The Reykjavik Summit
On October 11, 1986, halfway between Moscow and Washington, D.C., the leaders of the world’s two superpowers met at the stark and picturesque Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland. Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev had proposed the meeting to President Ronald Reagan less than thirty days before. The expectations for the summit at Reykjavik were low.
Reagan and Gorbachev had established a personal relationship just one year before at their Geneva Summit. In Geneva they attempted to reach agreement on bilateral nuclear arms reductions. Since then, their negotiators had reached an impasse. Both leaders hoped a face to face meeting at Reykjavik might revive the negotiations.
The talks between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik proceeded at a breakneck pace. Gorbachev agreed that human rights issues were a legitimate topic of discussion, something no previous Soviet leader had ever agreed to. A proposal to eliminate all new strategic missiles grew into a discussion, for the first time in history, of the real possibility of eliminating nuclear weapons forever.
Aides to both leaders were shocked by the pace of the discussions. A summit that began with low expectations had blossomed into one of the most dramatic and potentially productive summits of all time. At one point Reagan even described to Gorbachev how both men might return to Reykjavik in ten years, aged and retired leaders, to personally witness the dismantling of the world’s last remaining nuclear warhead.
But one point of contention remained. Reagan was committed to see his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to completion. Gorbachev, fearing an imbalance of power, was equally determined to make sure SDI would never be implemented. Reagan offered assurances to Gorbachev that the missile defense shield, which he had championed and funded despite widespread criticism at home, was being developed not to gain an advantage, but to offer safety against accidents or outlaw nations. Reagan offered many times to share this technology with the Soviets, which Gorbachev refused to believe.
Toward the end of the long and stressful final negotiations Gorbachev would accept continued development of SDI as long as testing was confined to the laboratory for the next ten years. Reagan would not agree. He could not and would not allow the division of his two-part strategy of the simultaneous elimination of nuclear weapons with the creation of a missile defense shield.
After the negotiations broke down without a final agreement, Reagan wrote that he left the meeting knowing how close they had come to achieving his long goal of eliminating the threat of nuclear destruction, and that this was the angriest moment of his career.
Despite failing to achieve either man’s ultimate goal, Reykjavik will be recorded as one of the most important summits in history. A year after Reykjavik the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), for the first time eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed a few years later during President H.W Bush’s term.
None of this progress would have been possible without the courage of two leaders to look beyond past hostilities and forge a new and lasting relationship, that would soon provide greater security for people around the world.
Watch an excerpt from the PBS Program American Experience, Reagan: The Reykjavik Summit (length 10:06)