In his attempts to reform—rather than destroy—the Soviet Union, Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on Aug. 30 at the age of 91, relied on three ideas and strategies: Glasnost, meaning transparency and the end of censorship; Perestroika, the restructuring of the state through private ownership and a market economy, which eventually meant ending the exclusive rule of the Communist Party and holding elections; and economic triage, including reduction of defense expenditures that consumed a huge portion of the national budget (a “conservative” estimate in 1964 put the figure at 17.8 percent of national income). Gorbachev came to realize that the most efficient way to cut defense costs was to end the arms race, which constituted a substantial part of what we know as the “Cold War.” That, in turn, would require strictly limiting nuclear weapons.
I was privileged to have a role in arms limitation and nuclear non-proliferation policy in the administrations of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush during this fateful era. I was General Counsel of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency when Gorbachev was the Soviet leader, and thus I was responsible for conducting and supervising the negotiation of relevant treaties and the occasional higher political issue. As Marilyn Berger noted recently in the New York Times, “To George F. Kennan, the distinguished American diplomat and Sovietologist, Mr. Gorbachev was ‘a miracle,’ a man who saw the world as it was, unblinkered by Soviet ideology.” This was a true sea change; I had been working these issues in the government for more than 15 years and had never seen anything remotely like it.
The policy changes to those of us involved in these issues from the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in 1985, their Reykjavik meeting in 1986, and beyond to the end of Gorbachev’s time in office, did indeed seem miraculous. American and Soviet leaders had never seriously tried, together, to eliminate nuclear weapons and end the Cold War. But Gorbachev, working with Reagan and Bush, accomplished exactly that.
Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva in the fall of 1985. I was in Geneva the week before, helping prepare for the summit, though I didn’t stay for the meeting. I knew that Reagan was approaching the meeting with caution — only two and a half years earlier, in March 1983, he had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” But then six months later in the fall of 1983, Reagan went through the most dangerous nuclear weapons crisis of the Cold War, the “Able Archer” false-alarm incident, and came out of it a changed man. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also urged Reagan to meet with Gorbachev, famously saying that the Soviet leader was “a man we can work with.”
This proved to be true. When Reagan and Gorbachev met in Geneva, the chemistry between them was immediate and obvious, according to reports at the time. And that bond was borne out in the form of a defining principle of nuclear arms reduction still used today: “A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” As recently as June 2021, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladmir Putin reiterated that pledge at their first summit after Biden took office. Also at Geneva, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to hold three more summits. Gorbachev quickly indicated his desire to meet again soon and suggested Reykjavik.
The Reykjavik summit took place in Iceland on Oct. 11-12, 1986. It was one of the most remarkable meetings in history. As Richard Rhodes explains in Arsenals of Folly, Reagan opened the meeting with the statement that he was “proceeding from the assumption that both sides want to rid the world of ballistic missiles and of nuclear weapons in general.” Gorbachev, in his opening presentation, said, “We are in favor of finding a solution that would lead eventually to a complete liquidation of nuclear arms.”
What followed were two days of discussion on the specifics of eliminating nuclear weapons—50 percent of strategic nuclear weapons at the START negotiations in Geneva and then, in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, complete elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons systems, medium-range nuclear weapons. Both accords were accompanied by agreements on comprehensive onsite inspection, something the Soviet Union had never endorsed before. The two sides agreed further that, within 10 years, “all nuclear weapons will be eliminated, including bombs, battlefield weapons, cruise missiles, sub-launched, everything,” Reagan said at the time. “It would be fine with me if we get rid of them all,” he said.
But he insisted on being able to test his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the infamous “Star Wars” system, which could involve nuclear weapons used defensively in space. Gorbachev was under the strictest of instructions from the Politburo that, in discussing the reduction of nuclear weapons, he must not agree to allow Reagan to test nuclear weapons in space—at any time. He stuck loyally to that position. Conversely, Reagan took the advice of Richard Perle, a senior Pentagon official, over that of Secretary of State George Shultz and his senior advisor (the Cold War expert) Ambassador Paul Nitze, and insisted on retaining the space testing provision. The result was a historic—and colossally wasteful—deal breaker. The United States missed an opportunity to declare the end of nuclear weapons in order to save SDI, which President Bill Clinton canceled a few years later in 1993, after it had cost $30 billion and accomplished nothing.
But the 1986 Reykjavik meeting was a still a great success in other ways. As noted above, the Soviet Union agreed to sign onto the principle of intensive onsite inspection, an agreement that opened many doors in nuclear arms reduction and general U.S.-Soviet relations. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), containing the deep cuts in nuclear weapons that Gorbachev had proposed, was signed by him and President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Even before that, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in Washington in early December 1987. But because the INF signing summit was scheduled for Dec. 8, without much warning, the delegations didn’t have enough time to finalize the treaty. It had four separate and complicated parts and took a major effort to complete. A converted Air Force transport plane was standing by to take us from Geneva to Washington, so the negotiation was finished on the plane on Dec. 7 while we were en route — the Soviet and American negotiating ambassadors, the Soviet deputy ambassador, and me, the chief American lawyer in the talks. It’s a scene I’ll never forget; there we were, just the four of us (with a small crew) in the body of a massive Air Force cargo plane resolving the last outstanding questions. It was drafty and cold, and of course nothing of the usual service from flight attendants that one received on a regular passenger plane.
As a result of our in-flight efforts, the INF Treaty was ready for Reagan and Gorbachev’s signatures the next morning – or so we thought. Early that morning, we found an error on one of the pages that was worked on the airplane. It had to be fixed. It was my task to find the Soviet ambassador who was the senior arms control official, Alexey Obukhov, at their Embassy right after the Gorbachev arrival ceremony at the White House, and his counterpart, then-U.S. Ambassador Maynard “Mike” Glitman, the top U.S. arms official at the State Department, so they could initial the change to the page and to the same page in the three other treaty copies certifying the alteration.
Somehow, I found Obukhov in the general chaos at the Soviet Embassy following Gorbachev’s arrival and got my four initials, and then located Glitman at the State Department. So a complete, agreed, conformed, and accurate treaty text, page by page, was before the two presidents that afternoon.
Gorbachev’s arrival in Washington was his first visit to the United States and Americans greeted him with fascination. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently described it well: “Americans had grown accustomed to, and fearful of, Soviet leaders like Stalin, who killed millions of people and outfoxed F.D.R. at Yalta…They were stunned and thrilled, to see a smiling Soviet leader on a charm offensive. People were hanging out windows and leaning over balconies, screaming “Gorby.” Indeed Gorbachev had come to Washington…to pursue peace before our powerful weapons wiped out the planet.”
In his brilliant biography entitled Understanding Gorbachev, William Taubman lists several personal characteristics of the man that greatly helped him. I will mention just one of these to which I can personally attest: “the heightened belief in the power of persuasion, which made him so immensely talkative.” Being overly talkative can be seen as a weakness by some Russians. Listening to Gorbachev, however, I thought it was a real strength. If you asked him a question, sometimes you got a mini-speech back, but it was always interesting and relevant.
I met with Gorbachev personally three times, always in small groups after he’d left office. Once in Geneva, once in Moscow in a conference room at the Gorbachev Foundation and once in his office at the Foundation. At this third meeting, I was visiting Moscow just a few weeks after 9/11 with former Secretary of Defense and World Bank President Robert McNamara and my assistant, Damien LaVera. I had retired from government in 1997 and had become president of a charitable organization, Lawyers Alliance for World Security, and McNamara, also retired, served on the board. We had scheduled discussions in London, Copenhagen, and Moscow in the wake of 9/11.
In the discussion with Gorbachev, which I described in my 2002 book “Disarmament Sketches: Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law,” I posited that, after the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, the international community would now understand the need for international cooperation and that the world had finally moved beyond the post-Cold War transition period. Gorbachev replied that the United States and Russia “have come to the point of a new relationship based on a new agenda” and that attitudes towards the attacks have “drawn a straight line between the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Cuba,” indicating that we had reached a crucial time in world history. Instead of a “straight line,” an American would have said “on the same page.”
In June 1988, after a minor tussle in the Senate over ratification, Reagan prevailed and traveled to Moscow to exchange the instruments of ratification for the INF Treaty with Gorbachev, bringing this landmark agreement into force. After the ceremony, Reagan and Gorbachev took an arm-in-arm stroll around Red Square. A journalist, seeing them, approached Reagan to ask if he still believed the country he was visiting to be “an evil empire.” Reagan’s reply, reported by Michael Krepon in the 2015 Nonproliferation Review, was direct: “No. That was another time, another place.” The official end of the Cold War is considered to be when the Soviet Union collapsed several years later, but this was the real end.