Reagan and Gorbachev: The Reykjavik Summit

Reagan and Gorbachev: The Reykjavik Summit

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Reagan and Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit

The Reykjavík Summit, held on October 11 and 12, 1986, was the second meeting of US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Following up on the previous year’s Geneva Summit, Reagan and Gorbachev continued to work toward and debate the possible terms of nuclear arms reduction at Reykjavík. The two leaders did not reach an agreement at Reykjavík, though many diplomats and experts consider the summit a turning point in the Cold War.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Richard Rhodes dramatized the summit in his play Reykjavík.

Leading Up to Reykjavík

Gorbachev and Reagan left the Geneva Summit in October 1985 without a nuclear arms reduction agreement. Both sides had agreed on the importance of offensive weapons reduction, but disagreement over Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proved to be an insurmountable obstacle in the negotiations. Reagan stood firm in his commitment to SDI, which he viewed as a much safer alternative to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Gorbachev was suspicious of the program; if the US effectively developed SDI, they would have a nuclear first-strike advantage over the USSR. Reagan offered to share SDI with the Soviet Union, but Gorbachev did not find the offer credible.

Despite their disagreements, Reagan and Gorbachev were able to establish at Geneva a much more cordial relationship than previous American and Soviet leaders had. This allowed the two states to craft a joint statement endorsing future collaboration on nuclear arms reduction, giving both sides hope for progress as they left the summit. 

In November, about a month after the summit, Reagan sent a handwritten letter to Gorbachev. Reagan reaffirmed his wish to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons and sought to confirm that Gorbachev was likewise committed in working toward this goal. At approximately the same time—before receiving Reagan’s letter—Gorbachev sent a letter to Reagan asking that the United States join the USSR in its voluntary moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. Agreeing to the moratorium would have halted American development of SDI, and Reagan never responded to this request (Rhodes 213).

Gorbachev responded to Reagan’s first letter, again voicing his concern over SDI. He emphasized that “space-strike weapons…possess the capability of being used both for defensive and offensive aims.” The General Secretary repeated his concerns that this technology would inevitably result in “an extremely dangerous build-up of offensive potential” and escalate the arms race. Clearly, SDI remained an obstacle to negotiation.

On January 14, 1986, Gorbachev sent Reagan another letter. The recent correspondence between the two leaders had mostly rehashed debates from the Geneva Summit. This letter, however, was different––in it, Gorbachev presented “an unprecedented program to completely eliminate nuclear weapons” by the year 2000.

The proposal included three stages. The first stage was to last five to eight years, covering a fifty percent reduction in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), mutual renunciation of space weapons testing, and removing all nuclear weapons from Europe. The second stage, to last five to seven years, would involve the cessation of all nuclear testing and further liquidation of medium-range nuclear weapons. The other nuclear states (Britain, France, and China) would be included at this stage.

In the third and final stage, all remaining nuclear weapons would be liquidated, so that “by the end of 1999 no more nuclear weapons [would] remain on Earth.” Gorbachev also urged “a universal agreement…that these weapons shall never be resurrected again.” He renewed the USSR’s voluntary moratorium on nuclear weapons testing and again invited the US to join them. Gorbachev wrote that if the US were to join in the moratorium, the USSR would consent to mutual on-site inspections, something that had previously been a point of contention.

This letter had an interesting provenance. Not all of the Soviet leadership agreed with Gorbachev’s aims of nuclear abolition. Soviet military leadership particularly opposed it, so they devised a “diversionary dead end” nuclear disarmament proposal. This proposal was meant to serve as propaganda, demonstrating to the world that the Soviet Union supported full disarmament. Assuming that the United States would not agree to the proposal, military leaders did not anticipate any practical consequences for disarmament (Rhodes 216).

Historian Richard Rhodes describes the military’s proposals for nuclear disarmament as, for Gorbachev, “a godsend: protective cover for his plans” (217). Soon after the Politburo approved the proposal, Gorbachev wrote the letter to Reagan. On January 15, Gorbachev released the text in Russian and English to news outlets.

Gorbachev’s letter excited Reagan, but “No one within the Reagan administration whose opinion counted shared the president’s enthusiasm for nuclear abolition” (Rhodes 222). Caspar Weinberger and Richard Perle, respectively Secretary of Defense and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, particularly opposed nuclear abolition. 

Reagan responded to Gorbachev in February. The President did not yield to Gorbachev on SDI, nor did he commit to joining the Soviets in their voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing. He did, on the other hand, offer to reduce the number of strategic ballistic missiles and eliminate intermediate nuclear forces (INF) within the next few years.

This tepid reply frustrated Gorbachev, who felt that diplomatic progress had come to a standstill. After exchanging a few more letters with Reagan, Gorbachev grew fed up with the inertia in the summer of 1986, so he proposed that the two leaders meet again that fall in Reykjavík, Iceland. Reagan agreed soon after (Rhodes 234).

The Summit

(The quotes and information in this section, when not attributed in the text, are drawn from these memoranda of conversation at the Reykjavík Summit).    

Secretary of State George Shultz wrote that for the American side leading up to the summit, “There was a unique sense of uncertainty in the air…Nothing seemed predictable” (753). Reagan and his advisors thought of the meeting as preparatory for the later summit planned for Washington, but “Gorbachev was planning much more for Reykjavik, and he intended to disclose his concessions and proposals as a series of surprises in the hope of a breakthrough” (Rhodes 237).

The only official exchanges about the meeting between the two sides related to scheduling. After a preliminary one-on-one session between Reagan and Gorbachev, there would be a morning and afternoon session on October 11 where Shultz and Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze would join the two leaders. The final session would be the following morning (Shultz 757).

At the beginning of their preliminary session, Reagan and Gorbachev both acknowledged the high stakes of the occasion. Reagan emphasized their “unique opportunity to decide whether or not there should be war or peace in the world.” Gorbachev agreed, saying that his goal for the meeting was to work through the diplomatic impasse they had reached regarding arms negotiations. Reagan brought up the need for human rights progress—particularly on family separations and religious persecution—and agreement to strict on-site nuclear verification. Gorbachev agreed with Reagan on the importance of mutual on-site verification for nuclear arms reduction.

Once Shevardnadze and Shultz entered, Gorbachev read out his proposals. The Soviet Union would agree to a mutual 50 percent reduction in strategic offensive weapons, and the removal of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) from Europe, but not Asia. They supported an agreement on a non-withdrawal period of at least ten years for the ABM Treaty, during which strategic defense initiatives could be tested only within a laboratory. Reagan once again defended SDI, saying that it would not offer a first-strike advantage if the US and the USSR had both previously eliminated their offensive weapons (Rhodes 247).

In the afternoon session, Reagan reiterated his commitment to SDI. He repeated his offer to share strategic defense technology with the Soviet Union and to wait until the elimination of all ballistic missiles before deploying SDI. Gorbachev, who believed the ABM Treaty was “the one agreement that had kept the world from nuclear war,” grew frustrated (Shultz 762). After continued disagreement, the two leaders decided to convene two working groups, one for arms control and the other on human rights and regional issues.

These groups worked through the night. When Reagan and Gorbachev met the next morning, both were somewhat disappointed. The two leaders were happy with the progress made in strategic arms reduction, but the working groups failed to adequately address INF in Asia, the ABM Treaty and SDI. Trying to break the stalemate, Gorbachev offered Reagan another concession: in addition to the elimination of American and Soviet INF in Europe—still allowing for the presence of British and French nuclear forces—the USSR would accept a reduction of their Asian INF to 100 warheads. Reagan agreed to this proposal.

The two leaders again sparred over the ABM Treaty and SDI testing to no avail. They briefly discussed human rights and humanitarian issues before deciding to call an impromptu fourth session of negotiations that afternoon. Gorbachev felt that the two foreign ministers might be able to come up with mutually amenable language on SDI-related nuclear testing. Reagan agreed to meet again at 3:00pm.

At this final meeting, the US and Soviet sides put forth two similar proposals. The American proposal read as follows:

“Both sides would agree to confine themselves to research, development and testing which is permitted by the ABM Treaty for a period of five years, through 1991, during which time a 50% reduction in strategic offensive arsenals would be achieved. This being done, both sides will continue the pace of reductions with respect to all remaining offensive ballistic missiles with the goal of the total elimination of all offensive ballistic missiles by the end of a second five-year period. As long as these reductions continue at the appropriate pace, the same restrictions will continue to apply. At the end of the ten-year period, with all offensive ballistic missiles eliminated, either side would be free to introduce defenses.”

The Soviet proposal had crucial differences. It required a non-withdrawal period for the ABM Treaty of ten years instead of five, and it explicitly confined “all space components of anti-ballistic missile defense” to laboratories. This language reflected the Soviet Union’s ongoing suspicion of SDI. On the other hand, the Soviet proposal did share with the US proposal a five-year timeline for a 50% reduction of strategic arms in five years, and a ten-year timeline for the total elimination of this class of weapons.

Reagan and Gorbachev then discussed precisely which weapons would be included under the two different proposals. They came to an understanding that reduction and elimination should apply to all categories of nuclear weapons. Reagan said it would be fine with him to eliminate all nuclear weapons. This proposal for a "global zero" on nuclear weapons was unprecedented in Soviet-American relations. Gorbachev agreed with Reagan, and Shultz said, “Let’s do it.”

But Gorbachev returned to the issue of SDI. The General Secretary reiterated that he would only accept a proposal that would confine SDI testing to the laboratory. Reagan, convinced that this would hinder the program, once again refused. Gorbachev and Reagan remarked on how close they were to an agreement, but both men refused to budge. They left the final session without an agreement.

Secretary Shultz described “the popular perception of the outcome in Iceland [as] one of near disaster or near farce” (776). Though the two leaders missed a monumental opportunity for complete nuclear disarmament, the Reykjavík Summit was not a complete failure. Historian John Lewis Gaddis identifies the summit as an important Cold War turning point, where “to the astonishment of their aides and allies, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union had found that they shared an interest, if not in SDI technology, then at least in the principle of nuclear abolition” (232).

More tangibly, the negotiations at Reykjavík “paved the way for the 1987 INF and the 1991 START I (Strategic Offensive Arms Reductions) Treaties, as well as limitations on nuclear testing.

Reagan and Gorbachev would meet again the following year to discuss and negotiate nuclear arms in Washington.

More Historical Resources: 

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.