When President Ronald Reagan traveled to Geneva in November 1985 for his first summit meeting with a leader of the Soviet Union, expectations were low. The president's goal was to establish a working relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev and lay the groundwork for future arms control negotiations -- negotiations which for several years had been on rocky ground as a result of Reagan's military buildup and Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan and Central America. The Geneva summit was a political triumph for Reagan; merely by meeting with Gorbachev he allayed fears at home and abroad that he was a Cold War cowboy committed to destroying the Soviet "evil empire" at any cost. That no important agreements were reached at Geneva actually worked in Reagan's favor, for it left the impression that he was a tough negotiator who would not "sell the farm" and weaken American security for the sake of an accord. "I can't claim we had a meeting of the minds on such fundamentals as ideology or national purpose," said Reagan in a post-summit speech to Congress, "but we understood each other better. And that's a key to peace. I gained a better perspective. I feel [Gorbachev] did, too." A poll showed that a whopping 83 percent of Americans who saw Reagan's speech approved of the president's performance at Geneva.
Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to meet twice more -- in Washington D.C. in 1986 and in Moscow the following year. But the Soviet secretary general was sharply criticized at home for returning from Geneva empty-handed. In order for his economic and political reforms to work, Gorbachev needed an arms control agreement, one that would make the Soviet people -- and Politburo hardliners -- feel more secure. In January 1986, Gorbachev sent Reagan a letter proposing the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in three stages over a period of fifteen years. Secretary of State George Shultz and others in the administration saw the proposal for what it was -- a propaganda ploy that essentially reiterated Reagan's Zero Option plan of 1981. In their view, Gorbachev wasn't serious about such dramatic nuclear disarmament; the general secretary merely wanted to appear the visionary peacemaker and force concessions from the U.S. Still, Shultz recommended that Reagan accept the proposal "in principle." Reagan was enthusiastic, but hardliners in the Department of Defense as well as Shultz's own State Department were decidedly cool to the whole idea. Their objections were based primarily on three core beliefs -- that nuclear deterrence remained the keystone to American security, that an arms race would do irreparable harm to the Soviet economy, and that even with Gorbachev at the helm the USSR was still committed to world domination and could not be trusted to abide by any arms control agreement. Among those who held some or all of these views was Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, CIA Director William Casey, and the brilliant Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International-Security Affairs. They pointed to the continued Soviet presence in Afghanistan and Soviet support of Marxist revolution in Central America as indicators of the Kremlin's true motives.
However, in a handwritten letter to Gorbachev, Reagan welcomed the general secretary's disarmament proposal. Soviet negotiators presented a new arms control package at ongoing negotiations taking place in Geneva. In keeping with the "first stage" of Gorbachev's proposal, the package called for an agreement that neither side would withdraw from the ABM Treaty for at least fifteen years, that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- Reagan's space-based antimissile-defense system -- would be confined to the laboratory, and that ballistic missile forces would be substantially reduced. Reagan was reluctant to compromise on SDI. Shultz argued that since SDI was limited to laboratory research for at least a decade anyway, agreeing to the Soviet conditions for the sake of ground-breaking nuclear arms reduction was a smart move. "We should give them the sleeves from our vest on SDI, said Shultz, "and make them think they got out overcoat." But Reagan feared that any limitation on SDI would ultimately doom the controversial program. The U.S. responded to the Soviet package with a counter-offer. SDI deployment would be delayed in return for a 50 percent reduction in strategic forces. The Soviets balked. To further complicate matters, several crises erupted in 1986 -- the American raid on Libya (a Soviet client state), and the FBI's arrest of Soviet spy recruiter Gennadi Zakharov in New York City, which was followed by the Soviet arrest of U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff in Moscow on charges of espionage. The Cold War was heating up again. Previously leery of attending another "empty" summit, Gorbachev changed course and proposed a two-day meeting with Reagan to address unresolved issues. Announced by the White House on September 30, the Reykjavik "planning session" was not described as a summit.
The meetings were held at the Hofdi House, a villa (reputedly haunted) several miles from Reykjavik, Iceland. The weather on the weekend of October 11-12 was cold and rainy. The American press corps was annoyed by the fact that the 267 members of the U.S. delegation had been given strict instructions not to talk about the negotiations. Reporters responded by passing around tin cans labeled "Iceland Waters Blackout" with instructions to open the cans in the event of a news blackout. The ingredients were the substance of the negotiations -- and, of course, the cans were empty. The truth was that Gorbachev made very substantive proposals in the Saturday meetings: a 50 percent reduction in all strategic weapons, a total elimination of Soviet and American intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and strict compliance with (and non-withdrawal from) the ABM Treaty for not less than ten years. He agreed to American terms for on-site verification and dropped the previous Soviet demand that French and British missiles be included in any agreement regarding arms reductions in Europe. It was, said chief American arms control negotiator Paul Nitze, "the best Soviet proposal we have received in twenty-five years."
The American team had a few problems with the proposal and worked through the night on a response. Gorbachev's offer of 50 percent reductions wuld result in unequal outcomes, and the Americans countered with a limit of 6,000 warheads and 1,600 delivery vehicles for each side. They also wanted to include Soviet missiles based in Asia to the other side's proposal to eliminate all intermediate nuclear weapons. During the Sunday sessions Gorbachev agreed to limit the USSR's missiles in Asia to 100 warheads. In addition, the Soviets agreed to recognize human rights as a legitimate part of future superpower negotiations. During an afternoon break, the Soviet delegation informed the world press that a landmark agreement was in the making -- news that sent expectations soaring.
At the final meeting, on Sunday afternoon, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced that it was time for the U.S. to make a concession -- on SDI. The Americans countered by offering to confine SDI to research and testing for ten years, during which time all ballistic missiles would be eliminated, after which both sides would be free to deploy defenses. Reagan promised that the U.S. would share its SDI technology with the USSR. Gorbachev insisted that SDI research and testing had to be limited to the laboratory. Reagan would not give in. "It is a question of one word," he said. Gorbachev agreed, saying, "It's 'laboratory,' or goodbye." Gorbachev could not go home and tell his people that he had agreed to eliminate ballistic missiles while allowing Americans to develop a space-based defense system. As a tight-lipped Reagan escorted the general secretary to his limousine, Gorbachev said, "I don't know what more I could have done." "You could have said yes," replied the president.
The press reported the Reykjavik "summit" as a failure. One U.S. congressman complained that Reagan had squandered "a chance to cash in 'Star Wars' for the best deal the Russians have offered us since they sold us Alaska." Others criticized Reagan for coming too close to an agreement with Gorbachev. "For a generation the security of the Western World has rested on nuclear deterrence," said James Schlesinger. "The American position at Reykjavik seems to have reflected no understanding of these simple fundamentals." Henry Kissinger warned that notions like the Zero Option undermined "the cohesion of the Western alliance." Indeed, America's NATO allies were mortified; they depended on a Western nuclear threat to defend Europe from the possibility of invasion by conventional Soviet forces. A debate raged -- had Reagan and Gorbachev irresponsibly jeopardized the security of their respective nations, or had they come within a single word of ending the nuclear arms race?