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The 1986 Reykjavík Summit: when hopes for nuclear peace were dashed

In October 1986 US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met for nuclear disarmament talks – which stumbled over one key point. Kristina Spohr and David Reynolds explore both sides of an incident that dashed hopes for nuclear peace

Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev looking disappointed frustrated
Published: April 15, 2017 at 4:11 pm
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“It takes two to tango. And it takes two to control arms, to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons... I invite you to a male tango, Mr President.” Mikhail Gorbachev to Ronald Reagan, 11 October 1986


On the evening of 12 October 1986, a dramatic image was beamed around the world: two grim-faced men trudging down the steps of Höfði House in Reykjavík. Drained and dejected, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were unable even to look each other in the eye as they said farewell.

The summit in Iceland went down in history as a huge missed opportunity – a total failure. The summit, arranged by the two great powers to discuss nuclear arms reductions, had collapsed – not over specific details of their arsenals but over Reagan’s grand, futuristic plan for an anti-nuclear shield in space: his notorious Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

It was so different from the buoyant mood that had prevailed at the two leaders’ first meeting in Geneva in November 1985. That summit had been hailed as an icebreaker in the ‘New Cold War’ of the early 1980s. Unexpectedly, Reagan, who had previously damned the USSR as an “evil empire”, clicked with Gorbachev, the new reformist Soviet general secretary, who was determined to make his country more competitive with the west. Their cosy fireside chat by Lake Geneva would have been inconceivable in previous Soviet-American summits. And when they parted with a handshake, Gorbachev exclaimed that it was like “a spark of electric mutual trust”. The two leaders hoped that this initial encounter would lead to formal accords curbing the nuclear arms race.

Maintaining momentum

Summits are heady moments. It’s not easy for leaders to sustain momentum when they return to the lowlands of daily politics, where the bureaucrats regain control. In September 1986 Gorbachev sent an anxious letter to Reagan warning that the “spark of Geneva” had been extinguished. He felt that the negotiations needed “a major impetus” and suggested a quick face-to-face meeting to galvanise US and Soviet officials into preparing agreements.

So, on 11 October, president and general secretary met in Reykjavík, a convenient point midway between Moscow and Washington. On the first day Gorbachev presented a comprehensive disarmament plan. He proposed a 50% reduction in strategic nuclear weapons – those of intercontinental range. He also called for the complete elimination of all intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) within Europe, excluding the ‘independent’ British and French nuclear deterrents.

On the second day the two men moved almost to the brink of an unprecedented agreement. They envisaged that within 10 years they would have eliminated “all nuclear explosive devices”. The idea was to agree this in principle in Reykjavík, then instruct their arms-control negotiators to prepare detailed treaties for Gorbachev to sign during a planned visit to Washington in late 1987.

But then came the crash that derailed the talks – caused by one apparently innocuous word: laboratories.

Reagan's viewpoint

Peace-making was Reagan’s mission, ‘Star Wars’ his chosen instrument

During his first term as US president, Ronald Reagan oversaw a substantial increase in US defence spending, justified by passionate anti-Soviet rhetoric. In his very first press conference on 29 January 1981, the president asserted that “so far detente’s been a one-way street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims”. Its professed goal was “the promotion of world revolution and a one-world socialist or communist state”, he claimed. In contrast, his own aim, he declared a few months later, was not to “contain communism” but to “transcend communism”. To his critics, Reagan seemed like inveterate Cold Warrior, determined to ratchet up the arms race and roll back the “evil empire”.

Yet there was another, more conciliatory side to Reagan; he wasn’t simply a Cold War hawk. He did not believe in America’s standard doctrine of nuclear deterrence through mutual assured destruction, considering it literally mad. In fact, he truly loathed nuclear weapons, and wanted to move beyond the “balance of terror” to a radical new conception of “strategic defence”, developing the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – envisaged as a high-tech anti-ballistic-missile system – a “shield” against the “sword” of a nuclear strike. Unveiling the idea in March 1983, he spoke of his dream to render nuclear weapons “impotent” and “obsolete”.

In Moscow, and across much of the liberal west, such talk was regarded as delusory or hypocritical. Far from being a passport to peace, SDI – popularly nicknamed ‘Star Wars’ – was seen as the trigger for war in space, introducing the possibility that America could mount a nuclear first strike on the USSR without fear of fatal retaliation.

Brush with death

Despite Soviet misgivings, the president’s peaceful professions seem to have been genuine. His sense of mission was accentuated by a brush with death after little more than two months in office. On 30 March 1981 Reagan was shot by a deranged gunman; the bullet lodged in his chest just a couple of centimetres from his heart, and only quick action by skilled surgeons saved his life. Reagan’s quip on the operating table has gone down in American folklore – “Please tell me you’re Republicans” – but in reality he did not view his survival as a laughing matter. Convinced that God had saved him for a purpose, he told a Catholic cardinal: “I have decided that whatever time is left is for Him.” Peace-making would be Reagan’s mission, and Star Wars his chosen instrument.

The US government had undertaken basic research into ballistic missile defence since the 1960s, but SDI was a far more demanding project. Though easy to depict in graphics with images of lasers zapping missiles in space, it would require billions of dollars, years of research and multitudinous tests before a working system could conceivably be rolled out.

Reagan cared little for such practicalities; what captivated him was the grand idea and the peaceful vision. He claimed that SDI would complement superpower nuclear disarmament by creating a fall-back defence against nuclear strikes from rogue states led by “some maniac like Hitler”. And he offered to share this technology with the Soviets, once it had been fully tested on the ground and in space.

At Reykjavík, Gorbachev proved immune to such blandishments. Increasingly desperate, Reagan pleaded with the Soviet leader to take seriously his domestic political position. Gorbachev insisted that SDI research must take place only in laboratories, not in space. Reagan insisted that he could not possibly go back to the US Congress and say that he’d accepted any restrictions on research and development. “I have a lot of critics who wield great influence,” he told Gorbachev. “And if I agree to such a formulation, they will launch a campaign against me. They will accuse me of breaking my promise to the people of the United States regarding SDI.”

Historic opportunity

In the final session on the afternoon of 12 October, Reagan tried various ploys to get his way. He asked Gorbachev incredulously whether he was willing to “turn down a historic opportunity for agreement for the sake of one word in the text” – laboratories. He begged the Soviet leader, as a fellow politician, to do him “a personal favour”, building on the rapport they had established at Geneva. And he spoke emotionally about their historic opportunity to “go to the people as peacemakers”.

Faced at the end with a total impasse, he turned on Gorbachev in frustration, even resentment. “We were so close to an agreement,” he complained. “I think you didn’t want to achieve an agreement anyway. I’m very sorry.” Tellingly, as they parted, Reagan exclaimed: “I don’t know when we’ll ever have another chance like this.”

Gorbachev's viewpoint

Banning tests in space was the precondition for any agreement

When Gorbachev was appointed Soviet general secretary in March 1985, Reagan had already been in power for over four years. During that time no progress had been made on superpower arms control agreements with Gorbachev’s predecessors. The new leader, 20 years Reagan’s junior, was determined to reduce the burden of the military-industrial complex on the Soviet economy. That was a prime reason for improving relations with the west.

Yet Gorbachev also shared Reagan’s dream of a nuclear-free world. And his conviction was reinforced after the explosion in April 1986 at Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, which spewed radiation across eastern Europe. “Just a puff,” he told the Politburo, “and we can all feel what nuclear war would be like.” This horror pushed him towards Reykjavík.

Radical proposals

Gorbachev was now ready to ‘tango’. On the first day in Iceland he set a brisk pace, with radical proposals for nuclear disarmament. But he made these conditional on Reagan restraining Star Wars. Gorbachev insisted that the Americans must test SDI systems only in research laboratories because tests in space could give them a head start in a new arms race.

Reagan kept repeating that he would share SDI, and eventually Gorbachev exploded. “Excuse me, Mr President,” he retorted. “You are not willing to share with us oil-well equipment, digitally guided machine tools or even milking machines. Sharing SDI would provoke a second American revolution! Let’s be realistic and pragmatic.”

Gorbachev clearly didn’t trust Reagan. Soviet strategists believed that Star Wars was just a cover for the Americans to be able to mount a first strike on the USSR, confident that the US would be shielded from attack. For that reason the word ‘laboratories’ was not negotiable – even if that jeopardised the chances of historic nuclear arms reduction agreement.

Like Reagan, Gorbachev played on his own domestic position. “You say it’s just a matter of one word,” he said. “But it’s not a matter of a word – it’s a matter of principle. If I go back to Moscow and say that, despite our agreement on the 10-year period, we have given the United States the right to test SDI in space so that the US is ready to deploy it by the end of that period, they will call me a fool and an irresponsible leader.”

By the end of the meeting Gorbachev was calm and clear. He felt he had done everything he could. Banning tests in space, he insisted, was the essential precondition for any arms-control agreement, asserting: “We cannot go along with something else.”

Aftermath of the summit

But despite the disastrous encounter in Reykjavík and both men’s foreboding, another chance did come. Against all expectations on that cold, dark October evening in 1986, they tangoed again little more than a year later – this time, much more happily.

Deadlock had not been the last word. Through statecraft and summitry, leaders can sometimes transcend apparently irreconcilable differences. But that requires a willingness to stand back and, if necessary, shift ground.

Gorbachev did so first. He needed to make progress towards arms reduction because of the scale of Soviet military spending and the growing budget crisis. So he and the Politburo decided to focus on the positives from Iceland and stop obsessing about SDI.

The Kremlin was able to feel more relaxed about SDI because Reagan’s domestic political position weakened dramatically in November 1986. As a result of the US mid-term elections, the opposition Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. That meant that Reagan now had no chance of getting the funding he needed to sustain the SDI project during his final two years in the White House. Politically weakened and also fretful about his legacy as a ‘peace president’, he – no less than Gorbachev – needed to compromise.

Both sides decided to focus on one of the issues about which they had more or less agreed at Reykjavík – intermediate-range nuclear forces. Despite strong resistance from the Pentagon and the Soviet military, during 1987 the White House and the Kremlin hammered out a global ‘double-zero’ deal to eliminate Soviet and American INFs in Europe and Asia. In December Gorbachev came to Washington where, amid scenes of popular acclamation dubbed ‘Gorbymania’, he and Reagan signed the INF treaty.

So Reykjavík had not, in the end, been a failure. Two viewpoints – but, finally, one agreement.

Professors Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics and Political Science) and David Reynolds (University of Cambridge) are co-editors of Transcending the Cold War: Summits, Statecraft, and the Dissolution of Bipolarity in Europe, 1970–1990 (OUP, 2016)


This article was taken from issue 3 of BBC World Histories magazine, published in April 2017


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