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Context of 'November 16-19, 1985: ’Fireside Summit’ between Reagan and Gorbachev Paves Way for Further Negotiations'

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President Reagan, recuperating from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet, tells bedside visitor Terence Cardinal Cooke that God spared his life so that he might “reduce the threat of nuclear war.”
Censored Letter to Brezhnev - The day after his conversation with Cooke, Reagan pens a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev calling for “disarmament” and a “world without nuclear weapons.” Brezhnev does not read Reagan’s words; Reagan’s aides, horrified at the letter, rewrite it and strip out all the phrases calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons before sending it to Brezhnev.
Aides Refuse to Draw up Plans for Disarmament - In the following weeks, Reagan will call nuclear weapons “horrible” and “inherently evil,” and order his aides to draw up plans for their elimination. His aides will refuse to deliver those plans; one adviser, Richard Burt (see Early 1981 and After), will exclaim: “He can’t have a world without nuclear weapons! Doesn’t he understand the realities?”
Wants to Stop Nuclear Armageddon - Reagan believes in the literal Biblical story of Armageddon—the End Times—and believes that it will come about through the use of nuclear weapons. Unlike some conservative Christians (and some of his advisers), he does not relish the prospect, and in fact believes it is his task to prevent it from happening.
Plans to Reduce Nuclear Arms Based on Prescience, Ignorance - Author J. Peter Scoblic will note it is difficult to reconcile the view of Reagan as an advocate of nuclear disarmament with the confrontational, sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric and actions by him and his administration (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, March 1982, and Spring 1982), but Scoblic will write: “Each of these efforts, however, can also be interpreted as a sincere, if misguided, product of Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons. Reagan believed that the Soviets would reduce their atomic arsenal only if they were faced with the prospect of an arms race.” Reagan realizes—ahead of many of his advisers—that the USSR was moving towards a calamitous economic crisis, and believes that the Soviets will choose to step back from further rounds of escalation in order to save their economy from complete collapse. He also believes, with some apparent conflict in logic, that the only way to reduce US nuclear arms is to increase the nation’s military arsenal. “Reagan emphasized time and again, that the aim of his arms build-up was to attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons,” biographer Paul Lettow will write. “[M]ost people did not listen to what he was actually saying.” Scoblic cites what he calls Reagan’s profound ignorance of nuclear strategy and tactical capabilities as another driving force behind Reagan’s vision of nuclear disarmament. He is not aware that submarines and long-range bombers carry nuclear missiles; he believes that submarine-based nuclear missiles can be called back once in flight. Both ideas are wrong. He tells foreign policy adviser Brent Scowcroft that he did not realize the primary threat from the Soviet Union was that its gigantic arsenal of ICBMs might obliterate the US’s own ICBM stockpile. When journalists ask him how the MX missile program (see 1981) that he has asserted will rectify the threat to American ICBMs, as he has asserted, he confesses that he does not know. And he honestly does not seem to understand that his administration’s confrontational, sometimes overtly belligerent actions (see May 1982 and After, June 8, 1982, March 23, 1983, and November 2-11, 1983) cause apprehension and even panic among the Soviet military and political leadership. Scoblic will write that like other hardline conservatives, “Reagan could not believe that anyone could perceive the United States as anything but righteous.”
'Subject to Manipulation' - Reagan’s desire for a reduction in nuclear arms is not matched by any depth of understanding of the nuclear weapons issues. Therefore, Scoblic will observe, “[h]e was susceptible to manipulation by advisers who shared his militant anti-communism but not his distaste for nuclear deterrence and who wanted neither arms reduction nor arms control.” When he names George Shultz as his secretary of state in mid-1982, he gains a key ally in his plans for nuclear reduction and a counterweight to arms-race advocates such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other hardliners who have worked (and continue to work) to sabotage the administration’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He gains another ally when he replaces National Security Adviser William Clark with the more pragmatic Robert McFarlane. Both Shultz and McFarlane will support Reagan’s desire to begin sincere negotiations with the USSR on reducing nuclear arms, as does his wife, Nancy Reagan, who wants her husband to be remembered by history as reducing, not increasing, the risk of nuclear war. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 136-138]

Entity Tags: Robert C. McFarlane, Leonid Brezhnev, J. Peter Scoblic, George Shultz, Caspar Weinberger, Brent Scowcroft, Nancy Reagan, Richard Burt, Terence Cardinal Cooke, Ronald Reagan, William Clark, Paul Lettow

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, in office just 13 months, dies of a long illness. Chernenko had moved to reopen talks with the US (see February 23, 1984 and Early 1985). President Reagan sends Vice President George H. W. Bush to the funeral with an invitation to hold a summit meeting with Chernenko’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev signals his acceptance (see November 16-19, 1985). [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 139]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Konstantin Chernenko

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Days before President Reagan’s scheduled Geneva summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (see November 16-19, 1985), Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger attempts to sabotage the meeting by leaking to the press a letter he had recently written to Reagan outlining what he called systematic Soviet violations of existing arms treaties, and warning Reagan that if he makes any deal with Gorbachev, he implicitly accepts those infractions. Author J. Peter Scoblic will call it “a clumsy attempt to undermine the talks,” and one that angers the more moderate administration officials. Instead of undermining the negotiations as he had intended, Reagan takes Weinberger off the Geneva delegation. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 143]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, Mikhail Gorbachev, J. Peter Scoblic

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

As the end of President Reagan’s final term approaches, conservatives and hardliners have radically changed their view of him. They originally saw him as one of their own—a crusader for good against evil, obstinately opposed to communism in general and to any sort of arms reduction agreement with the Soviet Union in specific. But recent events—Reagan’s recent moderation in rhetoric towards the Soviets (see December 1983 and After), the summits with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev (see November 16-19, 1985 and October 11-12, 1986), and the recent arms treaties with the Soviets (see Early 1985 and December 7-8, 1987) have soured them on Reagan. Hardliners had once held considerable power in the Reagan administration (see January 1981 and After and Early 1981 and After), but their influence has steadily waned, and their attempts to sabotage and undermine arms control negotiations (see April 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, May 1982 and After, and April 1983-December 1983), initially quite successful, have grown less effective and more desperate (see Before November 16, 1985). Attempts by administration hardliners to get “soft” officials such as Secretary of State George Shultz fired do not succeed. Conservative pundits such as George Will and William Safire lambast Reagan, with Will accusing him of “moral disarmament” and Safire mocking Reagan’s rapport with Gorbachev: “He professed to see in Mr. Gorbachev’s eyes an end to the Soviet goal of world domination.” It will not be until after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall (see November 9, 1989 and After) that conservatives will revise their opinion of Reagan, in the process revising much of history in the process. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 143-145]

Entity Tags: George Will, George Shultz, William Safire, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan

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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