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High Stakes

by Paul Lettow

Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War, by Ken Adelman (Broadside, 384 pp., $29.99)

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.

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