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Recently Released Letters Between Reagan and Gorbachev Shed Light on the End of the Cold War

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The following is an excerpt from my latest book, Dear Mr. President... Reagan/Gorbachev and the Correspondence that Ended the Cold War.

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RONALD WILSON REAGAN, the 40th president of the United States, went to sleep on the night of March 10, 1985 unaware that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were about to take a dramatic turn for the better. In Moscow, Konstantin Chernenko, the general secretary of the Soviet Union, lay dying in bed. Although his successor had yet to be chosen, since news of Chernenko's ill health had surfaced months before, western leaders like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were quietly hoping that Mikhail Gorbachev, a young soviet reformer, would be made the next general secretary of the Soviet Union.

The significance of Chernenko's death was lost on the 40th president. Reagan's diary entry for March 11, 1985 simply noted that he was woken at 4 AM and told of Chernenko's death. In the days that followed, Reagan, in his own words, "decided not to waste any time in trying to get to know the new Soviet leader." Perhaps more than anything, Chernenko's death frustrated the 40th president.

"How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me," he asked his wife upon hearing the news.

Never did Reagan imagine that Chernenko's death would later be seen as a turning point in the Cold War. Instead of electing another septuagenarian on his death bed, the leaders of the Soviet Union, perhaps echoing Reagan's frustration, realized they might never get anywhere with the Americans if their leaders kept dying on them. So they went for change, which came in the form of 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Soviet Politburo and the first general secretary of the Soviet Union born after the Russian Revolution.

If change is what the Politburo wanted, Gorbachev did not disappoint.

"In Gorbachev we have an entirely different kind of leader in the Soviet Union than we have experienced before," Secretary of State George Shultz thought after meeting Gorbachev for the first time.

The CIA concurred:

"In his first 100 days, Gorbachev has demonstrated...that he is the most aggressive and activist Soviet leader since Khrushchev."

But Reagan needed some convincing.

"I can't claim that I believed from the start that Mikhail Gorbachev was going to be a different sort of Soviet leader," Reagan wrote in his autobiography. "Instead...I was wary."

Reagan was right to be wary. It was his job to protect Americans, and in 1985 no threat to American interests seemed to be greater than of Soviet efforts for world domination. Reagan's friend and director of central intelligence, William Casey, concurred, telling the president that Gorbachev and those around him are "not reformers and liberalizers either in Soviet domestic or foreign policy."

Time has shown that those who questioned Gorbachev's sincerity were wrong. The openings of the Soviet archives have shown that Gorbachev was not out for Soviet world domination. Instead, his ascendency to general secretary signified that the Soviet Union would be contracting, not expanding. Gorbachev's rise to power meant the Soviet Union would no longer try to keep pace with the American military industrial complex. Instead of focusing on spreading ideology, the Soviet Union would now be focusing on reforming communist ideology at home. Nuclear weapons could now be reduced, Soviet thinking probably went, because 30,000 active nuclear warheads would hardly make them any safer than 3,000 if they now believed, as Gorbachev and Reagan did at the first meeting in Geneva, that a nuclear war could not be won and would not be fought.

But Reagan would not accept Gorbachev's claims without action, and made a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan a requirement for improved U.S.-Soviet relations. It was no different in arms control negotiations. Whereas Gorbachev practically threw the kitchen sink at Reagan in exchange for sweeping nuclear arms reduction treaties, Reagan's continued fear of Soviet expansion prevented him from accomplishing one of his life-long goals: the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps this was because Reagan and Gorbachev were treading in new territory. The Cold War was not like the first or second world wars. The advent of nuclear weapons had changed the paradigm of "winner take all." Nuclear weapons provided cover for the Soviet Union to abandon the Cold War without surrendering. At the same time, Reagan likely did not realize that the United States could win the Cold War without a Soviet surrender. Even if Reagan realized the Soviet's were in fact retreating, his experiences in the second world war, like his characterization of détente as an opportunity for the Soviet Union to secretly rearm, meant nothing more than an opportunity for the U.S. to step up the offensive to deliver an overdue knock out punch to the Soviet enemy.

How was Reagan then to respond to Gorbachev's calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons if he could not recognize that the Soviet Union was bowing out of the Cold War? How could he agree to negotiate away the one thing - nuclear weapons - that he believed had kept the United States from finding itself fighting a third world war?

Historians continue to debate the impact that individuals can have on their time period. In looking at the period 1985-1989, specifically the overlapping of Reagan's second term with the rise to power of Gorbachev, and the almost immediate easing of tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, the reasons for the subsequent end of the Cold War have varied from Reagan's consistent economic pressure that allegedly bankrupted the Soviet Union to Gorbachev's internal reforms that allowed for private ownership and governmental transparency. Many have argued that Reagan single-handedly won the Cold War. Others that Gorbachev deserves all the credit.

But those arguments, though important to the story of the end of the Cold War, leave out, I think, the most important factor in bringing the cold war to an end. Instead of Reagan's economic pressure and massive defense spending that bankrupted the Soviet Union, or Gorbachev's internal reforms that westernized the Soviet Union, the private and mostly top-secret correspondence between Reagan and Gorbachev forced the two leaders to continue to talk, debate, argue, disagree, but also offer proposals even when they thought no agreement would be possible. Both Reagan and Gorbachev recognized that change was coming, and both wanted to be on the right side of history. But they needed to find a way to overcome forty years of Cold War ideology. They needed to find a way to trust each other. It was this trust, established through twelve detailed and frank letters that provided the basis for their first meeting in Geneva, in November 1985, just eight months after Gorbachev came to power. And 15 more letters that provided the basis for their next meeting, in Reykjavik, not even a year later. Though the Geneva and Reykjavik meetings failed to produce any arms control agreements, or really agreements on anything, their shared belief that they needed to continue to do everything in their power to prevent a nuclear war kept them talking, and kept them writing.

Yes, this is a simple argument. Almost exactly two-years before Gorbachev came to power, Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire." Two weeks after the "evil empire" speech, Reagan announced that the United States would need a way to protect itself from this "evil empire." "Star Wars" or the Strategic Defense Initiative was borne. Reagan and his team didn't immediately realize it at the time, but Star Wars freaked the Soviets out. Not only because the Americans might create a missile shield, but because Reagan had just called them an "evil empire," ordered the deployment of intermediate range nuclear weapons to western Europe, conducted a NATO operation simulating an attack on the Soviet Union, and was now building a defense, which could be used both as a defense against a first-strike, but also against a second-strike - that was just in 1983.

To be clear - from the first day Reagan took office, he made it his goal to do everything he could, short of a nuclear war, to destroy the Soviet Union. His principal weapon of attack, thus, was economic sanctions. Those sanctions had little long-term impact - the Soviet Union still built their trans-Siberian oil and gas pipeline despite Reagan's best efforts to restrict Soviet access to western technology needed to complete the pipeline. And though he never said it, Reagan may have been hoping that Star Wars would force the Soviet Union into a bankrupting arms race. But, of course, that was not the case. Gorbachev would not bite -- he wisely told Reagan that all the Soviet Union would need to do to defeat his shield is just build more missiles. Gorbachev was right - when you are talking about nuclear war, what good is a shield as a deterrent when it is only 50%, or 75% effective?

So what changed from Reagan's "evil empire" speech in March 1983 to his standing in Red Square, in May 1988, and declaring that when he called the Soviet Union an evil empire five years earlier he was talking about a different era? It was trust, built through over 40 letters and four one-on-one meetings, all in just over three years. Reagan supporters like to say that in Gorbachev, Reagan had found a wiling partner, that Reagan had wanted all along to establish a strong working relationship with the Soviet leaders but they weren't willing to do so. But, that wasn't the case. Brezhnev, then Andropov, and then Chernenko all wrote Reagan, offering arms control proposals and other measures to build better relations between the two countries. But Reagan just was not interested. Between 1981 and 1985 he was not interested in compromise, he was interested in achieving his "strength through peace" agenda. Plus, his hard-line anti-communism kept him from trusting these hard-line communists. Gorbachev, though Reagan refused to recognize it at first, was different. He was young, energetic, clearly a reformer, and at a time of heightened tensions he went public with his proposals to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. Reagan had no choice but to try and keep up. So despite their vast differences, they kept writing, and they kept meeting, and finally they had a breakthrough. In their third meeting, in Washington in December 1987, they signed the first nuclear arms reductions treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. The 1987 intermediate range nuclear forces treaty eliminated the most destabilizing class of nuclear weapons. Weapons based on mobile platforms in Europe and Asia, and capable of destroying a major European city in just a few minutes. But Reagan and Gorbachev were not done - after signing the INF Treaty they spent the rest of their time in Washington negotiating a START treaty, which called for a 50% reduction in offensive ballistic missiles. Reagan and Gorbachev were optimistic that the START Treaty would be signed when they met a few months later in Moscow. But, like earlier negotiations, as long as Gorbachev tied any arms control agreement to limiting research and development of the SDI, Reagan would never agree. It took until 1991, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, for Gorbachev to finally drop his objections to SDI. That year, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Bush and Gorbachev finally agreed to the START Treaty based on a 50% reduction in ballistic missiles -- the same premise that Reagan and Gorbachev had started with at their 1986 meeting in Reykjavik.

Perhaps then the real story of the end of the Cold War is just a simple tale of how an old hard-line anti-Communist president of the United States and a young Soviet reformer discovered that, despite their vast differences, all they needed to do was find one common area of agreement to change the world. The elimination of nuclear weapons became their focus.

Reagan's first letter to Gorbachev extended an invitation to the new Soviet leader to come to Washington so they could meet and discuss issues like working towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. Gorbachev immediately agreed to a summit "to search for mutual understanding on the basis of equality and account of the legitimate interests of each other." Gorbachev also told Reagan that the United States and Soviet Union had to do everything in their power to avoid a nuclear war.

Reagan and Gorbachev succeeded in that ultimate goal thanks to their courage to trust each other at a time when no one else thought they should. That trust, however, did not come easy for either of them.

"I realize those first letters marked the cautious beginning on both sides of what was to become the foundation of not only a better relationship between our countries," Reagan reflected in his autobiography, "but a friendship between two men."

With the fate of a combined U.S. and Soviet population of over 500 million people at stake, word-by-word, Reagan and Gorbachev started the process that led to the peaceful end of the Cold War.

Click here to purchase Dear Mr. President... Reagan/Gorbachev and the Correspondence that Ended the Cold War.

Click here to see all the original documents from this book, as well as thousands of other recently declassified documents from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.