Previously Secret U.S. and Soviet Documents on the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Reveal Deal Was Closer than Believed

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President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev almost achieved a deal 20 years ago at the 1986 Reykjavik summit to abolish nuclear weapons, but the agreement would have required "an exceptional level of trust" that neither side had yet developed, according to previously secret U.S. and Soviet documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive ( of George Washington University and presented on October 12 in Reykjavik directly to Gorbachev and the president of Iceland.

The documents include Gorbachev's initial letter to Reagan from 15 September 1986 asking for "a quick one-on-one meeting, let us say in Iceland or in London," newly translated Gorbachev discussions with his aides and with the Politburo preparing for the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz's briefing book for the summit, the complete U.S. and Soviet transcripts of the Reykjavik summit, and the internal recriminations and reflections by both sides after the meeting failed to reach agreement.

Archive director Thomas Blanton, Archive director of Russia programs Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Dr. William Taubman presented the documents to Gorbachev at a state dinner in the residence of President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson of Iceland on October 12 marking the 20th anniversary of the summit, which Grimsson commented had put Iceland on the map as a meeting place for international dialogue.

The documents show that U.S. analysis of Gorbachev's goals for the summit completely missed the Soviet leader's emphasis on "liquidation" of nuclear weapons, a dream Gorbachev shared with Reagan and which the two leaders turned to repeatedly during the intense discussions at Reykjavik in October 1986. But the epitaph for the summit came from Soviet aide Gyorgy Arbatov, who at one point during staff discussions told U.S. official Paul Nitze that the U.S. proposals (continued testing of missile defenses in the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI while proceeding over 10 years to eliminate all ballistic missiles, leading to the ultimate abolition of all offensive nuclear weapons) would require "an exceptional level of trust" and therefore "we cannot accept your position."

Politburo notes from October 30, two weeks after the summit, show that Gorbachev by then had largely accepted Reagan's formulation for further SDI research, but by that point it was too late for a deal. The Iran-Contra scandal was about to break, causing Reagan's approval ratings to plummet and removing key Reagan aides like National Security Adviser John Poindexter, whose replacement was not interested in the ambitious nuclear abolition dreams the two leaders shared at Reykjavik. The documents show that even the more limited notion of abolishing ballistic missiles foundered on opposition from the U.S. military which presented huge estimates of needed additional conventional spending to make up for not having the missiles.

The U.S. documents were obtained by the Archive through Freedom of Information Act and Mandatory Declassification Review requests to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the U.S. Department of State. The Soviet documents came to the Archive courtesy of top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyaev, who has donated his diary and notes of Politburo and other Gorbachev discussions to the Archive, and from the Volkogonov collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

These documents are now available on the Web site of the National Security Archive:

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