A review of Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War


Ken Adelman’s, Reagan at Reykjavik, adds to the growing body of literature covering the hastily arranged 1986 U.S. and Soviet Union summit held in Reykjavik, Iceland. No superpower summit since the 1945 Yalta Conference has retained as much interest as Reykjavik, and justifiably so. For it was at Reykjavik that the United States and Soviet Union had on the negotiating table a proposal to completely eliminate all nuclear weapons. With the potential stakes so high, and the emotional investment of two charismatic leaders in President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the Reykjavik summit was a pivotal moment in arms control history and high drama. Adelman, who participated in the summit as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, does well to capture both the geopolitical and human elements of the summit. And as can be expected from someone who lectured on Shakespeare after leaving government service, Adelman successfully recreates the drama and engages the reader.

In the opening chapters, Adelman outlines the economic and political landscape Reagan and Gorbachev faced in their respective countries. Adelman provides just enough background information to explain each leader’s motivation. Adelman, like a stage actor stepping out of character to speak directly to the audience, intersperses his personal views of the key players at Reykjavik. While he is clearly an admirer of Ronald Reagan and rarely critical, his views on Secretary of State George Shultz, who was Reagan’s most trusted confidant during the tense summit meetings, are more ambiguous.

Adelman describes Gorbachev as entering the negotiations burdened by the strains of a failing Soviet economy. With a bureaucratic and inefficient centrally controlled economy, Russia had fallen behind the U.S. in technology and economic output. Gorbachev saw the end of the nuclear arms race as essential for reducing exorbanent military spending and resurrecting the Soviet economy.

Reagan came to Reykjavik with an entirely different motivation. The U.S. economy had rebounded and Reagan handily won re-election in 1984 by a large margin. But Reagan, to the dismay of most of his advisors and close allies, believed that nuclear weapons were morally wrong and that the status quo nuclear policy of the time, Mutually Assured Destruction, was misguided, unsustainable, and held potentially catastrophic consequences. Reagan saw an agreement to end the arms race and eliminate nuclear weapons as the best way to assure the security of the United States, as long as elimination also included the simultaneous development and deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Adelman describes in novelistic detail the three days between the curious-filled Thursday, October 9th arrival and the disappointment-laden Sunday departure of Reagan and his team of advisors. While covering little new substantive historic terrain, Adelman’s detailed descriptions of the moments between the negotiations reminds us of the vital and underreported role personal relationships play in geopolitical outcomes. As Reagan and Gorbachev spent more time together at Reykjavik, they developed a level of mutual respect that wasn’t present at their first meeting in Geneva two years earlier. The gradual thawing of ideological hostility and growing personal friendship and trust were the necessary precursors for improved relations between the two superpowers.

Ultimately, Reykjavik failed to achieve an agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons. Gorbachev feared the deployment of SDI would give the United States nuclear first strike capabilities creating an unacceptable imbalance of power. Reagan attempted to assure Gorbachev that the objective of SDI was not to gain a first strike advantage, but to create a missile shield that would make it possible to protect against ‘madmen’ after the superpowers had eliminated their own nuclear arsenals. Reagan innately understood the need for common security to build a lasting peace, and he promised Gorbachev he would share the SDI technology with the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, after decades of entrenched Cold War thinking, Gorbachev simply could not accept that the U.S. would follow through on a commitment to share SDI.

Even more unfortunate, many of Reagan’s own advisors failed to believe in Reagan’s commitment to share SDI. Adelman refers to this idea as ‘rather silly’, and more cynically, writes that Reagan’s notion ‘proved wily’, as if Reagan had proposed it as a manipulative tactic rather than an integral part of his solution for eliminating nuclear weapons.

While Reykjavik ended with no immediate new agreements, it did prepare the groundwork for significant new arms control treaties that were signed and ratified in the decade following this summit, including the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Another less dramatic but currently critical agreement was the Open Skies Treaty, which created greater transparency of the status of deployed military forces of participating countries. And ironically, involves sharing previously confidential information between the U.S. and Russia, a sharing that would have been unheard of prior to Reykjavik, and reinforces Reagan’s idea of finding common security through cooperation.

Adelman neatly summarizes Reagan at Reykjavik in a final chapter by providing his retrospective views of the lasting impact of this critical forty-eight hour slice of time. While not everyone will agree with his conclusions, there is little debate that this impromptu summit held in the cramped and picturesque Hofdi house, was a vital pivot point in shaping history.




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