Former US ambassador to the UN and director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
Edmund Morris’s “memoir” of Ronald Reagan has raised eyebrows by its use of various fictional devices to probe the former president’s inner life. But while Mr. Morris (and his critics) may puzzle over Mr. Reagan’s essence, I still marvel at his actions. What I witnessed personally – not quasifictionally, not at a one-step remove – was a leader of impressive skill and stunning vision.
The first epiphany came early in his administration, when we gathered in a formal National Security Council meeting in the Cabinet Room. Secretary of State Alexander Haig opened by lamenting that the Law of the Sea Treaty was something we didn’t like but had to accept, since it had emerged over the previous decade through a 150-nation negotiation. Mr. Haig then proceeded to recite 13 or so options for modifying the treaty – some with several suboptions.
Such detail, to put it mildly, was not the president’s strong suit. He looked increasingly puzzled and finally interrupted. “Uh, Al,” he asked quietly, “isn’t this what the whole thing was all about?”
“Huh?” The secretary of state couldn’t fathom what the president meant. None of us could. So Mr. Haig asked him.
Well, Mr. Reagan shrugged, wasn’t not going along with something that is “really stupid” just because 150 nations had done so what the whole thing was all about – our running, our winning, our governing? A stunned Mr. Haig folded up his briefing book and promised to find out how to stop the treaty altogether.
That set the tone for the first Reagan administration.
Arms-control negotiations were at the heart of Mr. Reagan’s second term. In November 1985 came the first superpower summit in six years. The new Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, was nearly a generation younger than the president, reportedly brighter and surely more conversant on technical issues.
The summit took place in a private chateau in Geneva. Mr. Reagan arrived first. As Mr. Gorbachev’s limo pulled up, the president bounded down the stairs looking young and eager, without topcoat or hat. Slowly out of his car emerged Mr. Gorbachev, bundled for the brisk weather with big hat, thick scarf and huge overcoat. Compared to the sprightly man in his 70s, the Soviet leader looked as cold and lumbering as the country he ruled.
After shaking hands and posing for the cameras, Mr. Reagan pointed at the chateau in a gesture of welcome. They climbed the stairs together, Mr. Gorbachev a bit slower, and Mr. Reagan slipped his hand under Gorbachev’s arm – just in case he needed some support to make it to the front door. The Soviet delegation got the picture. “I felt like we lost the game during this first movement,” pressmeister Sergei Tarasenko recounted years later. “We started with the wrong move.”
While Mr. Tarasenko watched with disappointment from one side, we watched with trepidation from the other. So far, so good; the president personified a vigorous and forward-looking America. But that was stagecraft. How would our man do on statecraft in the high-stakes summit sessions?
Just fine, it turned out. Mr. Gorbachev, as expected, made the best negotiating points. But the president made all the important points. No, we weren’t giving up the Strategic Defense Initiative. Yes, we do consider our democratic system superior. No, you can’t keep your 100,000-plus troops in Afghanistan.
Yes, we can have another summit in Washington. Always graceful, the president was somehow always on the offensive. On each topic they debated (heatedly at times), it was Mr. Reagan who seized the moral high ground, leaving Mr. Gorbachev surprised and off-balance.
That must have bothered Mr. Gorbachev during the nine months before he proposed the come-as-you-are, October 1996 snap summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a strange and wondrous event. The two leaders met in the supposedly haunted Hofti House. Secret Service agents manned their communications gear in one half of the basement; KGB agents did likewise in the other half (which inconveniently had the only bathroom). On the floor above, a U.S. Air Force officer stood holding the “football,” the briefcase containing the president’s nuclear launch codes. Eight feet away, a Red Army officer held a similar briefcase, presumably containing similar wares. I never saw either officer acknowledge the other all weekend long.
As has since become legendary, Mr. Gorbachev began by unloading a briefcase full of proposals. In arms control, as in other technical realms, Mr. Reagan “kept aloof from all details, drew magnificent plans, and let others to find magnificent means,” as Horace Walpole said of British statesman William Pitt.
We found magnificent means during a negotiating session that began at 8 p.m. and ended a little after 6 a.m. the following day. That night alone we made more progress on reducing strategic arms than we had in the previous four years. Later that morning, the president told us that he and Mr. Gorbachev had agreed on key provisions for a “zero option,” which for the first time would eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. The two leaders signed the INF treaty 14 months later.
But nothing was set yet, and Mr. Gorbachev staked all his concessions on gaining one single concession from the president – confining SDI to “the laboratory.” We all came up with gimmicks to counter the move – defining laboratory to include the universe and the like – but Mr. Reagan established the policy: No concessions on SDI, however strong the pressure to do so.
Negotiations between the two leaders went into overtime. Periodically the president would climb the stairs to consult with us on the second floor. Finally, after reading a redraft and suggesting that we change one item to toughen our position, he headed for the door with our final offer in hand. We wished him luck. But just as the president reached for the doorknob, he hesitated. “Do any of you fellows think we’re giving away too much?” he asked. “Are we protecting everything we should?”
It was a most impressive question. Some 3,000 journalists from around the world waited on the Hofti House lawn for an arms-control “breakthrough.” But Mr. Reagan cared more about U.S. security interests. And he understood how crucial SDI was not only to America’s safety but also to the Soviet Union’s undoing.
Within minutes, a huge Secret Service agent flung open our meeting-room door to say, “They’re breaking!” We grabbed our papers and raced downstairs. I spotted Mr. Gorbachev and then the president leaving the parlor for the front door. Mr. Reagan’s face, red and angry, told me all I needed to know.
The president escorted the general secretary to his limousine – no gentle arm-holding here. Mr. Gorbachev tried to console. He said he couldn’t imagine anything else they could have done. Mr. Reagan, still steaming, looked him in the eye and said, “Well, you could have said yes!”
Some dozen years later, when visiting the U.S., Mr. Gorbachev was asked how it happened. How he came into office ruling the communist Soviet Union, and left office with no Soviet Union and no communism. What was the turning point?
Without hesitation, he answered: “Oh, it’s Reykjavik.”