Excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986"
Originally published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1986, Book 2, published in 1989
"The implications of these talks are enormous.… We proposed the most sweeping … arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles—Soviet and American—from the face of the Earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons."
With the Watergate scandal–driven resignation of U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74), the erratic foreign policies of President Jimmy Carter (1924–; served 1977–81), and the strong anticommunist stance of President Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89), U.S.-Soviet relations in the early 1980s were in a deep freeze. Détente, an easing of international tensions, had long stalled. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were spending vast sums on the military arms race.
U.S.-Soviet arms-reduction talks had stalled by the early 1980s. A key reason was a proposed new U.S. missile system called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The new missile system was announced by President Reagan in March 1983. It became commonly known as the "Star Wars" project, named after the popular science-fiction movie of the time, because SDI involved a protective shield of laser-armed satellites in space. Together the missile, rockets, and laser beams would search out and destroy enemy missiles fired toward U.S. targets. The project would require vast sums of money, would be highly complex, and quite possibly might not work. Reagan persisted with the Star Wars project, even though the Soviets would feel compelled to develop a similar system despite the severe strain that would put on their weak economy. Soviet premier Yuri Andropov (1914–1984) charged that Star Wars violated the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Disgruntled, he proclaimed that the arms race now had no bounds. The year 1983 was one of great tension in the Cold War superpower rivalry.
The SDI program and other arms development programs gave President Reagan an increasing sense of U.S. nuclear superiority and a feeling of security. The overall result was that Reagan, negotiating from his position of strength, became a bit more accommodating toward the Soviets. Also, the November 1984 presidential election campaign was heating up. Under pressure from opposing Democratic candidates for president, Reagan realized he must soften his approach somewhat and commit to arms control talks if he had hopes of Congress funding his massive Star Wars program and hopes of reelection.
In February 1984, Andropov died and was replaced by another old-guard Soviet communist leader, Konstantin Chernenko (1911–1985). Chernenko was not eager to negotiate with Reagan. He wanted to see if Reagan was going to win reelection that fall. He did—by easily defeating former vice president Walter Mondale (1928–)—and he began his second term in January 1985. Not long afterwards, Chernenko died on March 10. The U.S.S.R.'s series of aging communist leaders, fiercely anti–United States, and unable to halt the economic state of stagnation in the Soviet Union, came to an end. By late evening on March 10, the Politburo, the key policy-making body of the Soviet Communist Party, elected fifty-four-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) to lead the Soviet Union.
Vice President George Bush (1924–) and Secretary of State George Shultz (1920–) represented the United States at Chernenko's funeral. While in Moscow, they spoke with Gorbachev. Upon returning to the United States, Bush and Shultz informed Reagan that significant changes for the Soviet Union were on the horizon. They believed Gorbachev was a Soviet leader that they could possibly work with.
Gorbachev adopted a plan for Soviet economic recovery and opened up Soviet society to greater freedom of expression. To get his economic recovery program underway, he cut back economic aid to Third World nations, including Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola, and Ethiopia. (Third World countries are poor underdeveloped or economically developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.) Gorbachev began withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The Soviets had tried to prop up a procommunist government in Afghanistan but had become entangled in an unsuccessful decade-long conflict that resembled the earlier U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Gorbachev then boldly proposed an end to the arms race and an end to the Cold War. He desired immediate talks with President Reagan. With most Soviets living in relative poverty, Gorbachev knew that the only way to begin significant social changes was to end the arms race with the United States that drained much of the Soviets' economic resources.
Reagan, still suspicious of Soviet intentions, met first with Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland, in November 1985. The meeting was designed primarily to build confidence and a personal relationship between the leaders. One year later, the two met again, in October 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland. To the Americans' surprise, Gorbachev proposed a broad detailed plan to reduce arms. A major obstacle, however, continued to be Reagan's Star Wars program. Despite this obstacle, some astounding common understandings were personally reached between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik. These included a desire to eliminate all intermediate-range missiles located in Europe, to eliminate all ballistic missiles over a ten-year period, and to make other major reductions involving bombers and tactical (short-range) weapons. The two leaders left Iceland disappointed that they did not accomplish more, but they looked forward to figuring out how to accomplish these goals. The following excerpt is from a televised address by Reagan to the American people reporting on the progress made at Reykjavik.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986":
- Only three years earlier, the arms race had appeared to have no limits.
- For the first time, the two superpower leaders talked of actually eliminating entire classes of nuclear weapons.
- If the United States actually developed a working Star Wars defense shield, then it could attack the Soviet Union with no fear of Soviet retaliation. Economically, the Soviets had no hope of developing such a program on their own, so they had to continue serious negotiations with the United States.
Excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986"
Good evening. As most of you know, I've just returned from meetings in Iceland with the leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Gorbachev. As I did last year when I returned from the summit conference in Geneva [the first summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985], I want to take a few moments tonight to share with you what took place in these discussions. The implications of these talks are enormous and only just beginning to be understood. We proposed the most sweeping and generous arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles—Soviet and American—from the face of the Earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons.…
Before I report on our talks, though, allow me to set the stage by explaining two things that were very much a part of our talks: one a treaty and the other a defense against nuclear missiles, which we're trying to develop. Now, you've heard their titles a thousand times—the ABM treaty [signed in 1972 with both sides agreeing to limit the number of antiballistic missiles—defensive missiles to shoot down incoming offensive missiles] and SDI. Well, those letters stand for ABM, antiballistic missile; SDI, Strategic Defense Initiative ["Star Wars" program].…
So, here we are at Iceland for our second such meeting. In the first, and in the months in between, we have discussed ways to reduce and in fact eliminate nuclear weapons entirely.…
But by their choice, the main subject was arms control. We discussed the emplacement of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia and seemed to be in agreement they could be drastically reduced. Both sides seemed willing to find a way to reduce, even to zero, the strategic ballistic missiles we have aimed at each other. This then brought up the subject of SDI.
I offered a proposal that we continue our present research. And if and when we reached the stage of testing, we would sign, now, a treaty that would permit Soviet observation of such tests. And if the program was practical, we would both eliminate our offensive missiles, and then we would share the benefits of advanced defenses. I explained that even though we would have done away with our offensive ballistic missiles, having the defense would protect against cheating or the possibility of a madman, sometime, deciding to create nuclear missiles. After all, the world now knows how to make them. I likened it to our keeping our gas masks, even though the nations of the world had outlawed poison gas after World War I. We seemed to be making progress on reducing weaponry, although the General Secretary was registering opposition to SDI and proposing a pledge to observe ABM for a number of years as the day was ending.…
The Soviets had asked for a 10-year delay in the deployment of SDI programs. In an effort to see how we could satisfy their concerns—while protecting our principles and security—we proposed a 10-year period in which we began with the reduction of all strategic nuclear arms, bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the weapons they carry. They would be reduced 50 percent in the first 5 years. During the next 5 years, we would continue by eliminating all remaining offensive ballistic missiles, of all ranges. And during that time, we would proceed with research, development, and testing of SDI—all done in conformity with ABM provisions. At the 10-year point, with all ballistic missiles eliminated, we could proceed to deploy advanced defenses, at the same time permitting the Soviets to do likewise.
And here the debate began. The General Secretary wanted wording that, in effect, would have kept us from developing the SDI for the entire 10 years. In effect, he was killing SDI. And unless I agreed, all that work toward eliminating nuclear weapons would go down the drain—canceled. I told him I had pledged to the American people that I would not trade away SDI, there was no way I could tell our people their government would not protect them against nuclear destruction. I went to Reykjavik determined that everything was negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future. I'm still optimistic that a way will be found. The door is open, and the opportunity to begin eliminating the nuclear threat is within reach.
So you can see, we made progress in Iceland. And we will continue to make progress if we pursue a prudent, deliberate, and above all, realistic approach with the Soviets. From the earliest days of our administration this has been our policy. We made it clear we had no illusions about the Soviets or their ultimate intentions. We were publicly candid about the critical, moral distinctions between totalitarianism and democracy. We declared the principal objective of American foreign policy to be not just the prevention of war, but the extension of freedom. And we stressed our commitment to the growth of democratic government and democratic institutions around the world. And that's why we assisted freedom fighters who are resisting the imposition of totalitarian rule in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, and elsewhere. And finally, we began work on what I believe most spurred the Soviets to negotiate seriously: rebuilding our military strength, reconstructing our strategic deterrence, and above all, beginning work on the Strategic Defense Initiative.…
I realize some Americans may be asking tonight: Why not accept Mr. Gorbachev's demand? Why not give up SDI for this agreement? Well, the answer, my friends, is simple. SDI is America's insurance policy that the Soviet Union would keep the commitments made at Reykjavik. SDI is America's security guarantee if the Soviets should—as they have done too often in the past—fail to comply with their solemn commitments. SDI is what brought the Soviets back to arms control talks at Geneva and Iceland. SDI is the key to a world without nuclear weapons. The Soviets understand this. They have devoted far more resources, for a lot longer time than we, to their own SDI. The world's only operational missile defense today surrounds Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.
What Mr. Gorbachev was demanding at Reykjavik was that the United States agree to a new version of a 14-year-old ABM treaty that the Soviet Union has already violated. I told him we don't make those kinds of deals in the United States. And the American people should reflect on these critical questions: How does a defense of the United States threaten the Soviet Union or anyone else? Why are the Soviets so adamant that America remain forever vulnerable to Soviet rocket attack? As of today, all free nations are utterly defenseless against Soviet missiles—fired either by accident or design. Why does the Soviet Union insist that we remain so—forever?
So, my fellow Americans, I cannot promise, nor can any President promise, that the talks in Iceland or any future discussion with Mr. Gorbachev will lead inevitably to great breakthroughs or momentous treaty signing.…
So, if there's one impression I carry away with me from these October talks, it is that, unlike the past, we're dealing now from a position of strength. And for that reason, we have it within our grasp to move speedily with the Soviets toward even more breakthroughs.… So, there's reason, good reason for hope. I saw evidence of this in the progress we made in the talks with Mr. Gorbachev.
What happened next …
In February 1987, Gorbachev dropped all his demands that Reagan abandon Star Wars. That cleared the way for removing all intermediate-range nuclear force (INF) missiles in Europe, both U.S. missiles aimed at the Soviets and Soviet missiles in Eastern Europe aimed at the United States. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the historic INF Treaty on December 8, 1987, in Washington, D.C., at their third meeting.
For their fourth meeting, Reagan went to Moscow in June 1988 to show support for Gorbachev's domestic reform in the Soviet Union. It was the first visit of a U.S. president to Moscow in fourteen years, since Richard Nixon visited in 1974. In December 1988, Gorbachev traveled to New York City to speak before the United Nations' General Assembly. There, he gave a dramatic speech promoting democracy and individual liberty (see next chapter). The Cold War was indeed winding down.
Did you know …
- Under the INF treaty, the United States would destroy 850 missiles and dismantle approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union would destroy 1,800 missiles and 3,000 nuclear warheads.
- On July 25, 1988, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze (1928–) made the startling and sweeping statement that the entire decades-old arms race with the United States was a massively mistaken policy.
- Ultimately, Congress refused to adequately fund Star Wars and it died with the Cold War.
Consider the following …
- Although under criticism from many in the United States, Reagan insisted on his Star Wars program. List the various reasons he may have had for this determination. Also list reasons why many opposed it.
- What are the major reasons Gorbachev chose to pursue serious arms elimination talks?
- Consider and write down your reflections on what emotions must have been involved as Reagan and Gorbachev, leaders of nations that had been bitter enemies for forty years, sat down for talks.
For More Information
Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
FitzGerald, Frances. Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Stars Wars, and the End of the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Mandelbaum, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. Reagan and Gorbachev. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
McCauley, Martin. Gorbachev. New York: Longman, 1998.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald Reagan, 1986, Book 2. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.
Winik, Jay. On the Brink: The Dramatic, Behind-the-Scenes Saga of the Reagan Era and the Men and Women Who Won the Cold War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Reagan Library and Museum. http://www.reagan.utexas.edu (accessed on September 21, 2003).