Reykjavik: When Abolition Was within Reach

By Blanton, Thomas; Savranskaya, Svetlana | Arms Control Today, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Reykjavik: When Abolition Was within Reach


Blanton, Thomas, Savranskaya, Svetlana, Arms Control Today


The October 1986 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, may well rank as "the most bizarre summit in the history of the Cold War."1

The two countries did not even intend the event to be a summit. At their first meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev had agreed in Geneva in November 1985 to host each other for two reciprocal summits in the next two years, one in Washington and one in Moscow.

In late 1985 and throughout 1986, U.S.-Soviet relations suffered from a series of controversies. Nevertheless in September 1986, Gorbachev proposed a working meeting "maybe just for one day" so the two leaders could personally intervene to create some momentum and prepare for the real thing, a formal summit in Washington. Instead of an interim meeting, however, the two leaders acted out the all-time "what if?" superpower summit.

To read the transcripts from the October 11-12 meeting in Reykjavik is to marvel at how high the stakes were and how close Reagan and Gorbachev came to a landmark agreement on nuclear abolition. As Raymond Garthoff summed up the views of contemporaries, many saw Reykjavik's "startling and farreaching exploration of possibilities for the drastic reduction or even elimination of nuclear weapons" as "a spectacular missed opportunity." Others viewed the meeting as "a perilous near disaster," and believed posterity would judge it "for better or worse" a "historic near miss."2 Ironically, as George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state at Reykjavik, commented in his memoirs, "[I]n the eyes of the world, Reykjavik would become the epitome of the very word 'summit.'"3

Gorbachev described in his memoirs the "Shakespearean passions" of Reykjavik and compared it to the Chernobyl nuclear accident as "equal in its effect on shaking the foundations on which the post-war world was built."4 Reagan afterward presented two very different views of Reykjavik, depending on the authence, either emphasizing that he had refused to "back down" on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), as he told himself in his diary and conservative crowds on the campaign trail,5 or avoiding the blame for the failure by claiming that "the significance of that meeting at Reykjavik is not that we didn't sign agreements in the end; the significance is that we got as close as we did. The progress that we made would've been inconceivable just a few months ago."6

Differing Game Plans

A man in a hurry, Gorbachev intended to come to Iceland with far-reaching proposals and concessions. In the middle of preparations during the first week of October, a Soviet submarine caught fire and ultimately sank off the U.S. coast. The Politburo debated whether Russia should ask the Americans for help; Gorbachev said of course it should, but others muttered that the captain should go down with his ship. At the October 8 Politburo meeting just before leaving for Reykjavik, Gorbachev reminded his colleagues, "Because of the submarine, which just sank, everybody knows, everybody saw what shape we are in."7

He told his top aides in preparing for Reykjavik, "[0]ur goal is to prevent the next round of [the] arms race.... And if we do not compromise on some questions, even very important ones, we will lose the main point: we will be pulled into an arms race beyond our power, and we will lose this race, for we are presently at the limit of our capabilities." Gorbachev insisted, "I repeat, the leitmotif here is the liquidation of nuclear weapons, and the political approach prevails here, not the arithmetical one."8 The Soviet positions included the long-standing proposal for a nuclear test ban, not least because this would prevent the U.S. SDI from developing space weapons fueled by nuclear explosions, and the reduction of intermediate-range nuclear weapons to zero, although still tied to an overall package of limits on strategic and space weapons. As Gorbachev remarked to his aides, "[K]eep in mind the task of knocking the Pershing II's out of Europe. …

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