LOOKING BACK: The 1986 Reykjavik Summit

By Goodby, James E. | Arms Control Today, September 2006 | Go to article overview

LOOKING BACK: The 1986 Reykjavik Summit


Goodby, James E., Arms Control Today


The story of the 1986 Reykjavik summit meeting is a tale of two visionary leaders and an "impossible dream." It was the most remarkable summit ever held between U.S. and Soviet leaders. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev seriously discussed the elimination of all ballistic missiles held by their two countries and aired the possibility of eliminating all nuclear weapons.

As Gorbachev said in these pages, "[T]he 1986 U.S.-Soviet summit in Reykjavik, seen by many as a failure, actually gave an impetus to reduction by reaffirming the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and by paving the way toward concrete agreements on intermediate-range nuclear forces and strategic nuclear weapons."

The world has changed since those heady days, but it is clearer than ever that the twin challenges of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism must be addressed "by reaffirming the vision of a world without nuclear weapons." At a time when the international community is struggling to prevent a cascade of decisions by more and more states to acquire nuclear weapons, the ideas that briefly occupied center stage at Reykjavik look like the best answer we have.

Reagan and Gorbachev brought two great nations close to the end of the era of the Cold War. Two revolutionaries, each in his own way, became history's catalysts for change. Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union needed radical economic reform, and that to do it, he had to end the ideological confrontation with the West. Reagan was unlike any other U.S. president in his revulsion against the immorality of nuclear war, his willingness to do something about it, and his ability to act on his instincts. Turning away from classical arms control, he insisted on nuclear disarmament and succeeded to a remarkable degree. Reagan and Gorbachev found common ground at their first summit in Geneva in 1985; the two leaders declared that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

The road to Reykjavik began with proposals made by Reagan in 1981 to eliminate all intermediate-range ballistic missiles and in 1982 to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads by at least one-third. This was a departure from arms control thinking as it had developed since 1960, but it was rooted in an older paradigm: disarmament. Soviet leaders prior to Gorbachev saw these ideas as one-sided and insincere and rejected them.

The Soviet leaders had reason to be skeptical. Although Reagan had told his administration from the beginning of his presidency that he wanted reductions in nuclear warheads, he presided over a nuclear buildup to close the lead that he believed the Soviet Union had opened up over the United States. He never saw any contradictions in this, but had his administration ended in 1985 instead of 1989, it would have been remembered mainly for an enormous increase in defense spending and for arms control proposals that seemed designed to fail. Reagan's second term changed all that.

Reagan wanted to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," and he saw two ways of doing that. One was to eliminate them, and he started that process in 1981 and 1982. The other way was to build a defense that would deflect an attack. He started that in 1983. Linking the two methods offered a way forward. What if it were possible to reduce nuclear weapons mutually while building up a defensive system jointly? In principle, there should be a crossover point where defense would have dominance over offense. This idea lay at the heart of the drama at Reykjavik.

Reagan had long mused about the inability of the United States to defend itself against a missile attack. Hydrogen bomb pioneer Edward Teller and Reagan's own "kitchen cabinet" had encouraged him to think that a defense against ballistic missiles might be possible. On March 23, 1983, Reagan finally announced that he was asking U.S. scientists "to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. …

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