Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze gathered in a modest, seaside house near Reykjavik called ‘Hofdi House’ Tensions were high when they arrived in Iceland. But everyone was optimistic after the successes at the Geneva Summit. Reagan had wanted intimacy this time; nothing formal. The press would be blockaded. Dispensing with pleasantries, the leaders sat down at a rather unimpressive table overlooking the sea and got down to business.
The Americans were surprised when, immediately, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev produced a suitcase full of papers and began to go through them piecemeal. The papers amounted to a stunning array of concessions the Soviets were prepared to make right away. Was this a deft strategy or an earnest appeal for movement towards peace?
The former was a speculative space-based missile defense system the Soviets feared. Any agreement would hinge on SDI.
The economy lingered in the background of the talks, but Shultz knew the Soviet rate of weapons production was unsustainable. Thus, he thought the Soviets might be looking for a way to avoid cannibalizing so much of its command-and-control economy in order to keep up with the U.S. in the arms race. The U.S. on the other hand, despite running deficits, could maintain missile production for far longer.
After grappling with the flurry of offers for significant arms reductions, Special Advisor Paul Nitze would call the Soviet proposal “’the best” in a quarter century. By the end of day one, unprecedented agreements had already been reached. The negotiators around them had achieved more in twenty-four hours than any in twenty-five years had.
An updated Flash Player is required to view this content.
Please ensure that you are using the latest version of Flash Player by clicking on the button above.
By day two, it was apparent that both Gorbachev and Reagan were nevertheless disappointed. It seemed both men wanted much more.
“The weather was alternating every half hour or so between dark, driving rain and brilliant sunshine,” recalls Shultz of day two in his autobiographical account Turmoil and Triumph, “and the course of our work mirrored the weather.” (T&T, p. 765)
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
The teams were making progress, despite the weather. Overnight the teams had achieved stunning breakthroughs on missile reductions and human rights. At the highest level, however, Reagan and Gorbachev kept pushing harder than anyone had thought possible. They worked in an atmosphere of “constructive problem solving.” Shultz even advised the President to take Gorbachev’s proposals for missile reductions in Europe and Asia. And he did. But that wasn’t nearly enough for the two leaders. So they slogged on.
George Shultz reflects: “An immense amount of difficult work remained before an INF agreement, in all its thorny detail, could be completed, but Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev achieved the essence of what became the INF Treaty there at Reykjavik.” (T&T, p. 766)
By that second afternoon, with so much already accomplished, the sides started to become agitated. At one point, President Reagan had blurted out: “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.”
“We can do that. Let’s eliminate them,” Gorbachev shoots back to everyone’s amazement. (T&T, p. 772)
Closer and closer. Not only had the two Superpower heads of state pulled the two countries further away from the possibility of mutually assured destruction, but tantalizingly close to the abolition of all nuclear weapons. It certainly would have been a victory for peace. But in the end, everything would come down to a single word: laboratory.
Under no circumstances would the Soviets agree to the Americans’ testing SDI “outside of the laboratory.” In other words, the Russians could tolerate a research and development effort, which – for all they knew – was already underway. Testing outside the laboratory was a bridge too far. But the U.S. team knew that was the only way SDI, if developed, could be tested.
Meanwhile, Reagan was committed to the vision of SDI as a “just in case” measure and did not believe that it would hasten an arms race in space. Reagan and Shultz both knew they were bargaining from a position of strength, but neither had anticipated getting so close to peace with negotiations, much less that the negotiations would rise or fall solely on SDI. “We’re so close,” said Reagan plaintively.
“Why do you want to defend against ballistic missiles if you seek to abolish them?” Gorbachev asked Reagan at one point. It was a fair question. But Reagan would not budge on SDI, as he worried threats would crop up elsewhere—even if he could trust the Soviets. Shultz knew that sticking on SDI could mean leaving so much on the table. Indeed, if the Soviets could not get past SDI, so much of the past days’ work would be wasted and the summit would pass with no significant agreements. Seeing Reagan’s resolve, however, Shultz knew his responsibility was to support his President no matter what they had to leave behind.
The teams redrafted the proposals. Back and forth they went.
Gorbachev persisted: “To sum up: there would be a ten year period in which the two sides would not withdraw from the ABM Treaty but would adhere strictly to it. You can conduct laboratory research [Emphasis added by Shultz]. After the ten years, and during the ten years, we can completely eliminate all strategic weapons.” (T&T, p. 771)
“If we both eliminate nuclear weapons, why would there be a concern that one side wants to build defensive systems just in case?” Reagan asked. “Are you considering starting up with weapons after ten years? I have a different picture. I have a picture that after ten years you and I come to Iceland and bring the last two missiles in the world and we have the biggest damn party in celebration of it!” (T&T, p. 771)
The two sides were on the verge of something very big: If they succeeded, they would eliminate a whole class of weapons—increasing the security of millions by orders of magnitude. And so the pressure mounted.
Alas, the leaders’ ambitions for peace collapsed under the weight of stalemate. If the world had only known how close they came to accomplishing a diplomatic miracle that day… The press was there by the end of the summit, as the Soviets had lifted the blockade. When the leaders emerged from Hofdi House, they looked despondent, exhausted. They were.
Secretary of State Shultz had the responsibility of recounting the breathtaking achievements to the world, along with how close they had come to shutting down the cold war right then and there. The press called the event a “failure” and a “bitter disappointment.” Shultz knew otherwise. Reykjavik had been an astounding success. Not only had the Soviets shown their bottom line, but that bottom line would form the basis of agreements in future summits.
Indeed, years later in the 1990s, George Shultz would have occasion to ask Mikhail Gorbachev when he thought the Cold War ended.
“Reykjavik,” Gorbachev replied.
Editor’s Note: For further reading on the Reykjavik Summit and its importance see also this book by Hoover Press.