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The Reykjavik File

Previously Secret Documents from U.S. and Soviet Archives on the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit

From the collections of The National Security Archive
George Washington University, Washington DC

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 203

Posted - October 13, 2006

Edited by Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton

For more information contact:
Svetlana Savranskaya/Thomas Blanton

President Reagan greets Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at Hofdi House during the Reykjavik Summit, Iceland (Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) [Click image for larger version.]




Washington, D.C. and Reykjavik, Iceland - President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev almost achieved a deal 20 years ago at the 1986 Reykjavik summit to abolish nuclear weapons, but the agreement would have required "an exceptional level of trust" that neither side had yet developed, according to previously secret U.S. and Soviet documents posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive of George Washington University and presented on October 12 in Reykjavik directly to Gorbachev and the president of Iceland.

The two leaders in conversation at Hofdi House, 11 October 1986 (Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) [Click image for larger version.]

The documents include Gorbachev's initial letter to Reagan from 15 September 1986 asking for "a quick one-on-one meeting, let us say in Iceland or in London," newly translated Gorbachev discussions with his aides and with the Politburo preparing for the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz's briefing book for the summit, the complete U.S. and Soviet transcripts of the Reykjavik summit, and the internal recriminations and reflections by both sides after the meeting failed to reach agreement.

Archive director Thomas Blanton, Archive director of Russia programs Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Dr. William Taubman presented the documents to Gorbachev at a state dinner in the residence of President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson of Iceland on October 12 marking the 20th anniversary of the summit, which Grimsson commented had put Iceland on the map as a meeting place for international dialogue.

The documents show that U.S. analysis of Gorbachev's goals for the summit completely missed the Soviet leader's emphasis on "liquidation" of nuclear weapons, a dream Gorbachev shared with Reagan and which the two leaders turned to repeatedly during the intense discussions at Reykjavik in October 1986. But the epitaph for the summit came from Soviet aide Gyorgy Arbatov, who at one point during staff discussions told U.S. official Paul Nitze that the U.S. proposals (continued testing of missile defenses in the Strategic Defense Initiative or SDI while proceeding over 10 years to eliminate all ballistic missiles, leading to the ultimate abolition of all offensive nuclear weapons) would require "an exceptional level of trust" and therefore "we cannot accept your position."

Gorbachev and Reagan during a one-on-one session at Hofdi House. U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock is seated to Reagan's left. (Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) [Click image for larger version.]

Politburo notes from October 30, two weeks after the summit, show that Gorbachev by then had largely accepted Reagan's formulation for further SDI research, but by that point it was too late for a deal. The Iran-Contra scandal was about to break, causing Reagan's approval ratings to plummet and removing key Reagan aides like national security adviser John Poindexter, whose replacement was not interested in the ambitious nuclear abolition dreams the two leaders shared at Reykjavik. The documents show that even the more limited notion of abolishing ballistic missiles foundered on opposition from the U.S. military which presented huge estimates of needed additional conventional spending to make up for not having the missiles.

The U.S. documents were obtained by the Archive through Freedom of Information Act requests to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the U.S. Department of State. The Soviet documents came to the Archive courtesy of top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyaev, who has donated his diary and notes of Politburo and other Gorbachev discussions to the Archive, and from the Volkogonov collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Reagan and Gorbachev following a final, unscheduled session held in hopes of reaching agreement, 12 October 1986. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin (center) and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze (far right) look on. (Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) [Click image for larger version.]

The Reykjavik File: Previously Secret U.S. and Soviet Documents on the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit

From the Collections of the National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., October 2006

[The U.S. documents were obtained by the Archive through Freedom of Information Act requests and Mandatory Declassification Review Requests to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the U.S. Department of State. The Soviet documents came to the Archive courtesy of top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyaev, who has donated his diary and notes of Politburo and other Gorbachev discussions to the Archive, and from the Volkogonov collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.]

Note: The documents cited in this Electronic Briefing Book are in PDF format. You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 1: "Dear Mr. President," Mikhail Gorbachev letter to Ronald Reagan, 15 September 1986 (unofficial translation with signed Russian original, proposing "a quick one-on-one meeting, let us say in Iceland or in London"), 6 pp. with 4 pp. Russian original

This letter, carried by Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze to Washington, initiated the Reykjavik summit meeting when Gorbachev proposed "a quick one-on-one meeting, let us say in Iceland or in London," in order to break out of the cycle of spy-versus-spy posturing and inconclusive diplomatic negotiations after the 1985 Geneva summit. The English translation includes underlining by Reagan himself, who marked the sentence accusing the U.S. of deliberately finding a "pretext" to "aggravate" relations, and the two sentences about making "no start" on implementing the Geneva agreements and not "an inch closer to an agreement on arms reduction."

Document 2: USSR CC CPSU Politburo discussion of Reagan's response to Gorbachev's initiative to meet in Reykjavik and strategic disarmament proposals, 22 September 1986, 2 pp.

Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze reports to the Politburo on his talks in Washington and informs the Soviet leadership about Reagan's decision to accept Gorbachev's invitation to meet in Reykjavik on the condition that 25 Soviet dissidents including Yury Orlov and Nicholas Daniloff, accused of spying, are released. Gorbachev accepts the conditions and sets forth his main ideas for the summit. The Soviet position, according to him, should be based on acceptance of U.S. security interests, otherwise negotiations would be unproductive. Gorbachev is aiming at a serious improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Document 3: Gorbachev discussion with assistants on preparations for Reykjavik, 29 September 1986, 1p.

At this Politburo meeting Gorbachev stresses once again the importance of taking U.S. interests into account and the fact that his new policy is creating a positive dynamic for disarmament in Europe. He emphasizes the need for an "offensive" and the active nature of new Soviet initiatives for Reykjavik.

Document 4: Memorandum to the President, Secretary of State George Shultz, "Subject: Reykjavik," 2 October 1986, 4 pp.

This briefing memo from Shultz to Reagan, labeled "Super Sensitive" as well as formally classified as "Secret/Sensitive," shows that the U.S. did not expect any actual agreement at Reykjavik, but rather, mere preparations for a future summit in the U.S. Shultz talks here about ceilings on ballistic missiles but fails to predict Gorbachev's dramatic agreements to 50% cuts and a process leading to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Ironically, Shultz says one of the U.S. goals is to emphasize progress "without permitting the impression that Reykjavik itself was a Summit," when history now sees Reykjavik as in many ways the most dramatic summit meeting of the Cold War.

Document 5: Gorbachev's instructions for the group preparing for Reykjavik, 4 October 1986, 5 pp.

Gorbachev explains his top priorities and specific proposals to the group charged with preparing for Reykjavik. He calls for preparing a position with a "breakthrough potential," which would take into account U.S. interests and put strategic weapons, not issues of nuclear testing, at the forefront. Gorbachev's ultimate goal for Reykjavik-he reiterates it several times during the meeting-is total liquidation of nuclear weapons based on the Soviet 15 January 1986 Program of Liquidation of Nuclear Weapons by the Year 2000. Whereas Gorbachev sees the value in making concessions in hopes of achieving a breakthrough, his Politburo colleagues (including Chebrikov) warn him against using this word in the negotiations. In the evening Gorbachev gives additional instructions to Chernyaev on human rights and on the matter of Gorbachev's wife, Raisa Maksimovna, accompanying him to Iceland.

Document 6: "Gorbachev's Goals and Tactics at Reykjavik," National Security Council (Stephen Sestanovich), 4 October 1986, 2 pp. (plus cover page from John M. Poindexter [National Security Adviser to the President] to Shultz)

This briefing memo prepared (on the same day as Gorbachev's Politburo discussion above) by one of the National Security Council's senior Soviet experts, completely mis-predicts Gorbachev's behavior at the Reykjavik summit. Far from being "coy" or "undecided" about a future U.S. summit, Gorbachev was already planning major concessions and breakthroughs. Far from having to "smoke" Gorbachev out during the talks, Reagan would be faced with an extraordinarily ambitious set of possible agreements.

Document 7: "The President's Trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, October 9-12, 1986 - Issues Checklist for the Secretary," U.S. Department of State, 7 October 1986, 23 pp. (first 2 sections only, Checklist and Walk-through)

This detailed briefing book for Secretary Shultz provides a one-stop-shopping portrait of the state of U.S.-Soviet relations and negotiations on the eve of the Reykjavik summit. The complete table of contents gives the list of briefing papers and backgrounders that are also available in the collections of the National Security Archive (from FOIA requests to the State Department), but posted here are only the first two sections of the briefing book: the "Checklist" of U.S.-Soviet issues, and the "Walk-Through" of subjects for the Reykjavik agenda. Notable is the very first item on the latter, which presupposes that the best they will achieve is some agreement on a number of ballistic missile warheads between the U.S. proposal of 5500 and the Soviet proposal of 6400, rather than the radical cuts that wound up on the table at Reykjavik.

Document 8: USSR CC CPSU Politburo session on preparations for Reykjavik, 8 October 1986, 6 pp.

In this last Politburo session before the delegation departed for Reykjavik, Gorbachev goes over the final details of the Soviet proposals. He allows for the possibility that the meeting could be a failure, and suggests making "concessions on intermediate range missiles," and French and British nuclear weapons. Gorbachev believes there should be no "intermediate" positions or agreements, driving for his maximum program even if concessions would have to be made. Shevardnadze sounds most optimistic predicting that the U.S. side could agree with the Soviet non-withdrawal period on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and on 50% cuts of the nuclear triad (missiles, bombers, submarines) and intermediate-range missiles.

Reagan and Gorbachev depart Hofdi House after the conclusion of the summit, 12 October 1986. (Source: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library) [Click image for larger version.]

Document 9: U.S. Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, First Meeting, 11 October 1986, 10:40 a.m. - 12:30 p.m., 8 pp.

Document 10: Russian transcript of Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik, 11 October 1986 (morning), published in FBIS-USR-93-061, 17 May 1993, 5 pp.

Document 11: U.S. Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, Second Meeting, 11 October 1986, 3:30 p.m. - 5:40 p.m., 15 pp.

Document 12: Russian transcript of Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik, 11 October 1986 (afternoon), published in FBIS-USR-93-087, 12 July 1993, 6 pp.

Document 13: U.S. Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, Third Meeting, 12 October 1986, 10:00 a.m. - 1:35 p.m., 21 pp.

Document 14: Russian transcript of Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik, 12 October 1986 (morning), published in FBIS-USR-93-113, 30 August 1993, 11 pp.

Document 15: U.S. Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, Final Meeting, 12 October 1986, 3:25 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. - 6:50 p.m., 16 pp.

Document 16: Russian transcript of Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik, 12 October 1986 (afternoon), published in FBIS-USR-93-121, 20 September 1993, 7 pp.

This side-by-side presentation of the official U.S. transcripts of the Reykjavik summit meetings and the Soviet transcripts as published in Moscow in 1993 and translated by the U.S. government's Foreign Broadcast Information Service puts the reader inside the bullet-proof glass over the windows of Hofdi House as Reagan, Gorbachev, their translators, and their foreign ministers discuss radical changes in both U.S. and Soviet national security thinking.

The two sets of transcripts are remarkably congruent, with each version providing slightly different wording and detail but no direct contradictions. Reagan and Gorbachev eloquently express their shared vision of nuclear abolition, and heatedly debate their widely divergent views of missile defenses. For Reagan, SDI was the ultimate insurance policy against a madman blackmailing the world with nuclear-tipped missiles in a future where all the superpowers' missiles and nuclear weapons had been destroyed. Reagan comes back again and again to the metaphor of keeping your gas masks even after banning chemical weapons, but Gorbachev feels as if Reagan is lecturing him, and says "that's the 10th time you talked about gas masks."

For Gorbachev, SDI was a U.S. attempt to take the arms race into space and potentially launch a first-strike attack on the Soviet Union - the ultimate nightmare for Soviet leaders seared into their consciousnesses by Hitler's blitzkrieg. But Gorbachev's scientists had already told him that missile defenses could be easily and cheaply countered with multiple warheads and decoys even if the defenses ever worked (which was unlikely).

The great "what if" question suggested by the Reykjavik transcripts is what would have happened if Gorbachev had simply accepted Reagan's apparently sincere offer to share SDI technology rather than dismissing this as ridiculous when the U.S. would not even share "milking machines." If Gorbachev had "pocketed" Reagan's offer, then the pressure would have been on the U.S. to deliver, in the face of a probable firestorm of opposition from the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment. Working in the opposite direction in favor of the deal would have been overwhelming public support for these dramatic changes, both in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union, and especially in Europe.

Perhaps most evocative is the Russian version's closing words, which are not included in the U.S. transcript. This exchange comes after Reagan asks for a personal "favor" from Gorbachev of accepting the offer on SDI and ABM, and Gorbachev replies by saying this is not a favor but a matter of principle. The U.S. version has Reagan standing at that point to leave the room and a brief polite exchange about regards to Nancy Reagan. But the Russian version has Reagan saying, "I think you didn't want to achieve an agreement anyway" and "I don't know when we'll ever have another chance like this and whether we will meet soon."

Document 17: Russian transcript of Negotiations in the Working Group on Military Issues, headed by Nitze and Akhromeev, 11-12 October 1986, 52 pp.

In the all-night negotiations of Soviet and U.S. military experts during the middle of the Reykjavik summit, the Soviet delegation led by Marshal Sergei Akhromeev starts from the new Soviet program, just outlined by Gorbachev in his meeting with Reagan earlier in the day-proposing 50% cuts of strategic weapons across the board, a zero option on intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and a 10-year period of non-withdrawal from the ABM treaty. At the same time, the U.S. delegation led by Paul Nitze conducts the discussion practically disregarding the new Soviet proposals and negotiating on the basis of U.S. proposals of 18 January 1986, which by now are overtaken by the latest developments in the Reagan-Gorbachev talks. Responding to U.S. proposals on allowing development of SDI while proceeding with deep cuts in strategic weapons, member of the Soviet delegation Georgy Arbatov comments "what you are offering requires an exceptional level of trust. We cannot accept your position," directly implying that the necessary level of trust was not there. This document, prepared as a result of the all-night discussion, outlined the disagreements but failed to integrate the understandings achieved by the two leaders on October 11 or approached again on October 12.

Document 18: "Lessons of Reykjavik," U.S. Department of State, c. 12 October 1986, 1 p. (plus cover sheet from Shultz briefing book for media events October 17, but text seems to have been written on last day of summit, October 12)

This remarkable one-page summary of the summit's lessons seems to have been written on the last day of Reykjavik, given the mention of "today's" discussions, but leaves a dramatically positive view of the summit in contrast to the leaders' faces as they left Hofdi House, as well as to Shultz's downbeat presentation at the press briefing immediately following the summit. It is unclear who authored this document, although the text says that "I have been pointing out these advantages [of thinking big] in a theoretical sense for some time." This document plus Gorbachev's own very positive press briefing commentary immediately following the summit were included in Secretary Shultz's briefing book for his subsequent media appearances.

Document 19: Gorbachev's reflections on Reykjavik on the flight to Moscow, 12 October 1986, 2 pp.

In his remarks on the way back from Reykjavik, written down by Chernyaev, Gorbachev gives a very positive assessment of the summit. He proclaims that he is now "even more of an optimist after Reykjavik," that he understood Reagan's domestic problems and that the U.S. President was not completely free in making his decisions. He understands Reykjavik as signifying a new stage in the process of disarmament-from limitations to total abolition.

Document 20: "Iceland Chronology," U.S. Department of State, 14 October 1986, 11 pp.

This blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute chronology sums up not only the discussions given in detail in the transcripts above, but also all the preparatory meetings and discussions and logistics on the U.S. side.

Document 21: USSR CC CPSU Politburo session on results of the Reykjavik Summit, 14 October 1986, 12 pp.

In the first Politburo meeting after Reykjavik, Gorbachev reports on the results, starting with a standard ideological criticism of Reagan as a class enemy who showed "extreme primitivism, a caveman outlook and intellectual impotence." He goes on, however, to describe the summit as a breakthrough, and the attainment of a new "higher level from which now we have to begin a struggle for liquidation and complete ban on nuclear armaments." The Politburo agrees with the assessment and approves the General Secretary's tough posturing.

Document 22: USSR CC CPSU Politburo session on measures in connection with the expulsion of Soviet diplomats from the USA, 22 October 1986, 2 pp.

Reacting to the U.S. decision to expel Soviet diplomats, the Politburo discusses the perceived American retreat from the understandings reached at Reykjavik and decides to press Reagan to follow through with the disarmament agenda on the basis of the summit.

Document 23: USSR CC CPSU Politburo session. Reykjavik assessment and instructions for Soviet delegation for negotiations in Geneva, 30 October 1986, 5 pp.

At this Politburo session Gorbachev and Shevardnadze discuss whether and when to reveal the new Soviet position on SDI testing, which would allow "testing in the air, on the test sites on the ground, but not in space." This is a significant step in the direction of the U.S. position and is seen as a serious concession on the Soviet part by Foreign Minister Gromyko. Gorbachev is very concerned that the U.S. administration is "perverting and revising Reykjavik, retreating from it." He places a great deal of hope in Shevardnadze-Shultz talks in terms of returning to and expanding the Reykjavik agenda.

Document 24: Memorandum for the President, John M. Poindexter, "Subject: Guidance for Post-Reykjavik Follow-up Activities," 1 November 1986, 1 p.

This cover memo describes the process of developing National Security Decision Directive 250 (next document) on Post-Reykjavik follow-up, led by National Security Adviser John Poindexter. The most striking aspect of this memo is Poindexter's own claim that he has incorporated as much as he can (accounting for the President's expressed bottom lines) of the Pentagon's and other objections, and that he needs to brief Reagan about remaining objections on matters that simply would not fit with the President's program.

Document 25: National Security Decision Directive Number 250, "Post-Reykjavik Follow-Up," 3 November 1986 (signed by Ronald Reagan), 14 pp.

Largely the work of NSC staffer Robert Linhard, who participated at Reykjavik, NSDD 250 attempts to keep the U.S. national security bureaucracy focused on President Reagan's goal of eliminating ballistic missiles while walking back from Reagan's expressed intent at Reykjavik to eliminate all offensive nuclear weapons. In fact, the NSDD's version of Reykjavik completely leaves out the Reagan and Shultz statements to Gorbachev about welcoming the abolition of nuclear weapons. Yet even this limited effort did not succeed in moving the U.S. bureaucracy towards realistic planning, and in fact the Joint Chiefs of Staff promptly weighed in with National Security Adviser Poindexter to the effect that eliminating missiles would require large increases in conventional military spending.

Document 26: USSR CC CPSU Politburo session. About discussions between Shevardnadze and Shultz in Vienna, 13 November 1986, 3 pp.

Here the Politburo discusses the results of the Shevardnadze-Shultz talks in Geneva, where Shultz refused to discuss new Shevardnadze's proposals concerning what is allowed and not allowed under the ABM treaty. Shultz's position notwithstanding, Gorbachev emphasizes the need to press the U.S. to move forward on the basis of Reykjavik. Gorbachev stresses that "we have not yet truly understood what Reykjavik means," referring to its significance as a new level of disarmament dialogue.

Document 27: Gorbachev Conversation with Chernyaev about Reykjavik, 17 November 1986, 1 p.

In a conversation with Chernyaev, Gorbachev talks about Soviet next steps in countering the U.S. attempts to circumvent Reykjavik. He stresses that "we cannot go below Reykjavik," and is concerned that "the Americans will not go above Reykjavik."

Document 28: Gorbachev Conference with Politburo Members and Secretaries of the Central Committee, 1 December 1986, 4 pp.

In a Politburo discussion of the Reagan decision to abandon the SALT II treaty, Gorbachev angrily states that the Americans are not doing anything in the spirit of Reykjavik and that the recent position of the Reagan administration was related to the domestic political crisis over Iran-Contra. Yegor Ligachev agrees with Gorbachev that after Reykjavik the Soviet positions only became stronger. Gorbachev speaks about his awareness of growing opposition to his disarmament proposals among the generals, who are "hissing among themselves."

Document 29: Meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Alton G. Keel [Executive Secretary of the National Security Council], 18 December 1986 [for meeting on 19 December to discuss NSDD 250 and other topics], 7 pp. with staff attachments and talking points

This set of documents demonstrates how the proposals on the table at Reykjavik had fallen off the table in Washington after the Iran-Contra scandal and Poindexter's departure, and as the result of the U.S. military's opposition. NSC senior staffer Alton Keel sets up an agenda for President Reagan's meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that includes the elimination of ballistic missiles together with routine briefings about military exercises and anti-drug efforts in Bolivia, and alerts the President to the military's insistence on large spending increases. But he does not forward the striking talking points prepared by the NSC staff (under Poindexter) that would have expressed to the top U.S. military what Reagan had said at Reykjavik to Gorbachev.


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