What brought the decades-long Soviet-American confrontation to an end? Here, Ken Adelman stakes out an answer in his book’s subtitle: He maintains that the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the critical turning points of the 20th century. Is he right? As director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under Reagan, Adelman was in attendance at the Reykjavik conclave as one of the president’s briefers. He has also plumbed the documentary record of both sides—much of it now declassified—to make his case.
The key issue under discussion at the summit was nuclear weapons. It was the vast arsenals, possessed by both superpowers, of these awesomely destructive devices that made the Cold War so terrifying. Adelman begins his reconstruction of the episode by making evident the unsurprising fact that both leaders came to Iceland with radically diverging objectives. Reagan came in quest of nuclear disarmament. Ironically, Reagan, reputed by the left to be an incorrigible anti-Communist warmonger, had dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons long before our current nuclear-zero movement got off the ground. He saw Reykjavik as an opportunity to move in that direction without compromising on his larger objective—openly voiced to the British Parliament in 1982—of placing the Soviet system “on the ash heap of history.”
A 1979 visit to NORAD, the American strategic command center, had left Reagan appalled by what, to him (in Adelman’s telling), was a revelation: The United States had no means of responding to a Soviet nuclear strike other than by striking the Soviet Union in return, with both sides suffering millions of deaths. That bleak reality planted a question in Reagan’s mind that he voiced to an aide: “We have spent all that money, and have all that equipment, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a nuclear missile from hitting us?” Two years later, having trounced Jimmy Carter in a landslide, and now in the Oval Office controlling the levers of power, Reagan worked with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to formulate an answer to the question that so troubled him. The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was born.
“Star wars” was how Reagan’s ballistic missile defense program was derisively dubbed by its critics. In their eyes, it was an exorbitantly expensive technological fantasy that knocked the legs out from under the central premise of the postwar peace: the nuclear standoff known as Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD. According to MAD doctrine, security depended on the mutual ability of the United States and the Soviet Union to annihilate each other. But as Adelman points out, in many quarters “the descriptive fact that each side was vulnerable . . . became a prescriptive tenet, that each side should be vulnerable.”
That belief in the virtues of vulnerability was enshrined in the anti-ballistic missile treaty of 1972, which, by banning defensive systems, guaranteed that the United States and the Soviet Union could annihilate each other. Reagan, however, rejected MAD root and branch, believing that both sides would be better off erecting defensive systems while—and here his thinking was strikingly utopian—simultaneously reducing their offensive nuclear arsenals to zero.
Mikhail Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with very different concerns. He was desperate to curtail arms spending that was bankrupting the Soviet Union. Adelman, drawing on once-top-secret Kremlin documents, recounts how, on the eve of the summit, Gorbachev told his fellow Politburo members that if Reykjavik failed, “we will be pulled into an arms race beyond our power, and we will lose this race [because] we are presently at the limit of our capabilities.”
Of particular concern to Gorbachev was SDI, which he saw as a major new weapons program that the Soviet Union could not match. It was high-tech, drawing on the latest in computerization, miniaturization, and advanced materials, while the Soviet Union was vividly demonstrating its ineptitude in handling even more primitive technology. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster had occurred only months before Reykjavik, costing many lives and billions of rubles and spewing a plume of radioactive particles across Europe. On the very eve of the summit, a leak of seawater caused a missile to explode aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine in the Atlantic, prompting Gorbachev to tell his colleagues: “Because of the submarine which just sank, everybody knows, everybody saw, the shape we’re in.”