1986: The Cold War in Reykjavik and the Almost Nuclear Disarmament

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

When General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and President Ronald Reagan of the United States met at Reykjavik in 1986, neither party knew exactly how the meeting would go. Lasting but two frigid days in October, the summit in the capital of Iceland would be hailed as having a large impact on American-Soviet relations for the remaining years of the Cold War, despite no actual agreement being made. But what exactly was the significance of Reykjavik? Even more importantly, what conditions allowed for what was essentially a private conversation between arguably the two most powerful, and most watched, men in the world?

What became the Reykjavik Summit initially began as a simple letter to Reagan from Gorbachev written on the 15th of September 1986. Recognizing the tension in recent American-Soviet relations, Gorbachev asserted that it was the duty of each leader to exert their influence in preventing tensions from escalating to dangerous levels. He accused Reagan of acting counter to this responsibility. Despite Soviet commitment to implementing the agreements made the previous year in Geneva, the Americans had made no significant efforts to improve American-Soviet relations, ceased trying to accelerate negotiations on nuclear armaments and, worst of all, continued in their dogged pursuit of military superiority. In order to find out if the United States was truly committed to terminating the arms race, and pursue genuine disarmament, Gorbachev suggested they cut away the bureaucracy and politics to meet in either London or Iceland so that they might converse face to face. It was his hope that such a meeting would break the deadlock.

Photo of Downtown Reykjavik courtesy of Pixabay

In full disclosure, Gorbachev presented three main topics for the Summit, as well as the Soviet stance on each. He pressed for a strengthening of commitment to the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) treaty and an end to all US work efforts on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) except lab work for 15 years. In return, the Soviets would offer a significant reduction in strategic offensive arms, which they were prepared to do without delay, that both sides might demonstrate good faith. In addition, Gorbachev suggested complete elimination of all Soviet and American medium range missiles in Europe, which, if successful, would be expanded to apply to Asia as well. Lastly, he sought the cessation of nuclear testing, which would be enforced through political cooperation and onsite inspections. Though these three issues were of the greatest importance, Gorbachev expressed a willingness to conduct productive discussions on other issues, such as the reduction of conventional armed forces/arms, a chemical weapons ban, regional issues and even humanitarian issues.

The importance of this letter to the Reykjavik Summit cannot be overstated. Without it, there would have been no meeting that year. The informality and impetuousness of the letter ensured that the meeting would be at its core one not between ideologies or states but men. Perhaps this is why those two cold days in Iceland led to a thaw in nuclear disarmament negotiations. Those discussions peeled back the layers of allegiance, culture and belief, to bare the desire for a world without nuclear weapons shared by those two men. While this may very well be the case, declassified documents recording the preparation by both sides in the days leading up to the summit present other motives for a successful negotiation outside the humanitarian.

Such motives come to light as early as September 22nd of that year during a Politburo session. The notes of Anatoly Chernyaev, Gorbachev’s foreign policy advisor, on this session made clear that the Soviets felt that the Americans had no interest in reducing tensions or ending a new arms race before it could begin. Such a result would give the Soviet Union a chance to become more dynamic and democratic through perestroika, which ran counter to United States security desires. As such, the Soviets would need to seize the possibility of nuclear disarmament; otherwise, the Americans would find a way to reject it outright. This strategy was vindicated seven days later in Chernyaev’s notes about a conversation between Gorbachev and his assistants. The meeting revealed that the international community was talking extensively about the impending summit. Gorbachev saw this extra attention as a tool to be used by the Soviets to prevent the United States from talking away the proposals contained in his letter to Reagan.

Apart from the goal of political reform, a second motive was made clear in Chernayaev’s notes on Gorbachev’s meeting with the group getting prepared for the summit. At the end of the meeting, Gorbachev stressed nuclear disarmament as a way to reduce pressure on the Soviet Union to commit resources for a new arms race, which the economy could not support. Four days later at a Politburo meeting, Gorbachev was even more explicit in saying that the Soviet Union was doomed to lose a new arms race and, as such, should avoid one at all costs.

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The ulterior motives for the United States leading up to the summit are best made clear in a memorandum on Reykjavik sent from Secretary of State Schultz to Reagan on October 2nd. While nuclear disarmament was a central focus throughout the document, even acknowledged as the primary goal, the structure of the memo showed that convincing Gorbachev to concede the issue on testing for the SDI program was just as important. Beyond securing the SDI’s continuation for security, however, it was recommended to Reagan by the Department of State that he be more concerned with protecting himself politically, as analysts were still unsure as to what goals and tactics Gorbachev would use at the summit.

It was these underlying motives that the Soviets and Americans held to when they arrived at Reykjavik. The summit itself was broken down into four meetings over the 11th and 12th of October. Though in the end no agreement was reached, declassified documents again give us insight into the reactions of both parties in regards to the common ground found and the remaining impediments to creating strong agreements that had a chance of success.

Chernyaev’s notes on the return flight to Moscow showed that the ease with which consensus was reached on reductions to strategic weapons and intermediate range missiles demonstrated success was possible, and as such the need for more dialogue was even clearer. Only the inability to resolve US commitment to the SDI prevented the summit from being a total success. Had this been resolved, the road would have been clear of the main obstacle to Gorbachev’s proposal of full nuclear disarmament.

On the US side, a document included as part of the Secretary of State’s post-Reykjavik media event laments how poor the American side had been at guessing what the Soviets would do. Some consolation, however, could be found in the ambitious moves to go beyond marginal restraints, which were seen as a hopeful sign for future advances towards disarmament. Taking a different perspective than the Soviets, the Americans saw the major obstacle as being the ineffective ABM treaty, not Reagan’s commitment to the SDI. Perhaps the most hopeful point of all, however, was the suggestion of total nuclear disarmament. Again, while no agreement was reached, this demonstrated to Reagan just how far Gorbachev was willing to go.

These conclusions by both sides would prove to have significant effects on American-Soviet relations and the future efforts taken towards nuclear disarmament. The constructive discussions at Reykjavik made the case for increased dialogue as well as cut away the uncertainty surrounding the opinions and goals that each head of state had for disarmament. Unfortunately, as declassified documents covering events following the summit make clear, the personal conversation between two men ended with the summit and the influence of ideology and politics returned. Universal disarmament would never again be as close as it was in Iceland.

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The first event to follow on the heels of the summit was the expulsion of Soviet diplomats from the United States on October 22nd. In a Politburo meeting, Gorbachev made clear the actions of the US administration suggested they had no commitment to upholding the talks that had taken place at Reykjavik. Worse, during the meeting Gorbachev stated outright that Reagan was a liar who could not keep control of his government. Pressure was again applied to Gorbachev eight days later at another Politburo meeting, where it was revealed the flagging soviet economy continued to worsen, and that workers were ceasing to work for the worthless ruble. This was a major distraction, as the meeting was also concerned with giving instructions for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) meeting at Geneva. To deal with these issues, the decision was made to create a strict economic plan that ceased promises of assistance to the soviet satellites, and instructions were given to the representatives at Geneva to give concessions on testing. These concessions allowed testing to be conducted on the ground and in the air, though for 10 years none would be permitted in space. It speaks to the severity of problems with the Soviet economy that Gorbachev was willing to risk the dishonesty of the Americans in the disarmament process, potentially giving them military supremacy, over the possibility of an economic meltdown.

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Ironically, at around the same time as this latest Politburo meeting was occurring, a Presidential memo stated, in unequivocal terms, the need to create a detailed plan on how best to make the transition to a world without offensive ballistic missiles. Reagan’s continued commitment was reflected in his seeking recommendations for an appropriate structured approach for the elimination of US ballistic missiles by 1996, as well as on what appropriate steps could be taken to ensure the Soviets upheld their side of the bargain. Similarly, he requested recommendations on how to change the structure of military forces to reflect this elimination of missiles, so that the military would remain strong and be able to meet American alliance commitments.

It was at this point that a pattern could be seen in the behavior of both sides. Without the face-to-face conversations and assurances that were had at Reykjavik, doubt and distrust came to the forefront in any discussion or diplomatic action by both states. Further, it was clear that, despite setbacks, Gorbachev and Reagan remained committed to disarmament. However, the politics in each state were steeped in suspicion towards the other, which meant the level of trust required to take definitive steps perpetually fell short over the weeks following Reykjavik. This impasse would only get worse by November and December.

By November 13th, Gorbachev sensed European opinions for disarmament were increasingly in favor of the Soviet proposals. With this shift in mind, Gorbachev instructed the Soviet representatives in Vienna to make clear the USSR’s continued commitment to disarmament, that growing pressure from Western Europe might make the US more actively pursue the negotiations. In addition, he recognized that steps would need to be taken to fix the Soviet conception of human rights, both at home and abroad, in a way that security was not compromised. By properly doing so, pressure from dissidents might be eliminated. This stance was further reinforced less than a week later when Gorbachev stated a focus must be kept on Reykjavik, regardless of the US aim to sidestep it in favor of their problems in Iran, Libya and Nicaragua. While Gorbachev’s efforts were admirable, the continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan led to Reagan backing out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1979 (SALT II), as a way of applying pressure for negotiations in Geneva to end the conflict. Faced with the resumption of the arms race he had feared for so long, Gorbachev resolved to deal with the American “political scum.” Despite being upset, Gorbachev pushed for continued efforts at negotiation, as the concessions made at Reykjavik cost them nothing. These efforts were key since American adherence to an agreement represented the only way for Gorbachev to achieve meaningful disarmament and buttress the crumbling Soviet administration with a major success. The latter was especially important, as by December of 1986 the administration was facing increased dissatisfaction in the military, which raised the possibility of a military coup.

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Near the end of December the final blow fell, which killed any possibility of a significant disarmament treaty in 1986. In a meeting with his military joint chiefs, Reagan faced the same basic opposition Gorbachev faced with the Soviet military. The point was made to Reagan during the meeting that to disarm nukes would be far more expensive than to keep them, since more money would have to be spent to ensure the military’s effectiveness, particularly in terms of finding an alternative to the utility of nuclear deterrence. Yet the meeting does end on a hopeful note for disarmament. Reagan reasserted that a ballistic free world remained the goal, and to achieve this end required sound military advice and support, not military shopping lists.

What started in October of 1986 as positive steps towards significant arms reduction agreements had by December ended in gridlock. Reagan faced opposition from the military and Congress, while at the same time Gorbachev came under pressure from an increasingly insoluble economy and declining rates of confidence in his government. Yet, despite these problems, efforts to build off of the discussions at Reykjavik would persist, eventually culminating in 1987 with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Eliminating all nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles with intermediate ranges, it was a huge blow for disarmament. While universal disarmament was not seriously pursued again, the success of the negotiations resulting in the INF treaty showed the importance of dialogue between the Soviet Union and the United States. Further engagement in proactive discussions could facilitate more meaningful disarmament, while at the same time improving relations and reducing hostility between the two powers. This emphasis on the increased importance of dialogue would go on to characterize the relationship between the Americans and Soviets until the USSR’s dissolution in 1991.

The examination of these firsthand accounts has given some insight into the goals and obstacles facing both Gorbachev and Reagan during the time immediately following Reykjavik. It can be said that each of the events played a role in shaping the aftermath of the Reykjavik Summit. Yet what exactly thawed relations between the Soviet and American leaders to such a degree that would make such a groundbreaking event feasible in the first place? In the search for answers, perhaps the article written by Edward Kolodziej provides the best insight.

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In his analysis, Kolodziej uses game theory to show that cooperation occurred in the Cold War primarily as a result of each superpower being unable to force its will upon the other, as they both possessed significant numbers of nukes. Further constraints on the behavior of each of the superpowers resulted from the ranking of needs for each state, and the desires of their respective peoples, which in turn shaped their goals. This being the case, cooperation between the superpowers was more likely in 1986 than it had been previously, as the primary goals of each could be achieved via nuclear disarmament. Gorbachev desired disarmament as a means to prevent another arms race, relieve strain on the flagging Soviet economy, and buy time for perestroikato reform the USSR. This was compatible with Reagan’s primary objective of increasing US security, as any agreement to reduce arms would in turn reduce tensions, thereby reducing the possibility of nuclear war. At Reykjavik, the degree to which these interests were mutually compatible through disarmament assured that any acceptable agreement between the two leaders would result in a non-zero-sum game, that is to say each could gain something through productive talks.

Indeed, being as they were coequal in military force, and the importance they placed on security and control, societal factors were what began to tip the balance away from gridlock on nuclear disarmament. Of the two, the Soviet Union was under the most stress, as its people were beginning to assert the desire for greater wealth, comfort and freedom, which was under increasing threat from the failing economy. As discontent rose, the political and economic legitimacy of the Soviet Union began to suffer as a result. With reform the only feasible means to halt the stagnation, and the importance of capital as a key component in such efforts, perhaps it is not so surprising that Gorbachev was the one to initiate the process of holding a summit in Reykjavik. Overall it was these shared interests in which nuclear disarmament was such a core component that made the 1986 summit in Iceland possible.

Building on Kolodziej’s conclusions, perhaps the Cold War can be understood as being composed of two periods, and the Reykjavik summit serving as the pivot on which the first turned into the second. From the end of World War II until the summit in 1986, the relationship between the US and USSR can be viewed as one primarily engaged in a competition between alternative ideologies and beliefs on what the roles and responsibilities of the state were, particularly in terms of their economies.

This first period began to come to a close in the years leading up to the 1986 summit. The USSR’s planned economy by then had been increasingly falling behind the US’s capitalist approach. The recognition of this fact was most aptly demonstrated in Gorbachev sending his letter to Reagan. While no mention was made of the USSR’s struggling economy, which would have been tantamount to encouraging the US to maintain the status quo, an acknowledgement was still made by Gorbachev and his advisors that the Soviet system was doomed to inevitable defeat unless steps were taken to alleviate the stress on their economy.

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Viewed in this way, the Reykjavik Summit can be seen as the start of a new period of American-Soviet relations, and one of the major pivots on which the path of the Cold War turned. With the recognition that the status quo would need changing to allow time for economic and political reform, Gorbachev essentially announced the defeat of the Stalinist conception of communism to the American capitalist democracy. Over the next five years after the summit, Gorbachev’s attempts at reform would increasingly serve as stopgaps at best, and accelerants at worst, toward the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.

While this summit in the cold north of the world ended without any agreement, it opened the door for increased efforts to meaningfully pursue disarmament in the future. As a result, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in 1987, which was followed four years later by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But perhaps the true success of the talks over these two short days lies not in addressing the overlapping fickle desires of two states, but in facilitating the sharing of the deeper desires held by two men.

It is possible that Reykjavik, more so than any other event, guided the conduct of diplomacy between the US and USSR in the last years of the Cold War. Though universal disarmament was never again as close as it was at Reykjavik, and post-summit dialogue was often as not mired in disagreement on which way, and to what degree, disarmament should be pursued, it remained that constructive discussions occurred. Without the example of Reykjavik, later discussions between the Americans and Soviets might have been characterized as less constructive and more distrustful, which would have hampered the cooperative efforts of Gorbachev and Reagan to facilitate disarmament.

Charles writes on art, history, politics, travel, fantasy, science fiction, poetry. BA, MA in Political Science, Phd Pending. Inquires: charlesbeuck@gmail.com

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