A CRACK IN THE ICE: The Legacy of the Reykjavik Summit

Monday, August 21, 2000

In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, to discuss nuclear arms control. The American and Russian leaders negotiated boldly, pushing each other far past the limits of previous arms control agreements. Reagan and Gorbachev were soon close to an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The stopping point: Gorbachev insisted that America's Strategic Defensive Initiative, or "Star Wars" be scrapped. Reagan refused, and no agreements were reached. What is the legacy of the Reykjavik Summit? Was it a failure, a historic opportunity squandered? Or was it the beginning of the end of the Cold War?

Recorded on Monday, August 21, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today Reykjavik, an assessment of the 1986 Summit meeting between Ronald Reagan and Michael Gorbachev. 1986 was not the first time the United States and the Soviet Union confronted each other in Reykjavik, Iceland. Fourteen years earlier the American chess champion Bobby Fisher had confronted the Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky. The men struggled at the chess board for two months. The final outcome, checkmate, victory for Bobby Fisher. When Ronald Reagan and Micael Gorbachev traveled to Reykjavik, they did so as the representatives of two nations that had been engaged in the deep game, not unlike chess, of move and counter move, that had characterized the Cold War since it began more than three decades before. Both men played boldly, putting forward one negotiating proposal after another. Soon they stood just one move away from an agreement that would have eliminated virtually all nuclear weapons. The obstacle, the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars. Ronald Reagan refused to give it up. The result, stalemate. Today, many see in Reykjavik the beginning of the end of the Cold War, a show of strength by Ronald Reagan that broke Soviet resolve. Others however, point out that even now the United States and Russia both possess thousands of nuclear weapons. If agreement had been reached in Reykjavik, those weapons might have been eliminated years ago. With us today, two guests; Henrick Hertzberg is a senior editor at the New Yorker Magazine, George Shultz is the former Secretary of State who was with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik.


Peter Robinson: Reykjavik, Iceland, October 1986, Michael Gorbachev agreed to have both the Soviet Union and the United States dismantle virtually their entire nuclear arsenals within one decade, that is by 1996. In return, Gorbachov asked only that Ronald Reagan agree to confine the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, to the laboratory foregoing outside lab, missile or laser tests. Ronald Reagan said nyet. Did Reagan squander an historic opportunity? Rick?

Hendrick Hertzberg: I think he did…by the same token I think Michael Gorbachev squandered an historic opportunity. He said nyet too.

Peter Robinson: One or the other should have said…

Hendrick Hertzberg: Da.

Peter Robinson: Da. George, was an historic opportunity squandered, we'll put in the passive to include both Gorbachev and Reagan?

George Shultz: He didn't say nyet, he said no.

Peter Robinson: … and you backed him up.

George Shultz: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: Rick writes that as the American team approached the summit, I quote you Rick, none of Reagan's advisors, not Shultz, not Caspar Weinberger, shared their bosses fantasy of a space shield that would protect the American population from an all out Soviet strike any more than they shared his fantasy of total nuclear disarmament. Space shield, nuclear disarmament, let's take each of those in turn. Nuclear disarmament, Ronald Reagan going into Reykjavik, it wasn't something that evolved there. Going into Reykjavik, he did indeed want very deep cuts in nuclear weapons if possible a zero option. Why was that a fantasy? Because it was unachievable or because it was dangerous?

Hendrick Hertzberg: Well I'm not sure it was a fantasy, but I'm attributing that view to many of the people around Reagan…

Peter Robinson: … one of them around this table.

Hendrick Hertzberg: … one of them around this table too.

Peter Robinson: We'll get to him in a moment.

Hendrick Hertzberg: The idea of total nuclear disarmament was an old Soviet chestnut, they'd been bringing it up for decades…and we'd always dismissed it because for the very good reason that nuclear weapons had kept the peace and at some low level nuclear weapons would continue to keep the peace. So the notion of total nuclear disarmament seemed to be a fantasy.

Peter Robinson: A fantasy?

George Shultz: I think so, because people know how to make nuclear weapons and you can't rule out somebody coming along, it isn't only the US and the Soviet Union, obviously, but there are others. But never the less, I think it's not a fantasy and it's very desirable to reduce drastically the number of nuclear weapons in anybody's storage bin and throughout the world.

Peter Robinson: Now…

George Shultz: And Reagan led the way in a practical way on that and so the initiative that came from Reagan not to have negotiations about how much you should increase nuclear arms but how to get them reduced and reduced drastically, eliminated in one case, cut in half in the strategic arms case, was a very important thing and I might say both of those things were fundamentally achieved at Reykjavik.

Peter Robinson: George, you write that again during the preparations for Reykjavik there was a lot of dispute within the State Department. You write in your own book "Triumph and Turmoil", "Turmoil and Triumph" excuse me… Peter Rodman, Rozzane Ridgeway, Rick Burt, all made the argument that if we, the United States, significantly reduced our nuclear weapons, Europe would find itself out from under our umbrella facing vastly superior conventional forces in the Soviet Union and that Europe would have almost no choice but to come to some accommodation with the Soviets. Eliminate the nuclear umbrella and you destroy NATO and rip apart the West. How did you sort through that argument?

George Shultz: Well if the Soviets agreed to the basic positions that we had on the table, namely the zero option on INF weapons, and cut in half the strategic arsenal that would not cause a disruption, in fact the INF treaty was designed explicitly to frustrate the Soviet effort to divide Europe from the United States by their deployment of the intermediate range weapons.

Peter Robinson: So it was our intention to retain more than enough strategic as opposed to intermediate range missiles…

George Shultz: Those were the basic…

Peter Robinson: … to provide the umbrella?

George Shultz: … provisions. Ronald Reagan did have this dream of the end of nuclear weapons, certainly drastic reductions in them, and he also had the dream of protecting ourselves against ballistic missiles.

Peter Robinson: Which we want to come to now…

Peter Robinson: Was Reagan's dream of a ballistic missile defense ever anything more than a fantasy?


Peter Robinson: Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan's plan, hope, dream of building a system that would destroy ballistic missiles before they reached the United States. Your word once again is fantasy.

Hendrick Hertzberg: Well… as we're seeing in the current testing of a much much more limited missile system, missile defense system, it's really not doable in any pratical sense to build, to build a complete shield against ballistic missiles. There's been a lot written about the origins of this idea, with Ronald Reagan, the origins which occur, which some of them attributed to movies that he saw. It was a dream and it was politically, politically it was a kind of fool proof shield because when he announced it unilaterally within the government essentially it had the effect of giving him a shield against the nuclear freeze movement, against the anti nuclear movement in general. It's a very appealing idea, the idea of a technical fix to what is essentially a political problem.

Peter Robinson: But unachievable even now, fourteen years later, and certainly a fantasy in 1986.

Hendrick Hertzberg: Indeed… which is why, which is why I think Gorbachev made a profound mistake, in not just saying, "You want to build it, go ahead, be my guest.".

Peter Robinson: George? Now he does have a point of some kind that fourteen years, fourteen years later and the Pentagon still flubs its anti-missile tests, right?

George Shultz: Well… an impenetrable shield over the whole country, over the whole world, that's one thing, but an ability to pick up and destroy a light attack is something else again and where you might go incrementally as you develop this is an open question, I don't think you can be sure where science might take you. I agree with Rick…

Peter Robinson: What lead Ronald Reagan to purpose the strategic defense initiative in the first place?


Peter Robinson: He saw the Strategic Defense Initiative as a way of overturning the Cold War doctrine of MAD, (Mutually Assured Destruction). The Soviets wouldn't attack us because we'd have enough we'd have enough missiles left over to destroy… nobody would move because both were sure that it would lead to the destruction of both nations. He didn't want that anymore. But my question is-

George Shultz: Didn't want to take the chance that at some point we might destroy each other, that's what bothered him. He said this is a terrible way to maintain the peace.

Peter Robinson: And so what I'm getting at here is where did that impulse within Ronald Reagan come from? MAD had kept, the MAD doctrine had kept the peace for some four decades, as he became President…

George Shultz: He never abandoned that.

Peter Robinson: So he's not going to abandon MAD.

Hendrick Hertzberg: Well the MAD doctrine, the deterrence had kept the peace. I mean there is probably a distinction to be drawn between deterrence and MAD. There is something called minimal deterrence, if you have two or three hundred or fewer of these weapons, that's enough to deter anyone who's remotely rational from attacking you.

Peter Robinson: May I…

George Shultz: May I say…

Peter Robinson: Go ahead George.

George Shultz: …. A few things about Ronald Reagan's motivation in this. Rick is right, it was a very personal initiative.

Peter Robinson: (?)…. Ronald Reagan's… (?)

George Shultz: … but let me say and answer I know hit him hard. We have this wonderful defense tracking system at Cheyenne Mountain and it's a wonder… and before he was in office having heard all about the Soviet weaponry and so on, he was, before he was a candidate even I think, he was taken to a visit to Cheyenne Mountain and he saw it like everybody else here, tremendously impressed by what the Air Force has done there and how they can see everything and what not. And so when he got through, he said to the General in charge, "What would happen to this if one of these Soviet missiles landed somewhere near here", he didn't say, "on this", he said, "somewhere near here". And the General said… "it would blow us away". And Reagan said, "Well General, what can we do about it?", and the General said, "nothing". And it didn't seem to Ronald Reagan like that was a very good answer. So I think that…

Peter Robinson: May I tell…

George Shultz: …that within him…

Peter Robinson: Let me tell a Ronald Reagan story too, this is, I was a speechwriter. He told this story to his speechwriters one day. That he could recall back when he was in college, he always said he worked his way through college with the best possible jobs, he washed dishes in a girls' dorm. He could recall having arguments while washing the dishes in the girls' dorm about how the United States might use its Air Force in a subsequent war. And-

George Shultz: Now what does this got to do with the girls' dorm?

Peter Robinson: The girls' dorm is just the way he gets you to laugh and relax and then settle into the story. You've been through the Reagan technique. And others would argue that the United States would drop bombs on cities and Reagan told us that he argued no, this country would never do that, it was too good and decent and moral a country. And then he said that one of the events in the second World War that he found profoundly shocking, was not so much Hiroshima because he could understand why Truman did that, but the bombing of Dresden, and he said that that wounded him as an American. Now we have to, that's not a fool is it, isn't that just a deeply moral man struggling to find some better way, of protecting, of getting out of this problem of throwing missiles at each other? You give him that much credit don't you?

Hendrick Hertzberg: Indeed I do and I think that Reagan was, was innocent of all of the complicated ins and outs of arms control theology and nuclear theology and he, he agreed his moral judgement was exactly the same as that of for example, Jonathon Schell who's book, The Fate of the Earth, started the nuclear freeze movement. And the notion that we would destroy hundreds of millions of people over a political issue however important, even liberty, was, was shocking and offensive to him just as it was to many on the left and one of the most interesting things that happened in this whole period was this strange convergence. I mean Jonathon Schell ended up a defender of SDI, because he saw that if you did, if you had total nuclear disarmament you would have to have some kind of insurance policy.

George Shultz: There was a kind of prophetic moment at the end of the Reykjavik Summit, Gorbachev said to Reagan, "Well Mr. President, if we eliminate ballistic missiles, why do you want a defense against them?". And Reagan had argued that if there's no ballistic missiles why do you worry about a defense, but he said, "Because there are, people who know how to make these missiles and there's always rogue states around the world and so you need an insurance policy, you need it and we need it.". Now that's exactly what is before the country today.

Peter Robinson: A decade and a half, and billions of dollars after Reykjavik, SDI has yet to be (Offscreen): proven a workable concept. Why did the Soviet's take it so seriously?


Peter Robinson: George Shultz writes that the Soviets came to Reykjavik propelled by SDI and they came there to kill it. And Rick Hertzberg writes, that's a paraphrase, this is a quotation…

George Shultz: I'm glad you said that's a paraphrase because I don't remember…

Peter Robinson: No that's is a paraphrase…. it's a pretty close one but it's a paraphrase. Apart from Reagan, quote, the members of the Soviet high command seemed to have been the only people on earth who were convinced that Star Wars was going to render their nuclear weapons obsolete. Why did the Soviet's fall for it?

Hendrick Hertzberg: I don't know and I'd really really like to know, I don't know why they fell for it, although I do know that after Reykjavik, when Gorbachev called Andre Sakarov…

Peter Robinson: This is a good story, go ahead, tell us Rick.

Hendrick Hertzberg: …and said, "Come on home, you can come home now, come to Moscow.".

Peter Robinson: He was in exile.

Hendrick Hertzberg: He was in exile in Gorky, brought him home to Moscow and Sarkarov started to talk about everything he wanted to talk about, and one thing he talked about was nuclear weapons. He said, "This is maginot line in space, this isn't something for us to worry about, we should proceed to massive cuts in nuclear weapons regardless of SDI.". And it was shortly after that and I don't know if there was a causal connection here but it was shortly after that, that Gorbachev essentially called Reagan and said, "Remember that zero option deal, we'll take it.".

Peter Robinson: And at the summit in Washington you write that he told Reagan, "Go ahead and build it if you want to.".

Hendrick Hertzberg: "Sure, yeah, if you want to do it, if that's what you think you have to do, go ahead."

Peter Robinson: Why in your judgement did the Soviets fall for it, if that's the way to put it for SDI? Why were they so moved by SDI going into Reykjavik?

George Shultz: Well, I like Rick don't know the answer but I have to speculate two things.

Peter Robinson: Yes please.

George Shultz: They were working hard on missile defense themselves they had the…

Peter Robinson: (?)

George Shultz: ..they still have the missile defense system around Moscow or nuclear based missile defense system. And they were working very hard on it, they had the Krasnoyarsk radar which was a violation of the treaty which they finally admitted was. So they, they, it wasn't incomprehensible to them…

Peter Robinson: They knew there were discoveries to be made.

George Shultz: … that something could be done. And the other thing that I can't help but feel they must have felt is… they said, they must have said, to themselves, if the U.S. scientific community gets really working hard on defense matters again there's no telling what they're going to come up with. It isn't just the SDI, it's mobilizing this establishment that produced the Manhattan Project and produced all these wonders on defensive matters that is something you have to be concerned about and we should try to turn it off.

Peter Robinson: Even if SDI never works, wasn't Reagan right to propose it?


Peter Robinson: You write about Ronald Reagan as comprehensively ignorant, you talk about his having a fantasy. Never the less, he was on to something, at least to the extent that the Soviets thought he was on to something. It seems not to have made this man's job harder but in fact provided an impetus that drove the Soviets to the table and it produced, at Reykjavik, an immensely fruitful and historic set of agreements and near agreements. Can you grant that much?

Hendrick Hertzberg: I not only grant it but I, in my piece, I assert it. What's so tragic I think about what happened at Reykjavik is that propelled by SDI on both sides, because both sides overvalued it enormously, both sides brought themselves to within an ace of an agreement that without SDI would never have even been considered, would've been regarded as a joke. They were this close to a really historic agreement ,and I'm not taking anything away from the agreement the INF agreement that was eventually reached eliminating a whole class of weapons, it was very important. But, compared to what was almost achieved, it's, it's heartbreaking and it's heartbreaking that one side or the other, and I blame both equally, couldn't see at the very end of this process how hugely they were overvaluing this SDI, this, this vaporware of SDI, and it had, it didn't really matter I think which side had at that point had said, would have said, "OK, it's a deal.".

Peter Robinson: They were overvaluing vaporware. You and they were overvaluing vaporware.

George Shultz: Well I think it's important I feel this way very strongly today, myself, that it's a, it's a sin and a crime that by this time we haven't learned how to defend ourselves better against certainly a light missile attack. And the idea of sort of openly declaring that we're not even trying is, is…

Peter Robinson: But George isn't it also…

George Shultz: … an invitation to blackmail. Because all kinds of countries can produce a couple missiles.

Hendrick Hertzberg: Was it more so…

Peter Robinson: You go ahead.

Hendrick Hertzberg: … considered a crime(?) that what is it now; twelve, ten, twelve…

Peter Robinson: Fourteen.

Hendrick Hertzberg: … fourteen years after…

Peter Robinson: Reykjavik.

Hendrick Hertzberg: … Reykjavik, and twelve years after the end of the cold war we're still armed to the teeth with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons… for some purpose I don't understand.

Peter Robinson: Actually let me…

George Shultz: Well Ronald Reagan…

Peter Robinson: …let me let you rephrase that point. If you it's heartbreaking that it ended as it did then you must have some clear notion of the way the world would look today if agreement had been reached at Reykjavik and in your judgement how would the world look today.

Hendrick Hertzberg: Both sides, the United States and the Russian Federation would, would have minimal deterrence, would have two or three hundred deliverable nuclear weapons. There would have been huge progress made on, better progress than we've made on, on nuclear proliferation, because both Russia and America would have been able to lead the way very forcefully on that issue.

Peter Robinson: They then have asserted a moral high ground, they themselves, by building down.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Hendrick Hertzberg: And SDI missile defense would not have been fetishized in the way that it has been. And so that here we are over a decade later and we're still arguing over the same deal that we, that we missed at Reykjavik.

Peter Robinson: You've been called many things but I bet this is the first time you've ever been called a fetishist, George.

Hendrick Hertzberg: I don't think George was among the fetishizers. I-

Peter Robinson: But he's just sketched the way the world would have looked if agreement would had been reached at Reykjavik. Now you disagree, you think the refusal to come to agreement at Reykjavik was the right thing to do.

George Shultz: Right.

Peter Robinson: So then he's wrong about the way the world would look?

George Shultz: I think it was right to protect our ability to do the kind of research you need to do to learn how to defend ourselves against ballistic missiles, that's very important.

Hendrick Hertzberg: And I think we would have been able to do that research.

George Shultz: But I certainly feel that the world would be better off if Ronald Reagan's dreams had been at least partially realized. They were partially realized, we did get rid of a class of weapons, they're gone. We did get the strategic arms cut in half. There are continuing declines.

Peter Robinson: So you protected, President Reagan and the American delegation protected, at Reykjavik, our option to move much more quickly and deeply into SDI research and the real sin and crime is that the United States failed to do so. That is the opportunity squandered, we could have a missile defense by now. Is that a fair statement of…

George Shultz: We could have but I think in fairness we would have to do something about the ABM treaty because in order to really do the kind of research you need to do you can't limit yourself to the kind of research and testing that at least according to the interpretations of the ABM Treaty that are now current, that we are restricted to doing.

Peter Robinson: George brings us to the last topic, the ABM Treaty and the future of SDI.


Peter Robinson: Today, should we simply scrap the ABM Treaty?

George Shultz: I think that we have to do away with its restrictions and to simply scrap is not the way I would put it.

Peter Robinson: But you want out.

George Shultz: But we have to have the ability to do what you might call unconstrained research on the subject.

Peter Robinson: Rick, scrap the ABM treaty?

Hendrick Hertzberg: Scrap the whole Cold War structure that's left over and above all scrap those tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that we're still armed with and the Russians are still armed with. And then the whole issue of missile defense will become much less toxic because what's really dangerous about missile defense that if one side has thousands of nuclear weapons and a reasonable good defense that's an invitation according to nuclear theology anyway, to conducting a first strike. Because a defense that might not be particularly useful against an all out attack would be quite useful as a backup for use in a unilateral attack against the other side. You blast the other guys missiles, and then your little defense, and then a defense that's good enough for the five or ten that you've still got left after you've hosed them…

Peter Robinson: But you'd move forward on a national missile defense?

Hendrick Hertzberg: Not, not without the reductions, not, not without…

Peter Robinson: The reductions come first.

Hendrick Hertzberg: That's putting the cart before the horse.

Peter Robinson: The reductions come first in your view.

George Shultz: What you should want in the end is some sort of defense that has a world capability. And then you should say to any country or group that wishes to put a missile up, you have to come somewhere and say that you're going to do this and when and why, what's it's purpose is and if it's a legitimate purpose go ahead and do it. Any unannounced shot is going to be knocked down, this isn't just the U.S., this is anybody. Because nobody, everybody has a stake in not having nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles with whatever kind of a warhead floating around.

Peter Robinson: You're not saying you'd build a national missile defense and then turn it over to the UN to administer?

George Shultz: No, I certainly wouldn't turn it over to the UN but I do think that you have to have some kind of method of distinguishing between what is legitimate space vehicle and what is not.

Peter Robinson: Hendrick Hertzberg and George Shultz, thank you very much. Rick Hertzberg stresses what might have happened, George Shultz what actually did. On Christmas day 1991 the Soviet Union went out of existence. Ronald Reagan may have walked away form Reykjavik with a stalemate but in the end the United States really did indeed achieve checkmate. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.