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Ultimately Arms Control Is About One-to-One Relationships

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The 2010 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons review conference is just around the corner. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty awaits ratification by the U.S. Senate. The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is being negotiated by the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. What do they have in common?

I mean besides the new age that would be ushered in if all three were implemented. The correct answer is that should that come to pass, it would be the result of men and women from different nations working together and perhaps even bonding over a common cause.

What? Nuclear treaties are no time to go all warm and fuzzy. Never fear, at least a couple of the world's most belligerent cold warriors shared their dreams of a world free of nuclear weapons with their counterparts across the frozen aisle. Ronald Reagan, for example, opened up to Mikhail Gorbachev, as chronicled in Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race by Richard Rhodes (Knopf, 2007).

Before the two met in Geneva for talks that served as a precursor to the Reykjavik summit, "Gorbachev's breakthrough in personal relations with Western political leaders," said Reagan's national security director William Odom, "convinced most of them he was serious."

At Geneva, like a stage father ushering his untalented child in front of the cameras, Reagan was adamant about the Strategic Defense Initiative, just as he would prove to be at Reykjavik. Rhodes:

"'It looks like a dead end,'" Gorbachev remembers saying then. "An uneasy silence fell upon the room," he wrote. "The pause was becoming oppressive."

"'How about taking a walk?'" the American president suddenly asked.

"'That seems like a good idea to me,'" Gorbachev replied.

Rather than try to negotiate as they walked, they talked about Reagan's movies. Gorbachev diplomatically volunteered the information that he had recently watched Kings' Row [You know, his "Where's the rest of me?" movie.] and had liked it very much. ...

"The walk," Gorbachev remembers, "the change of scene. . . helped to alleviate the tension."

Reagan stuck to his guns about missile defense.

"We were going around in circles," Gorbachev writes. "At that point, the President unexpectedly invited me to visit the United States, and I reciprocated by inviting him to Moscow." Thus, effortlessly, Reagan had accomplished his advisers' primary goal for the summit, which was to open the way to further meetings down the road.

Then, at Reykjavik, both wore their hearts on the sleeve about nuclear disarmament.

Reagan said: "It would be fine with me if we got rid of them all."

Gorbachev: "We can do that. We can eliminate them all."

But, hung up on his baby, SDI, Reagan asked for a "personal favor," as he called it, "and you refused me. ... I ask you again to change your mind as a favor to me, so that we can go to the people as peacemakers."

Nor was Reagan afraid to show his disappointment. Of Gorbachev's demeanor after they failed to arrive at an agreement, he wrote in his diary, "He tried to act jovial but I was mad and showed it."

Still, Reyjkavik resulted in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the first to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.

Less well-known than how direct Reagan and Gorbachev were with each other is the relationship between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Unlikely as that seems in light of the Soviet leader's cold war hooliganism, such as informing the West "We will bury you" and his podium-pounding at the UN. However, you may have heard that back-channel negotiations between the two men halted the Cuban Missile Crisis in its tracks.

Turns out, according to information declassified in 1991, that they had been secret BFFs since September 1961, when Tubby K began writing Hunky K during the Berlin Crisis. Since, both their efforts to avert war -- likely nuclear -- were opposed by their respective nation's military leaders and national security advisors, they were forced to keep their communications secret. James Douglass explains in JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters (Orbis, 2008).

Khrushchev wrote that "we have no other alternative: either we should live in peace and cooperation so that the Ark [a favored analogy for the world between the two of them] maintains its buoyancy, or else it sinks."

Kennedy: "Neither of us is going to convert the other to a new social, economic or political point of view. ... So, these letters can be free from the polemics of the 'cold war' debate."

Khrushchev: "Whatever our differences, our collaboration to keep the peace is as urgent -- if not more urgent -- than our collaboration to win the last world war."

As with Reagan and Gorbachev there was no shortage of differences of opinion over the Cold War. Douglass writes:

After a year of private letters that included more than a little "cold war debate," Kennedy and Khrushchev had by October 1962 not resolved their most dangerous differences. The missile crisis was proof of that.

But, of course, it was the crisis that also brought them back together again as they reined in the war-making process by making concessions. Then Kennedy gave his groundbreaking June 1963 commencement address at American University in which he proposed an end to the Cold War:

Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world government -- and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude -- as individuals and as a nation -- for our attitude is as essential as theirs. Every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward -- by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the cold war and toward freedom and peace here at home."

Douglass notes:

Nikita Khrushchev was deeply moved. He told test-ban negotiator Averell Harriman that Kennedy had given "the greatest speech by any American President since Roosevelt." Khrushchev responded by proposing to Kennedy that they now consider a limited test ban encompassing the atmosphere, outer space, and water.

Thus did their the pen pals pave way for the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which outlawed nuclear tests in the atmosphere and in space or under water.

Here's hoping that President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will, if they haven't already, open back-channel negotiations. How great would that be if Medvedev's emails -- inevitably encoded -- pop up on Obama's famous Blackberry.