Reagan Flubs Reykjavik Summit
To Ronald Reagan and his entourage, the summit meeting in Iceland looked like the perfect photo opportunity. Three weeks before the midterm elections, Reagan would be pictured shaking hands with the smiling Russian in his Fifties fedora. The president would be portrayed in the media as an earnest peacemaker, diligently searching for ways to end the nuclear-arms race.
This time, though, the photos turned out badly. When he emerged from his bargaining sessions with Mikhail Gorbachev, the president looked stung, like a small boy who had burned his fingers playing with a light socket. Reagan came home empty-handed from Iceland, and for once he was wearing the black hat — the man who said no to a historic opportunity. Confronted by the chance to become a genuine peacemaker, the president retreated in confusion. His image-makers had been overwhelmed by reality.
The Russians are still klutzy at public relations, but this Gorbachev plays a shrewd game of poker — and he won big at Reykjavik. The Soviet leader kept upping the ante, offering real concessions toward arms reductions, and the president, surprised and unprepared, played along. Let’s eliminate all of the medium-range nukes in Europe, Gorbachev suggested. Okay. How about a test-ban treaty? Sure, we can work it out. Let’s both agree to dismantle half of our long-range nuclear missiles over the next ten years. Done, said the president. Then the Gipper got so carried away, he tried to top Gorby. Let’s eliminate all of our nukes, he proposed. Why not? asked the smiling Russian.
Now Gorbachev showed his hole card — everything depended on Reagan sacrificing his dream of laser beams in space, the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars. It was a demand that shouldn’t have surprised anyone, least of all the president; the Soviets have been insisting on an end to Star Wars for three years, ever since Reagan launched his space-defense program. But the president said no. He stumbled away from the table, looking very much the loser.
For the Gipper, it was a public-relations fiasco. Gorby smoked him out on the key question: How real was Reagan’s latter-day conversion to arms control? Not very real at all, the outcome suggested. Ultimately, Reagan was the same politician who had never believed in arms treaties with the Soviet Union, who was still committed to creating a vast new generation of weapons in space. By cleverly dramatizing the choice for a world audience — genuine arms reductions by the two superpowers or the construction of the American president’s Star Wars — Gorbachev scored a propaganda victory.
Back in Washington, the president’s own propagandists set about converting defeat into triumph. When the summit collapsed, Secretary of State George Shultz appeared on television, his face the pallor of a pallbearer’s, and announced the administration’s “deep disappointment.” Two days later, the secretary of state was comparing Ronald Reagan to Christopher Columbus.
“Columbus, having wandered around and discovered several islands, returned home and was greeted by skepticism, too,” Shultz told a private briefing for members of the House of Representatives. “In much the same way, the president has discovered a new world in Reykjavik — the new world of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The president has long realized that he has discovered a new world. Now others are beginning to perceive it.”
Some of the House members rolled their eyes and suppressed snickers. What the president had really done, one of them quipped, was “trade a bird in the hand for a pie in the sky.” The words and pictures from the White House once again failed to match reality.
When the fog of propaganda surrounding the White House dissipates, that should become clearer. If the American people can get an honest grasp of what Star Wars actually means for the future, they will understand how stubbornly wrongheaded their president was at Reykjavik. They will also grasp that the future holds great promise for serious arms control — with or without Reagan.