Reagan and Gorbachev arrive at Hofdi House, Reykjavik.
(Note to readers: This is the second half of a review of Ken Adelman’s Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. This review will also appear in The Nonproliferation Review. The first half appears here.)
Ronald Reagan, the unreconstructed Cold Warrior and opponent of détente, succeeded in doing more damage to nuclear orthodoxy than all of his predecessors combined. Another irony was that Reagan’s treasured SDI, the deal-breaker at Hofdi House, became the victim of Reykjavik’s successes. Before Reykjavik, SDI was already politically and financially hamstrung by Democrats on Capitol Hill; even its more prosaic parts were severely challenged on technical grounds. After agreeing in principle to deep cuts in strategic forces and the elimination of intermediate-range capabilities, the rationale for pursuing advanced, space-based defenses was shredded. No formalities were needed for SDI’s demise. Instead, the George H.W. Bush Administration “grounded” strategic defenses, focusing on land- and sea-based interceptors, as it signed on to deep cuts in strategic offensive forces.
Neither Reagan nor Gorbachev could foresee this outcome at Reykjavik, but the Soviet leader was persuaded of it by his academicians within the year. Gorbachev, who knew first-hand that no incentives could persuade his negotiating partner to let go of what Ken Adelman terms “the pie in the colorful sky of Ronald Reagan’s imagination,” then went about killing SDI with deep cuts. According to Strobe Talbott’s near-contemporaneous and often verbatim account based on administration sources, Gorbachev told Reagan at the Washington festivities associated with the INF Treaty signing,
“Mr. President, you do what you have to do…. And if in the end you think you have a system you want to deploy, go ahead and deploy it. Who am I to tell you what to do? I think you’re wasting money…. We are moving in another direction, and we preserve our option to do what we think is necessary in our own national interest at the time. And we think we can do it less expensively and with greater effectiveness.”
This crucial pivot is completely missing from Adelman’s account, which now credits Reagan with masterful negotiating skills and with having “surprising depth and dexterity on the crucial issues of his day.” Reagan’s “coherent strategic approach” and his constancy, in Adelman’s retelling, helped end the Cold War by holding fast to SDI and driving hard bargains to demolish excessive nuclear weapon stockpiles. These conclusions are far more charitable than his earlier account, The Great Universal Embrace. Published within two years of the INF Treaty signing, Adelman depicted Reagan as “a man singularly endowed with an ability to hold contradictory views without discomfit.” The discussions at Reykjavik, he wrote, “should never have happened. They showed gross ignorance of essentials of Western security.” Adelman described his associates back then as “an accountability-free administration.” Senior officials played to Reagan’s contrarian views, shying away from trying to force reality checks. Instead they signed up to negotiating postures assuming that they would be rejected out of hand by the Kremlin.
In The Great Universal Embrace, as in Strobe Talbott’s accounts, Secretary of State George Shultz and his arms control éminence grise, Paul Nitze, sought leverage to make deals that the President was unwilling to make. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and his Assistant Secretary, Richard Perle, sought leverage to foreclose deals. “What disturbed me most,” Adelman wrote, “was their reluctance to be frank with the President.” Instead, he and his colleagues crafted “neat” arms control initiatives that had the ring of symmetry and the illusionary promise of deep reductions. Effective public relations were more important than improbable outcomes.
Adelman was himself quite gifted in these arts, a practitioner of the fable in his book’s title, where adversaries offer one-sided proposals in the confident expectation of their rejection. Much to his credit, when Gorbachev turned the tables by accepting the Reagan Administration’s proposals, Adelman remained steadfast to his boss’s treaty, backing it fully when others who weaved these tangled webs while practicing to deceive kept silent or turned against the INF Treaty. (Weinberger and Perle left the Pentagon after they lost internal battles and before the Treaty was signed.) Adelman gives Shultz high marks for his “indispensable” role and dogged determination to nail down a deal: “Reagan could not do the nitty-gritty work on specifics that Shultz handled so deftly. They were an ideal fit.”
In The Great Universal Embrace, Adelman concluded that when Gorbachev called Reagan’s bluff, he succeeded in “taming” Reagan and unwisely “legitimizing” arms control. In Reagan at Reykjavik, he writes that Reagan delegitimized the Soviet Union, facilitating its demise, helping Europe to become united and free, liberating 415 million people from Communism and slashing nuclear stockpiles. These conclusions give one man or the other too much credit. What’s a truer calibration?
Reagan’s critics thought his inflammatory remarks about the Soviet Union were unwise and dangerous. Adelman argues, to the contrary, that Reagan deserves credit for systematically delegitimizing the Soviet Union, adding flammable material to decades of Soviet misrule and economic mismanagement. The biggest arsonist, by far, was Gorbachev who, as Adelman writes, “wanted to reform the Soviet Union in the worst way possible. And that’s pretty much how he did it.” Where Adelman goes off the tracks is crediting SDI with “pushing his reforms to the brink of disaster, and over.” This ignores Gorbachev’s change of tactics, as evident in his exchange with Reagan at the INF Treaty signing summit, as well as the domestic U.S. constraints on SDI that became more ironclad after the Treaty was signed.
Reagan remains very hard to pin down, and Adelman has every right to change his views about him with the passage of time. This reviewer certainly has. When Reagan became president, I expected bad choices and wasn’t disappointed during his first term. During his second term, I became an admirer of his unflinching commitment to reduce nuclear weapons. Reagan built up in order to build down. We were all familiar with going uphill; going downhill was a completely unique and unexpected experience. For this, we have Reagan as much as Gorbachev to thank. Republicans have drifted away from Reagan’s legacy in this regard. They now insist on keeping excess Minuteman silos ready for reloads.
This book contains errors of fact as well as conclusion. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty permitted two sites for interceptor missiles, not one. India is strangely missing among the list of states possessing nuclear weapons. Reagan’s strategic approach of deep cuts and SDI was anything but coherent. He never, in his own mind, made a choice between the two. This choice was made by others, primarily Gorbachev, the deal-makers who served under Reagan, and the Congress. Costs and physics also played their part. Adelman claims that “Reagan knew enough about arms control to make his arguments adeptly,” and yet he cites the President’s repeated efforts to persuade Gorbachev to accept SDI by arguing, “We need a gas mask here.”
The tale that Adelman tells is enriched by passages that are at odds with his heroic characterization of Reagan; the man in full who emerges in these pages does not lend himself to hagiography. The President who foiled an accomplished biographer, Edmund Morris, who was granted unprecedented access in the White House, mystifies us still. (Morris was so flummoxed by Reagan that he partly resorted to fiction to depict his subject in Dutch.) Reagan’s mystique is enlarged by his accomplishments and his detachments. As Henry Kissinger told Adelman, Reagan was different from other Presidents. “He’s sui generis… I cannot explain him.”
Adelman can therefore be forgiven for not helping readers to figure out Reagan. We can only marvel in these pages how he and Gorbachev bandied about proposals to eliminate nuclear weapons while their military aides carrying the “footballs” with nuclear access codes stood staring blankly past each other in the hallway of Hofdi House. If deals had somehow been struck in Reykjavik, Adelman believes that would have unraveled. Skeptics would have pounced on details and imprecision. I agree with him. Both Presidents were way ahead of their governments and the rest of us. Their reach exceeded their grasp, but they changed the paradigm of strategic arms control to strategic arms reductions as they slashed force structure and rungs on the escalation ladder.
Reagan and Gorbachev reached for the stars. One came crashing down along with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was not amenable to his radical reforms. The other now resides in the firmament of America’s most successful presidents. Go figure.