THE BLOG
05/18/2010 10:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Did Reagan Favor Abolishing Nuclear Weapons?

Immediately after the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, during which President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev were thought to have been within words of agreeing to abolish nuclear weapons, Reagan endorsed a paper called "Why We Can't Commit to Eliminating All Nuclear Weapons Within 10 Years." The paper, written by former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, "reviews why we should avoid giving the impression that the US proposes eliminating all nuclear weapons in 10 years, and clarifies why the proposals that were handed over to General Secretary Gorbachev in writing in Iceland were focused on the elimination of all offensive ballistic missiles in 10 years." Poindexter continues:

Eliminating all nuclear weapons (once again ignoring the forces of the UK, France, China and others for simplicity) would push us back to a situation that existed on the eve of WW II - with the peace dependent upon the assessment of an aggressor of the relative strength of his conventional forces alone. However, instead of the Panzar divisions that Hitler had at his disposal, we would face the challenge posed by the combined arms capability of the Soviet army. It simply is not clear that we can take the defenses sufficient to have our security rest on conventional forces alone within 10 years. If we cannot, then the Soviet ability to coerce our allies - to Finlandize other nations - will increase, and our security decrease, as a result of the premature elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Poindexter might have been correct, but reading the transcripts from the Reykjavik Summit it is clear that Reagan and Gorbachev were negotiating to abolish nuclear weapons within 10 years. How do you explain Reagan, then, just days later totally abandoning any thought of abolishing nuclear weapons within 10 years?

Reagan might have had a change of heart after Reykjavik, but I'm leaning towards another explanation: Reagan really was unsure about whether or not the United States could afford to abolish nuclear weapons and he went to Reykjavik unprepared for the discussion. In fact, this is what Reagan said in an October 13, 1981 meeting of the National Security Council:

Do we really want a zero-option for the battlefield? Don't we need these nuclear systems? Wouldn't it be bad for us to give them up since we need them to handle Soviet conventional superiority?

Reagan's lack of preparedness, if true, explains why some of his aides were pushing for an agreement to abolish offensive ballistic missiles while others were pushing for abolishing all nuclear weapons, and why Reagan and Gorbachev went back and forth between negotiating to abolish nuclear weapons and negotiating to just abolish all offensive ballistic missiles.

Abolishing nukes or offensive ballistic missiles was only one part of the story of Reykjavik. The other part is the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which appeared to be the sticking point; Reagan wanted unlimited SDI testing and Gorbachev wanted SDI testing constrained for 10 years (until all nuclear weapons were abolished).

I am not convinced that SDI really was the sticking point for two reasons: Gorbachev conceded that after 10 years the United States could conduct unlimited SDI testing, and if Reagan really thought abolishing nuclear weapons was in the best interest of the United States, limiting SDI testing to a laboratory for 10 years would have been a small concession.

Another recently released document from the Reagan Library adds another element; according to the document the Department of Defense was already secretly conducting space-based SDI testing at the time Reagan and Gorbachev met at Reykjavik. If that were the case, and I think it was, Reagan could not have honestly agreed to keeping SDI research inside a laboratory for 10 years because he had already started testing in space. So Reagan was in a box: he had to kill abolishing nuclear weapons to protect the fact that the United States was already conducting space-based SDI testing which was prohibited by the ABM Treaty.

But Reagan also must have known that the SDI would only possibly work sometime in the distant future, so I think he had to have a better reason than SDI for not agreeing to eliminate nuclear weapons. Hence, the Poindexter paper, prepared and endorsed immediately after Reykjavik and supporting the conclusion that Reagan would have jeopardized U.S. national security by agreeing to abolish nuclear weapons. Actually, the cover memo to the Poindexter paper even said, "it is the unanimous judgment of the national security community that such abolition (of nuclear weapons within the near term) would not be in our interest."

A lot has changed in 25 years, and 25 years from now a lot more is going to change. But if I had to guess, I'd say that if Poindexter were the National Security Adviser today and tasked with writing a similar paper, it would say something like this:

It is the unanimous judgment of the national security community that the United States can only stay one step ahead of terrorists for so long ... If all nuclear weapons are not accounted for within the next 10 years, it is extremely likely that the United States will not be able to prevent the detonation of a nuclear weapon within the continental United States. Therefore, the United States must do everything possible to move the discussion of nuclear weapons from a discussion of non-proliferation towards a discussion of abolishing all nuclear weapons now. The risks of not abolishing nuclear weapons are just too great.

I'd bet that Reagan would have endorsed that paper 25 years ago.