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How a Bungled Meeting Ended the Cold War

How a Bungled Meeting Ended the Cold War

Reagan and Gorbachev look dejected after their meeting in Reykjavik.
(RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY)

When Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev arrived one minute early at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland, nineteen years ago today, President Ronald Reagan was not outside to greet him as planned. Gorbachev checked his watch, waited a few seconds, and then began to climb the front steps. At that moment, Reagan opened the front door and, somewhat rattled, stepped out to greet him. Both shrugged and posed for photographers before heading inside to begin a meeting that would be remembered as a colossal failure. But what neither of them could have known then was that despite—or perhaps because of—their inability to reach an agreement, each would later recognize the next two days as pivotal in ending the Cold War.

Both Reagan, the most stridently anti-Soviet President yet, and Gorbachev, who had come to power only the previous year, had angled for the summit. Reagan hoped it could help him boost Republican candidates in midterm elections, which would allow the resulting treaty easier passage through Congress. Gorbachev, who had caved on America’s missile-defense system at the Geneva summit 11 months earlier, couldn’t risk appearing weak, but he feared that the next President might be even more anti-USSR, and he couldn’t risk severing diplomacy. He proposed the meeting, hoping to show strength at it, and Reagan accepted. Their initial aim in Reykjavik was only to set a date for a full-scale summit in the United States and outline a pact they could finalize then. As it turned out, they accomplished less than that—yet ultimately much more—in their strange weekend together.

A seaside breeze blew as the two met at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 11, and sat down flanked only by their interpreters and a note-taker. Reagan expected a morning of broad opening salvos, but Gorbachev quickly got down to specifics, reading a detailed plan, approved by the Politburo, that covered just about every current nuclear topic. He proposed cutting strategic arms on both sides by half, removing all intermediate-range nuclear forces from Europe, extending the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty for ten more years, and prohibiting all nuclear testing and deployment of space-based defenses. Over the course of the day, Reagan pressed for intermediate-range cuts in Asia and advocated replacing the ABM Treaty with one more lenient, while Gorbachev assented for the first time to halve his arsenal of heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles, realizing that they wreaked havoc on the superpower relationship.

When they reconvened Sunday morning, the two began improvising, barreling over decades-old diplomatic stumbling blocks. They agreed to remove all intermediate-range missiles from Europe and pare the number in Asia to 100 on each side. As the meeting dragged past its scheduled conclusion, Gorbachev endorsed eliminating all strategic missiles in ten years, and then Reagan, without consulting his secretary of state, military advisers, or European allies, proposed relinquishing both strategic and ballistic weapons. Then, one-upping himself, he suggested getting rid of all nuclear weapons of every kind. Gorbachev, equally off-the-cuff, responded, “Well, okay. That’s one way we can agree.” They even managed to set a ten-year time limit for the ABM treaty. With all of those issues settled and their advisers euphoric about what the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union called “the most sweeping commitments in history to reduce mankind’s most destructive weaponry,” they reconsidered the ABM treaty—and got hopelessly hung up on it.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, allowed research on, but not development, testing, or deployment of, defenses that could shoot down incoming missiles. The problem with such defenses was that they would encourage the development of more and better missiles on the other side. The Reagan Administration, in what it called a “permissive” construction of the treaty, deemed everything short of deployment legal; Gorbachev wanted all work on America’s space-based missile defenses to be confined to the earth-bound “laboratory.”

Reagan had introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative, which involved shooting lasers or small missiles from satellites at incoming warheads, in 1983, and it had since become his pet project. With Congress already threatening to defund it, he feared that postponing testing would assure its demise. He tried everything to change Gorbachev’s mind: offering to share the technology, explaining that he didn’t seek the right to deploy it, admitting that it might not even work, and suggesting they detach the issue from the others and discuss it when they next met.

“Without that, we don’t have a package,” Gorbachev said. “All the elements are interrelated.” They argued on, and by the closing hours of what Reagan later called “one of the longest, most disappointing—and ultimately angriest—days of my presidency,” each man’s patience wore thin. Finally the two gathered up their papers and left the building at 6:50 p.m. to confront the press. Their dejected faces made the outcome plain before either spoke a word.

In the hours and weeks that followed, each side blamed the other for the stalled session. In a press conference immediately following the summit, Gorbachev said, “We have made very serious, unprecedented concessions and compromises. And still there has been no agreement. The Americans came to this meeting empty-handed, with an entire set of mothballed proposals …” Before the Politburo two days later, he called Reagan a “feeble-minded caveman.” Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff, defended his team: “We got 99 yards but didn’t score. It was the Soviets who fumbled the ball.”

In fact, both were at fault. Reagan genuinely believed in SDI, considering it the moral alternative to the arms race, but it was scientifically unsound and vulnerable to enemy destruction, and, worse, it erased any incentive the Soviets had to reduce their offensive weaponry. (The end of the Cold War, not laboratories or the ABM treaty, finally doomed spaced-based missile defense, although George W. Bush has revived the idea of ground-based nuclear defense. Fearing nuclear attack by a so-called rogue state, he also pulled the United States out of the ABM treaty in 2002.)

Headlines across the world on October 13 trumpeted the failure of the mini-summit. Yet as emotions cooled in the ensuing months, the astonishing, unheralded successes of the meeting came into focus. Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed on more strategies to abort the arms race than had all of their predecessors combined. More important, they had grown to like each other during their 11 hours together. In the aftermath Reagan, moved by Gorbachev’s sincerity, softened his opinion of his rival superpower, and Gorbachev, having discovered that Reagan was a fellow abolitionist, realized it was possible to work with the United States.

Gorbachev finally visited Washington, D.C., in December 1987, and the two separated intermediate-range disarmament from the SDI issue and signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, cutting 2,500 missiles, and reversing the arms race for the first time. As the Cold War burned out, its last generals acknowledged Reykjavik as the beginning of the end. Gorbachev called the meeting a “real breakthrough,” and Reagan recognized it as “a major turning point in the quest for a safe and secure world.” After decades of treaties and diplomacy, it took two minds meeting, and tempers flaring, to start to bring the Cold War to a close.

—Christine Gibson is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.