Washington D.C. November 22, 2005 - Twenty years ago
this week the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union
concluded their Geneva Summit, which became the first step on
the road to transforming the entire system of international relations.
Unlike the summits of the 1970s, it did not produce any major
treaties, and was not seen as a breakthrough at the time, but
as President Ronald Reagan himself stated at its conclusion, "The
real report card will not come in for months or even years."
The movement toward the summit became possible as a result of
change in the leadership in the Soviet Union. On March 11, 1985,
the Politburo of the USSR Communist Party Central Committee elected
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev as its new General Secretary. This
event symbolized the beginning of the internal transformation
of the Soviet Union.
Today, twenty years after those seminal events, the National
Security Archive is posting a series of newly declassified Soviet
and U.S. documents which allow one to appreciate the depth and
the speed of change occurring both inside the Soviet Union and
in U.S.-Soviet relations in the pivotal year of 1985. Most documents
below are being published for the first time.
Upon coming to power, the new Soviet leader initiated a series
of reforms, beginning with acceleration of the economy, the anti-alcohol
campaign, and the new policy of glasnost (openness), which became
known later as perestroika. Although unnoticed by most Western
observers, early significant changes were taking place in the
internal political discourse of the Communist party with less
ceremony and more open discussion at the sessions of the Politburo
and the Central Committee Plenums. In the hierarchical Soviet
system, the power of appointment allowed the top leader to build
an effective political coalition to implement his new ideas. Gorbachev
used his position as General Secretary to bring in officials who
shared his worldview as key advisers and promoted them to the
Central Committee and the Politburo. In 1985, two of the most
important figures Gorbachev brought into the inner circle were
Alexander Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze. Already by the end
of the year, in a memorandum to Gorbachev, Yakovlev proposed democratization
of the party, genuine multi-candidate elections to the Supreme
Soviet, and even the need to split the party into two parts to
introduce competition into the political system.
In the sphere of U.S.-Soviet relations, the first year of perestroika
was one of building trust and of intense learning for both Mikhail
Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Although public rhetoric did not
change to any significant degree, the unprecedented exchange of
letters between the two leaders gave them an opportunity to engage
in a serious dialog about the issues each saw as the most important
ones, and prepared the ground for their face-to-face meeting in
Geneva. One of the most important issues that came up repeatedly
in the letters was the need to prevent nuclear war by way of reducing
the level of armaments to reasonable sufficiency, where each side
would enjoy equal security without striving for superiority. In
this still tentative journey to find the right approach to each
other, both leaders relied on the advice and good offices of another
world leader for whom they had great respect and trust-Margaret
Thatcher. (See memoranda of Margaret Thatcher's Conversations
with Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan as well as their correspondence
at the Archive
of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation).
Both sides had relatively low expectations going into the Geneva
Summit. No draft of a final statement was prepared, partly due
to the very different agendas each leader had. Both, however,
believed that they would be able to persuade the other during
the course of their personal encounter. Gorbachev was hoping to
convince Reagan to reaffirm Washington's commitment to the SALT
II treaty, which had never been ratified, and to return to the
traditional interpretation of the ABM treaty, which in essence
would have meant abandoning SDI. He succeeded in neither of those
efforts, but he did obtain a joint statement in which both sides
pledged that they would not seek strategic superiority, and most
importantly, stated that "nuclear war cannot be won and must
never be fought." Upon returning home, the Soviet leader
repeatedly emphasized this anti-war aspect of the joint statement
and played down the sharp disagreements on SDI and space weapons
which transpired during the discussions. Reagan, upon returning
to the United States, presented the summit as his victory, in
which he did not give in to Gorbachev's pressure to abandon SDI,
but in turn was able to pressure the Soviet leader on human rights.
In reality, in addition to agreeing in principle to the idea of
a 50 percent reduction in strategic arms and an "interim"
agreement on INF, the main significance of the Geneva Summit was
that it served as a fundamental learning experience for both sides.
Gorbachev realized that strategic defense was a matter of Reagan's
personal conviction and that most likely it was rooted not in
the needs of the military-industrial complex but in the President's
deepest abhorrence of nuclear war. Reagan, on the other hand,
had a chance to appreciate the genuine, repeatedly expressed concern
of the Soviet leader about the possibility of putting nuclear
weapons in space, which was the essence of Gorbachev's fears over
SDI. Reagan also could sense Gorbachev's sincere eagerness to
proceed with very deep arms reductions on the basis of equal security,
not superiority. Reagan also sensed in Gorbachev a willingness
to make concessions in order to move forward on arms control.
In view of Reagan's insistence on developing the SDI, and his
suggestions that the United States would share it when it was
completed, and to open the laboratories in the process, many observers
felt that Gorbachev had missed a crucial opportunity to take Reagan
at his word and to press him for a written commitment on this
issue. Ambassador Jack Matlock believes that was a "strategic
error" on Gorbachev's part. (Note 1) Ambassador
Anatoly Dobrynin also felt that Gorbachev missed an opportunity
by getting "unreasonably fixated" on space weapons,
and making it a "precondition for summit success." (Note
Both leaders came out of the summit with a new appreciation of
each other as a partner. They succeeded in building trust and
opening a dialog, which in very short order made possible such
breakthroughs as Gorbachev's Program on the Elimination of Nuclear
Weapons by the Year 2000 (January 15, 1986) and the INF and the
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
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1: Politburo Session March 11, 1985 Gorbachev Election
Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary at a special
Politburo session convened less than 24 hours after Konstantin
Chernenko's death. According to most Russian sources, the election
was pre-decided the day before when he was named the head of the
funeral commission. At the Politburo itself, Gorbachev's name
was proposed by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who was at the
moment the most senior Politburo member and one the core members
of the Brezhnev inner circle. Gromyko's speech praised Gorbachev's
human and of business qualities, and his experience of work in
the party apparatus, in terms that were less formal than similar
speeches at the elections of previous general secretaries. There
were no dissenting voices at the session, partly because of Gromyko's
firm endorsement, and partly because three potential opponents--First
Secretary of Kazakhstan Dinmukhamed Kunaev, First Secretary of
Ukraine Vladimir Shcherbitsky, and Chairman of the Council of
Ministers of Russia Vitaly Vorotnikov--were abroad and could not
make it to Moscow on such a short notice.
2: Reagan Letter to Gorbachev, March 11, 1985
In his first letter to the new leader of the Soviet Union, President
Reagan states his hope for the improvement of bilateral relations
and extends an invitation for Mikhail Gorbachev to visit him in
Washington. He also expresses his hope that the arms control negotiations
"provide us with a genuine chance to make progress toward
our common ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons."
3: Alexander Yakovlev, On Reagan. Memorandum prepared on request
from M.S. Gorbachev and handed to him on March 12, 1985
In this memorandum, which Gorbachev requested and Yakovlev prepared
the day after Gorbachev's election as general secretary, Yakovlev
analyzed President Ronald Reagan's positions on a variety of issues.
The analysis is notable for its non-ideological tone, suggesting
that meeting with the U.S. president was in the Soviet Union's
national interest, and that Reagan's positions were far from clear-cut,
indicating some potential for improving U.S.-Soviet relations.
4: Memorandum of Mikhail Gorbachev's Conversation with Babrak
Karmal, March 14, 1985
In his first conversation with the leader of Afghanistan, who
was brought in by the Soviet troops in December of 1979, Gorbachev
underscored two main points: first that "the Soviet troops
cannot stay in Afghanistan forever," and second, that the
Afghan revolution was presently in its "national-democratic"
stage, whereas its socialist stage was only "a course of
the future." He also encouraged the Afghan leader to expand
the base of the regime to unite all the "progressive forces."
In no uncertain terms, Karmal was told that the Soviet troops
would be leaving soon and that his government would have to rely
on its own forces.
5: Minutes of Gorbachev's Meeting with CC CPSU Secretaries,
March 15, 1985
Gorbachev discusses the results of his meetings with foreign
leaders during Konstantin Chernenko's funeral at the conference
of the Central Committee Secretaries. He notes the speeches made
by the socialist allies, especially Gustav Husak, Jaruzelski's
suggestion to meet more often and informally, and Ceausescu's
opposition to the renewal of the Warsaw Pact for another 20 years.
Among his meetings with Western leaders, Gorbachev speaks very
highly about his meeting with Margaret Thatcher, which had "a
slightly different character" than his meetings with other
Westerners. A two-hour meeting with Vice President George Bush
and Secretary of State George Shultz left only a "mediocre"
impression, but an invitation to visit the United States was noted.
Describing his meeting with President of Pakistan Zia Ul Hak,
Gorbachev for the first time used a phrase usually dated to the
XXVI party congress: he called the war in Afghanistan "a
6: Gorbachev Letter to Reagan, March 24, 1985
In his first letter to the U.S. President, Gorbachev emphasizes
the need to improve relations between the two countries on the
basis of peaceful competition and respect for each other's economic
and social choice. He notes the responsibility of the two superpowers
and their common interest "not to let things come to the
outbreak of nuclear war, which would inevitably have catastrophic
consequences for both sides." Underscoring the importance
of building trust, the Soviet leader accepts Reagan's invitation
in the March 11 letter to visit at the highest level and proposes
that such visit should "not necessarily be concluded by signing
some major documents." Rather, "it should be a meeting
to search for mutual understanding."
7: Reagan Letter to Gorbachev, April 4, 1985
In response to Gorbachev's March 24 letter, Reagan stresses the
common goal of elimination of nuclear weapons, the need to improve
relations, and specifically mentions humanitarian and regional
issues. He calls Gorbachev's attention to the recent killing of
Major Nicholson in East Germany and describes that as "an
example of a Soviet military action which threatens to undo our
best efforts to fashion a sustainable, more constructive relationship
in the long term."
8: Minutes of the Politburo Session on launching the anti-alcohol
campaign, April 4, 1985
The Politburo session discussed the issue of "drunkenness
and alcoholism"-and adopted one of the most controversial
resolutions of all the perestroika period, which when implemented
became the source of great public outcry and resulted in significant
losses of productivity in wine-producing areas in Southern Russia,
Moldavia and Georgia. Vitaly Solomentsev made the official presentation
to the Politburo producing shocking statistics of the level of
alcoholism in the Soviet Union. In an unprecedented fashion, even
though the main presentation was strongly supported by the General
Secretary, there was opposition among the Politburo members. Notably,
Deputy Finance Minister Dementsev spoke about how a radical cut
in the level of production of alcoholic drinks could affect the
Soviet economy, and prophetically stated that "a significant
decrease in the production of vodka and alcohol products might
lead to the growth of moonshine production, as well as stealing
of technological alcohol, and would also cause the additional
sugar consumption." The discussion also reveals the sad state
of the Soviet economy, incapable of providing goods for the money
held by the population if vodka production were to be cut.
9: Reagan letter to Gorbachev, April 30, 1985
In this letter, Reagan gives a detailed response to Gorbachev's
letter of March 24. After drawing Gorbachev's attention to the
situation with the use of lethal force by Soviet forces in East
Germany, Reagan also touches on most difficult points in US.-Soviet
relations, such as the war in Afghanistan, and issues surrounding
strategic defenses. The President mentions that he was struck
by Gorbachev's characterization of the Strategic Defense Initiative
as having "an offensive purpose for an attack on the Soviet
Union." The rest of the letter provides a detailed explanation
of Reagan's view of SDI as providing the means of moving to the
total abolition of nuclear weapons.
Document 10: Gorbachev
letter to Reagan, June 10, 1985
In his response to Reagan's letter of April 30, the Soviet leader
raises the issue of equality and reciprocity in U.S.-Soviet relations,
noting that it is the Soviet Union that is "surrounded by
American military bases stuffed also by nuclear weapons, rather
than U.S.-by Soviet bases." This letter shows Gorbachev's
deep apprehensions about Reagan's position on the strategic defenses.
The Soviet leader believes that a development of ABM systems would
lead to a radical destabilization of the situation and the militarization
of space. It is clear from this letter, that at the heart of the
Soviet rejection of the SDI is the image of "attack space
weapons capable of performing purely offensive missions."
11: Minutes of the Politburo session, June 29, 1985. Shevardnadze
This Politburo session became the first one of many where Gorbachev
used his power of appointment to quickly and decisively bring
his supporters into the inner circle of the Politburo, and to
retire those apparatchiks, who, in Gorbachev's view could not
be counted on to implement the new reforms. At this historic session,
it was decided to promote Andrei Gromyko to the position of Chairman
of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet, replacing him with
the relatively unknown Eduard Shevardnadze, send Grigory Romanov
into retirement, and promote Boris Yeltsin to head the Construction
Department of the CC CPSU in addition to many other personnel
changes in the highest echelon of power. Gorbachev dealt with
each promotion or replacement in a quick and business-like manner,
which did not leave any space for opposing voices.
12: Excerpt from Minutes of the Politburo Session, August
As an example of still slow and uneven progress of perestroika
in its first year, the Politburo discusses a request from the
exiled Academician Andrei Sakharov to allow his wife to travel
abroad for medical treatment. The highly ideological discussion
was dominated by KGB Chairman Viktor Chebrikov, who describes
Yelena Bonner's "100% influence" over Sakharov. Mikhail
Zimyanin called her "a beast in a skirt, an imperialist plant."
However, the issue of whether to allow Bonner to go abroad is
discussed in the framework of its potential impact on the Soviet
image in the West, and especially in the light of the forthcoming
Gorbachev meeting with Presidents Reagan and Mitterand.
13: Gorbachev's Economic Agenda : Promises, Potentials, and
Pitfalls. An Intelligence Assessment, September 1985
This intelligence analysis presents a dire picture of the Soviet
economic situation that the new Soviet leader had to face after
his election, and calls his new economic agenda "the most
agressive since the Khrushchev era." Gorbachev is expected
to show willingness to reduce the Soviet resource commitment to
defense, legalize private-sector activity in the sphere of cunsumer
services, and try to break the monopoly of foreign trade apparatus.
However, the assessment is very cautious, suggesting that if Gorbachev
continues to rely on "marginal tinkering," it would
mean that he "like Brezhnev before him, has succumbed to
a politically expedient but economically ineffective approach."
14: CIA Assessment: Gorbachev's Personal Agenda for the November
The analysis correctly notes that Gorbachev's expectations going
to Geneva were very low. According to the CIA, the Soviet leader
would be primarily seeking to explore Reagan's personal commitment
to improving relations and arms control. Gorbachev was also expected
to reaffirm commitment to SALT II and persuade Reagan to agree
to a mutual reaffirmation of the ABM treaty. The analysis predicted
a possibility of Gorbachev taking an aggressive posture to emphasize
Soviet equality with the U.S. administration on such issues as
the Soviet role in the regional disputes and human rights.
15: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 19,
1985 10:20-11:20 a.m. First Private Meeting
In their first private meeting Reagan and Gorbachev both spoke
about the mistrust and suspicions of the past and of the need
to begin a new stage in U.S.-Soviet relations. Gorbachev described
his view of the international situation to Reagan, stressing the
need to end the arms race. Reagan expressed his concern with Soviet
activity in the third world helping the socialist revolutions
in the developing countries. Gorbachev did not challenge the President's
assertion actively but replied jokingly that he did not wake up
"every day" thinking about "which country he would
like to arrange a revolution in."
16: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 19,
1985 11:27 a.m.-12:15 p.m. First Plenary Session
At this session, Gorbachev gives a quite assertive and ideological
performance, explaining his views of how the U.S. military-industrial
complex is profiting from the arms race and indicating that the
Soviet side is aware of the advice that conservative think tanks,
like the Heritage Foundation, give the President-that "they
had been saying that the United States should use the arms race
to frustrate Gorbachev's plans, to weaken the Soviet Union."
He also challenges Reagan on what the Soviet side viewed as a
unilateral definition of U.S. national interests. Reagan's response
raises the need to build trust and rejects Gorbachev's insistence
that the interests of the military-industrial complex define the
policy of the United States.
17: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 19,
1985 2:30-3:40 p.m. Second Plenary Meeting
In response to Reagan's discussion of the SDI, and the need for
strategic defense if a madman got his hands on nuclear weapons,
Gorbachev lays out a Soviet response to a U.S. effort to actually
build an SDI system : there will be no reduction of strategic
weapons, and the Soviet Union would respond. "This response
will not be a mirror image of your program, but a simpler, more
effective system." In his response, Reagan talks about regional
issues, particularly Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua. On SDI,
the U.S. President makes a promise that "SDI will never be
used by the U.S. to improve its offensive capability or to launch
a first strike." Gorbachev seems to be so focused on the
issue of strategic defenses that he is not willing to enage in
serious discussion of other issues.
18: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 19,
1985 3:34-4:40 p.m. Mrs. Reagan's Tea for Mrs. Gorbacheva
19: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 19,
1985 3:40-4:45 p.m. Second Private Meeting
In their private meeting the two leaders discussed the idea of
a 50 percent reduction in the levels of strategic nuclear weapons.
Gorbachev's firm position is that such an agreement cannot be
negotiated apart from the issues of strategic defense and that
it should be tied to a reconfirmation of the traditional understanding
of the 1972 ABM treaty. Reagan does not see the defensive weapons
as part of the arms race and therefore does not see the need to
include them in the Geneva negotiations. Reagan is surprised that
Gorbachev "kept on speaking on space weapons." Gorbachev
admits that, on a human level, he could understand that the "idea
of strategic defense had captivated the President's imagination."
In this conversation both sides come close to learning the key
concern of the other-Reagan's sincere belief that a strategic
defense system could prevent nuclear war, and Gorbachev's abhorrence
of putting weapons in space.
20: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 19,
1985 8-10:30 p.m. Dinner Hosted by the Gorbachevs
During the dinner Gorbachev used a quote from the Bible that
there was a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones which
have been cast in the past to indicate that now the President
and he should move to resolve their practical disagreements in
the last day of meetings remaining. In his response, Reagan stated
that "if the people of the world were to find out that there
was some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth aproaching
on Halley's Comet, then that knowledge would unite all peoples
of the world."
21: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 20,
1985 11:30 a.m.-12:40 p.m. Third Plenary Meeting
At this meeting Reagan presented a detailed U.S. program on strategic
arms reductions and a notion of an interim INF agreement. Gorbachev
agreed to the idea of reductions, but emphasized that the Soviet
Union could not agree to proposals that would jeopardize Soviet
security, meaning Reagan's insistence on the SDI. The main focus
of Gorbachev's talk was once again on the SDI and on why Reagan
should be so focused on it if the other side found it unacceptable.
To that, Reagan responded with a proposal that whoever developed
a feasible defense system should share it, and that way the threat
would be eliminated. Gorbachev gave his agreement to a separate
INF agreement and to deep cuts under the condition that the United
States would not develop a strategic defense system because that
would mean bulding a new class of weapons to be put in space.
22: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 20,
1985, 2:45-3:30 p.m. Fourth Plenary Meeting
At this meeting the leaders discussed the possibility of producing
a joint statement on the result of the Summit. In contrast to
previous U.S.-Soviet summits, no draft of such a statement was
prepared before due to U.S. objections to such a draft.
23: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 20,
1985, 4:00-5:15 p.m. Mrs. Gorbacheva's Tea for Mrs. Reagan
24: Geneva Summit Memorandum of Conversation. November 20,
1985, 8:00-10:30 p.m. Dinner Hosted by President and Mrs. Reagan
At the final dinner both sides emphasized that here at Geneva
they started something that would lead them to more significant
steps in improving bilateral relations and the global situation,
"with mutual understanding and a sense of responsibility."
In the conversation after dinner Reagan and Gorbachev discussed
the prepared joint statement and their respective statements,
which should express their strong support for the ideas expressed
in that document.
25: Yakovlev's handwritten notes from Geneva
Alexander Yakovlev's notes emphasize the main points of the Geneva
discussions, the new elements of U.S.-Soviet dialog. He notes
the need of improvement in all aspects of bilateral relations,
Gorbachev's statement that the USSR would be satisfied by a lower
level of security for the United States, underscoring the need
for equal security, and his call for both countries to show good
will in bilateral relations. Yakovlev gives particular attention
to the discussion of the SDI in his notes, and to the differences
in the U.S. and Soviet views on strategic defense.
26: Excerpt from Anatoly Chernyaev's Diary, November 24, 1985
Anatoly Chernyaev as Deputy Head of the International Department
of the CC CPSU was involved in drafting Soviet positions for the
Geneva Summit. He learned about the results of the summit from
Boris Ponomarev. In his diary he noted the cardinal nature of
the change-nothing has changed in the military balance, and yet
a turning point was noticeable, the leaders came to the understanding
that nobody would start a nuclear war. He notes also that although
initially Reagan was not responsive to Gorbachev's efforts, in
the end the President "did crack open after all."
27: Gorbachev Speech at the CC CPSU Conference, November 28,
In his post-Geneva speech to the conference of the CC CPSU Gorbachev
gives an ambivalent analysis of the summit. Noting that the U.S.
main positions have not changed, and that Reagan is "maneuvering,"
he also emphasized the fact that the administration could not
but respond to public pressure and start making steps forward
in the direction of Soviet proposals. Generally, Gorbachev's remarks
here are very cautious, because he is speaking to a wider audience
than the Politburo, and still they are less ideological than might
be expected in his analysis of U.S.-Soviet relations. He also
touches upon the need to keep up defenses and the importance,
indeed the "sacred" character, of the defense industry.
28: Gorbachev letter to Reagan, December 5, 1985
In this first post-Geneva letter to the U.S. President, Gorbachev
is calling for building on the spirit of Geneva with concrete
actions. The Soviet leader talks about the need to stop all nuclear
testing, and invites the United States to join the Soviet moratorium,
which was due to expire in January 1986. As a new step, he proposes
a system of international control and inspections, which in a
significant break with the past would allow U.S. observers to
inspect locations of "questionable" activities on a
mutual basis. The tone of the letter is completely non-ideological
and provides an interesting contrast with Gorbachev's report on
the summit to the Central Committee conference.
29: Reagan letter to Gorbachev, early December 1985
In this letter to Gorbachev Reagan is trying to build on the
spirit of Geneva, underscoring the new understanding that the
two leaders found during the discussions. Importantly, Reagan
notes two main differences, which left a profound impression on
his thinking. First, that he was "struck by [Gorbachev's]
conviction that ... [the SDI] is somehow designed to secure a
strategic advantage-even to permit a first strike capability."
He tries to assuage that concern. The second issue raised in the
letter is the issue of regional conflict, where the U.S. President
suggests that a significant step in improving U.S.-Soviet relations
would be a Soviet decision to "withdraw your forces from
Afghanistan." He suggests that the two leaders should set
themselves a private goal-to find a practical way to solve the
two issues he had mentioned in the letter.
30: Alexander Yakovlev Memorandum to Mikhail Gorbachev, "The
Imperative of Political Development," December 25, 1985
In this memorandum to Gorbachev, Yakovlev outlines his view of
the much-needed transformation of the political system of the
Soviet Union. Yakovlev writes in his memoir that he prepared this
document in several drafts earlier in the year but hesitated to
present it to Gorbachev because he believed his own official standing
at the time was still too junior. Yakovlev's approach here is
thoroughly based on a perceived need for democratization, starting
with intra-party democratization. The memo suggests introducing
several truly ground-breaking reforms, including genuine multi-candidate
elections, free discussion of political positions, a division
of power between the legislative and executive branches, independence
of the judicial branch, and real guarantees of human rights and
1. Jack F. Matlock, Jr. Reagan and Gorbachev
: How the Cold War Ended (New York : Random House, 2004),
2. Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence: Moscow's
Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (1962-1986).
(New York: Random House, 1995), p. 591.