From the Reykjavik Summit to the Soviet breakup, to the New Cold War: Where Are We Now?

by Dennis Riches

October 1, 2016

That was then

Thirty years ago Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Iceland for the Reykjavik Summit of October 11-12, 1986. The standard narrative of the event, established mostly by its participants, tells a tale of diplomatic heroism that failed in the short-term but was soon understood as a heroic breakthrough on the way to the tremendous nuclear arms reductions that followed over the next decade. While these changes were underway, Gorbachev avoided the temptation to use state violence to suppress national independence movements in the Soviet sphere, and he consistently acted to unwind the mistakes of the previous Soviet leadership. In contrast, the Reagan administration seemed intent on going in the opposite direction. It cut domestic social programs and weakened worker rights at home, while overseas it supported dictatorships in order to suppress such basic concepts of justice as land reform and local control of natural resources.


Gorbachev suggested Iceland as a symbolic “meeting you halfway” point between Washington and Moscow.

This season there will be commemorations in the media of the thirty years since the Reykjavik Summit, and others marking the quarter century since the Soviet Union dissolved on December 25, 1991, but many of these are likely to skip over the wider picture of the Cold War’s denouement. Though there was much to applaud in the steps the Reagan administration took to make the world safer from nuclear war, a commemoration of the 1980s disarmament summits must also include the more unsavory record of the era in domains not related to strategic weapons.


The Reykjavit Summit started much better than it ended.

A standard synopsis of the Reykjavit Summit can be found in WorldNews Network’s Reykjavit Summit archive:

On October 11, 1986, …the leaders of the world’s two superpowers met at the stark and picturesque Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland. Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed the meeting to President Ronald Reagan less than thirty days before. The expectations for the summit at Reykjavik were low. Reagan and Gorbachev had established a personal relationship just one year before at their Geneva Summit. In Geneva they attempted to reach agreement on bilateral nuclear arms reductions… Both leaders hoped a face to face meeting at Reykjavik might revive the negotiations. The talks between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik proceeded at a breakneck pace… A proposal to eliminate all new strategic missiles grew into a discussion, for the first time in history, of the real possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons forever. Aides to both leaders were shocked by the pace of the discussions. A summit that began with low expectations had blossomed into one of the most dramatic and potentially productive summits of all time… But one point of contention remained. Reagan was committed to see his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to completion. Gorbachev, fearing an imbalance of power, was equally determined to make sure SDI would never be implemented. Reagan offered assurances to Gorbachev that the missile defense shield… was being developed not to gain an advantage, but to offer safety against accidents or outlaw nations. Reagan offered many times to share this technology with the Soviets, which Gorbachev refused to believe… Gorbachev would accept continued development of SDI as long as testing was confined to the laboratory for the next ten years. Reagan would not agree… Despite failing… Reykjavik will be recorded as one of the most important summits in history. A year after Reykjavik the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for the first time eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed a few years later during President H.W. Bush’s term. None of this progress would have been possible without the courage of two leaders to look beyond past hostilities and forge a new and lasting relationship…[1]

The bromance

Other retrospectives of the 1980s summits described the two leaders as romantics, provincials, and establishment outsiders who rose to power against all odds and were thus able to dream big and achieve what urban elites and sophisticated insiders would never even dare attempt. Indeed it might be helpful to think of the Reykjavik Summit as a specimen of another global threat of the 1980s: the romantic comedy. The story of Ron and Mikhail involves a wacky, mismatched pair who meet up for a dreamy arctic escape, far from the naysayers in Washington and Moscow who would deny them their vision of a nuclear free world. Through the series of summits they had during the late 1980s, the story followed the standard romcom formula (bromance-comedy? bromcom?). They recoiled from each other at first, antagonized each other through Act I and Act II, then grew close in Act III as they came to the end of the their shared political destiny. Or perhaps it’s better to call it a buddy/road movie. Instead of Trains, Planes and Automobiles, think of it as Missiles, Bombers and Submarines. Whatever the correct genre might be, they fought against the opposition of their inner circles, and in spite of the oil-on-water incompatibility of their personalities and intellects, against all odds they triumphed in the end. So the story goes.

“But where is the comedy?” you ask. What’s so funny about nuclear disarmament, or peace, love and understanding? First of all, they talked seriously about reducing their arsenals completely while they imagined Britain, China, France, India and Israel would naturally follow their lead, and they were oblivious to the ongoing plans of Iraq, North Korea, South Africa and Pakistan to become nuclear powers. Somehow it would all just sort itself out. They really got ahead of themselves when they were far away from the madding crowd for this crazy weekend in the far northern latitudes of Iceland.

Throughout the weekend Reagan cracked corny jokes with his team to break the tension, but there was always something a little condescending in the way his inner circle would indulge his sense of humor. One of the unspoken truths held by Reagan administration staff was that the president’s knowledge of history and world affairs was so thin that the presidency was essentially a regency, with dozens of Cardinal Richelieus vying for influence in the void. Reagan wouldn’t read briefing documents, so the CIA had to make films produced at the level of a middle school documentary to prepare him for trips abroad. (See this video of the 1988 Moscow Summit briefing). When Reagan cracked his jokes, everyone laughed with him. When he was out of the room, they mocked and worried about his quixotic quest for a nuclear free world. In fact, he was a little like Sancho Panza in a chapter of Don Quixote, set up “in a governor’s chair” for the pleasure of the Washington nobility.

At one point during the weekend in Reykjavik, the American team had to huddle for privacy in a small bathroom of the venue (Hofdi House), with two advisers standing in the bathtub and the regent king “on the throne.” Another huddle was done at the American embassy under a small plexiglas dome that shielded the team from radio waves. Yes, that Cone of Silence in the old Get Smart television comedy was based on a real thing. Every embassy had one.


The Cone of Silence was a running joke in the 1960s TV series Get Smart, but Reagan and his team huddled under something similar during a break at the Reykjavit Summit.

Perhaps the romcom metaphor doesn’t pay due respect to the high drama of the occasion. We could also say the story contained all the best elements of Shakespeare: comedy, romance, history and tragedy. All that was missing was the bawdy humor, as the puns would have been lost in the simultaneous translation. There is no double entendre in these most serious discussions of “country matters.”

The summit, which was supposed to have been just a preparatory “base camp” on the way to a later summit, hinged on, and failed because of, the American insistence on continuing development of space-based defense, or the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as Star Wars). The Soviets had come with a compromise offer. Both sides would completely eliminate nuclear weapons by the end of the century, but SDI would have to be confined to the laboratory for at least ten years. The Americans refused, and the dream of nuclear abolition failed because of this one point on which neither side would yield. It was only after they returned to Moscow that Gorbachev and his advisors remembered that they had a space station already aloft that was called a “space lab,” which meant that by definition “testing in the lab” could be testing in space just as the Americans had wanted. They went back to the Americans with new concessions and negotiated arms reduction treaties, signed in December 1987, to eliminate short and medium range missiles in Europe. Reductions in long range missiles and tactical (battlefield) weapons followed during the presidency of George Bush senior (1989-1992). These steps never led to the total elimination of nuclear weapons, but they defused the Cold War in Europe, especially since they were followed by massive reductions in conventional forces and the independence of the Warsaw Pact nations.

Throughout the arms negotiations of the mid-1980s it was Gorbachev who came wooing, showing more ardor because of his greater need to save the Soviet Union by scaling back the costs of the military industry. Meanwhile, Reagan was surrounded by the anti-communist hardliners of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), thirty-one of whom he had appointed to his administration. Some of them continued to serve in the administration of Bush the Elder, laid low during the Clinton presidency, then returned en force during the terms of Bush the Younger with a new acronym, perhaps to not remind some of the aging members of cardio-pulmonary disease: Project for a New American Century (PNAC). The CPD cautioned Reagan not to “give away the store” in negotiations with Gorbachev, and many were opposed to the president’s dreamy ambition to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Some of them wanted no reductions at all.

Reagan himself had said in speeches earlier in his career that he held no illusions about a peaceful convergence between the American and Soviet systems, a change that would require “that we whittle the back edge of our heels round.”[2] He often used this expression “round-heeled,” which was a term of his generation to refer to a woman who could be put on her back easily. For Reagan at Reykjavik this meant not giving up the SDI, and not agreeing to any cuts in forces that would leave America and NATO open to Soviet aggression. The hardliners always warned that this peace offensive by Gorbachev might have been just a deception, or they feared that he would soon be replaced by hardliners who would renege on everything. Dick Cheney was one of the people who held onto this view right up until Gorbachev announced the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. He and George H.W. Bush never saw it coming, apparently, although it was obvious to most observers that things were unraveling quickly after the thwarted coup of August 1991. Bush seemed to believe the union would hold together, and feared the instability that would follow. In a 1991 statement that seems highly ironic now, after the US actively assisted a Ukrainian extremist overthrow the pro-Russian government of Ukraine in 2014, President Bush cautioned the republics against having high expectations of a better life as independent nations. The contrast says much about the recklessness of contemporary US adventurism:

Freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.[3]

During the autumn of 1991, US Senator Sam Nunn knew the end was near for the Soviet Union. He had visited Russia recently and seen the military shifting its allegiance to Yeltsin’s Russia. Suddenly, no one was speaking of the Soviet Union but rather of fascinating changes taking place “in Russia.” Nunn fought for $1 billion in US food and financial aid to ensure stability and a smooth transfer of control of the nuclear arsenal as the republics declared independence.[4] Even Richard Nixon wrote a memo to the president (leaked to the press) in March 1992 about the danger of losing Russia to a catastrophe that would put it beyond the reach of American influence. Instead of meaningful assistance, Russia was soon treated to a decade of economic shock therapy via the IMF and World Bank’s standard austerity prescriptions.

Reagan’s evolution

Reagan began his presidency in 1981 by ending the détente process begun by President Nixon. He wanted a nuclear free world, but didn’t speak much of it during these first years when he wanted to establish a position of strength from which to negotiate. He terrified the Soviet leadership by accusing them of leading an “evil empire” bent on world domination, and by drastically increasing military spending. He began a program of random and unpredictable near-incursions of Soviet air space, which made Soviet leaders and military planners jumpy and confused about American intentions. These incursions played a role in famous Korean Airlines incident in September 1983 in which a Soviet fighter jet shot down a passenger airliner that had flown off course into Soviet airspace.

Just a few weeks later, at the end of September, a false alarm indicated to a Soviet early warning center that five American nuclear missiles had been launched toward the Soviet Union. According to protocol, officer Stanislav Petrov should have reported the incident so that the Soviet leadership could decide whether to launch on warning (before confirming nuclear explosions), but he went with his feeling that it must be an error (which it was) because the detection system was new and flawed, and he knew a first strike would involve more than just five missiles.

During this tense period, Reagan’s tough talk came close to making the Soviets fear that NATO’s Able Archer drill of November 1983 was a little too realistic. One of the imagined scenarios for the launch of a first strike had always been that the enemy would conceal it within an apparent drill. Fearing a first strike was imminent, the Soviet side almost launched one of their own. Reagan later realized, belatedly, that he might have gone too far. Filmmaker Oliver Stone described the change in his thinking in The Untold History of the United States:

Despite all his bluster, Reagan too feared the possibility of war which he associated with the biblical Armageddon. After watching the enormously popular 1983 ABC TV movie The Day After, Reagan wrote in his diary that it “left me very depressed.” …Reagan began to rethink his approach to the Soviet union. He later wrote in his memoirs: “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians. Many were genuinely afraid of America and Americans.” Incredibly, if this diary is to be believed, it had never dawned on president Reagan that the Soviets might indeed fear a US first strike.[5]

Reagan had viewed The Day After, a graphic depiction of the effects of total nuclear war on Lawrence, Kanas, a month before the American public saw it. It was ironic that the terrified public was never informed at the time about how high tensions were that autumn. It was only later revealed that there had been the two close calls mentioned above. While Reagan felt depressed by The Day After, for others in the administration the broadcast of the film was a public relations nightmare. A line-up of conservative experts had been readied for a televised panel discussion after the showing in order to manage the public reaction. Physicist Carl Sagan was the only person called upon to represent the voices of the anti-nuclear movement. Nonetheless, the strange series of events in 1983 had changed Reagan and changed the game. He started to look for a channel of communication with the Soviet leadership, but it was hard to make progress because Soviet leaders were ill and dying in quick succession. Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko died between November 1982 and March 1985.

When Gorbachev rose to power in March 1985, he took the initiative to start meaningful disarmament talks, beginning with the 1985 Geneva Summit. The next year at Reykjavik, the possibility of a nuclear free world was dashed only because of disagreement over SDI, and this turned out to be the tragi-comic core of the Reykjavik narrative. In retrospect, it proved to be much ado about nothing. Soon after the summit, news of the Iran-Contra scandal broke, and Reagan was politically crippled afterwards. Support for SDI dried up in the US Congress and nothing ever came of it. Critics had always pointed out that it was a chimera. Perhaps the Soviets had been fools, too, for having been seriously afraid of it. They could have indulged the Americans in their fantasy and let America go broke trying to build it. They forgot the old saying “never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake.”

Reagan held so fast to SDI because it would provide a simple, happy ending to his political career, which he seemed to view like a story arc in one of his Hollywood movies. He would make the world safe once and for all by giving it a system that could shoot down any nuclear missile launched by any rogue element in the peaceful world system, a little bit like the inter-planetary enforcer in The Day the Earth Stood Still—the 1951 science fiction film he often cited as a favorite that inspired his pursuit of world peace.

Faith in SDI required one to ignore the fact any anti-missile system could be defeated, that some missiles would always get through. Furthermore, there were other ways besides missiles to deliver nuclear weapons. Reagan promised to share the technology with the Soviet Union and all other peace-loving allies. He insisted it was just for defense against “madmen,” assuming there would be some way of knowing who was a madman in all future world conflicts. He didn’t understand why anyone would oppose SDI if they were planning on getting rid of all their nuclear weapons anyway. Gorbachev thought it was preposterous to suggest that the Americans would willingly share a technology that had cost hundreds of billions of dollars to develop. He pointed out that they didn’t share even basic industrial technology with the USSR. Many in the Reagan administration agreed that the idea of sharing was absurd, and they wished Reagan hadn’t mentioned it during the negotiations.

The American side also refused to acknowledge the fear that they would have had if an adversary had been developing space-based defenses. Missile defense systems can be used in a “layered” attack in which the side with the missile defense system can be the aggressor, launching a first strike then hitting the enemy’s retaliatory strike with the missile defense system. Reagan knew that the Soviets had this concern, but he begged Gorbachev to understand they were declaring peaceful intent, and now that they were friends, wasn’t that good enough? He was asking Gorbachev to trust now but not be able to verify future American intent. For Gorbachev, it was an absurd request and he was stunned that Reagan could not understand why. In the present age, China and Russia are making the same protests to America about its ground-based missile defense systems stationed in South Korea and Romania.

On other points the Americans were equally illogical. Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, claimed that the nuclear warheads on American bombers shouldn’t be counted in the negotiations because the Soviet air defenses were supposedly impenetrable. He didn’t seem to see the logical implication that if this were true, this leg of the nuclear triad was unnecessary and a colossal waste of money. In May 1987, German teenager Matthias Rust landed a single-engine Cessna in Red Square, proving something about the invincibility of Soviet air defenses.

Both leaders finished the Reykjavik talks feeling betrayed and angry. Bitter words were spoken at the end and the two men walked out silently, trying to put on a brave face for the media, but to no avail. Reagan had spoken earlier of wanting to get away early so he would be home for dinner, so he drove off to the embassy without meeting the press. Gorbachev, the communist, demonstrated better Madison Avenue skills. He headed over to the building where hundreds of journalists were waiting and, during the walk, had time to master his emotions and think of a way to spin the outcome as a victory with words that were met with thunderous applause:

In spite of all its drama, Reykjavik is not a failure—it is a breakthrough, which allowed us for the first time to look over the horizon. [6]


Grim faces all around at the end of the Reykjavik Summit.

Challenging the Heroic Narrative

Most histories of Reykjavik and other disarmament summits glorify and accept the premises of how these events should occur, who should lead them, and who should have a say in them. Yet the United States and the Soviet Union were, after all, the perpetrators of the crime. Why should they be judge, prosecutor and enforcer, and take up the case only at their own leisure? It would be better to think of them as two criminal syndicates whose interest in peace arose only from a mutual need to cut losses in a long war of attrition. To the extent that a moral imperative is involved, the community of nations had to wait until the criminals decided to act on one.

Humanity has been slow to look at nuclear abolition this way, but the development, testing and possession of nuclear weapons needs to be seen as a crime against humanity and against the ecosystem. Great enduring harm has been done in places such as Hanford, French Polynesia, Mayak and Semipalatinsk, just to name a few examples where nuclear bomb manufacture and testing took place. This damage already inflicted is in addition to the reckless endangerment of risking the outbreak of full nuclear war.

It is difficult to imagine who would adjudicate in a legal process that indicts the nuclear powers because there would have to be a force in the world that could subordinate a nuclear power. Do they have nuclear weapons because they were powerful enough to obtain them, or are they powerful because they have nuclear weapons? Are nuclear arsenals the currency of power, a kind of reserve currency that underpins the global order? (A question that cynically raises another question: whether we should forget about going back to the gold standard and instead peg a global currency to the plutonium standard.) If it is so, how do we bring nuclear powers to justice? My romantic vision for a path to a world free of nuclear weapons is to suggest that the non-nuclear armed nations should be able to prosecute the nuclear-armed nations and force them to disarm. They are the rogue nations, the axis of evil, and those nations who don’t help in bringing them to justice are abetting them. To adapt the famous Bushism, we could say, “You are either with us or you’re with the nuclearists.” Recapturing the spirit of Reykjavik—a time when the two superpowers at least looked over the horizon and seriously talked about total abolition—might  be a way to start, but a totally new kind of international forum has to be invented, and it should resemble a tribunal more than a summit. Or, at the very least, nuclear disarmament should be an arbitration process with a neutral third party forcing the perpetrators to undergo psychological counselling and resolve the terror they have inflicted on the world.

Few accounts of the summits discuss the way that they paved the way for the darker days that followed. The optimistic narrative is rarely critically examined. The Reagan administration staff denied that there was any plot to drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy by outspending it on SDI and other military projects. Such a motive would be difficult to prove, but the dire situation of the USSR was understood by all, no matter how much effort was put into stoking fears in the public of a mighty communist foe that was always on the verge of gaining the strategic advantage.

Since the 1970s there had been growing speculation about an imminent collapse of the Soviet system. By the mid-1970s, Americans were well aware that they were keeping the USSR fed by sending wheat to it every year, then oil prices crashed in the 1980s, further limiting the source of income that was needed to keep the economy afloat. The war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl catastrophe had burdened the economy further and deepened public cynicism beyond repair. In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes describes how in 1976 one demographer predicted both the timing and the way the USSR would collapse:

The boldest prediction of impending Soviet collapse during this period… was the work of a… French historical demographer named Emmanuel Todd… in a book entitled The Final Fall, published in France in 1976… Unfortunately, almost without exception, professional Sovietologists—Richard Pipes [of the CPD] was a typical specimen—were the last to recognize the decline and fall of the political system on whose leviathan enigmas they had built their careers. The reviewers praised Todd’s innovative approach, but his prediction of impending Soviet collapse was dismissed as a “penchant for dramatic prophesying”… Todd dramatically—but also accurately—prophesied on the opening page of his book, “In ten, twenty or thirty years, an astonished world will be witness to the dissolution or the collapse of this, the first of the Communist systems.” …The perspicacious young Frenchman doubted that the Soviet regime would “suffer a violent upheaval.” Its organization protected it from mass uprisings, and the West was intervening to protect it from famine. Astonishingly, he thought, “the successive or simultaneous breaking away of the [East European] satellites should soon be accepted by the Kremlin without too much fuss” … Soviet reform would have to be intelligently executed. The situation in which the USSR finds itself is so implausible and tangled that it would require perfect mastery on the part of a solidly established ruling class… Let’s pray for a uniformly intelligent Politburo in the years to come.” It mattered greatly whether the US government believed the Soviet Union to be an expanding or a declining power.[7]

All of this was known, or should have been known, by the CIA, if the agency had not been purged of analysts who could do objective work. Many of these signals were missed because, as in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002-2003, ideology was dictating the information that would be selected by the administration. At the very least, however, the Americans knew that Gorbachev came to Reykjavik more anxious than they to make a deal that would cut military spending. The Americans could wait, but he couldn’t. At the first Politburo meeting after the summit, Gorbachev complained that the Americans were indeed trying to bleed them dry:

It is [the belief] that the US might exhaust us economically via an arms race, create obstacles for Gorbachev and for the entire Soviet leadership, undermine its plans for resolving economic and social problems and thereby provoke discontent. Moreover, in this way they hope to limit the possibilities for Soviet economic ties with the developing countries, to create a situation where those countries would be forced to come bowing to the United States. Finally, their mistake is in thinking that with the help of the SDI they could undermine the [strategic] parity and achieve military superiority.[8]

To some degree, these complaints must have been the necessary bluster that Gorbachev had to demonstrate before the Politburo, but it reveals a side of him that he toned down in the West, where he had become a celebrity. Gorbachev was an enigma in those days. Did the celebrity status go to his head, or was it a conscious ruse he engaged in to make perestroika succeed?  Nonetheless, it was jarring for the world to hear him say he had become “friends” with such people as Margaret Thatcher, which made him a friend of a friend of Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. While he was cutting ties with Angola and Cuba and halting all talk of supporting socialism in the world, here in front of the Politburo he spoke about Reagan like an unreformed Marxist:

… we had to wage a struggle in Reykjavik not only with the class enemy, but also with such a representative of our class enemy, who exhibited extreme primitivism, a caveman outlook and intellectual impotence.[9]

His mention of developing countries in the Politburo meeting is interesting because during the Reykjavik summit Reagan pushed him hard on human rights, and several concessions were made in order to make progress in disarmament talks. Unfortunately, Gorbachev was not in a position from which he could push back. Gorbachev freed the dissident scientists Andrei Sakharov under pressure from Reagan, but the American dissident Noam Chomsky (not living in a gulag but shut out of establishment media) could have supplied him with copious notes on American-sponsored atrocities in East Timor and Central America.[10] Gorbachev could not have been uninformed on these aspects of American foreign policy. He knew but couldn’t make them an issue in these negotiations. Many years later, Fidel Castro said about Gorbachev’s 1989 visit to Cuba:

I told him that the USSR had to broaden its relations with all the political forces and to that end, I advised him to hold a meeting with the revolutionary, progressive, and democratic forces, and I think he accepted my suggestion.[11]

As much as Gorbachev may have agreed with Castro, the historical record shows that the Soviet Union and Russia were never again able to support revolutionary, progressive, and democratic forces not aligned with Western interests. This is the tragedy of the end days of the Soviet empire, the corner that Gorbachev had painted himself into with the pursuit of perestroika and nuclear arms agreements with America. He would be accused of betraying the developing world, while others would blame Yeltsin and others who hijacked perestroika, stole public assets (“grab-it-ization”), stoked false hopes in the republics of the union for a better future as independent nations, and condemned Russia in the 1990s to Western economic shock therapy.

Gorbachev could have stood up for the Third World, if he had had some leverage, but he had little and the Americans knew it. It would have been nice if he could have reminded Reagan of his words in the “evil empire”[12] speech regarding racial equality, that what was “once a source of disunity and civil war, is now a point of pride for all Americans.” Apartheid in South Africa would have ended sooner if America had stopped supporting South Africa’s war against Angola. Gorbachev also never challenged the American understanding of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. He could have done more to defend how the Soviet Union got involved there reluctantly, not for world conquest but because it feared the destabilizing effects of the Iranian revolution rippling into other Islamic regions. He could have cautioned Americans about the blowback that would come from arming the Mujahidin and Osama bin Laden.

Today, the popular narrative about the Reagan years ignores these issues. The story goes that that he ended or “won” the Cold War, while the brutal crimes of the regimes supported by America in the 1980s are stories told in the margins. In the report about the Reykjavik Summit issued by Hoover Press in 2007, Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, the editor, put on the cover the line “a key lesson learned at Reykjavik: the importance of negotiating with enemies.”[13] Shultz is one of the heroes of the arms reduction success story. He wasn’t one of the extremists in the CPD, and he managed to deflect the influence of those who wanted to sabotage any deal on strategic arms reductions. He formed a personal bond with Gorbachev and his counterpart, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. However, the heroic narrative omits that he adamantly refused to negotiate with Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua, and he supported violent overthrow of it, calling it “a cancer, right here on our land mass.”[14] He supported all of the foreign policy that sought to suppress the developing world’s independence and control of its own resources. The line on the book cover should really be this: the importance of negotiating with enemies if they have the power to annihilate you.

This comparison of the two facets of Shultz’s achievements points to the fact that there is a certain amount of reputation polishing among the elder statesmen who focus on their achievements in nuclear disarmament, which is uncontroversially seen by almost everyone as a good thing. On the other hand, they don’t talk so loud and don’t seem so proud of their war crimes in Central America. There are no books written in retirement about that, no nostalgic visits with Gorbachev to talk about what was done there. Let’s never say that nuclear arsenals are useless because one of their unacknowledged functions is that they create the need to always prioritize discussions about their elimination and to polish the image of those who work on disarmament. Lesser priorities such as the right to self-determination and control of national resources can be endlessly ignored while serious men talk the talk of dealing with “the existential threat” but do not walk the walk of actually eliminating it.

This is now

As Russians now assess the world events that have occurred since 1986, they have taken a lesson from Gorbachev’s experience in negotiating with enemies from a position of weakness. Since the early 1990s, Gorbachev has denounced the new world order led by a single superpower, the betrayal of the promise not to expand NATO eastward, and the quick resort to military force as a solution to all global disputes. Vladimir Putin, as well as many Russian citizens, have perhaps come around to agreeing with Ronald Reagan’s words in the “Evil Empire” speech of 1983: “Simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly… they sometimes speak in soothing tones of brotherhood and peace” but “the only morality they recognize is that which will further their cause… morality is entirely subordinate to the interests… and everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of…” resistance to the American Empire. Reagan was speaking of his fear of Marxist world revolution, but now his words can be turned back on him, to a nation that, after 2001 especially, reverted to an extreme emphasis on supremacy rather than on common security.

As we look backward over the horizon at the Reykjavik Summit, there is a dismal reckoning to be made of the opportunities lost. In the early 21st century, the US went back to where it was in the early 1980s, reviving missile defense and continuing with standard nuclear doctrine, then it made things even worse by creating a bilateral relationship in which a US-Russia summit on disarmament would now be unimaginable.

There are fewer nuclear weapons in the world, but that hardly matters when there are still enough to cause a nuclear holocaust. Perhaps the reductions were done just to reduce costs and eliminate some of the redundancy. Far back in 1983, during the panel discussion after The Day After, US General Brent Scowcroft stressed the importance of having an arsenal that far exceeded what any other country could produce. Otherwise there would be more “instability” as other countries got the idea that they could catch up to the superpowers.[15] Thus in 2016 there have been no significant reductions in twenty years and the US and Russia still have 93% of all the nuclear weapons in the world. None of the other nuclear-armed nations has shown interest in disarmament, and it is a dead issue as long as the United States works to antagonize Russia, remains silent about Israel’s nuclear arsenal, and wages an illegal war in Syria, demanding absurdly that the government of Syria stop attempting to gain control over its sovereign territory.

When President Bush II took America out of the ABM Treaty, then sped up development of missile defense and reverted to the pursuit of nuclear supremacy, American policy makers were committing the same errors that had been so painfully unlearned by the 1980s. They were once again making the philosopher’s category mistake of assuming that nuclear explosives, with the resultant missile defense counter-measures, are military weapons. The problem posed by nuclear weapons requires a political solution. Richard Rhodes finishes his book with a paragraph that sums up the fundamental problem:

The discovery of how to release nuclear energy… revealed that there was no limit to the amount of energy that might be packaged into small, portable, and relatively inexpensive weapons; that there could be no defense against such weapons, each of which could destroy a city; that therefore a policy of common security in the sort run and program of abolition in the long run would be necessary to accommodate the new reality and avoid disaster. Recoiling from such urgencies, which would require negotiation, compromise, and a measure of humility, we chose instead to distend ourselves into the largest scorpion in the bottle. Obstinately misreading the failure of our authoritarian counterpart on the other side of the world, to our shame and misfortune, we continue to claim an old and derelict sovereignty that the weapons themselves deny.[16]


“We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer.

For a conclusion, I finish with a recent quote by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. The points of contention he lists make for a grim reiteration of everything that was at issue in Reykjavik thirty years ago, and it is a sad contrast with the WorldNews summary above that described how in Reykjavik Reagan and Gorbachev managed to “to look beyond past hostilities and forge a new and lasting relationship”:

Without finding a solution to the missile defense problem, without preventing a new arms race in space and making the nuclear test ban a universal treaty, without settling the issues connected with the lack of balance in conventional weapons, the nuclear talks with the United States are impossible. They know about it. It has been publicly announced before. NATO members continue to build up their anti-missile potential in Europe as part of their so-called phased adaptive approach. We have repeatedly expressed our concern over the placing of strategic infrastructure in the direct vicinity of our borders as this affects our interests in the security sphere. Moscow will keep a close watch at the situation and will not cease its efforts to explain the inevitable and undesirable consequences of the American project’s realization.[17]

Afterword: David Bowie’s Where are we now?


Twenty thousand people / Cross Bösebrücke /Fingers are crossed / Just in case / Walking the dead / Where are we now, where are we now? / The moment you know, you know, you know / As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s sun / As long as there’s rain / As long as there’s rain / As long as there’s fire / As long as there’s fire / As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you

The Bösebrücke is the bridge in Berlin that was the former border crossing between East and West Berlin. 20,000 people crossed over on November 10, 1989 when it became the first open checkpoint since 1961. David Bowie’s Where are we now? is full of obscure references to his personal experiences in Berlin. If you don’t know Berlin and you weren’t there, it’s hard to relate, but Bowie’s songs often connected the personal with a concern for the wider world. In the last verse the references shift from the personal, making the question in the title ask about the still fragile peace that has existed since the Berlin Wall came down. The “me” and “you” in the lyrics may give the impression that this is just a nostalgic love song, but these words are also political, an expression of the “common security” that is discussed throughout the book Arsenals of Folly.


[1] Reykjavik Summit, WorldNews Network, September 7, 2011.

[2] Governors’ conference in 1963, “Are Liberals Really Liberal?” In Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly, 260-262.

[3] Richard Rhodes, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospect of a World without Nuclear Weapons (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 106-107.

[4] Richard Rhodes, Ibid, 99.

[5] Oliver Stone (Director), Peter Kuznick (Writer), The Untold History of the United States, Part 8, DVD, Warner Home Video, 00:36:35~.

[6] Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (London: Doubleday, 1995), 419.

[7] Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Vintage, 2007), 140-141. Much of the information in this essay was found in this book, especially chapter 13 (pages 236-270) on the Reykjavik Summit. Rather than fill the essay with excessive endnotes, I make just this general reference. Unless otherwise stated, all interpretations and opinions are my own.

[8] USSR CC CPSU Politburo session on results of the Reykjavik Summit, 14 October 1986, The Reykjavik File (Document 21), National Security Archive.

[9] USSR CC CPSU Politburo… Ibid.

[10] Noam Chomsky, “The Contra War in Nicaragua,”, September 8, 2006. Originally published in What Uncle Sam Really Wants, Odonian Press, 1992.

[11]  Francesco Merlo, “Fidel Castro on Socialism, Economy, Clinton,” Latin American Network Information Center, translation of the original article in Italian published in  Milan Corriere Della Sera December 5, 1992.

[12] Ronald Reagan “Evil Empire Speech,” Voices of Democracy, March 8, 1983.

[13] Sidney D. Drell, George P. Shultz, Editors, Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on Its Twentieth Anniversary: Conference Report (Hoover Press, 2007).

[14] David K. Shipler, “Shultz Assails Nicaragua in Asking Aid for Rebels,” New York Times, February 28, 1986.

[15] The Day After Discussion Panel, ABC News, November 18, 1983.

[16] Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Vintage, 2007), 308-309.

[17]  “Global missile defense main obstacle to nuclear talks with US – Russian diplomat,” Russia Today, September 22, 2016.

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