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Reykjavik: A Turning Point of the Cold War Commentary by Tyrus Cobb

Reykjavik: A Turning Point of the Cold War Commentary by Tyrus Cobb

Reykjavik: Turning Point of the Cold War

By Tyrus W. Cobb

Thirty years ago this month, in October, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, at a summit that appears, in retrospect, to truly be the “turning point in the Cold War.” To many observers, and those of us at the talks, the protracted and animated negotiations seemed initially to have ended in failure, as the two leaders left the conference without an agreement and with dour expressions on their faces.


Reagan and Gorbachev leave the Hofdi House following the collapse of the Reykjavik Summit.

The Road to Reykjavik

The road to Reykjavik actually began with proposals made by Reagan in 1981 to eliminate all intermediate range ballistic missiles (the so-called Zero Option) and in 1982 to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads by at least one-third. This was a significant departure from arms control thinking, which had previously focused only on limiting future growth of these systems.

Soviet leaders had largely dismissed these ideas as one sided and insincere, and rejected them. Yet Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with his own dramatic proposals, including a 50% reduction in strategic offensive arms, complete elimination of all intermediate range (INF) missiles, and a non withdrawl from the 1972 ABM treaty for 10 years. This was not the mini-Summit we had anticipated, the prepatory session before another Summit along the lines of the Geneva meetings a year before.

Following the Geneva Summit, which ended in smiles and agreements that signaled the beginning of the “End of the Cold War”, not much progress had been made in advancing the stated aim of reducing each sides’ nuclear arsenals and resolving disputes and issues in other areas—removing obstacles to expanding trade relations, human rights, conflicts in the Third World that pitted the two superpowers on opposite sides, and technology transfers (which the U.S. continued to be reluctant to do).

In early November my boss, Ambassador Jack Matlock (the President’s key White House advisor on Soviet-American relations), called me in to share with me a highly classified cable that had just come in from Mikhail Gorbachev. The General Secretary proposed a “get together” in either Reykjavik or London—not a Summit, he said, just a chance to review where we were and prepare for another Geneva-type conclave. And he wanted to do it in less than two weeks! Matlock informed me that Reagan had accepted the invitation and chose Reykjavik as the site. That meant we had to get hopping to prepare for the get together, be it a real Summit or just a preliminary session sort out the bilateral agenda.

I served as the Executive Secretary for the Geneva and Reykjavik Summits, which essentially meant I was in charge of coordinating the briefing sessions and preparatory papers. Nothing glamorous. However, having found out about the proposed Summit that would occur in Iceland with only two weeks advance notice, I immediately requested that we have the President’s full attention for a series of briefings on key issues.

Well, that led to a tumultuous intra-White House fight, as the Political Directorate was more concerned with having the popular President on the campaign trail since the 1986 mid-term elections were coming up. In one of the exchanges I said to the political team that there was no way we could permit the President to be out on the campaign trail now—we needed his full attention over the next 10 days. Frank Donatelli, the White Hosue political director, said “no”, the President had made commitments….and that on the schedule were “two stops in Nevada, on behalf of your buddy, Jim Santini”, running for the Senate. “Oh”, I said, “Guess that would be ok!” Reagan did, but Jim lost, to a relative unknown named Harry Reid, who has been in the Senate since that election!

When I went home I told my wife Suellen that we would be heading for Reykjavik for a “mini-Summit” in 10 days, but were going to have only a few prep sessions with the President. “Mini-Summit?” she responded with a doubtful look. “Gorby got his clocked cleaned in Geneva”, she said, “Do you really think he is just coming just for a handshake?”

Hmmm. She was right. When the Soviet delegation arrived it was clear that they had a full team that was thoroughly ready to pursue a very ambitious agenda. And, by the way, contrary to the agreements that no wives would join the leaders, Raisa Gorbacheva stepped off the plane. Bad sign. Nancy did not come to the Summit and President Reagan did not function as well without her. As the Summit became more substantive and contentious, we could tell that Reagan really missed having Nancy there with him.

The Icelanders were kind to provide a venue for the talks—the supposedly haunted Hofdi House—but it was really tiny. As the talks proceeded and became more detailed, Soviet and American negotiators found themselves huddled almost together in the cramped quarters’ basement, all sharing only one bathroom!

The Soviets came prepared with extraordinary far-reaching and detailed proposals on arms control. Far from saying, “Hey, we agreed only to chat about a Summit”, President Reagan embraced the negotiations with enthusiasm, delighted to see Moscow’s willingness to consider many of our most ambitious suggestions.

The negotiations were complex, animated and highly substantive, and Gorbachev—as he was in Geneva– proved to be intelligent, knowledgeable and mch more confident tha he was at the Switzerland summit. Reagan held firm in his principles. No more unverifiable treaties (“Trust but Verify” he loved to say in Russian), no more agreements codifying Soviet superiority in arms on the European continent, no more tolerating Moscow’s refusal to grant its citizens basic human rights, and – perhaps most importantly to the President – no more reliance on offensive nuclear missiles to provide for our security.


The Soviets were clearly prepared to agree to major reductions in strategic forces, intermediate range weapons, and warheads. Gorbachev even showed a willingness, however strained, to discuss our positions on regional and human rights issues. But, the one point he needed to lock in was an agreement that the U.S. would confine its research and testing on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the laboratory.

We did not fully appreciate at the time that Gorbachev, unlike his predecessors, was cognizant of the depths that the Soviet economy had fallen. Most importantly, he apparently had come to the conclusion that should the United States seriously embark on its “Star Wars” plans, what was at stake was more than a space defense program. Gorbachev believed that should the USA seriously pursue SDI it represented the possibility that America would bring together its technological prowess and economic superiority in a manner that would consign the USSR, to use the Marxist term, “to the trash heap of history”.

Some have said that the reason so many Soviet concessions were made was because Reagan used SDI as a “bargaining chip”. Maybe so. However, the reason SDI succeeded so well was precisely because the President believed in the program so passionately. It was a great bargaining tool because the President did not believe it was a “bargaining chip”.



The final session that stretched into the night was a scene of high drama. Gorbachev offered to eliminate all strategic forces, not just ballistic missiles. Reagan then countered that it would be fine with him if they could agree to eliminate all nuclear weapons. They almost had an agreement. The sticking point fell to the area that most concerned the Soviets – confining Reagan’s SDI to the laboratory.


This the President could not agree to. As the two leaders walked to the door with dour looks on their faces, Gorbachev asked the President, “What more could we have done?” Reagan, asking Gorbachev how he could “turn down a historic opportunity because of a single word”, simply said to the General Secretary, “You could have said yes.”

Despite the apparent failure at Reykjavik the two parties resumed negotiations and the following year signed the INF treaty at the Washington Summit, totally eliminating the intermediate range missiles. By 1991 the two sides agreed on a START treaty that cut the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals by 80% over the next decade.

Mikhail Gorbachev later wrote that while the Reykjavik Summit failed to “achieve our highest aspirations”, the Summit served as “the major turning point in the quest for a safer and secure world.”  Years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was asked what precipitated the USSR’s demise. Without hesitation, he answered, “Oh, its Reykjavik.”

Tyrus W. Cobb served as Executive Secretary for President Reagan’s Summits in Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavik in 1986.



Aside from the huge policy implications of the Reykjavik Summit, let me share a few anecdotes and side notes:



The American team imposed a blackout on contacting “higher HQ” during the talks. This put BG John Moellering, who was the JCS representative there, in a most difficult spot. He was a relative neophyte to the arms control arena and had been in that position only a few days, but he was astute enough to recognize that major decisions were being reached without the advice and comments of the Joint Chiefs. At one crucial point, weighing the potential wrath of violating the secrecy ban against the obvious need to keep his superiors informed, he asked me what I thought he should do.  I really didn’t know, but Moellering was apoplectic.  What would you have advised him? I think John retired as a one-star! The Chiefs were NOT happy campers when they became aware of how extensive and far reaching the discussions had gone.

When we came back from Reykjavik, our European allies were up in arms—what were we thinking trading away their security—the GLCM Cruise and Pershing II missiles especially—without consultations! Alas, weren’t these the same Europeans who had been beating us down for years with birch rods for our inflexibility on arms control issues? Mitterrand and Kohl, especially, but yes, Maggie, too. So RR got flexible, as they had wanted….and the Allies went into a panic! Everybody beat up on RR!  Loved it.

A final point—until Reykjavik many outside observers were unaware of President Reagan’s strong opposition to nuclear weapons and his desire to rid the earth of these horribly destructive weapons. Now they knew it, but those around the President had often heard him just ask, “Well, Cap…or Bud…or George…why can’t we just agree to abolish ALL nuclear weapons”. All of his advisors—and that included George Shultz at the time, despite his more recent declarations in favor of a nuclear-free world—would recoil and say something like, “Well, Mr. President, we agree in principle, but given Soviet conventional force advantages, we cannot at this time consider giving up our reliance on nuclear weapons to repel Soviet aggression”. The President would nod, “Well, ok, I won’t push it”. But you knew he would and he certainly did at Reykjavik!