Another summit to remember: When Gorbachev outmaneuvered Reagan in Reykjavik

President Ronald Reagan speaking with Mikhail Gorbachev inside the Hofdi House after their last meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986.


By ISAAC STANLEY-BECKER | The Washington Post | Published: July 21, 2018

The Russians came armed with detailed and tantalizing proposals. The Americans arrived with no clear agenda and little sense of what to expect.

When the Russian leader suggested a striking settlement premised on mutual trust, his American counterpart appeared to embrace the idea.

Discord arose, and the White House backtracked. The president had misspoken, his press office said. American allies quaked as the two nuclear giants eyed each other suspiciously.

The extraordinary summit in Helsinki with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin carried echoes of a tête-à-tête between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, in the capital of another Nordic nation. The 1986 summit in Reykjavik became a turning-point in the Cold War, paving the way for a seminal agreement on nuclear disarmament.

At the time, however, the meeting was considered a failure, the American president judged the loser.

Trump is no Ronald Reagan, who was optimistic, good-natured and civil – though controversial and burdened with his own scandals, Iran-Contra chief among them. When Reagan was caught on a hot mic during a radio taping in 1984, he did not joke about assaulting women but about striking Russia. "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever," he quipped. "We begin bombing in five minutes."

The controversy that overtook Reagan's Russia summit 32 years ago centered on differing accounts of what was said at Hofdi House, a picture-book residence that originally housed the French consul. Gorbachev proclaimed in a televised speech from Moscow that he and the American president had agreed to scrap all nuclear weapons by 1996. This account differed from Reagan's statement, in a post-summit speech of his own, that he had committed to the elimination of only ballistic missiles. The Soviets backed up their version by making public minutes recorded by their note taker.

American allies were shaken. Learning how drastically the Americans were willing to disarm was, for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, like experiencing "an earthquake between my feet." She wrote in her memoirs that a "trap had been prepared for the Americans" in the form of "tempting, but unacceptable, proposals on arms control." The sticking point was Star Wars, Reagan's much-criticized program for a flagship missile defense system.

"The President rejected the deal and the summit broke up," the conservative British leader wrote. "Its failure was widely portrayed as the result of the foolish intransigence of an elderly American president, obsessed with an unrealizable dream."

Thatcher, looking back after the end of the Cold War, judged that the president was ultimately vindicated. "He called the Soviets' bluff," she wrote.

At the time, Reagan's own generals rebuked him. Admiral William J. Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blasted the president's actions in a four-page statement. He said eliminating even ballistic missiles within 10 years "would pose high risks to the security of the nation."

The president's spokesman, Larry Speakes, said the problem had been the president's wording. Reagan meant only to affirm "the ultimate goal of elimination of all nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth, which has been the President's goal and dream for many years," the spokesman said.

The White House attempted a similar tactic this week. When Trump returned from Helsinki to find himself under an avalanche of bipartisan criticism for appearing to take the Russian president's word over that of his own intelligence agencies on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, he said he had misspoken. After first saying he did not "see any reason it would be" Russia that interfered, he later claimed that he had meant to say "wouldn't."

Lori Cox Han, a political scientist and expert on the American presidency at Chapman University, said this explanation is difficult to accept.

"You want to believe as an American that it was just him misspeaking," said Han, who is a registered independent. "It's hard to automatically buy that because there's been so much else that he has said that has been so very wrong."

The Reykjavik parallel is notable because of the blame that met the American president, she said, but the difference lies in the level of faith in the words of the two leaders. "There's a credibility issue that is in part Trump's own making," she said.

"With Reagan, he was prone to misspeak when he was off-script, but he never went off-script the way Trump does," Han said. "No president did."

Members of Trump's own party said his behavior lacked precedent. "Today's press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona said in a statement. "The damage inflicted by President Trump's naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake."

Important differences separate the two summits. Above all is the issue over which the wording problem arose: the shared aim of disarmament as opposed to one-way Russian meddling in American democracy. Reagan, like Trump, was accused of flying solo in high-wire diplomacy. But associates joined him and his Soviet counterpart after 30 minutes, while Trump and Putin met for two hours with only interpreters in the room. And the Soviets made public their notes from the 1986 talks, while no such record seems forthcoming today. Republicans blocked an attempt Thursday to subpoena the U.S. interpreter, Marina Gross, who was present for Monday's meeting. Putin, for his part, opted for obfuscation, saying, "As for who to believe, who you can't believe, can you believe at all – you can't believe anyone."

"I don't know what happened in that meeting," Dan Coats, the American intelligence chief, acknowledged bluntly on Thursday.

Firsthand accounts have subsequently provided a window into the 1986 meeting.

"The meeting table was set near a window, giving a vista of the gray and turbulent sea beyond," George Shultz, Reagan's secretary of state, wrote in his memoirs. "President Reagan sat at one end of the small table, and General Secretary Gorbachev at the other, with Shevardnadze [Eduard Shevardnadze, then foreign affairs minister] and me diagonally across from each other, close enough to our leaders to whisper or pass notes back and forth. There were two interpreters and two note takers."

Over the course of two days, an American working group composed of diplomatic and military heavyweights hashed out details with their Soviet counterparts on matters ranging from human rights to space and defense. Still, the perception was that the Soviets had outmaneuvered the Americans, including by leaking key details to the press. The Americans were prone to improvisation, media reports observed at the time.

But Reagan never concurred with Gorbachev's assessment that the U.S. was to blame for the diplomatic failure, whereas Trump said of bilateral relations, "I think the United States has been foolish," adding, "I think we're all to blame."

Trump predicted that talks with Putin would be "the easiest" part of his overseas trip, whereas Reagan, apparently chastened by the bruising negotiations, described the conclusion of the 1986 summit as "one of the longest, most disappointing – and ultimately angriest – days of my presidency." The following month, the Democrats retook control of Congress. Soon, the Iran-contra investigation occasioned calls for the president's impeachment.

Trump is brazenly dismissing criticism of his dealings with the Kremlin, inviting Putin for further talks in Washington.

In his account of the 1986 summit, Ken Adelman, Reagan's arms control director, argues that the talks were ultimately transformative because they "changed each man, changed their relationship and thus that of the superpowers."

Adelman notes that "Reykjavik has mostly been relegated to a footnote in history." Despite the parallels with this week's summit, it is difficult to extrapolate from an unusual meeting at an exceptional geopolitical moment. Reykjavik is no blueprint for contemporary relations with Russia. But the 1986 summit does offer lessons about the significance of language, trust and the capacity to learn and adapt.

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