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Jason Saltoun-Ebin

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25 Years After Reykjavik: What We Now Know

Posted: 10/18/11 12:40 PM ET

In the summer of 1984, as President Reagan was moving forward with his intention to research and deploy the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviets called for bilateral meetings on the "militarization of space" to be connected with intermediate range nuclear weapons and strategic arms negotiations. The NST (Nuclear and Space Talks) negotiations, however, quickly stalled as the Soviet's were undergoing a leadership crisis: three General Secretaries of the Soviet Union died between 1982 and 1985 giving Reagan the opportunity to famously say that he had been trying to negotiate with the Soviets since he took office in 1981 but that it was impossible because they all kept dying on him. With the ascendency of Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of general secretary, the Soviet Union was now led by a youthful reformer who would test Reagan's sincerity by proposing to not only eliminate intermediate range nuclear weapons, but all nuclear weapons.

Although arms control negotiations quickly resumed once Gorbachev settled into the Kremlin, it was not until Reagan and Gorbachev decided to meet in Geneva in November 1985 that the negotiations took on a sense of urgency. About a month before, in October 1985, Gorbachev tried to inject energy into the negotiation with a public call for a 50 percent reduction in "nuclear delivery systems"; a ceiling for strategic weapons; equal reductions of 6,000 warheads; and to move towards the goal in ten-to-fifteen years of eliminating all intermediate range nuclear weapons in Europe.

The United States formalized its response to Gorbachev's proposal in NSDD 195, signed October 30, 1985, and publicly presented the new American proposals the next day in a nationally televised speech. Reagan told the world that the new U.S. plan called for a limit of 6,000 ballistic missile warheads for the Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs), a sub-ceiling of 4,500 warheads, and a ceiling of 1,500 for ICBMs, which approximately represented a 50 percent reduction in strategic weapons. In terms of INF, Reagan proposed equal reductions, with a cap of 140 delivery systems around the world.

The Geneva Summit, a month later, marked the first meeting in seven years between a president of the United States and a general secretary of the Soviet Union. The super-power summit started with a private meeting (interpreters and note-takers only), in which Reagan characterized U.S.-Soviet relations as a "peaceful competition" and Gorbachev emphasized cooperation rather than confrontation" and the importance of halting the arms race. Reagan, perhaps already sensing that a deal was not in reach, suggested starting with confidence-building measures. "In the meeting with the larger group, where we should soon move," Reagan told Gorbachev, "the sides can explain why there is mistrust, but can also begin to try to eliminate this mistrust."

Moving into the big conference room for the first plenary session, Gorbachev welcomed Reagan's proposal for further exchanges in the areas of science and technology to help remove the distrust that currently existed. Moving to SDI, Reagan called it a "shield" and criticized Gorbachev for trying to curtail SDI when the Soviet's already had "the same kind of research program." "If one or both of us come up with such a system," Reagan added, "then they should sit down and make it available to everyone so no one would have a fear of a nuclear strike." Gorbachev held his response until the afternoon session.

"We think SDI can lead to an arms race in space, and not just a defensive arms race, but an offensive arms race with space weapons," Gorbachev told Reagan in their afternoon session. The General Secretary continued,

Space weapons are harder to verify and will feed suspicions and mistrust. Scientists say any shield can be pierced, so SDI cannot save us. So why create it? It only makes sense if to defend against a retaliatory strike....

I know that you, Mr. President, are attached to SDI, and for that reason we have analyzed it seriously. Our conclusion is that if the U.S. implements its plan, we will not cooperate in an effort to gain superiority over us. We will have to frustrate this plan, and we will build up in order to smash your shield.

You say the Soviet Union is doing the same, but this is not the case. Both of us do research in space of course, but our research is for peaceful purposes. The U.S., in contrast has military aims, and that is an important difference. The U.S. goal violates the ABM Treaty, which is of fundamental importance. Testing is also inconsistent with the Treaty, and can only exacerbate mistrust.

If the U.S. embarks on SDI the following will happen: (1) No reduction of offensive weapons; and (2) We will respond. This response will not be a mirror image of your program, but a simpler, more effective system.

Three more private meetings and two plenary sessions followed over the next two days, but both Reagan and Gorbachev were committed to their positions. All was not lost, however, because Gorbachev agreed to visit Washington in 1986 and Reagan agreed to go to Moscow in 1987.

Stopping at NATO headquarters on the way home, Reagan called SDI "one of the most important developments of this century... it was clear that we could not reconcile our differences over SDI." With respect to a possible INF agreement, Reagan reported an interim agreement capping NATO missiles at the level deployed at the end of that year with the Soviets reducing down to the same level within range of NATO Europe as well as proportionate reductions in Asia. Foreshadowing an INF agreement, Reagan also stated that they agreed to separate out INF talks so that INF "would not be held hostage to progress in space talks."

The official transcripts of the Geneva Summit as well as all the other documents mentioned above can be accessed on The Reagan Files website.

Fearing that arms control negotiations would continue to no avail, Gorbachev made an informal proposal in September 1986 for a quick two-day meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland to inject urgency into the arms control negotiations. Gorbachev, however, did not want to use the opportunity for a simple meeting -- he wanted to achieve a major breakthrough in arms reductions. Reagan, who by this time was probably more serious about reaching an arms control reductions agreement than any other time in his presidency, however, came to Reykjavik with the expectation that the two leaders were only going to feel each other out, not actually engage in serious negotiations. This difference in attitude made for some very tense meetings, which spanned all areas of U.S.-Soviet relations. In terms of arms control, Gorbachev presented to Reagan sweeping concessions that included: 1) The complete removal of both Soviet and American intermediate range nuclear forces from the European theater while still allowing the British and French to keep their existing intermediate range weapons; and 2) A ceiling of 100 intermediate range missiles outside of Europe. In terms of strategic arms, Gorbachev also proposed an across-the-board 50 percent reduction for both the United States and Soviet Union. Gorbachev said that all these reductions were contingent on Reagan agreeing to restrict SDI testing to laboratories for the next ten years, but that SDI could be deployed once these reductions were accomplished. This way, Gorbachev argued, the United States would not gain the ability to have both a first strike capability as well as the possibility of defending against a second strike retaliatory response.

SDI research and testing, Reagan told Gorbachev, was non-negotiable because he had promised the American people he would not restrict SDI. Reagan even asked Gorbachev for "a favor" in agreeing to include the language providing for unrestricted SDI testing, but Gorbachev could not face returning to the Soviet Union without an agreement on SDI. Summing up the feel in the room, Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze made one last plea to Reagan's sense of history: "If future generations read the minutes of these meetings, and saw how close we had come but how we did not use these opportunities, they would never forgive us."

The reality, however, was that Reagan and Gorbachev were not nearly as close to an agreement as Shevardnadze thought. In fact, according to a very top-secret paper prepared by National Security Adviser John Poindexter after the Summit,

Immediately following Reykjavik, the President... concluded that:

(1) The United States would continue to reject eliminating all nuclear weapons in 10 years, and focus attention on the proposals that you handed over to Gorbachev in writing in Iceland which were focused on the elimination of all offensive ballistic missiles in 10 years; however

(2) The United States would stand firm by our long-term commitment to the ultimate goal of the total elimination of all nuclear weapons, but always cast this in terms of a long-term goal which will require the correction of existing conventional force imbalances and other conditions that require us to have the nuclear weapons in the first place.

Another highly top-secret memo, this one from Nitze to Shultz, dated March 11, 1987 (not released until May 2009), suggests that even before Reykjavik the United States was conducting space-based SDI testing. Nitze wrote in that memo that another test was planned for early 1988 and that the test was within the restrictive interpretation of the ABM Treaty although Weinberger wanted to move to the broader interpretation "to add a test of a space-based kinetic-kill interceptor against a target launched into space from earth."

All the above mentioned documents can be found either online at or in print in The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan's Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War.


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