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(Post has been updated. See below.)

I’m getting concerned. No one has submitted a list of movie monsters that are bomb-related. Is anybody out there working on this? Is this contest to name enlarged movie creatures due to man’s folly going to flop?

Update | 19 Dec 2014

Here’s a sweetener, courtesy of Bradley Laing:

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

Horror of Party Beach


Now Bradley has not named the monsters in question for his first two entries. Seeing as how I’m completely unfamiliar with the “Horror of Party Beach” — which seems like a must-see movie — I’m at a loss to know the creature. I’m beginning to think this creature does not have a name. Or a nickname.

Come to think of it, the beast from 20,000 fathoms probably didn’t have a name, either.

Godzilla is the exception to the rule. And maybe his real name was different. We just don’t know.

So I think I need to change the rules of this contest on the fly. Just list the names of monster movies built around creatures with plot lines related to the Bomb. And if the creatures have names, then by all means list them, too. We could use this as a tie-breaker. Or something.

Hmmmm. I will be the first to admit that this contest was poorly conceived. Sometimes group think really is better than solo excursions.

If I change the contest to naming movies built around bomb-generated creatures, including creatures with no names, then I have to allow sequels, and sequels to sequels.

So be it. For franchises, it’s OK to list separate movie titles. Extra credit for listing creatures with names or nicknames.

These contest rules are subject to change.


The “nuclear enterprise” – as the nuclear weapons complex and force structure in the United States have been successfully rebranded — is bloated and in need of paring. It is also in need of repair. The Pentagon commissioned two high-level studies to clarify particulars and remedies. Repair work on an aging command and control infrastructure and a broken security culture is not optional.

Supporters of the nuclear enterprise also seek far larger expenditures to recapitalize all three legs of the Triad. Whatever sums are spent on strategic modernization programs will not reduce threats unless the United States also repairs and modernizes non-military means of threat reduction. Investing in one without the other is a poor investment strategy. Nuclear weapons deter threats in kind; they don’t reduce them. Deterrence without diplomacy is downright dangerous.

The diplomatic threat reduction enterprise consists of the men, women and institutions, domestic and international, dedicated to reducing threats posed by dangerous weapons. The primary locus of non-military threat reduction in the United States is the State Department, but other agencies provide crucial technical and analytical support. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency used to be dedicated to this mission, but it was folded into the State Department in 1997 to facilitate the Senate’s consent to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. If you google ACDA now, the first entry that pops up is the American Choral Directors Association.

The arms control brand, which made a splash in the 1960s, has come upon hard times. The arms control brand still evokes images of formal negotiations where progress is counted in numbers. A decade ago, I argued (in Cooperative Threat Reduction, Missile Defense and the Nuclear Future) for the rebranding of “arms control” as “threat reduction” – with apologies to this website and the Arms Control Association. My reasoning: arms control has expanded well beyond formal negotiations to encompass collaborative laboratory initiatives to improve nuclear security, checkpoints at border crossings, sleuthing for illicit transfers of radiological material, the creation of centers of excellence to improve personnel training, mine demilitarization efforts, greater transparency in arms transfers, improved monitoring for very low-yield underground testing, the development of codes of responsible conduct, and dozens of other activities.

The merger of ACDA and State has not been kind to the WMD threat reduction mission, which has suffered from insufficiently funded mandates, poor personnel management, and the absence of mechanisms and slots to recruit new talent. The seventh floor of the State Department is fighting so many fires that it has neglected basic housekeeping needs. The person whose job it is to attend to those needs has been awaiting confirmation for over 500 days. (As this is written, Frank Rose finally appears set for a confirmation vote.) Unlike the nuclear enterprise, the non-military threat reduction enterprise has no powerful constituency to demand budget redress or ameliorative steps. Supporters of arms control have not horse-traded very well on Capitol Hill.

The State Department’s personnel practices have failed to maintain a work force commensurate to the tasks of threat reduction in the 21st Century. Foreign Service Officers rotate in and out of trouble spots, while civil servants, who work on threat reduction all the time, don’t spend enough time in trouble spots. Half of them are nearing retirement age. Unlike the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community, the State Department has few ways to bring in new talent with skill sets related to regional security and proliferation.

Despite personnel and funding constraints, great progress has been made by employing non-military means of threat reduction. The biggest achievements in reducing strategic forces and nuclear stockpiles occurred right before and soon after the Soviet Union dissolved. More recent successes have not received their due. Partial achievements – like the eight-year moratorium of plutonium production in North Korea, or constraints on Iran’s uranium enrichment programs – are derided as failures, even though these results compare favorably to the costs of attempting to reduce WMD threats by military means.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons spent $87 million to demilitarize most, but not all, of Bashir al-Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. This price tag is equivalent to ten days of air strikes in Syria and Iraq against Islamic State targets. The United Nations spent less than $20 million per year from 1991 to 2007 to help prevent Saddam Hussein from reconstituting his stocks of chemical and biological weapons. It cost the United States over a trillion dollars, on top of incalculable human costs, to confirm what UN monitors were figuring out. For roughly $15 million per year, the International Atomic Energy Agency has monitored the down-blending of enriched uranium in Iran and constraints on operating advanced centrifuge designs while keeping a close watch on declared facilities to provide early warning of breakout. No one can confidently estimate the costs, monetary and otherwise, of a military campaign to improve on these results.

We don’t know what additional public health and nonproliferation benefits might accrue from the Biological Weapons Convention if it were allowed a Secretariat of more than one person. The United States spends less than $30 million per year to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s international monitoring system and Secretariat. These costs are not trivial, but they fade in comparison to the costs of another competitive round of nuclear testing.

By definition, all cases of diplomatic engagement relating to weapons of mass destruction are hard and failure can be extremely costly. The exact same calculus applies to the use of force. As with military campaigns, diplomacy doesn’t always succeed in reducing threats. Vladimir Putin, for example, isn’t ready to negotiate deeper reductions in deployed strategic forces. In other cases, such as North Korea and South Asia, Washington hasn’t really tried sustained or meaningful diplomatic engagement to reduce nuclear dangers. Most of the time, progress comes after years of effort. Beijing is only now beginning to engage more fully on cooperative threat reduction.

If the use of force is to be a last resort in hard cases, then investing in non-military means of threat reduction is a matter of simple prudence. The non-military threat reduction enterprise, like the nuclear enterprise, is in need of repair. The State Department would be wise to follow the Pentagon’s example by convening a blue-ribbon commission to clarify shortcomings and remedies.

Documenting the ugly particulars of how capabilities for diplomatic means of threat reduction have been degraded is a precondition for renewal. What is the extent of understaffing, mal-deployment and under-resourcing, and how might these be improved? Clarifying these deficiencies will come to naught unless sympathetic Members of Congress are as tenacious in fighting for remedies as supporters of the nuclear enterprise. Otherwise, threats will grow regardless of how much is invested in strategic modernization programs.


This year we’re switching things up. Instead of combing through lyrics about the Bomb, we’re doing movie monsters linked to the evils of nuclear testing. How many of these  creatures made it to the big screen? (Godzilla, in various permutations, counts as one.)  I’ll hold on to your lists until year’s end. The ACW reader who goes the extra mile and comes up with the longest list of bomb-related cinematic creations will receive the usual prize: a personally inscribed and autographed copy of one of my remaindered books.


Let’s be honest: There is a vast, left-wing, cinematic conspiracy against the Bomb. How many monsters resulting from the evils of nuclear testing were created to scare the bejeezus out of the movie-going public?  Google and Wikipedia can give you a head start on compiling this list. The ACW reader who goes the extra mile and comes up with the longest list of bomb-related cinematic creatures will receive the usual prize: a personally inscribed and autographed copy of one of my remaindered books. Scant compensation, I know. An ACW coffee mug would be better. The winner, with accompanying list, will be announced at year’s end.


A recent trip to Pakistan gave me reasons for hope as well as despair. Pakistan still has what it takes to succeed, as is evident from the vitality of its black economy. But governance will fail without leadership, revenue generation and internal security. Progress is evident on the third front, but not the first two. Pakistan is still suffering from the effects of dynastic politics and military rule. The latter isn’t in the cards; the former has been shaken up by Imran Khan, the most popular politician in the country who, so far, shows little evidence of being able to govern effectively.

The ongoing military operation against the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan, which was preceded by quiet steps to prevent blow-ups elsewhere, has been successful, suggesting that the powers of the state security apparatus remain intact. One notable exception – the explosion near the Wagah border crossing – occurred not for lack of prior warning, but for a failure to connect the dots, which happens in many countries. Whether the state security apparatus has the will and the means to succeed against groups that have targeted India, like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, remains an open question.

Demography isn’t exactly destiny, but it explains a lot, and has a bearing on nuclear dangers. The Stimson Center’s resident demographer, Wilson Center Global Fellow Richard Cincotta, predicted upheavals in North Africa before they happened by running the numbers. I asked him to take a look at Pakistan, where state failure is often predicted, but whose resiliency has surprised doomsayers. Read Rich’s analysis of demographic trends in Pakistan (in PDF format).


During this Thanksgiving season, let’s try something different: Rather than focus on doom and gloom, what hasn’t been accomplished and what irreconcilables are trying to undo, let’s focus on an improbable success story.

Despite the odds, prolonged efforts to cage the Bomb have been surprisingly successful for major powers. No one confidently predicted this success when the Bomb made its surprise entrance, and certainly not when early attempts at nuclear abolition quickly failed. And yet, after decades of hard work, the utility of nuclear weapons for major powers has been progressively diminished, even though they retain thousands of warheads.

Success has been achieved despite powerful constituencies that resisted progress every step of the way. Treaties banning atmospheric nuclear tests, limiting yields of underground testing, and then ending all tests with explosive yield were bitterly contested. Opponents mistakenly equated greater national security and public safety with more nuclear testing, but the reverse has proven to be true. Critics also misfired by attacking the Strategic Arms Limitation accords pursued by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. These efforts were strongly opposed for allowing the Soviet Union greater leverage and nuclear war-fighting advantages over the United States. Instead, the combination of diplomatic engagement and containment resulted in the Soviet Union’s dissolution from its own contradictions and dysfunction.

Next, critics challenged verifiable strategic arms reduction accords pursued by the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Obama administrations as weakening America and shriveling extended deterrence. In actuality, alliance solidarity is challenged more by opposing treaties and their ratification. Even the administration least interested in negotiating verifiable reductions in nuclear forces did its part: Under George W. Bush, the United States reduced stockpiled weapons by huge amounts.

The incremental process of nuclear arms control and disarmament between Washington and Moscow has had staying power, despite rocky intervals. To be sure, strategic modernization programs continue. There are now and always will be difficult periods between major powers. Even so, the Bomb is not nearly as influential and useful as previous generations thought. Stockpile size and force structure for four of the P-5 have dwindled. China has yet to accept the responsibilities that come with membership in the P-5 and the Nonproliferation Treaty, but it has — so far — adopted a very different, saner nuclear force posture than the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War or at present.

Success has been far more elusive with nuclear newcomers, who now pose the greatest threats to nuclear order. Each new member of the nuclear club believes in the utility of nuclear weapons, challenging the norms accepted with deep reluctance by earlier entrants. Newcomers increase stockpile size to shore up systemic weaknesses or to deter stronger states. They aren’t yet ready to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It will take many years of strenuous effort to cage the Bomb in these hard cases. The pathways for doing so are familiar, including constraints on nuclear testing, the slow accretion of nuclear risk-reduction measures, and diplomacy to ameliorate security concerns.

Caging the bomb in the hardest cases seems as unlikely now as during the first decades of the U.S.-Soviet competition. Nevertheless, progress is possible when unlikely combinations of national leaders permit. Norms still matter, even for outliers: Who wants to join North Korea in testing nuclear weapons and threatening to use them? Caging the Bomb in hard cases is still possible because disgrace as well as incalculable danger will result from the first battlefield use of nuclear weapons after a hiatus of almost 70 years. If, by a combination of luck, common sense, and wise leadership, the superpowers could avoid Armageddon, India and Pakistan may be able to, as well. But they aren’t working nearly hard enough to succeed.

Trend lines reflecting the Bomb’s diminishing utility for major powers have withstood the advent of new states (also less than predicted) possessing nuclear weapons. Sudden shocks to well-established norms remain entirely possible, and one of these days, we may finally be shaken from our sense of complacency against all things nuclear except for Iran. Even then, major powers will have great difficulty finding utility in weapons too powerful to test, let alone use.


J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence were worthy of a dual biography. Oppenheimer and Edward Teller will be forever intertwined. So why haven’t Oppenheimer and Alan Turing been joined at the hip? Both were brilliant pathfinders — Turing in mathematics, Oppenheimer in physics. Their actions shortened World War II, saving countless lives — Turing because of his code-breaking skills, Oppenheimer by leading the Manhattan Project’s work at Los Alamos. Both were tragic figures. Turing’s homosexuality was criminalized, leading to his suicide. The British government never came to his rescue for services rendered. Oppenheimer was done in by his friendships before the war, and by his reservations about the Bomb afterward. Seeking to remain an influential insider, he left himself vulnerable to losing his clearances, thereby being cut off at the knees. Both belatedly received tributes from their nations after their unbearable public rebukes – Oppenheimer while dying from cancer, Turing posthumously.

I was spellbound watching Derek Jacoby play Turing in “Breaking the Code” at a theater in London’s West End in 1986. How could anyone do better than his stuttering portrayal? I stand corrected. Give yourself a treat and watch Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch play Turing in “The Imitation Game.”


What can the Obama Administration hope to accomplish to reduce nuclear dangers during the last quarter-pole of this presidency, especially after being drubbed in the mid-term elections? Quite a lot, actually.

The big “get” remains a nuclear deal with Iran that leaves Tehran far more poorly positioned to sprint to a nuclear arsenal than the cartoon depiction of the problem that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used to school the UN General Assembly in September 2012. The more likely scenario of concern, as James Action has written, isn’t breakout, but “sneak-out.” Outlier states seeking the Bomb usually don’t try to break out in heavily monitored locales; they are more likely to do this in hidden spaces. Nonetheless, the terms of public debate have been framed in terms of breakout from agreed constraints at facilities with known coordinates under heavy scrutiny. By this yardstick, ongoing negotiations have already reaped significant gains, and could yield far more if negotiations succeed.

We shall, of course, see, whether a deal can be struck, and, if so, what the final numbers, plumbing configurations, and fissile material off-loading arrangements will be. Then it will be possible to determine how much better off the United States, Iran’s neighbors, and the State of Israel will be than is currently the case under the interim agreement or, if negotiations break down, with an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program. We shall also consider how much access any deal reached allows for foreign inspectors and sensors to look into dark corners.

Even if a negotiated web of constraints and monitoring measures makes everyone concerned about Iran’s nuclear capabilities far better off than with the interim agreement or with no deal at all, the Obama Administration is still likely to have a donnybrook on its hands. The outcome  will be more consequential than the next strategic arms reduction agreement – whenever it comes to pass. If Prime Minister Netanyahu decides to do everything in his power to torpedo a deal that the Obama Administration determines to be sound, verifiable, and in the national security interests of America’s friends and allies, the tear in U.S.-Israeli relations might become irreparable. Even if Netanyahu decides to avoid a momentous clash, his surrogates on Capitol Hill will still be up in arms, equating friendship with Israel with support for the Netanyahu government’s actions and rhetoric, no matter how ill-conceived.

A second accomplishment in the last two years of the Obama presidency would be a basket of new pledges and deliverables for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, a signature Obama initiative. Russia’s absence from the next summit is disappointing, but need not preclude useful steps taken by others.

A third major accomplishment would be a signing ceremony at the United Nations for an International Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations. Securing this achievement would require a shift in the administration’s timid position of “leading from behind” the European Union on this initiative, which has yielded little by way of tangible results. The Code of Conduct has always been a Big Idea, since reducing dangerous actions and confrontations in space are directly related to reducing nuclear dangers here on Earth. But the Obama Administration has treated it as small potatoes. I will continue to test the patience of ACW readers on this subject in subsequent posts.

A fourth major accomplishment would be a successful NPT Review Conference in 2015. Here, as in the negotiations with Iran, definitions of “success” require parsing. In past NPT RevCons, success has been measured by a Consensus Final Document — a yardstick that empowers the most recalcitrant states. My definition of success is a review process that (1) reinforces existing norms that have progressively diminished the value of nuclear weapons for major powers; (2) makes it harder for new states to acquire nuclear weapons; and (3) makes it easier for states in full compliance with the NPT’s obligations to garner the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology.

The biggest threats to the NPT’s well-being are proliferation concerns in the Middle East, South Asia, and Northeast Asia. The P-5 are obligated to fulfill their end of the NPT’s grand bargain — to pursue nuclear disarmament – and four of the five have done just this. It is nonetheless painfully true that negotiations between Washington and Moscow on a follow-on to New START are moribund, both clearly retain excessive stockpiles, and strategic modernization cycles are now gearing up in Russia, to be followed in due course by those in the United States.

Washington and Moscow could take initiatives prior to the RevCon to strengthen the NPT, separately or in tandem, even while remaining at loggerheads over other issues. Hans Kristensen and Stan Norris estimate that 2,700 warheads in the U.S. stockpile are awaiting dismantlement, with another 3,500 in Russia. One way to strengthen the NPT would be for Washington and Moscow to pledge that, for every warhead they refurbish through life-extension programs, they would commit to dismantling one or more old warheads. Pledges to do so could be effectively monitored through voluntary, reciprocal transparency and confidence-building measures, without giving up warhead design information.

If this is too hard, or if this would entail lengthy negotiations, both countries could immediately pledge to step up the pace of warhead dismantlement while negotiating suitable trust-and-confidence-building measures. And if this is still too hard, I would not give the Kremlin a veto over steps that make sense for the United States. As Hans has painstakingly chronicled, warhead dismantlement has slowed to a crawl in the United States while plans and programs to increase the number of life-extended warheads are moving forward. Linking warhead dismantlement to refurbishment might be a useful placeholder while awaiting the next round of strategic force reductions. Otherwise, the Obama administration is without checks and balances against domestic opponents who champion U.S. strategic modernization programs while being dead set against nuclear negotiations and treaty ratification.


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.


Reagan and Gorbachev at Hofdi House during the Reykjavik Summit in 1986.

Ken Adelman has written an appealing, breezy account of the most extraordinary chapter of US-Soviet nuclear negotiations – the impromptu summit at Reykjavik on October 11-12, 1986 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. His new book, Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War, covers familiar ground, but this story never gets old. Adelman adds value with personal detail and notes taken of Soviet preparations for the summit by Anatoly Chernaev. Several of his broad conclusions, however, including that Reagan accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union by sticking to his guns on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), are overdrawn and unsupported by evidence.

In these pages, Reagan remains very much a mystery. How can one properly decipher a leader with such instinctual powers and showmanship, but with such a weak grasp of substance and loose grip on his subordinates? Adelman’s narrative intertwines summitry with the Iran-Contra affair. How could the President described in these pages as so far-sighted on nuclear negotiations be so myopic about dealing with Iran? Adelman offers no plausible answers. If Reagan remains so mysterious to those who served him, historians will also be hard-pressed to lend coherence to his presidency.

Reagan comes across differently here than in Adelman’s earlier account, The Great Universal Embrace: Arms Summitry – A Skeptic’s Account (1989). The passage of time has made the author less of skeptic and more of a fan of Reagan’s unique style of leadership. He concludes that he is “better able, this second time around, to see his quirkiness and creativity, his personal flaws and stunning foresight, his casual and sometimes careless management but his dogged determination to change America, and then the world.” Adelman ranks Reagan along with Harry S Truman as the bravest and wisest post-World War II Presidents.

The Reykjavik summit keeps its hold on those who are old enough to remember it. Younger readers are also likely to be hooked – if not dumbstruck — when learning about this crucial juncture in Cold War history. The dramatic personae, the subject matter and the plot twists are worthy of Shakespeare. The author, who loves to teach the Bard, dedicates this book to Will, as well as his wife. He took the reins at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in April 1983 after it became evident that the Reagan administration’s first choice for the job, Eugene Rostow, was a poor fit. [Disclaimer: This reviewer used to live in the same neighborhood as the Adelmans, with whom we shared carpooling duties on Sunday mornings.]

Reagan was, in Adelman’s apt characterization, America’s “outlier president” — staunchly anti-nuclear as well as anti-communist – a combination previously considered by his admirers and detractors to be absurdly improbable. His opposite number after three ailing Communist Party General Secretaries, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a radical reformer who relished trashing orthodoxy as much as Reagan. Neither superpower had previously been led by anyone willing and able to turn hammer, sickle and eagle’s talons against received nuclear wisdom and force structure. At Reykjavik, both leaders were absolutely eager to do so.

During their ten and one-half hours of negotiations, they entertained the complete abolition of ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, offensive nuclear arms or nuclear weapons – their terminology shifted and lacked precision. They succeeded in dispensing with all but one big roadblock to the complete elimination of missiles with ranges between 500 and 5.500 kilometers, and paved the way toward fifty per cent cuts in strategic nuclear forces. Neither man invited experts at the table to gum up the works; they were accompanied for most of this time only by Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze — who were usually silent — as well as note-takers and translators. Their retinue of experts – a Soviet team led by 63 year old Marshal of the Soviet Union Sergei Akhromeyev and 79 year old Paul Nitze – two compelling figures in their own right – met for one memorable all-nighter to help pull their leaders’ visions closer together.

No deals were struck at Reykjavik because Reagan refused to confine his cherished SDI to laboratory testing. Most commentators and media outlets deemed Reykjavik a failure, taking their cues from the drawn faces of the two leaders hastily leaving the summit’s venue, Hofdi House. Others who weren’t party to the negotiations were quite relieved that Reagan and Gorbachev were unable bridge their differences, including those on both sides responsible for maintaining nuclear orthodoxy and force structure, as well as America’s NATO allies, who found comfort in the shade under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The initial summit post-mortems were, as Adelman enjoys recounting, as wrong as the intelligence assessments going into summit. The U.S. intelligence community, continuing a string of almost unbroken misjudgments with the advent of Gorbachev, assumed that nothing much of substance would be discussed at the summit and that Soviet defense spending would ramp up in response to the Reagan’s defense build-up and SDI. Instead, Gorbachev came “loaded for bear,” intent on breakthrough achievements in part because Soviet defense spending was maxed out at three times the U.S. intelligence community’s estimate, and because Soviet intelligence agencies believed that SDI would nullify their deterrent. In truth, as Adelman forthrightly acknowledges, SDI was a “splendidly naïve notion only Reagan could have believed, much less conceived.” The U.S. was short-staffed and unprepared for what transpired at Reykjavik; the much larger Soviet team had a game plan, but neither leader was amenable to handlers. Cautionary advice was neither welcome nor given. As Adelman writes, “Reagan at Reykjavik was flying solo.”

It didn’t take too long for pundits and media outlets to figure out that Reykjavik was an extraordinary success story rather than a failure. A treaty eliminating intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear forces was signed in Washington, amidst much pomp and ceremony, fourteen months later. Before leaving office, Gorbachev welcomed Reagan to Moscow, ground central of the “evil empire” he railed against at the outset of his presidency. (When asked by a reporter during a stroll in Red Square whether the opprobrium still applied, he responded, “No. That was another time, another place.”) The strategic arms reductions that Reagan and Gorbachev envisioned at Reykjavik were finalized in 1991 and 1993, during George H.W. Bush’s term in office.

Reagan and Gorbachev broke the back of the superpower nuclear arms race. Reykjavik was the pivot point for this world-historic achievement. The ambition of these two men was breathtaking and contrasts painfully to President Barack Obama’s hesitancy and President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist tendencies. Both Reagan and Gorbachev deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts and their concrete achievements. One could not have accomplished deep cuts in nuclear forces without the other. But only Gorbachev got the Nobel Peace Prize. Later, in 2009, the Norwegian selectors awarded a Nobel to Barack Obama, attaching “special importance “to his “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.” This irony pales before those at Reykjavik, which were on a Shakespearean scale.

Note to readers: This review will appear in The Nonproliferation Review. The second half now appears here.