Michael KreponReykjavik

Twenty-five years ago, the world’s highest-stakes poker game was played in Reykjavik. This characterization comes from a man with a pretty good poker face, George Shultz, who was the US Secretary of State at the time. Secretary Shultz appeared to be one of only three participants at the Reykjavik summit who had no reservations about what transpired. The other two were the guys holding all the chips.

The story of the Reykjavik summit has great dramatic potential; Ridley Scott will reportedly try his hand at the film version. No explosions. No digital animation. But great dramatis personae, and a plot that is far too convoluted to summarize adequately here. Suffice it to say that the story is about two supremely confident, unorthodox risk-takers who were not in the least bit enthralled with nuclear weapons. They happened to be the presidents of the United States and the Soviet Union. They wanted to dispense with agonizingly slow and overly scripted strategic arms negotiations and cut to the chase. These risk-takers were eager to meet face-to-face, even at an unscripted summit.

Ronald Reagan came to Reykjavik expecting exploratory talks; Mikhail Gorbachev brought proposals that took the US delegation by surprise. Gone were all of the usual Soviet ifs, ands, and buts. Gorbachev had only one condition, and he saved it for the last act.

Reagan sought to make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete by means of his Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev parried with a more direct approach. The Reagan administration had previously proposed lop-sided strategic arms reductions, including cuts in Soviet “heavy” missiles. Gorbachev’s rejoinder was, in effect, “You want deep cuts? How about fifty percent cuts for both of us, including Soviet heavy missiles?” This scale of reductions was previously thought to be preposterous when first advocated by George Kennan. Let’s do this in five years, Gorbachev proposed. Euro-missiles? The Reagan team had previously proposed to eliminate all Soviet deployments and, in turn, the US would not deploy new missiles. Supporters of this gambit believed it to be unacceptable to the Kremlin. Gorbachev agreed to Reagan’s zero option.

Now it was Reagan’s turn. Challenged by Gorbachev to dispense with stale negotiating proposals, Reagan’s team proposed to eliminate all “fast flyers” in a second five-year period. Why stop at ICBMs and SLBMs, asked Gorbachev? How about all bombers, warheads, tactical nuclear weapons and, for good measure, cruise missiles? SDI would not be needed in a world without nuclear weapons. Reagan then looked across the table at Gorbachev and reportedly said, “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.” To which Gorbachev replied, “We can do that. Let’s eliminate them. We can eliminate them.”

This would make a good movie, no?

These back-of-the-envelope proposals were torn up when Gorbachev demanded that the SDI be confined to laboratories for ten years and proceed thereafter only by mutual consent. Reagan would not sacrifice his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative, not even for his vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Reykjavik immediately generated intense, mixed emotions — much tooth-gnashing, sighs of relief, as well as deep regrets. Supporters of the US nuclear weapons complex were appalled. Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger declared Reykjavik “a near disaster from which we were fortunate to escape.” Richard Nixon weighed in that, “No summit since Yalta has threatened Western interests so much as the two days at Reykjavik.”

Had another US president engaged in summitry along these lines, he would have been subject to impeachment. (Alternatively, for Gorbachev, there was the Seven Days in May script.) But Reagan was untouchable, and he and Gorbachev remained undeterred. Their free-lancing laid the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that removed three categories of missiles from the European chessboard, and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. These treaties, direct outgrowths of Reykjavik, broke the back of the nuclear arms race.


  1. MK (History)

    ACW readers:
    I propose that we help Ridley Scott cast his movie. Who might play Reagan? Gorbachev? Shultz? Richard Perle? etc.
    To get the ball rolling, I suggest that Edward Hermann play Reagan.

    • krepon (History)

      Playing George Shultz: the late Leo McKern — the guy who played Rumpole of the Bailey and was in countless movies. He’d have to lose the accent, of course.

    • kme (History)

      Wayne Knight could play Gorbachev.

  2. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Reykjavik warrants a movie. While the summit was deemed a ‘failure’ the reality was that much of the proposals became reality. Even following much the same time scale of the proposals. I think the keystone to post cold war stability was still CFE and the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, but Reykjavik deserves it’s place. Amazingly you don’t see the right on either side making credible and prolonged policy pushes to rebuild the strategic arsenals. The real victory of Reykjavik was everyone in essence has accepted it in the long run. In the coming decades we may look back to our current era of depressed stockpiles as the ‘Reykjavik Era’ should the nuclear and conventional arms races reignite in the coming multipolar world.

    • wrf (History)

      There was indeed a real victory in Reykjavik — but there were also lessons not learned. Or even un-learnt. Both by the US and Russia. For example, missile defense continues to threaten the path to zero. The US has not learned that it will not provide protection from nuclear attack (especially if the WMDs don’t come via missiles) and Russia has not stopped treating it as a threat to its strategic forces. A recent OpEd piece put it best:


      I quote: “So the central conundrum of midcourse missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the United States or its allies from this — increased — weaponry.”

      The hard-right hawks in both nations continues to undermine progress (and bankrupt their nations): there seems some deep need for a twin nemesis.


    • Ed Marshall (History)

      I was just at the Los Angeles summit at Reagan Library with all the players from Reykjavik.

      Yes, the same argument about SDI is still there, but the Russians (and the Chinese) while suspicious seem willing to along with the co-operation regime. General Cartright was there and offered to share the threat board information with them in real time, I don’t know if that is new or not).

      The devil is always in the details, but it was a very, very, positive summit (well, minus the French and Israelis, but they are a roadblock to be crossed five or ten years from now.