In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Iceland for what were supposed to be brief working discussions to prepare for a summit later that year in Washington. What actually transpired over that weekend in Reykjavik was one of the oddest episodes of the Cold War. Reagan and Gorbachev engaged in over ten hours of wide-ranging, unscripted debate. The Soviets caved on long-held arms-control positions one after another, which stunned and elated the Americans. In their final session, Reagan proposed to Gorbachev that they abolish all of their nuclear weapons. Gorbachev agreed. Yet Gorbachev insisted on tying arms reductions to terms that would sharply limit Reagan’s cherished dream of a defense against missiles. Reagan refused. The media, which had known little of what had been going on all weekend, suddenly witnessed a furious Reagan and a resigned Gorbachev parting outside the wooden house where they had met.
From that moment, the almost universal reaction to Reykjavik, including among U.S. allies and even members of Reagan’s own administration, was bafflement. In the meeting’s aftermath, few seemed to understand what had happened, why, or what it would mean. As it turns out, two who did were Reagan and Gorbachev.
Ken Adelman was Reagan’s arms-control director at the time of the Reykjavik meeting, and participated in it. In Reagan at Reykjavik — part history, part memoir, part requiem — he looks back on that weekend and does his part to answer those questions. Adelman’s career before joining the Reagan administration had been unorthodox. He had held a post in the Ford-administration Pentagon, but had also served as a staffer in the Nixon White House’s anti-poverty office and as a translator for Muhammad Ali before his “Rumble in the Jungle.” Since leaving the Reagan administration, Adelman has devoted much time to teaching and writing about Shakespeare. Perhaps because of that background, Adelman’s book is more deftly written, and more infused with humor and wistfulness, than the typical effort by a former official.
Adelman vividly conveys what it was like to be there that weekend. The officers who carried each country’s nuclear codes stood silently, just a few feet apart from each other, in the hallway outside Reagan and Gorbachev’s meeting room. Reagan and Gorbachev each selected a handful of negotiators to work in greater detail on an arms agreement during a break in their own sessions. Led on the U.S. side by the 78-year-old Paul Nitze, who had held a senior post in the Truman administration, and on the Soviet side by Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, who had stood his ground for 18 months during the Siege of Leningrad, the teams pulled an all-nighter. (Adelman’s first, he notes.) Adelman and the other U.S. officials marveled as Akhromeyev, head of the Soviet armed forces and Hero of the Soviet Union, made sweeping concessions to the Americans, restraining his Soviet colleagues when they tried to relitigate prior positions. Officials from the two countries, united in being mystified by the one copier in the house, resorted to writing their agreements on carbon paper, which the Soviet officer who brandished it referred to as “Soviet high-tech.” During the climactic session, the U.S. and Soviet delegations waited upstairs, anxiously and helplessly, as throughout the weekend the only advisers Reagan and Gorbachev had with them in their meeting room were their foreign ministers, who barely got a word in edgewise.
Adelman keeps a sense of perspective, which means that the central figures are Reagan and Gorbachev. His portrayal of Gorbachev is both appreciative and realistic. Gorbachev knew that the Soviet system had to change. And he believed that, to have the time and space to reform that system, he needed to curtail the Cold War competition. The Soviets were devoting obscene resources to that global contest — far more, relatively speaking, than the United States — while falling ever farther behind economically and technologically. Adelman usefully includes meeting notes taken by Gorbachev’s closest aides as the Soviet side prepared for Reykjavik. Gorbachev told his colleagues that should he fail to secure an agreement at Reykjavik, “we will be pulled into an arms race beyond our power, and we will lose,” because the USSR was “presently at the limit of our capabilities.” “The arms race overburdens our economy,” he said. “That is why we need a breakthrough.”
Long before he became president, and throughout his years in office, Reagan believed that the Soviet Union was vulnerable — economically, technologically, ideologically — to a sustained, reinvigorated competition from the West, including a military buildup. We know this because he said so, over and over. He also believed that if faced with that all-out competition, Soviet leaders could be forced to change, to moderate their foreign policy and also the internal Soviet system. The Reagan administration drew up classified strategy directives in his first term that combined a thoughtful analysis of the Soviet regime with a policy approach aimed at shaping the environment in which Soviet leaders made decisions, so as to encourage the mellowing of Soviet behavior and even changes in the nature of the regime. And, through its actions, notably its military buildup, it pressed hard.
Reagan also had a utopian side. He believed it was something of a personal mission to abolish nuclear weapons. And in his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative, his program to research and develop a defense against missiles, Reagan saw both a catalyst for a nuclear-free world and a guarantor of it. Adelman rightly emphasizes a fact that is underappreciated still today: To Gorbachev and others in the Soviet leadership, the promise of SDI seemed to embody their fears about falling behind the United States economically and technologically. It raised the specter of a new, high-tech arms race when they were struggling with the existing one. And Adelman notes that only one person at Reykjavik, and maybe in the world, actually believed Reagan’s promise that the U.S. would share a working missile defense with the Soviets: Reagan himself.
Reagan’s combination of hardheadedness and idealism was on full display at Reykjavik. Gorbachev repeatedly complained during the meeting that while he was making unprecedented concessions, Reagan simply pocketed them and moved ahead. Reagan genuinely wanted to abolish nuclear weapons, and was genuinely upset that Gorbachev scuttled their deal because he insisted on trammeling SDI. Yet he understood that Gorbachev’s moves had been motivated by something not far from desperation.
Despite his hyperbolic subtitle, Adelman does not actually argue that Reykjavik ended the Cold War. But he observes, quite properly, that after Reykjavik, Gorbachev saw much less hope of restraining the U.S.–Soviet competition through near-term agreements, and more urgency for making more-thorough changes in Soviet foreign and domestic policy. Adelman also observes that while Reagan was relentless in pushing the Soviets and seeking advantage over them, he was nimble in working with Gorbachev when he perceived, much earlier than most, that Gorbachev could be the critical source of change he had sought for so long.
Reagan left office over 25 years ago. He haunts us now like a ghost of greatness. Leaders of his party yearn to be the next Reagan. Even President Obama wraps himself in the Reagan mantle, at least on the subject of nuclear abolition.
Here is something we forget, or overlook: Reagan was a strategist. He understood what our adversaries were up to, why, and what it meant for us, and how we could shape the environment in which they made decisions through peaceful competition. He was keenly attuned to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the United States and our adversaries, exploiting the Soviet Union’s comparative vulnerabilities while relentlessly pressing U.S. comparative advantages. In league with perhaps only the Roosevelts and Eisenhower, Reagan understood how trends in hard power — economic, technological, and military — affected our and others’ freedom of action in the world, including the ability to promote one’s values. In short, Reagan played the long game.
Those who would be Reagan, take note.
– Mr. Lettow is the author of Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.