The series of events that led to the Geneva Meeting began in November 1982 with the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who was succeeded by Yuri Andropov. In March 1983, Reagan unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based missile defense shield intended to protect the United States from nuclear attack and begin the process toward total nuclear disarmament. In September 1983, Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Sea of Japan, and two months later the Soviets walked out of arms reduction talks taking place in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the United States followed through with plans to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. Superpower relations had reached a nadir.
Andropov died in February 1984 and was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko. When Chernenko died in March 1985, Gorbachev succeeded him. During Chernenko's funeral, Reagan sent a personal message to Gorbachev through Vice President George H. W. Bush requesting a fresh start in U.S.-Soviet relations.
In frigid weather and without his overcoat, the seventy-four-year-old Reagan met the fifty-four-year-old Gorbachev halfway down the steps of the building in which they held their first discussion. Gorbachev chided Reagan good-naturedly for not wearing a coat. This initial image was, at least, quite positive. The official agenda outlined several items for discussion, mainly SDI, regional conflicts, bilateral relations, and human rights. In their first meeting, which was supposed to last fifteen minutes, the two leaders spoke for an hour.
Through fifteen hours of meetings and an additional five hours of private discussions, the two heads of state covered topics including a 50 percent reduction in nuclear arms, an intermediate nuclear forces treaty, Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Kampuchea, El Salvador, new consulates in Kiev and New York City, and cultural exchanges between the superpowers. In general, Reagan detailed the problems that divided the two nations, while Gorbachev wished to talk about areas of mutual agreement.
In the end, Reagan and Gorbachev failed to reach any lasting agreements on any of the major issues. The major obstruction was Reagan's refusal to give up his plans for SDI. Gorbachev was wary about SDI and argued that it only made sense if the United States was planning a nuclear first strike. Reagan countered that SDI was vital to American interests and that when it worked, the United States would share the technology with the Soviets and soon nuclear weapons could be eliminated completely. Gorbachev did not believe him and asserted that he would not agree to a reduction in offensive weapons as long as the United States planned to deploy the missile shield.
The Geneva Meeting, however, was not a total failure. The two leaders agreed on the need to slow the arms race and strengthen nuclear nonproliferation efforts. They also agreed in principle that nuclear wars could not be won. More substantively, they decided to begin serious negotiations for an intermediate nuclear forces treaty even if discussions over heavier weapons were not in the works. Discussions of human rights and regional conflicts were limited.
The great impact of the Geneva Meeting was that Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to future face-to-face meetings. A Reykjavík summit was planned, and Gorbachev pledged to visit the United States in 1986, while Reagan planned to go to Moscow in 1987. Subsequent meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev were first discussed at Geneva in 1985, and those meetings helped to reduce tensions and, ultimately, end the Cold War.
Brian Madison Jones
Mandelbaum, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. Reagan and Gorbachev. New York: Vintage, 1987.; Matlock, Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004.