Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Reykjavík Meeting (11–12 October 1986)

Summit meeting held between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavík, Iceland, on 11–12 October 1986. The summit marked a failed U.S.-Soviet effort to produce a comprehensive agreement on strategic arms limitations.

Gorbachev, responding to the Reagan administration's intention to abandon Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, offered a series of proposals in early 1986 to jump-start the stalled Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) talks, Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START), and space defense negotiations. Gorbachev called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, in three stages, over the ensuing fifteen years. He also urged the withdrawal of all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range missiles in Europe, thus supporting Reagan's earlier zero-option proposal. Gorbachev further proposed major cuts in conventional forces and pushed for a comprehensive ban on all nuclear testing. Moscow had thus seized the initiative in U.S.-Soviet arms talks.

Gorbachev's proposals compelled the Reagan administration to push for another summit meeting. Gorbachev, despite an agreement at Geneva to visit the United States, now refused to go unless there was some progress in arms talks. Eventually he dropped his demand and agreed to meet with Reagan in Reykjavík for preliminary talks.

Although American officials saw Reykjavík as a preparatory meeting for a Washington summit, Gorbachev arrived at the summit with specific proposals, calling for a 50 percent reduction in all strategic arms, the elimination of all intermediate-range missiles from Europe, a total test ban, and a mutual agreement to abide by the 1972 ABM Treaty for another decade. The Americans replied with an offer to abolish all strategic missiles over the next decade. Not to be outdone, Gorbachev pushed a plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons, not just missiles, by 1996. Negotiations collapsed when Reagan refused to confine his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to laboratory testing. The two sides blamed each other for the failure to reach an agreement.

Nevertheless, Reykjavík produced several immediate breakthroughs in U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations. Both Gorbachev and Reagan returned home convinced of a mutually sincere interest in peacefully ending the nuclear standoff. Recognizing that the Soviet Union could not afford to continue the arms race, Gorbachev ordered a major review of U.S.-Soviet relations, causing the Soviets to disconnect INF negotiations from SDI although not SDI from START negotiations. Greater emphasis would now be placed on political accords rather than military power to ensure Soviet security. This change paved the way for the negotiation of the 1987 INF Treaty, which eliminated medium- and short-range missiles. This marked the first time that the two powers had agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. At the same time, both sides worked out a provisional agreement on strategic defense in which they pledged not to withdraw from the ABM Treaty.

Dean Fafoutis


Further Reading
Oberdorfer, Don. From the Cold War to a New Era: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983–1991. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
 

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