor of Hofdi House and debated the issue of nuclear arms. During the intervening evening, the arms control experts negotiated the areas where the leaders had agreed. They made great progress following decades of intransigence.
The area where they could not agree was SDI. Gorbachev wanted the development limited to the laboratory which Reagan knew would kill the program. He wouldn’t budge. Gorbachev accused the US of using SDI to violate the anti-ballistic missile treaty; Reagan countered that the Soviets had already violated that Nixon-era treaty.
On Sunday night, the two leaders departed with no agreement. Reagan was furious. Gorbachev was disappointed. But they had established enough progress and trust to renew arms reduction talks with vigor. The next year in Washington, the two leaders signed an agreement to rid Europe of intermediate nuclear missiles. This broke new ground as an entire class of weapons was slated for destruction. Two years later, the Soviet Union imploded, just as Reagan predicted in the 1970s during his first national campaign.
The western press excoriated Reagan for his intransigence on SDI, but he was right. A nation should have the ability to defend itself from any kind of destruction, beginning with nuclear missiles that once fired, cannot be recalled. Reagan practiced “peace through strength.” As a result, today there are fewer nuclear weapons in the world and the United States has a limited missile defense capability.
Reagan was a dedicated anti-communist from his days as a democrat in the late 1940s. He had witnessed the communist influence in the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood when he served as the union’s president. Many argue that Reagan was an opportunist and the credit for ending the Cold War should go to others. But that belies history. Reagan was the man who stood in front of the Berlin Wall and called out, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” to the exalt of freedom-loving people everywhere.
Adelman’s book about the Reykjavik Summit is well crafted and worth the read. But, if you’re convinced that Ronald Reagan was a light-weight suffering from dementia and unconvinced by facts and logic, then don’t bother; it would be a waste of your time. History is ultimately the judge and in that regard, Reagan is on solid ground. Compared to the current occupant of the White House, he accomplished great things in foreign policy during his presidency.