Eyewitness to History: Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik

Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Kenneth L. Adelman

Author, Reagan at Reykjavík: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War; Former Director, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (19831987)

Rozanne L. Ridgway

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Canada (19851989)

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Senior Director for Policy Development, National Security Council (19841987); @SSestanovich

Celeste A. Wallander

President and Chief Executive Officer, U.S.-Russia Foundation; Former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia, National Security Council (2013–2017)

Panelists provide first-hand accounts of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and discuss how the Cold War–era meeting shaped future U.S.-Russia relations and efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons programs. 

WALLANDER: Good evening. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, Eyewitness to History: Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik. I am Celeste Wallander, president and CEO of the U.S.-Russian Foundation. And I will be presiding over this fantastic event his history.

I am going to introduce our speakers using the titles they held at the moment of that historic event. (Laughter.) You have their bios, and they are well-known to you. But I thought it would be nice to remind you, because we are with eyewitnesses to history, from which perch they were witnessing that history.

So, first, we can Steve Sestanovich, who was senior director for policy development on the National Security Council. Ambassador Roz Ridgway, who was assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. And Kenneth Adelman, who was director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Some of those titles—in fact, all the—all the titles still exist, but I’m not sure all the agencies do. (Laughter.) So it’s a good thing we have these witnesses to history, so we don’t lose those important elements of U.S. foreign policy.

So I’m going to start—I thought we would start by stepping back a little bit and thinking about what was—what the United States was trying to deal with in terms of priorities and challenges that were posed, generally, in the Soviet relationship, but priorities for the United States and the Reagan administration at the time. And I wanted to ask Roz if you would start with that kind of strategic context for our members and our colleagues.

RIDGWAY: I think at the time, starting in 1985, when we were in Geneva, the United States had for some time been looking for a dialogue partner with the Soviet Union because so many of the issues of the day, not just arms control but the regional issues, the Afghanistans, the Central Americas, even the question of how to build an embassy and have it not so wired that you couldn’t talk anywhere except maybe in the garden out in back, and even then it was questionable. (Laughter.) Just a number of large issues and small irritants that had come together to clog up the dialogue with the Soviet Union, and a sense, I think, throughout the United States government, all agencies, that somehow had to be found to have a dialogue partner.

But of course, we had to wait for that person to emerge on the Soviet scene and be willing, in fact, to meet with the United States at an appropriate level. And so by 1985, with Gorbachev in place, with Margaret Thatcher telling the world that he was somebody that we could all work with on the issues that were of concern, we went off to Geneva for the president to meet Gorbachev for the first time. And I think it was at that meeting, at the first summit, that so much of what was successful about Reykjavik, and I’m among those who say in retrospect Reykjavik was a success, that the—that the necessities for successful Reykjavik were in large part put in place, starting with the relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev.

The two men met as equals, very much an objective of President Reagan who was determined to treat Gorbachev with the respect of a head of a state, even though people back in Washington were still, for the most part, calling him names and the like. They met in a private conversation. They emerged from that, I think, feeling quite good about their ability to talk with each other. And then off-program, marched down to a cabin by the water that had been set aside with a fireplace and a fire going. And the two of them walked off and talked. Came out and announced they had agreed on two summits. One in Washington and one in Moscow. Which surprised everyone. It was probably the last item on the agenda. People though it was going to be a tough one to get.

The other thing that I would—I would point out is that the agenda was still taking shape. The Soviet side was not at all convinced that human rights belonged in the bilateral agenda. They wondered about regional issues, and certainly they considered probably the bilateral things as embassy management and the like as sort of beneath the dialogue. But in fact, that was not—was not the case. The one instance that I watched in Geneva that I would—I would make a prelude to what these people saw on arms control, using simultaneous translation for the very first time—not that boring consecutive translation where you fall asleep for thirty minutes while somebody speaks in a language you don’t know, and then they fall asleep for thirty minutes while it was translated. It had been agreed that at least in the American-sponsored dialogue that it would be simultaneous translation.

The two men met eye to eye, with instantaneous understanding of the words that were being used, in—I think in an incident that most everybody refers to, the president in discussing under arms control—and he had already done, by the way, human rights at length in his private discussion with Gorbachev—says that: Look, I’m willing to give you, we’re willing to give you, access to the SDI technology after all of this takes place, as soon as we get rid of all of the nuclear weapons. And Gorbachev, looking at him across the table, caused all of us to drop our pencils when he said: You won’t even give us milking machine technology. Why should I think that you would give us the SDI technology? (Laughter.) And we had this flashpoint, but it was engagement at that very high level of the two men who were responsible, ultimately for these issues.

And it was that and the agreed statement, that started out nuclear wars cannot be won and must never be fought, that both men signed onto that got us headed then to what was supposedly going to be the Washington summit. And if you remember then 1986, it was a dreadful year. Chernobyl in the spring. We had some evidence of the Marine guard having more romances than were good for the security of the embassy in Moscow. There were a number of issues that came up, ending then with the case of Nick Daniloff. And the case of Nick Daniloff just about broke the relationship. We could not find a way to solve it. People kept saying our guy is OK, their guy’s a spy. They said, your guy’s a spy and our guy’s OK. And it was a public discussion as to how this was going to be resolved.

It was resolved quietly. Long discussions between Shevardnadze and George Shultz. Referred back then to Moscow. And a formula was arrived at that involved a summit meeting away from the capital, the release of dissidents. And an agreement to return to the arms control agenda. And that all appeared in a letter from Gorbachev to Reagan. And everybody was surprised. It seemed the way out of a difficult situation. It seemed the way to address the issues in arms control that were frozen in Geneva, and to get on then with four-part agenda—again, a new start on human rights, on the regional issues, and the rest. And so it was agreed Reykjavik. Thought there were too many distractions in London. Not so many in Reykjavik. And let’s got to Reykjavik. And that’s what we agreed to. And that was the background.

But the men who arrived with Reykjavik, with full teams, were men who understood each other, who knew how to talk with each other, who respected each other even though they violently disagreed on this particular subject of SDI, and who made it possible then to hope that some headway could be made in these vital issues for the United States—with the world watching, knowing that nuclear weapons were the greatest threat for all of them.

WALLANDER: Great. Thank you very much, Roz.

So, Ken, what was the arms control agenda? I mean, arms control now, I fear this generation of college students is not going to know what that means—(laughter)—but that was the primary—a primary element of bilateral, you know, superpower relations. And you were the one who was responsible for figuring out what would be discussed in Reykjavik. What were the issues you needed to address?

ADELMAN: Well, it’s wonderful following Roz, because Roz did a wonderful job as the assistant secretary. And George Shultz was always very, very fond of you, and thought you were terrific. And Steve was the most brilliant guy around for sure on what the Soviets were like and what they were up to—

RIDGWAY: I’m not going to buy that car, no matter what you say. (Laughter.)

ADELMAN: But I do remember in the Geneva summit when we had lunch with Reagan. And, Roz, you were there. When Reagan came out from the morning meeting with Gorbachev. And he had a little joke for us all. He left his arm out of his sleeve and said at lunch, where is this arm? I had it before we started? (Laughter.) And then Reagan started talking, and in the Reaganesque way he was, wherever his mind would take him. And it took him to the queen, he was riding horses with the queen and talking about Granada for a while. And then, you know, one of us said, well, how about Gorbachev? And, you know—(laughter)—the whole world is here wondering what happened. And he said, well, Gorbachev is just a new type of Soviet leader. And it sounded very profound. I thought to myself, well, he’s never met another type of Soviet leader, but—(laughter)—we’ll let that go. But this was the first Soviet leader he ever met.

Anyway, turned out to be true. And we were on our way. We were on our way that didn’t last very long. And the whole purpose of Reykjavik was that Gorbachev, in the summer of—late summer of 1986 decided the whole thing was stuck. And everybody was boring each other like crazy, like we had for many, many years in Geneva for these absolutely sonorific and awful sessions that would repeat each other. And we needed something to crack it open. And so he suggested that they meet.

We had set up, and Roz was really responsible, and Steve did a wonderful job, setting up the Geneva summit. And that took about a half a year, as I remember. Reykjavik was a come-as-you-are grab summit. It was, you know, a surprise party summit that was announced, I think, fourteen days in advance. And, you know, the Secret Service went to our ambassador in Iceland, who was very fond of deep sea fishing—so it was kind of a good post for him, to tell you the truth—and said that, you know, the good news is ten days the president’s coming over and taking over the residence here. And he was all excited. And he said, the bad news is you’re going to have to move out. And he wasn’t very pleased about it, and we didn’t see him for the rest of that weekend. (Laughter.)

But one of—I think one of the charms of Reykjavik and one of the amazing parts of Reykjavik was because it was so quick. And we had a president and we had a Soviet leader, that really were not buried in memos, were not buried in talking points, were not buried in studies and analysis. And when you look back at the notes—the American notes and the Russian notes of what happened at Reykjavik, I think they were more like themselves than at any time when they were in office. They were saying what came to mind and without any kind of reins on them.

And Reagan, you know, would have these pronouncements that were totally against U.S. policy. (Laughs.) And, you know, for example, on, you know, the ABM Treaty and on mutually assured destruction he would just say, well, he thought it was just immoral. Well, that was the U.S. policy, and it had been the U.S. policy for forty years. And presumably he had known about the policy and bought onto it. But he was just denouncing it to Gorbachev. So it was a real natural. It was ten and a half hours. I don’t know if any of you have ever spent ten and a half hours talking to one person for—in one weekend, which is two days—it’s a long time to talk to somebody. And they were doing it without notes, and really very, very little participation by Shultz and Shevardnadze. What’s so surprising is during the ten and a half hours neither president, neither head of state, turns to his one person in the room who is there advising him and says: What do you think?

RIDGWAY: I think that there’s a little bit of note passing.

ADELMAN: There’s a little note passing, but it was, you know, right on kind of note passing, which is good to do with a president. Oh, you’re doing a great job, kind of thing. (Laughter.) Steady as she goes, right now. But that’s not very helpful. It’s nice, but it’s not helpful. And so the two of them were just by themselves. And it was a remarkable time. I remember at 4:30 in the afternoon on Sunday, after we had gone into overtime. And Reagan sat in the corner of the second floor of the Höfði house, plopped down. He said: I’ll go down there one more time, but that’s it.

And he said, you know, I told Nancy I’d be home for dinner tonight. And I volunteered very kindly, well, she knows where you are. It’s not like you stopped in a bar on the way home, or anything like that. We had 3,200 press on the lawn right there. And that was the only story that weekend. And he said, I know, but I told Nancy I’d be home by now. So we decided that this was going to be the last time down. And it didn’t work because Gorbachev wanted basically to kill SDI. So all the negotiations that we had done the night before, starting at 6:00 at night, ending at 6:20 in the morning. And we reported in the bubble to the president at 8:30 that we had accomplished more than night than we had in seven-and-a-half years in arms control negotiations in Geneva—more that one night—and then Gorbachev on Sunday tied it all to SDI. And we were off the rails then.

RIDGWAY: But a question that was with all of us, how many of these concessions—how much of this advance in these Geneva negotiations will following over in the following period?

ADELMAN: Right. Mmm hmm.

WALLANDER: So, Steve, I want to pick up on something that Ken alluded to, which is that there’s this new Soviet leader, the new general secretary. We had a little hint of what his priorities were by ’86. The terms glasnost and perestroika were being—no one knew exactly how they were going to be implemented. But the important one for what your responsibilities were at the time—(laughs)—new thinking—actually hadn’t been expressed. And so there was a lot of debate. And it was your job for this meeting to figure out, is he—is he a Soviet leader of a new type? Are his—is his agenda such that there’s a space there? Take us back to thinking about how do you figure this out? What were you thinking? What were you advising? What were you writing to the president, even if he was—even if he was not listening to any of his advisors, apparently, in the actual room?

SESTANOVICH: Well, but that’s the important point here. You have, just to distill what Roz and Ken are very amusingly telling you. Which is, you have a very deep anxiety on the part of the staff about what the boss is going to do. (Laughter.) And I mean, I remember coming back from Geneva, and afterwards hearing that Reagan had thought Gorbachev was a completely new guy. You know, as he said, Maggie was right, we can do business with him. And so the staff said, well, what makes him think that? And the answer was, well, Gorbachev doesn’t believe in Marxism-Leninism. And we thought, well, how did he come to that conclusion? And you know, in some ways Reagan was right about that. But he intuited it while the rest of us thought, you know, Gorbachev is just doing a number on this guy.

And that anxiety was most acute when it came to arms control, because Gorbachev had—his strategy was to play on Reagan’s romanticism. So in the beginning in 1986, Gorbachev makes a big proposal to abolish nuclear weapons by the end of the century. Well, you can imagine all of the harrumphing around Washington about that. Except for one person. Reagan said to Shultz, well, maybe we should ask him why wait until the end of the century? (Laughter.) So, you know, that—again, that’s the sort of thing that makes the staff freak out. (Laughter.) You don’t have any confidence about what is going to happen, but you know what Reagan’s approach is going to be. And in retrospect, we—I mean, in the aftermath we’ve learned what Gorbachev told his colleagues he was trying to do in Reykjavik, which was to throw the president off balance by offering some big proposal that was so tantalizing, just as Ken said, that he couldn’t resist.

And we didn’t know what the result of that was going to be. Now, you could prepare for it. We did a session in which Jack Matlock sat down with the president and pretended to be Gorbachev. And he actually spoke in Russian, and he had an interpreter there to do the interpretation for him. But he said, he admitted to the president, you know, we can make this very lifelike. And Jack’s Russian was brilliant, and he had a kind of ill-understood theatrical side. He loved doing this. (Laughter.) But he also admitted—he also admitted, I don’t know what he’s going to say. (Laughter.) And, you know, here’s somebody who spent his whole career understanding the Soviets. And he had no idea what the game was going to be.

The game ended up being, you know, Reagan was, in a way, extremely savvy about this, in a way that we couldn’t have prepared him for. You know, his approach to, you know, completely utopian crazy idea was to go one better. You know, I can come up with something even more crazy and utopian than that. And so what the weekend was about was each, for a time, trying to top the other with a more unrealistic idea than, you know, had been put forward by the other guy. And that’s something you can’t prepare for. And, you know, Gorbachev had it thought out. Reagan was kind of winging it, in the sense that he was—you know, he was channeling his inter—his inner nuclear abolitionist. And so, you know, it—what’s the staff going to do? (Laughter.) So I was—you know.


SESTANOVICH: Yeah. (Laughs.)


RIDGWAY: In fairness to the staff, though, in the background, while these two gentlemen are winging it, or whatever you want to call it, the committee negotiations on SALT—or, on START, and the committee negotiations in INF, which were often smaller rooms and all this, were making the kind of progress that suggested that the Soviets had some to Reykjavik with a much more liberal, much more flexible approach on both of those topics at that level.

WALLANDER: And I would just recommend Ken’s new book, how he relates especially the famous overnight negotiating session, which on the Russian side for the first time was led by an actual Soviet—see, I’m doing it—Soviet military officer, Marshal Akhromeyev, and explains sort of the dynamics on the Soviet side. It’s just extraordinary. And it won’t surprise many of you, but Akhromeyev had the authority to go quite far, because he knew what Gorbachev wanted. And the scenes you relate of all the kind of foreign ministry guys who were the usual, you know, beat up on the Americans during negotiation, just being totally sidelined by this brilliant military leader, who’s going to give away—negotiate how to give away or get rid of all of Soviet nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement on the American side. It’s really, really amazing. I highly recommend it.

ADELMAN: Well, thank you. The book was a lot of fun to write. It’s a key study in leadership. And I learned from that that writing a book on leadership doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader or reading a book on leadership doesn’t necessarily make you a great leader. But I did learn that buying a book on leadership—(laughter)—really makes you a great leader. So I would urge you, if you want any leadership position to do that.

But to tell you the truth, I was—I had been telling stories of Reykjavik for all these many years and wanted a film on it. And we’re on the verge of making a film with Brian Garrida (ph), in the audience, who’s the scriptwriter and did a wonderful, wonderful job on the script. And someone said, well, why don’t you write a book about it? And so I said, oh, I don’t know. I’d written five books and that was enough for Moses and it was going to be enough for me. (Laughter.) And they said, well, write your sixth and exceed Moses. So but when I looked in it, I was surprised by many things.

And one of the wonderful things I was surprised at is the American notes and the Russian notes of what Gorbachev and Reagan talked about. It is very impressive on both sides. It’s very impressive on the frankness that Reagan used to Gorbachev. When, at one point, Gorbachev says, well, you know, it’s unfair, these—between the two systems. And Reagan is in his flourish there. And he’s saying, well, yours is based on, you know, a dictator and everybody’s arrested if they don’t agree with you. And he went into his whole kind of classic GE show speech about how terrible Communism was. And Gorbachev is sitting there, kind of dazzled to tell you the truth. And then Gorbachev says, well, let me tell you what’s unfair. And Reagan says, what’s unfair?

And he says, you know, we see a lot of American films in the Soviet Union. And you guys see no films in the Soviet—you know, no Soviet films in America. And Reagan says, well, because you make lousy films. (Laughter.) And Gorbachev says, no, some of our films are good. And Reagan then says, well, Mikhail, I know something about films. (Laughter.) And so he’s feeling really good at this part about that. You know, he’s on a smooth territory. It’s a lot better than ICMBs, and SLCMs, and throw-weight for him. (Laughter.) And they talk about that. And his frankness is wonderful. His mannerism is wonderful. And his directness—where everybody else is dancing around in all kinds of diplomatic language—his directness was genuine. And like I say, what’s wonderful about looking back at Reykjavik is I believe that the two men who were in office, Reagan eight years Gorbachev I don’t know how many years—something like that.


ADELMAN: Six? OK. And this is the most genuine either of them were. They just weren’t scripted. And to see them really as the way they were is divine.

Now, for us, you talk about the staff, Steve, being, you know, upset. To tell you the truth, Reagan and, I would say, Gorbachev, wasn’t very interested in whether the staff was upset or not, to tell you the truth. (Laughter.) And they were doing their own thing. And for us, the ups and downs of the weekend were thrilling. I mean, it was like an Agatha Christie novel. We had this little house on a little isolated place, in a city of a hundred twenty-five thousand, in a country of three hundred thousand, in the middle of nowhere. And rain beating on the windowsills.

RIDGWAY: Which would change to sunshine.

ADELMAN: Yeah. And sunshine and rain, sunshine and rain. And the house was thought to be haunted. It was proclaimed as a haunted house. And all the neighbors called it a haunted house, for various reasons. And two characters, over one weekend, have the most amazing spiritual happenings there. So it really was like an Agatha Christie. And we were—we were thrilled to be part of it.

SESTANOVICH: Can I break in here just a—

WALLANDER: Yeah, let me, and then I’m going to end with Roz. And I know you all are dying to get in this. And I got it. I’ll be there in a second.

SESTANOVICH: I think we’re having too much fun—(laughter)—and we’re making it sound as though this was actually maybe a success. And from a long-term perspective, one could say that. But you have to remember that actually this was two guys butting heads against each other for two days, ending in complete disagreement. And I think some of the impact of Reykjavik actually comes from the failure, not from the meeting of minds. Remember Reagan—Gorbachev went back and told his colleagues he had just spent the weekend with a, quote, “feeble-minded caveman.” (Laughter.)

ADELMAN: See, I don’t believe that.


ADELMAN: OK. I just don’t believe it.



SESTANOVICH: He might not have meant it—he might have meant it for strategic reasons, to convince his colleagues that he’d been tough. But he—the really important impact of Reykjavik is that for all of the camaraderie and warmth, Reagan was extremely stubborn. And his message to Gorbachev was: I’m not giving in. And so the real turning point in this relationship that Reykjavik represents is the Russians stopped doing the attempts to knock Reagan off-balance, to come up with a more utopian scheme than he can possibly imagine. And instead, the next two years are about kind of giving the Americans what they want. And that means an INF Treaty 100 percent according to American preferences. It means coming to Washington telling Reagan: I’m going to cut off the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It means essentially Gorbachev deciding, I can’t budge this guy with pie-in-the-sky schemes, so I’m going to have—we’re going to have to do something more incremental, so as to create an environment for radical reform.

WALLANDER: Well, and delinking SDI from offensive arms treaties.

SESTNAOVICH: Absolutely. Absolutely.

WALLANDER: So I’m going to end with this opening, Roz, with you. And you mentioned something—or, you referred to, also, that this ended up, although a failure in and of itself, sort of ushering in the successes that followed, as Steve noted. And there’s a tendency for all of us, looking back, to think, well, it was inevitable. You know, the Cold War was going to end, the Soviet Union was going to crumble. But can you—can you kind of help us feel like what did you—or, understand, what did you think was something contingent, something that happened in the relationship in Reykjavik or after, when you then were managing the relationship that if it hadn’t gone in that direction it might not have—it might not have ended the way it did, with the end of the Cold War?

RIDGWAY: I think it’s very difficult and somewhat unwise to try to pick the one event. But in the runup to Reykjavik there were a number of trips to Moscow to meet with people. And one of the visits we made was to the—I’ll call him prime minister—Nikolai Ryzhkov. And in a very candid moment, he described how he and Gorbachev had made their way through the bureaucracy of the party and up the ladder, and up the ladder, until finally arriving in senior positions. And, he said, and when we got there the cupboard was bare. I think much of what drove Gorbachev was the realization that he had no economy, that he was in a perilous position with respect to the philosophy, the ideology. They couldn’t afford it. It didn’t work. Everything was bankrupt, it was going in the wrong direction. And here he was, having to somehow survive and pull out some kind of not face-saving victory, but money-saving victory. I mean, they could not afford this race.

And I know that people would say, well, that’s you folks back there in Washington who want to say that they were in such terrible economic straits and so on, and so on, because you want to get in the way of the relationship. But the fact of the matter is, they were broke. And there had to be an answer for them. And the answer for them was to somehow stop the arms race moving in a direction they could not afford. And it took a while. And he—Gorbachev, I think, started out very bravely with trying to reform, trying to open up the economy, trying to bring the architecture of their military posture into a more reasonable shape. And he lost. And is that a victory, or just the way things happened? I think in large respect, the posture that Reagan took at Reykjavik, stubborn as he was, was in fact what was the final—the beginning of the final push down the hill for Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.

WALLANDER: Great. Thank you.

All right. So at this time I’d like to invite members to join the conversation with your questions. And a reminder for everyone that this event is on the record. I’d like to ask you when I—when I call upon you wait for the microphone and speak directly into it, and please stand and state your name and affiliation. And because, as you’ve already seen the stories here and the insights are virtually infinite, keep your questions concise so we can get as many in and as many insights from our wonderful experts and panelists as possible.

Yeah, here.

Q: Jim Kolbe, with the German Marshall Fund.

The discussion we’ve just heard tonight, you know, seems to almost demand the comparison of the way this was conducted with the ones that we’ve seen more recently by the current president. I mean, what we’ve heard tonight. Seat of the pants, unscripted, no notes, very much done by the seat of—as you say, by the seat of the pants, we’ve heard here tonight. We have a current president who goes into summits, with whether it is Kim or whether it’s Putin in a very unscripted way and conducts himself in that fashion. But of course, has been much more criticized as a result of that. How would you compare what’s going—the way this president conducts the summits with the way that President Reagan did?

WALLANDER: All right. No holds barred on the first question. (Laughter.) Who would like to jump on that one? Steve?

SESTANOVICH: Well, let me tell you a story. (Laughter.) When I hear people say, you know, Reagan was unscripted and improvising, I always want to push back because he didn’t read all the briefing books, but he had his concept of what he wanted to do and he was very, very single-minded about it. It was hard to blow him off course. And he was much more capable of articulating that than people tend to remember. When we came back from Reykjavik, the president had to give a speech on national television the next night. And we, NSC staffers, arrived on Monday morning to receive his many-page legal pad single-spaced, handwritten version of the speech. And everybody was horrified. The speechwriters, and the arm control experts, I mean, they all said: On, no, no, no. We’ve got our speech.

And so we had to send Admiral Poindexter back to Reagan and say, you know, the staff has got its speech. And he looked at the staff speech and he said, no, no, no, no. I like my speech. (Laughter.) And I read the two, and I actually thought his speech was a better speech. This was somebody who could take a big argument and articulate it in a legal pad, single spaced, over many pages. It wasn’t finished. He—you know, he ended it by saying, you know, you finish it up. (Laughter.) But, you know, I ask you whether the incumbent could do that, all right?


Q: Jan Lodal, Atlantic Council.

First of all, it’s great to have you guys talk about this subject. Having sat at the table for about six of these things and three different presidents, it’s fascinating to listen to this one. But let me ask you to be a bit contrarian. I think there’s a case that could be made that Reykjavik failed because it—what was on the table violated a lot of concepts of strategic stability and what made the world safe. In particular, you know, if you got rid of all the offensive forces, but one side had a lot of defensive forces, well, that gets pretty unstable pretty rapidly. And it seems to me that that that’s kind of been a problem we’ve had with arms control negotiations.

It happened again a little bit with President Obama’s efforts to look at global zero. It wasn’t looked at very precisely, if you will. And it seems to me that, you know, when you’ve got the (acrimony ?) all sitting there, and other people sitting there, eventually it makes it hard for the presidents to do things when the guys are saying, well, you know, think through this another couple of steps here and it’s not going to be very good for us this way. And then when we have had success, it’s when we’ve been able to work around those kind of problems and make sure that we didn’t actually end up threatening each other in a serious way if the deal was done.

WALLANDER: Ken, that seems like it’s in your—

ADELMAN: You were right, Jan, that the—what Reagan had in mind for strategic defense initiative was contrary to defense deterrence theory, since Brodie and, you know, all the wonderful theorists in the ’40s and the early ’50s. But Reagan thought it was immoral. He thought that having the world depend on two leaders with guns to each other’s head for the rest of time was a lousy way to run the world.

And I don’t know about you, Jan, but I was brought up on the South Side of Chicago, Bryn Mawr grammar school, where Mrs. Obama went to grammar school a few years after me. And at Bryn Mawr on Tuesday morning at 10:30 we went marching down the hall, got on our knees, and put our heads in the locker because the Soviets were going to have a nuclear attack. I remember asking Ms. Mulroy (sp), our principal, how do we know it’s going to be Tuesday morning at 10:30 Chicago time? (Laughter.) And she said that, you know, as principal she had worked all that out. (Laughter.) And I said, well, you know, my head’s in the locker, but my fanny’s still in the hall. Won’t that be burned off? And she said, no, if your head’s in the locker you’ll be fine. (Laughter.)

But I remember those days. My brothers remember those days. That wasn’t a very good way to live. And the idea that Reagan had, you can call it pie in the sky and to a certain extent if you’re talking about a wholesale assault the Soviets versus the United States it is unachievable anytime soon, OK? But if you’re talking about a limited nuclear attack from North Korea from, God forbid, Iran, if they get nuclear weapons, from Pakistan, from a rogue state. We have the capability now, all these many years after Reykjavik, to shoot down one, and two, and three missiles. OK, not hundreds, but the tests on that have been very positive over the last five years.

Last point I would make on the failure of Reykjavik, this chart I got from the State Department a few years, and it’s the whole nuclear stockpile from 1961 to 2016. And Reykjavik is right there. And this is the Soviet and Russian stockpile, this is the American stockpile. I mean, I think the chart is pretty clear. And was all this caused by two days at the middle of nowhere in Reykjavik? No. But did it start the process? The process is pretty damn impressive.

RIDGWAY: It’s the first time one of those negotiations had talked about reductions.

ADELMAN: And that was Reagan’s idea.

RIDGEWAY: And then they were subsequently achieved in follow-on negotiations.

ADELMAN: And that’s why we renamed the talk. The day Reagan took office he said: It’s not going to be START anymore.

RIDGWAY: Not going to be SALT.

ADELMAN: Not going to be SALT anymore. It’s going to be START, because we want reductions in that. And Senator Ted Kennedy, and even Sam Nunn and others, and Senator Al Gore I think as a congressman then—Congressman and then Senator Al Gore, said basically the Soviets would never agree to those kind of reductions. That’s pie in the sky. Talk about pie in the sky that, you know, they want a limitation on growth. So if they’re at a thousand now, limit it to in ten years they won’t exceed twelve hundred. In other words, they’re going to grow, but you’re going to limit the growth. And Reagan didn’t want that. He wanted real reductions. And that’s why he came up with his first speech on—in 1981 on his plans for nuclear weapons was going to be cut the strategic arsenals in half. And he gave that at his alma mater in Illinois.

WALLANDER: Great, thanks.

Others? Yes.

Q: Hi. My name is Alex Yergin.

My question is, was it in any of yours, or anyone’s mind at Reykjavik that the Soviet Union might collapse soon? And if not, what was your vision kind of the long-term U.S.-Soviet relationship?


SESTANOVICH: Definitely no. (Laughter.) Although I think there was a debate within the U.S. government as to how difficult their situation really was, and how much stirring of the pot Gorbachev was prepared to acknowledge. I think the long-term relationship that was envisioned was one—the good outcome—was one in which the Soviets came to grips with their internal limitations and, on that basis, reformed and home and pulled back their foreign policy abroad. That’s a very, very boiled down version of it. There were plenty of people who said, no, that’s unattainable. I remember, you know, Bob Gates used to come and lecture entering CIA officers about how the internal difficulties were going to make for more progressive foreign policy. And that was an example of how people found it a little hard to get their heads around the possibility of some kind of change, and how the different elements of change would fit together.

RIDGWAY: A lot of—a lot of the signals were let gone. Went right past them. They didn’t fit the then-current assessment of the strength of the Soviet Union. But certainly a key one was Gorbachev’s speech in an Asian setting, in which in a very small paragraph he indicated that the Soviet Union would no longer be sending forces to put down local insurgencies or rebellions. There wasn’t going to be another Hungary. There wasn’t going to be another Czechoslovakia. They were going to be staying home. The impact of that quietly in Eastern Europe, in the capitals of the Warsaw Pact, I think was missed by a lot of the people looking at the future of the Soviet Union.

ADELMAN: And let me—let me pick that up if I can, Alex, on your very good question. It raises the whole question, what did cause the collapse of the Soviet Union? And the easy answer, and the answer you get from Strobe Talbott and a lot of people who really know the topic very well, I think, is just wrong. And that is, it would have collapsed on its own devices, and that was—you know, it was almost inevitable. All right, there’s lots of things wrong. Number one, at the time of Reykjavik, the CIA was, and declassified material now we know in the official documents, was saying the Soviet Union was growing at 2 percent a year. It wasn’t deficit. It was growing at 2 percent. Now that’s about what America’s growing at right now. So, now, the CIA estimates, you could say, are wrong in various respects. But it wasn’t clear to them or anybody else that there was a precipitous decline, that you always have that.

Number two, empires go on a long time. And an economic decline really doesn’t faze them very much, all right? Gibbons ends one chapter of the Rise (sic; Decline) and Fall of the Roman Empire with this wonderful sentence saying: This intolerable situation lasted another three hundred years. (Laughter.) OK? And there’s no reason that governments collapse. If there was, you’d see North Korea where people are eating bark right now, and grass, collapse. They haven’t collapsed since 1949 in North Korea. You’d see Cuba collapse. These countries don’t collapse because of economic decline. And the Soviet Union was not in economic decline. They were probably stable at that point.

What I think really was the great historical contribution of Reykjavik, and this is the title that could be considered inflated—the subtitle of my book—the forty-eight hours that ended the Cold War—was that after Reykjavik this guy decides: This guy’s not going to give me what I want, which is SDI. That was the one thing I came here to get. I’m going to have to accelerate my reforms. Reforms were underway at that time, but I have to accelerate. Within a few weeks they called the central committee, they called the—you know, the central—I don’t know what all these words were. But for the first time since Stalin they had a meeting of all the people involved in—leaders who run the Soviet Union. And Gorbachev says: We have to accelerate all this.

The reforms were accelerated. They proved to be a disaster. And I think that unwinding of the Soviet Union was because of the reforms, because he couldn’t get SDI. That’s my interpretation.

RIDGWAY: And the sad note on that is it led, in time, to the attempted coup that took him out of power, among which of the leaders was Akhromeyev.

SESTANOVICH: Who committed suicide.

RIDGWAY: Who committed suicide.

WALLANDER: Yeah, right here.

Q: David Sanger from the New York Times. It’s been a fascinating conversation.

We’ve read a lot about what President Reagan thought SDI was, and how well it would work, and maybe overestimated it. What did Gorbachev think? Because it sounds from this as if he actually believed this was all getting ready to go, because if he didn’t believe it he wouldn’t have made that his number-one demand. So was this the great propaganda victory of the entire summit?

ALDERMAN: The Soviet KGB files are now open because of the Gorbachev Foundation. And he was fighting with Yeltsin at the time, so he opened up all the papers. They certainly wouldn’t have been opened up otherwise. And so we can see them, David, right now. The KGB overestimated how far SDI was, OK? Gorbachev vastly overestimated what the KGB had told him. So there was a really inflated view of the KGB. Gorbachev read it and though, oh my God, they’re underestimating everything and it’s a lot worse than that. He started out both in Geneva but especially at Reykjavik talking as if SDI was almost built. This increased Reagan who thought, you know, I didn’t think it was that far along but, holy cow—(laughter)—you know, this guy fears it so much it much be something out there. So the two of them were jacking each other up all weekend, as one of you said. They were playing off each other and they were, holy cow, this is really something.

So by—you look at the notes. At the end of the Sunday afternoon, it seems like the thing is working, and is all plugged in, and it’s delivering its goods. And you wonder, God, these guys have just flipped out. But it was because of the KGB overestimating, and Gorbachev really fearing it like mad, and Reagan in delirium because he was so happy that it had been working so well.

SESTANOVICH: I think one thing you have to add is sort of bureaucratic politics. You had a military that was saying no matter—you know, whether it’s really going to work exactly as promised or only, you know, part of it, we need a much bigger budget. And that was a problem for Gorbachev, because as he said in meetings after Reykjavik and in the—in the following year, we’ve been stealing from our people too long. We have a highly militarized economy. So the—it isn’t—he didn’t necessarily have to believe it would work exactly as advertised. Even so, it could create an internal problem for what he wanted to do.

WALLANDER: And I’ll just observe, you know, the more things change. The very same calculations are happening with the Russian military and intelligence services now on American limited missile defenses. I was part of the—during the Obama years—the attempts to cooperate on missile defense. And the Russian presentation of what European Phased Adaptive Approach could do—all the Americans are sitting, like, wow, we didn’t know that. That’s really amazing. We can do all that? I mean, the worst-case scenario tendency within the security services, plus the bureaucratic interests, are really powerful. And when they’re briefing political leaders, it can have this kind of effect. It’s pretty extraordinary.

I shouldn’t do that, though. I’m supposed to be calling on people. Yes. (Laughs.)

Q: Thank you all very much. I’m Frances Cook, former State Department like Roz.

We all know what a role political and cultural memories play in leadership, so I’d like to bring it forward to talk about our current Russian leader that we’re dealing with. Do you think there’s any memory of what happened at Reykjavik or what happened to Russia then and thereafter has impacted? We’ve all heard about the submarine accident. We’ve all heard about his terror at what happened in East Berlin. But I haven’t seen any reflections on Gorbachev’s failures, what impact that had on making the Putin that we’re trying to deal with today, who seems to be as—has more surprises each week than even our own president does. Thank you.

WALLANDER: Steve, can I start with you?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah. It’s interesting. You know, the conventional analysis of Putin and his people is that all of Russia’s problems trace to the ’90s. There’s very little discussion of why the ’90s were so terrible, because a system that did not work had fallen apart. And that understanding of the ’80s is very underdeveloped. You don’t hear a lot of people saying—well, what you do hear people saying, well, Gorbachev overreacted. He didn’t get very good terms for the end of the Cold War. He could have done a whole lot better. But that’s all an attack on Gorbachev. It’s not a systemic analysis of how bankrupt they were, how demoralized they were. I mean, I’d add to what Ken said about the other factors that contributed to the collapse, just a complete demoralization of the leadership. They really stopped believing in their own system. And that kind of picture of the ’80s the Russian are not propagating because it sounds a little too much like today.

WALLANDER: It also makes it hard for them to blame the United States. Whereas the 1990s, it’s much easier to point the finger at us.

SESTANOVICH: Yes. Yeah. That’s right, yeah.

WALLANDER: We probably have time for two more questions. So I want to—sure. And then I have to let you go at 7:30, because I hear that there might be a baseball game? I don’t know. (Laughter.) Oh, or the debate, right. (Laughter.)

Q: Thank you for that, by the way. Henry Nau, George Washington University.

One of the mysteries about Reagan, for those of us who worked with him, is that he was so modest, he was so disarming, almost in every situation. And he allowed people to underestimate him. Before you told your story to Jim Kolbe, I recalled how—I was on the NSC in the early 1980s—how the little yellow pages would come out of the White House. All of his early speeches were written initially in his hand. And then, of course, you had a huge battle with the bureaucracy to try to keep his version in the speech.

So I guess what my question is, from your interactions with him, why do you think he was that way? And is he—you know, do we learn something from this? Do we learn something that maybe leadership is not just about stubbornness or these other virtues? It’s about understanding the world, as I think Reagan did, and having the political gifts to mobilize public support and implement policies to realize that vision. And in the end, you can’t prove direct causation. I’m not suggesting that. But nevertheless, this man was rather intelligent, as well as intuitive.

WALLANDER: Roz, can I let you? Please.

RIDGWAY: I think there’s a lot to be said about people being comfortable in their own skin, men and women, and how they carry themselves through life. And if they’re comfortable in their own skin, they don’t have to add features to it, or be aggressive, or anything of the sort. And what I’ve tried to tell people about Reagan, and I certainly sat in enough meetings with him. And a couple of time he’d see me enter a room and he’d sort of pat the cushion next to him and tell me to come and sit next to him and all of this. I don’t know that he remembered my name, but he remembered that I was a part of whatever it was.

I often say to people, I found Reagan to be the kind of a man who could wear a brown suit to a wedding and get away with it. (Laughter.) He didn’t need the symbols of power or success or anything else. He was himself. He knew what he knew. And he lived life as he thought life should be lived. And that’s the end of the story. Does it produce modest, humility? I don’t know. But it certainly means that people who met him were incredibly, instantly comfortable in his presence. Which allowed him, in cases like with Gorbachev, to really—in many cases Gorbachev may have thought he had the back-footed Reagan, but it was very much the opposite.

WALLANDER: Great. Another question, or a comment, or an observation? Yeah, please.

Q: Hi. My name is—sorry. My name’s Dan Bartlett. I’m with the Department of Defense.

 What lessons can contemporary diplomats or folks that are working on arms control take from this period? We are seeing rapid modernization on the part of the Russians and the Americans in this space. So what lessons would you offer to this generation of folks dealing with these contemporary issues?

WALLANDER: That is a super closing question. Let me give each of you—I’d like each of you to address it.

ADELMAN: Steve, why don’t you go first?


SESTANOVICH: Well—(laughs)—that’s a really hard one.

WALLANDER: You got one minute. (Laughs.)

SESTANOVICH: I would say it’s, you know, aiming high. I mean, Reagan was not interested in incremental change. He was interested in transformation and understanding how stubborn you have to be in order to get that, and how many people you’re going to have to, in your very modest and genial way. I mean, he was impossible not to like, Ronald Reagan. But you’re going to have to tell them no, a lot. And that was the story—to my mind—the story of the Reagan presidency is intense likeability and extreme stubbornness to the point of pigheadedness. You have to be extremely willing to insist on your point of view.

WALLANDER: Roz, as our diplomat?

 RIDGWAY: But there’s no rule that says you cannot be polite, continuing to inform yourself on whatever the issue is that you’re being stubborn about, and being willing to turn to others around you to ask an opinion and to listen to it. You may not incorporate it, but you have listened to it. And it keeps your mind growing and keeps you sort of in in an even place in what it is that you’re trying to do. But mostly, I also think you have to know what it is—what is it that I am trying to do? And if I can’t get it, where do I go next?

WALLANDER: Great. Ken?

ALDERMAN: What I love, and to pick up what Steve and Roz said so wisely, what I really loved about Reagan, looking back especially, is how he really had no animosity towards anybody. And this came out constantly, all the time. It was impossible for him to dislike anybody. There was a case where in 1984 he was going on a motorcade with the head of the Republican Party then. And he was, you know, going along, and some guy—they were slowing down because he was going to get out. Some guy was next to him with a big sign: Impeach Ronald Reagan. Worst president since Herbert Hoover, or Chester Arthur, or somebody. And he’s the most terrible guy in the world and, you know, just kind of frantic about it. And Reagan turned and he said, you see this guy here? And I said, yeah. He says, put him down as undecided. (Laughter.) Probably leaning against. (Laughter.)

And my favorite, if I can take thirty seconds, my second is after the Granada invasion, where Maggie Thatcher really had a fit and did what’s called hand-bagging, you know, which is, you know, taking her handbag and whacking him. And she was—sent some emissaries to tell how terrible this was. This is an island that, you know, had sovereignty under the queen. It had been a former British colony. They were best friends, et cetera, et cetera. So she called Reagan and Reagan did his, you know, soft-shoe on the phone for a while. And Mike Deaver was listening in on the other phone under the George Washington portrait on the white couches, and Reagan was behind the Oval—behind the desk in the Oval Office.

And she started to ramp up because he was, you know, just like tumbleweed. Oh, yeah, thanks, you know—and he was just saying nothing and bobbing and weaving while she was getting angrier and angrier, getting some reaction from him. And finally, she just kind of lost it and started getting out of control. Mike Deaver was so embarrassed on the couch that he thought he was going to break protocol, and interrupt, and say: You know, Madam Prime Minister, you’re talking to the president of the United States, just remember that. And he was kind of all red. And his Irish face was all—you know, all puffed up. And he was just mad about the way Thatcher was talking to Reagan.

And all of a sudden, he’s ready to bust in and he hears: “psst, psst, psst.” He looks up, and there’s Reagan behind the desk. He says: Mike. And Deaver says, what? And Reagan puts the hand on the phone. He goes up and he says, Mike, isn’t she marvelous? (Laughter.)

WALLANDER: All right. So I am so grateful to all of you for joining us tonight, because there are some other things going on this evening. But I think you made the right choice. I would like to ask you to thank our panelists, who were billed to you as eyewitnesses to history. But I would like to thank them because I think we all understand that they helped make this history. And they kept America safe and advanced our interests during this period. (Applause.)


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