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Context of 'January 1986: Gorbachev Proposes Drastic Reductions in US, Soviet Nuclear Arsenals'

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Reagan officials reopen the stalled Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, against the advice of President Reagan’s more hardline officials (see January 1981 and After). The talks center on the Soviets’ SS-20 missile, designed to strike European targets. In return, then-President Carter had agreed to deploy US intermediate-range nuclear missiles—Pershing II’s and Tomahawks—in West Germany and Italy by 1983. According to author J. Peter Scoblic, the missiles have little real military value, as American ICBMs, submarine-based nuclear missiles, and long-range bombers could destroy Soviet targets with near-impunity. They do, however, have some political significance, mostly in helping tie European security to US security. Carter had agreed to open talks with the Soviets to get rid of the SS-20s entirely.
Hardliners Sabotage Talks - The more pragmatic Reagan officials succeed in reopening the talks; Reagan hardliners, thwarted in stopping the talks, set about sabotaging them in any way available. When arguments in favor of delays and “further study” finally fail, they pressure Reagan to offer an agreement they know the Soviets will refuse: the so-called “zero option,” which originates with Defense Department official Richard Perle (see Early 1981 and After). Perle says that the Soviets should remove all of the SS-20s, and in return, the US will not deploy its Pershings and Tomahawks—in essence, having the Soviets concede something for essentially nothing. State Department officials suggest a fallback position in case the Soviets reject Perle’s offering; in his turn, Perle appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee and compares anyone who opposes his zero-sum offering to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938.
'Walk in the Woods' - When the Soviets reject Perle’s option, Reagan hardliners argue that the government should accept no compromise. The head of the INF negotiation team, Paul Nitze—a Cold War figure who has come out against arms control (see January 1976) but is not fully trusted by the hardline ideologues because of his history as an arms negotiator—wants a compromise. In official negotiations, he sticks to the all-or-nothing position of Perle, but opens private, informal negotiations with his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky. One afternoon in 1982, Nitze and Kvitsinsky go for what later becomes known as their “walk in the woods.” Sitting together on a log during an afternoon rainstorm, the two hammer out an agreement that greatly favors the US—mandating a 67 percent reduction in Soviet SS-20s and allowing the US to deploy an equal number of Tomahawks. Not only would the Soviets have to reduce their already-deployed contingent of missiles and the US be allowed to deploy missiles, because the Tomahawks carry more independent warheads than the SS-20s, the US would have a significant advantage in firepower. The deal also sets limits on SS-20 deployments in Asia, and forbids the Soviets from developing ground-launched cruise missiles. In return, the US would agree not to deploy its Pershing missiles.
Hardliners Block Agreement - Perle and his hardline allies in the Reagan administration succeed in blocking acceptance of the Nitze-Kvitsinsky agreement. As author J. Peter Scoblic later writes, “Perle’s ideological obstructionism—concisely conveyed in his disparagement of Nitze as ‘an inverterate problem-solver’—reached fantastic heights.” Perle first tried to block Reagan from even learning the details of the agreement, and lied to Reagan, asserting falsely that the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the agreement. Perle, in conjunction with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, eventually convinces Reagan to stick to the “zero option.” Perle argues against pressure from key US allies such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, telling Reagan, “We can’t just do something; we’ve got to stand there—and stand firm.” In 1983, Perle tells Weinberger that it would be better for the US to deploy no missiles at all than to accept the agreement. Scoblic will write: “In other words, he argued that foregoing deployment in return for nothing was better than foregoing deployment in exchange for something. The position made no sense, but the Reagan team held firm to it, once again preventing the adoption of a viable arms control deal.” When the US deploys Pershing missiles in Europe in November 1983, the Soviets walk out of the talks. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 120-123]

Entity Tags: Richard Perle, Margaret Thatcher, Joint Chiefs of Staff, J. Peter Scoblic, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Nitze, Ronald Reagan, Reagan administration, Senate Armed Services Committee, US Department of State, Yuli Kvitsinsky

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan, giving a speech at his alma mater, Eureka College, renames the US-USSR SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) negotiations START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks). The renamed negotiations reflect profound dissension within the administration for and against arms limitation talks (see January 1981 and After and Early 1981 and After). State Department official Richard Burt, formerly opposed to arms negotiations, wants to ramp up the SALT talks and seek reductions in warheads and launchers. Defense Department official Richard Perle, the neoconservative who is working to block another arms limitation with the Soviet Union (see September 1981 through November 1983), wants to focus on payloads and “throw weight.” The administration’s compromise between the two positions—START—“ma[kes] no sense whatsoever,” according to author J. Peter Scoblic.
Initial Proposal Unacceptable to Soviets - START’s initial position—reducing each side’s deployment to 850 nuclear missiles and 5,000 warheads, of which no more than 2,500 can be on ICBMs—sounds like a significant reduction on paper, but many experts on all sides of the nuclear arms issue worry that such an agreement, putting so many warheads on so few missiles, would actually encourage each side to consider a first strike in a crisis. Arms control proponent Paul Warnke says, “If the Russians accept Mr. Reagan’s proposal, he’ll be forced to reject it himself.” But because of the disparity in missile configurations between the US and the Soviets, such an agreement would require the Soviets to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenal by 60 percent, while the US would lose almost nothing; therefore, the Soviets would never agree to such a proposal. Scoblic will note that as an opening gambit this proposal might be successful, if the Americans were prepared to back down somewhat and give the Soviets something. But the US negotiators have no intention of backing down. The Soviets are keenly interested in the US agreeing to reduce the number of cruise missiles it has deployed, but Reagan signs a National Security Directive forbidding US negotiators from even discussing the idea until the Soviets made significant concessions on “throw weight,” essentially tying his negotiators’ hands.
Chief US Negotiator Insults Soviets - The negotiations are made more difficult by the US team’s chief negotiator, Edward Rowny. Rowny, a former national security adviser to hardline Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), does not believe in diplomacy with anyone, particularly the Soviets. According to Scoblic, Rowny believes in “telling it like it is” to his Soviet counterparts, which Scoblic calls “insulting one’s negotiating opponents.” As he has no real negotiating latitude, Rowny’s diplomacy consists of little more than insults towards his Soviet counterparts. He tells them they do not understand the issues, boasts of his own Polish (i.e. anti-Russian) heritage, even stages walkouts over the seating arrangements. Rowny feels that he is opening a new era in negotiations, but in reality, the START talks are making no progress. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 123-124]

Entity Tags: Paul Warnke, Edward Rowny, J. Peter Scoblic, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, Richard Burt, Richard Perle

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Reagan and Gorbachev at the Geneva summit meeting.Reagan and Gorbachev at the Geneva summit meeting. [Source: Ronald Reagan Library]The long-awaited summit meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev takes place in Geneva. The meeting, later known as the “fireside summit,” comes after months of Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR—“glasnost,” or openness to government transparency; “perestroika,” a retooling of the moribund Stalinist economy; and a dogged anti-alcohol campaign, among others. Gorbachev has packed the Kremlin with officials such as new Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze and chief economist Alexander Yakovlev, who back his reform campaigns. (Yakolev has even proposed democratization of the Soviet Communist Party.) Reagan and Gorbachev have exchanged several letters which have helped build relations between the two leaders. Reagan, unlike some of his hardline advisers, is excited about the summit, and has diligently prepared, even holding mock debates with National Security Council member Jack Matlock playing Gorbachev. Reagan has also quietly arranged—without the knowledge of his recalcitrant hardline advisers—for an extension of the scheduled 15-minute private meeting between himself and Gorbachev. The two actually talk for five hours. Nothing firm is agreed upon during this first meeting, but as Reagan later recalls, it marks a “fresh start” in US-Soviet relations. Gorbachev returns to the USSR promoting his and Reagan’s agreement on the need to reduce nuclear arms; Reagan presents the summit as a “victory” in which he did not back down to Soviet pressure, but instead emphasized the need for the Soviets to honor basic human rights for their citizens. Gorbachev realizes that Reagan’s abhorrence of nuclear weapons and his desire for a reduction in nuclear arms (see April 1981 and After) is personal and not shared by many of his administration’s officials, much less the US defense industry. As a result, he focuses on personal contacts and appeals to Reagan, and puts less stock in formal negotiations between the two. [National Security Archive, 11/22/2005; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 139-140; Margaret Thatcher Foundation, 1/23/2008]

Entity Tags: Soviet Communist Party, Alexander Yakovlev, Edvard Shevardnadze, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, following up on the successful “fireside summit” between himself and Ronald Reagan (see November 16-19, 1985), sends Reagan a letter calling for drastic reductions in US and Soviet nuclear weapons. He proposes the complete eradication of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. He proposes cutting strategic arsenals by half, banning space-based weapons outright, and halting nuclear testing. He also proposes the complete dismantlement of all intermediate-range systems in Europe—in essence accepting the US’s “zero option” that was such a sticking point in earlier negotiations (see September 1981 through November 1983). [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 139-140] One administration hardliner, chief arms negotiator Edward Rowny (see May 1982 and After), warns Reagan that the Soviets are inherently untrustworthy and begs him “not to go soft on this.” Instead of giving Rowny what he wants, Reagan launches into what Rowny will later recall as a Martin Luther King-like speech: “I have a dream. I have a dream of a world without nuclear weapons. I want our children and grandchildren particularly to be free of those weapons.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 143]

Entity Tags: Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Edward Rowny

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Gorbachev and Reagan at the Reykjavik summit.Gorbachev and Reagan at the Reykjavik summit. [Source: Ronald Reagan Library]President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a second summit, to follow on the success of their first meeting almost a year before (see November 16-19, 1985). They base their discussion on Gorbachev’s January proposals of deep cuts in the two nations’ nuclear arsenals (see January 1986).
Elimination of All Nuclear Weapons by 1996 - Gorbachev and his negotiators begin by reiterating Gorbachev’s proposals for a 50 percent cut in all nuclear weapons, deep reductions in Soviet ICBMs, and the elimination of all European-based intermediate nuclear weapons. Reagan and his negotiators counter with a proposal for both sides to destroy half of their nuclear ballistic missiles in the next five years, and the rest to be destroyed over the next five, leaving both sides with large arsenals of cruise missiles and bomber-based weapons. Gorbachev ups the ante, proposing that all nuclear weapons be destroyed within 10 years. Reagan responds that it would be fine with him “if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” implicitly including all tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and everywhere else. Gorbachev says, “We can do that,” and Secretary of State George Shultz says, “Let’s do it.”
Agreement Founders on SDI - The heady moment is lost when the two sides fail to reach an agreement on SDI—the Americans’ “Star Wars” missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). Gorbachev cannot accept any major reductions in nuclear weapons if the US has a viable missile defense system; Reagan is convinced that SDI would allow both sides to eliminate their nuclear weapons, and offers the SDI technology to the Soviets. Gorbachev finds Reagan’s offer naive, since there is no guarantee that future presidents would honor the deal. Reagan, in another example of his ignorance of the mechanics of the US nuclear program (see April 1981 and After), does not seem to realize that even a completely effective SDI program would not defend against Soviet cruise missiles and long-range bombers, and therefore would not end the threat of nuclear destruction for either side. Author J. Peter Scoblic will later write, “[SDI] would have convinced the Soviet Union that the United States sought a first-strike capability, since the Americans were so far ahead in cruise missile and stealth bomber technology.” Gorbachev does not ask that the US abandon SDI entirely, but simply observe the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (see May 26, 1972) and confine SDI research to the laboratory. Reagan refuses. Gorbachev says that if this is the US’s position, then they would have to “forget everything they discussed.” Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze breaks in, saying that the two nations are “so close” to making history that “if future generations read the minutes of these meetings, and saw how close we had come but how we did not use these opportunities, they would never forgive us.” But the agreement is not to be.
Participants' Reactions - As Shultz later says, “Reykjavik was too bold for the world.” Shultz tells reporters that he is “deeply disappointed” in the results, and no longer sees “any prospect” for a third summit. Gorbachev tells reporters that Reagan’s insistence on retaining SDI had “frustrated and scuttled” the opportunity for an agreement. Gorbachev says he told Reagan that the two countries “were missing a historic chance. Never had our positions been so close together.” Reagan says as he is leaving Iceland that “though we put on the table the most far-reaching arms control proposal in history, the general secretary [Gorbachev] rejected it.” Scoblic will later write, “In the end, ironically, it was Reagan’s utopianism, hitched as it was to a missile shield, that preserved the status quo.” [Washington Post, 10/13/1986; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 140-142]
Hardline Sabotage - One element that contributes to the failure of the negotiations is the efforts to undermine the talks by hardline advisers Richard Perle and Ken Adelman, who tell Reagan that confining SDI to research facilities would destroy the program. Perle and Adelman are lying, but Reagan, not knowing any better, believes them, and insists that SDI remain in development. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 143-144]
Going Too Far? - Reagan’s negotiators, even the most ardent proponents of nuclear reduction, are shocked that he almost agreed to give up the US’s entire nuclear arsenal—with Shultz’s encouragement. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand are horrified at the prospect, given that NATO’s nuclear arsenal in Europe is the only real counterweight to the huge Red Army so close to the borders of Western European nations. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 140-142]
Failure of Trust - The US-Soviet talks may well have foundered on an inability of either side to trust the other one to the extent necessary to implement the agreements. During the talks, Soviet aide Gyorgy Arbatov tells US negotiator Paul Nitze that the proposals would require “an exceptional level of trust.” Therefore, Arbatov says, “we cannot accept your position.” [National Security Archives, 3/12/2008]

Entity Tags: Paul Nitze, J. Peter Scoblic, Kenneth Adelman, Gyorgy Arbatov, George Shultz, Francois Mitterand, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Perle, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

American conservatives, recently contemptuous of former President Ronald Reagan (see 1988), use the fall of the Berlin Wall (see November 9, 1989 and After) to resurrect the image of Reagan as the victorious Cold Warrior who triumphed over world communism.
Historical Revisionism - In doing so, they drastically revise history. In the revised version of events, Reagan was a staunch, never-wavering, ideologically hardline conservative who saw the Cold War as an ultimate battle between good (Western democracy) and evil (Soviet communism). As author J. Peter Scoblic will describe the revision, it was Reagan’s implacable resolve and conservative principles—and the policies that emanated from those principles—that “forced the Soviet Union to implode.” Conservatives point to the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” of backing anti-Soviet insurgencies (see May 5, 1985) and to National Security Decision Directive 75, accepting nuclear war as a viable policy option (see January 17, 1983), as evidence of their assertions. But to achieve this revision, they must leave out, among other elements, Reagan’s long-stated goal of nuclear disarmament (see April 1981 and After, March-April 1982, November 20, 1983, and Late November 1983), and his five-year history of working with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arms between the two nations (see December 1983 and After, November 16-19, 1985, January 1986, October 11-12, 1986, and December 7-8, 1987).
USSR Caused Its Own Demise - And, Scoblic will note, such revisionism does not account for the fact that it was the USSR which collapsed of its own weight, and not the US which overwhelmed the Soviets with an onslaught of democracy. The Soviet economy had been in dire straits since the late 1960s, and there had been huge shortages of food staples such as grain by the 1980s. Soviet military spending remained, in Scoblic’s words, “enormous, devouring 15 percent to 20 percent of [the USSR’s gross national product] throughout the Cold War (meaning that it imposed three times the economic burden of the US defense budget, on an economy that was one-sixth the size).” Reagan did dramatically increase US military spending during his eight years in office (see Early 1981 and After), and ushered new and potentially devastating military programs into existence (see 1981 and March 23, 1983). Conservatives will assert that Reagan’s military spending drove the USSR into implicit surrender, sending them back to the arms negotiation table with a newfound willingness to negotiate the drawdown of the two nations’ nuclear arsenals (see Early 1985). Scoblic will characterize the conservatives’ arguments: “Whereas [former President] Carter was left playing defense, the Gipper [Reagan] took the ball the final 10 yards against the Reds, spending them into the ground and leading the United States into the end zone.” Scoblic calls this a “superficially… plausible argument,” but notes that Carter, not Reagan, began the tremendous military spending increase (see Late 1979-1980), and more importantly, the USSR made no effort to match Reagan’s defense spending. “Its defense budget remained essentially static during the 1980s,” he will write. “In short, the Soviet Union suffered no economic distress as a result of the Reagan buildup.” Scoblic will also note that conservatives had long insisted that the USSR could actually outspend the US militarily (see November 1976), and never predicted that increasing US military spending could drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 145-149]

Entity Tags: J. Peter Scoblic, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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