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Excerpt from "Address to the Nation on the Meetings with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland, October 13, 1986"

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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...

(The entire section contains 3452 words.)

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