The Geneva Summit, the first meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, was held on November 19 and 20, 1985. The two leaders met to discuss the Cold War-era arms race, primarily the possibility of reducing the number of nuclear weapons. Hosted in Geneva, Switzerland, the meeting was the first American-Soviet summit in more than six years.
The Politburo of the USSR had elected Gorbachev its General Secretary only months earlier, following Konstantin Chernenko’s death in March of 1985. Gorbachev was the youngest member of the Politburo upon assuming the position, and he brought with him a fresh approach to many issues, including nuclear diplomacy.
Up to this point, the Soviet military had focused on preparing to win a hypothetical nuclear war with a massive accumulation of nuclear arms (Rhodes 189). Gorbachev, however, embraced the idea of common security. Common security—a response to the mass destruction that would ensue if nuclear deterrence failed—emerged from the thinking and policies of European leaders such as West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and his Ostpolitik, which attempted to normalize relations between his country and Eastern Europe.
The principle of common security asserts that “countries can only find security in cooperation with their competitors, not against them” (Palme Commission). For Gorbachev, this meant working with the United States for bilateral reduction of nuclear arms. Historian Richard Rhodes cites Gorbachev’s address to the 27th Congress of USSR’s Communist Party as an example. Gorbachev contended that “genuine equal security is guaranteed not by the highest possible, but by the lowest possible level of strategic balance, from which it is essential to exclude entirely nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction” (192).
Like Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan also rejected previous Cold War foreign policy norms. He rebuked the politics of détente that had characterized relations between the two superpowers in the 1970s. To Reagan, détente implied that the Soviet Union “had earned geopolitical, ideological, economic, and moral legitimacy as an equal to the United States” (Gaddis 225). Reagan opposed this stance on account of the USSR’s undemocratic system and totalitarian tendencies, famously referring to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” in 1983.
Reagan also disavowed the long-entrenched concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction held that—for two sides with large nuclear stockpiles—if one side launched a first strike on the other, the other side would retaliate. The resulting nuclear war would totally annihilate both sides. Knowing this, both sides would be deterred from launching a first nuclear strike.
Mutually Assured Destruction implied that it would be dangerous for a nuclear power to construct defenses against enemy nuclear weapons, as the defensively equipped state could then launch a first strike without needing to fear retaliation. Reagan, however, dismissed the idea that “vulnerability could provide security,” and championed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), hoping to render nuclear weapons obsolete (Gaddis 226). Nuclear arms useless against this hypothetical defense system, disarmament could commence. In March 1983, Reagan posed the following question in a televised address:
“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our Allies?” (“Defense and National Security”)
The new program—quickly dubbed “Star Wars” by the media for its possible use of satellite weapons—triggered Soviet anxieties. George P. Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, wrote, “SDI proved to be of deep concern to the Soviets…The Soviets were genuinely alarmed by the prospect of American science ‘turned on’ and venturing into the realm of space defenses” (Shultz 264).
Thus, both the United States and the USSR had come to share the goal of nuclear arms reduction by 1985, despite differences in how they thought it should be carried out. Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that they would meet in November of 1985 in Geneva to discuss nuclear arms reduction and other issues of international diplomacy, including human rights.
At Geneva, the two men quickly developed a rapport, even as they debated—sometimes quite ferociously—international issues of such grave importance. Gorbachev left a good impression on Reagan, who described the Soviet Secretary General as having “warmth in his face and style, not the coldness bordering on hatred I’d seen in most other senior Soviet leaders I’d met until then” (Gaddis 229).
The first meeting of the two leaders, alone except for translators, took place the morning of November 19. In preliminary remarks, both men expressed a hope for future cooperation and peace but also sparred over the USSR’s involvement in socialist movements around the world (Rhodes 195).
Reagan and Gorbachev joined their delegations for the first plenary session. Gorbachev opened by again declaiming the importance of cooperation and common security among the states going forward. Reagan countered, arguing that the USSR had not given the United States much reason to trust them, with its rhetoric of a “one-world Communist State,” and continued military buildup. On the other hand, he did say that the US was “ready to try to meet Soviet concerns if they were ready to reciprocate” (Rhodes 198).
Reagan then brought up SDI, proposing that the United States and USSR share a defensive system with the other if either were to develop it. Reagan denied allegations that the US was seeking to gain a first-strike advantage, and he argued that SDI could shield the two states from a hypothetical rogue third party with nuclear weapons.
After breaking for lunch, Gorbachev repudiated Reagan’s claim of the Soviet Union as an expansionist “evil empire” before voicing his fears that the development of SDI could lead to an arms race in space. Gorbachev stated as his goal continued strategic parity for the two states, “equal security at lower levels of force,” something which SDI would undermine (Rhodes 202). As such, Gorbachev offered to negotiate on offensive weapons reduction if and only if Reagan abandoned SDI.
Reagan refused on the grounds that SDI technology should not be considered a “space weapon”—merely a defense—and reiterated his offer to share the technology with the Soviets should the United States develop it. Gorbachev did not take the offer seriously. At this point, they had reached a stalemate that continued throughout the next day of negotiations as well.
Despite the lack of tangible progress on specific nuclear arms measures, the Geneva Summit was a breakthrough point for American-Soviet relations. This breakthrough was largely predicated on the personal connection forged between Gorbachev and Reagan. Shultz wrote that between the two men at the final ceremony, “The personal chemistry was apparent. The easy and relaxed attitude toward each other, the smiles, the sense of purpose, all showed through” (606). This attitude, coupled with the shared, ultimately peaceful goal of nuclear arms reduction, allowed for the creation of a joint statement expressing support for this principle. The two men had laid the groundwork for continued cooperation and negotiation in the years to come.
Reagan and Gorbachev next met the following year at the Reykjavík Summit.
Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Rhodes, Richard. Arsenals of Folly: Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Shultz, George P. Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State. New York: Scribners, 1993.