I didn''t see or hear one report on the parallels that can be drawn
from the current discussions between the U.S. and Russia over
the ABM Treaty and the Rekyavik Summit between Reagan and
Gorbachev back in 1986. So I''ll tackle it.
The Antiballistic Missile Treaty was signed between Nixon and
Brezhnev in 1972. The treaty was designed to prevent the two
nations from deploying antimissile defense systems which, it was
felt, would lead to a further escalation in the arms race. The
prevailing opinion is that if one side had a sizable defense, the
other would have to build even more numerous, powerful
offensive weapons that could be used to overwhelm the other
opponents defense. And the endless, deadly cycle would just get
Enter Ronald Reagan. In 1982 he approved an effort to come up
with a defensive shield, in theory at first. Just one year later, he
announced to the nation that research would commence on the
Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") or SDI. Given
Reagan''s antipathy towards the Soviet Union it was a bold move,
though one that was ridiculed in the mainstream press.
Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an "evil empire," yet a
change had occurred at the top of the Kremlin in the form of
Mikhail Gorbachev. [Check the archives for a detailed
assessment of Gorby]. The two of them held their first summit in
Geneva - November, 1985.
The Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin
was present in Geneva and Rekyavik. At one point the following
conversation took place between the two leaders, as witnessed by
Reagan: [Regarding SDI] "It''s not an offensive system. I am
talking about a shield, not a spear."
Gorbachev: "The reality is that SDI would open a new arms
race...Why don''t you believe me when I say the Soviet Union
will never attack? Why then should I accept your sincerity in
your willingness to share SDI research when you don''t even share
your advanced technology with your allies?"
Reagan was angry.
Gorbachev: "Mr. President. I disagree with you, but I can see
you really believe it."
Between 11/85 and 10/86, there were 25 personal messages
between Reagan and Gorbachev. In February of ''86, Gorbachev
had confided to Dobrynin and other close aides, "Maybe it is time
to stop being afraid of SDI? The U.S. is counting on our
readiness to build the same kind of costly system, hoping
meanwhile that they will win this race using their technological
Gorby thought the Soviet Union could come up with a way to
overwhelm the system. But under the influence of the military -
industrial complex, he gradually began to revert to his insistence
on Reagan''s withdrawal from SDI as the condition for the
success of a new summit on disarmament. He was persuaded that
SDI would give the U.S. a first-strike advantage in nuclear
conflicts. [Since the U.S. would feel secure behind its shield, the
U.S. could attack first with impunity].
The summit in Rekyavik was held October 11-12, 1986. There
were supposed to be lots of different items on the agenda.
Instead there was only one that the two leaders wanted to discuss.
Reducing nukes. Reagan and Gorbachev met for 9 hours and 48
minutes of face-to-face meetings. Gorbachev came armed with
lots of proposals in nearly every area of arms control. He and
Reagan astonishingly agreed on a first step to cut strategic
nuclear forces in half. Then they got excited about the prospect
of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether, including missiles and
strategic bombers. "I have a picture," Reagan said, "that after ten
years you and I come to Iceland and bring the last two missiles in
the world and have the biggest damn celebration of it!"
Reagan would later say that "one lousy word" spoiled the picture.
SDI. Gorbachev insisted on confining SDI to "laboratory"
testing. And Reagan would not give up his pet project.
Remarkably he offered to share it. Gorbachev was worried about
the first-strike capability the U.S. might then possess. At
midnight the talks broke off and they walked in silence from the
"Mr. President," said Gorbachev when they reached Reagan''s
car, "you have missed a unique chance of going down in history
as a great president who paved the way for nuclear disarmament."
A gloomy Reagan answered: "That applies to both of us."
I''ll never forget that scene on the television. The media had a
field day with Reagan. Gorbachev was the international darling
of the moment. Clearly, it was Reagan who had missed a golden
opportunity to make progress in the arms race. Meanwhile, his
own aides were appalled that he had offered to give up all nuclear
But back in Moscow, there was a different feeling. Dobrynin
wrote, "As an eyewitness at Rekyavik, I feel Gorbachev was no
less responsible than Reagan for its failure because he held SDI
hostage for the success of the meeting. It could have been
postponed for further consideration if they had reached agreement
on a deep reduction of nuclear weapons."
Historian Paul Johnson has a different take. "The effect of SDI
was to add to the stresses on the Soviet economy and thus
eventually destroy the totalitarian states. SDI allowed the U.S. to
make full use of its advanced technology, where it held a big (and,
as it turned out, growing) lead over the Soviet Union. SDI was
an example of Reagan''s ability to grasp a big new idea, simplify it,
and give it all it was worth, including presenting it to the
American people with consummate skill. It was the most
important change in American strategic policy since the adoption
of containment and the foundation of NATO."
By February, 1987, Gorbachev said he would no longer let SDI
stand in the way of a treaty to remove missiles from Europe and
Asia. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty the leaders signed
on December8, 1987, led to the first-ever agreement to destroy
nuclear missiles: 859 of America''s and 1836 Soviet missiles with
a range of 300 to 3400 miles. It was unprecedented and heroic,
on both sides.
Personally, I get a kick out of those right wing members of my
party who make idiotic statements like "the U.S. never benefited
from an arms control treaty." By sticking to SDI in ''86, Reagan
was able to accomplish a significant achievement in the
elimination of the Intermediate Nuclear Force in Europe.
Undoubtedly, we will have future conflicts with Russia. At least
this is one class of weapon Europe doesn''t have to worry about.
*In light of Edmund Morris biography of Reagan, "Dutch," I
thought it would be interesting to share the thoughts of Anatoly
Dobrynin. Dobrynin was in Reagan''s company on many
occasions, many of a tense nature. I trust his impressions more
than those of Morris.
"One of the keys to the puzzle of this unique personality was that
opponents and experts alike clearly underestimated him. The
president proved to be a much deeper person than he first
appeared. There is no denying that Reagan had a poor
conception of our relations and did not like examining their
intricacies, especially those concerning arms negotiations, yet he
struck it lucky, and more often than any other president. His
supposedly guileless personality also helped him to get away with
many things; he fully deserved the nickname of the "Teflon
President" conferred on him.
"Reagan was endowed with natural instinct, flair, and optimism.
His imagination supported big ideas like SDI. He presented his
own image skillfully, and it appealed to millions. In no small
measure it was rooted in his confident and promising nature,
which was not necessarily prompted by wisdom and knowledge
but by personal conviction and character. He skillfully
manipulated public opinion by means of strong illustrative
catchwords which oversimplified complex questions and therefore
flew straight over the heads of the professionals into the hearts
and minds of the millions, for good or ill.
"But his overriding strength lay in his ability, whether deliberate
or instinctive I was never quite sure, to combine the incompatible
in the outward simplicity of his approach and in his conviction
that his views were correct, even if they were sometimes
erroneous or untenable. The point is, he knew they were
nevertheless supported by the population and by his own evident
stubborn and dogged determination to put his ideas into effect."
This kind of leadership is lacking today. The way the current
administration handles the latest discussions on ABM are crucial
to world peace.
Sources: "The American Century," by Harold Evans
"A History of the American People," by Paul Johnson
"In Confidence," by Anatoly Dobrynin.