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04/30/2009

Reykjavik 1986

Having just been to Iceland, and having visited the scene of the historic 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, I thought I’d return to a piece I did 10 years ago, especially since arms control is back on the agenda between the United States and Russia, starting with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty that was signed between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972.

The treaty was designed to prevent the two nations from deploying antimissile defense systems that, 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 opponent’s defense, and the endless, deadly cycle would just get worse.

Enter Ronald Reagan. In 1982 he approved an effort to come up with a defensive shield, in theory at first.  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.  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 Reykjavik. At one point the following conversation took place between the two leaders, as witnessed by Dobrynin.

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 ‘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 superiority.”

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 Reykjavik 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 conference site.

“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 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 weapons.

But back in Moscow, there was a different feeling. Dobrynin wrote, “As an eyewitness at Reykjavik, 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 December 8, 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’ critical 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, more than a few 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.”

Sources:

“The American Century,” by Harold Evans
“A History of the American People,” by Paul Johnson
“In Confidence,” by Anatoly Dobrynin 

Hot Spots returns next week.

Brian Trumbore

 


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-04/30/2009-      
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Hot Spots

04/30/2009

Reykjavik 1986

Having just been to Iceland, and having visited the scene of the historic 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, I thought I’d return to a piece I did 10 years ago, especially since arms control is back on the agenda between the United States and Russia, starting with the Antiballistic Missile Treaty that was signed between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972.

The treaty was designed to prevent the two nations from deploying antimissile defense systems that, 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 opponent’s defense, and the endless, deadly cycle would just get worse.

Enter Ronald Reagan. In 1982 he approved an effort to come up with a defensive shield, in theory at first.  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.  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 Reykjavik. At one point the following conversation took place between the two leaders, as witnessed by Dobrynin.

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 ‘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 superiority.”

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 Reykjavik 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 conference site.

“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 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 weapons.

But back in Moscow, there was a different feeling. Dobrynin wrote, “As an eyewitness at Reykjavik, 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 December 8, 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’ critical 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, more than a few 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.”

Sources:

“The American Century,” by Harold Evans
“A History of the American People,” by Paul Johnson
“In Confidence,” by Anatoly Dobrynin 

Hot Spots returns next week.

Brian Trumbore