Michael KreponAdelman on Reykjavik

The Nonproliferation Review will be publishing my book review of Ken Adelman’s Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. (Where would we be without publishing license and hyperbolic subtitles?) In the meantime, here are some quotes from the book, which tells a story that is endlessly fascinating:

“Reykjavik changed each man, changed their relationship and thus that of the superpowers.”

“SDI was little more than pie in the colorful sky of Ronald Reagan’s imagination.”

Reagan to Gorbachev from verbatim notes: “[SDI] is exactly the same with offensive strategic weapons. We need a gas mask here.”

“Reagan knew enough about arms control to make his arguments adeptly.”

“Each [Reagan and Gorbachev] was genuinely dumbfounded by what the other believed.”

“Although Reagan was always clear in his views and intentions, he was seldom clear in his instructions. Just as Horace Walpole once said of Prime Minister William Pitt, Reagan kept aloof from all details, drew magnificent plans, and left others to find magnificent means.”

“Iran-Contra showed Reagan at his worst – all instinct with little thinking; all improv with little formal decision making; all emotion with little logic.”

“SDI never worked as Reagan wished. It worked better.”

“Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet Union in the worst way possible. And that’s pretty much how he did it.”

“We know the things Reagan did but do not know how he was able to do them.”

And back to that subtitle: “Reykjavik alone did not end the Cold War. Only the uninformed and or the sensationalistic could claim that it did.”


  1. Fred Miller (History)

    Why anyone would pay “Cakewalk” Adelman to write anything is a mystery. When he predicted the Iraq war would be a cakewalk, and when he said with absolute certainty that we’d find massive WMD stockpiles, didn’t he pretty well prove that he’ll say whatever militaristic hardliners want to hear?

    I trust Nancy Reagan when she said her husband’s “greatest regret” was that he wasn’t able to eliminate nuclear weapons completely, but when Reagan was inaugurated, he supported expansion of the nuclear arsenal. He didn’t turn around until the Nuclear Freeze campaign grew to be a significant political force.

    Reykjavik was a turning point, but whatever happened there was not because President Reagan’s military and political advisors were brilliant strategists. It happened because Reagan, unlike most of the political elite in both parties, found nuclear weapons “morally repugnant”, and because he had huge numbers of Americans, motivated by the Freeze, demanding action.

  2. Arch Roberts (History)

    Memory fails, and I hate to denigrate the continuing importance of the occasion, but I seem to remember Richard Perle had a couple sausages in his carry-on that were exploded by the bomb squad.

  3. anon (History)

    Most memories fail when Reykjavik and “Reagan the abolitionist” come up… Reagan did find nuclear weapons abhorant, but not because of the horrific consequences of nuclear use. He was particularly offended by the potential Soviet ability to put the U.S. in a “surrender or die” predicatment. He was afraid of the Soviet ability to blackmail the U.S. with its nuclear “superiority.” First he tried to build up U.S. nuclear weapons to undermine this superiority (since it never really existed, and we weren’t going to turn Nevada into a nuclear racetrack, there were limits to this approach). This changed in his second term. Ideally, if he wanted to eliminate the Soviet nuclear threat to the U.S., he would want to eliminate the Soviet Union. But he knew that wouldn’t go over well, so he proposed the elimination of nuclear weapons (or at least ballistic missiles, where the Soviet advantage rested). That would eliminate the Soviet nuclear threat. That was his goal.

    Its a real stretch, and an huge embellishment of the Reykjavik myth, to conclude that Reagan would have supported the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons, a la the gang of 4 or Global Zero. I don’t think he would have had any problem with a world where the U.S. had a monopoly, or at least a huge superiority in nuclear weapons, and where our allies also had nuclear weapons.

    • krepon (History)

      Adelman has a very different take. He uses the metaphor of Reagan as the Lifeguard, who sought (especially after the assassination attempt) to save Americans from a nuclear holocaust the way he pulled struggling swimmers out of harm’s way as a lifeguard in Dixon, Illinois. I find this plausible.

    • anon (History)

      Sorry, I don’t buy it. The assasination attempt was in 1981. The first term build-up was after the assasination attempt. The build-up ended in 1984-1985 because it simply cost too much (defense budgets started to decline) and Laxalt would not agree to turn all the water in Nevada over to the MX racetrack program. And Scowcrowft said there was no window of vulnerability. So Reagan’s dream of eliminating the Soviet threat got slapped with reality, in all areas except SDI. The Reykjavik revisionists seem to forget that it was Reagan’s utter belief in the ability to shoot down all Soviet missiles that scuttled the agreeement. He was still looking for a way to get out of the “surrender or die” predicament.

      It was the Soviet Union that he wanted to eliminate, not nuclear weapons. He just thought the latter would be easier, and less politically fraught, to advocate for.

      He would not be an abolitionist today….

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      30 years later, the Soviet Union is gone, no further need to worry about how to eliminate it. Also, 30 years later, Reagan would have a chance to look over the abysmal progress on SDI. Perhaps he would be more receptive to a deal with Gorbachev at Reykjavik, if he had the chance for a historic do-over.

  4. Tom Nichols (History)

    Anyone who thinks Reagan was not a nuclear abolitionist from the get-go (like the above commenter)has no idea what they’re talking about, and certainly no exposure to the voluminous literature on Reagan going back to 1989. This books sounds like a good companion to the new James Wilson Graham book on Reagan and Gorbachev, which is quite good.

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