Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:13 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:13 | SYDNEY

Nuclear disarmament: In defence of Reagan


Sam Roggeveen


13 May 2009 11:52

Buried in a generally concise and well-written NY Times piece about the huge practical challenges involved in achieving global nuclear disarmament is this paragraph:

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev briefly considered eliminating nuclear weapons, during their 1986 summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. The idea died when Mr. Reagan refused to abandon his missile defense program.

I object! Yes, Reagan and Gorbachev did agree in principle at the Reykjavik summit on the total abolition of their nuclear arsenals. And yes, Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proved to be the sticking point in negotiations over a draft agreement — Gorbachev insisted that the agreement should restrict SDI research to the laboratory; Reagan wanted to maintain the option of space-based research.

But Reagan does not deserve the blame for the breakdown of the talks. In fact, the mystery of Reykjavik is why Gorbachev did not grab with both hands the generous deal Reagan was offering. SDI should never have been the stumbling block that Gorbachev made it, for two reasons. First, Gorbachev was receiving assessments from his military (accurate, as it turns out) that SDI was a pipe dream and would never work. And second, even if it did work, Reagan's offer was that SDI would be shared, and that deployment would be put off until after both sides had eliminated their nuclear arsenals.

Either way, SDI was no threat to the USSR, and Gorbachev missed a chance at history (not to mention doing mankind a great service) by failing to take Reagan's offer. We've never been as close to nuclear disarmament since.

BTW, here's a transcript (see document 16) of the final session of talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik. Even if you have no interest in disarmament, it makes for quite a thrilling piece of drama.

Photo ('Jelly Bean Reagan') by Flickr user kjd, used under a Creative Commons license.