On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan considered the abolition of nuclear weapons from the world, but then changed his mind.
The occasion was a summit between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. During the summit, Reagan briefly embraced Gorbachev’s proposal to abolish nuclear weapons. Gorbachev’s price? A promise by the U.S. to confine the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to the laboratory.
The president’s neocon aides were horrified. Richard Perle, who regarded the notion of nuclear abolition as “ludicrous” and “delusional,” almost single-handedly torpedoed the Reykjavik deal. Perle didn’t think SDI would work, but he decided to use it as a poison pill to destroy Gorbachev’s initiative. In Arsenals of Folly, Richard Rhodes describes the remarkable conference that Reagan and his aides held in a bathroom, which was the only room available, with the president perched on the toilet and ten advisers crowded around, as Perle and others convinced Reagan that he could not give up SDI. Reagan proved even more attached to the myth of a
mission missile shield than to his vision of a nuclear-free world, and he walked away from the deal, to the relief of his aides.
My favorite two-sentence analysis of Reykjavik is in Reagan’s America, by Garry Wills:
Sophisticated workers for the president had to search their souls. They resembled a crew of absentminded mini-Frankensteins who had fiddled at separate parts of a monster for benevolent but widely varying purposes, only to see him break the clasps and rear himself up off the table in a weird compulsion to do some monstrous Good Thing that none of them had ever believed possible.
The mini-Frankensteins brought the monster back under control that day. Soon, though, after the Iran-contra scandal discredited the hawks, more moderate officials began to reclaim control and to urge Reagan to agree to steep cuts in the nuclear arsenal. The result was the INF treaty, a safer world, and that famous stroll in Red Square, with Reagan arm-in-arm with the evil emperor.