Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Washington Summit Meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev (7–10 December 1987)

Summit meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on 7–10 December 1987. The principal agenda item for the meeting was nuclear arms reduction. The Washington Meeting showcased not only Gorbachev's new style of leadership but also the unprecedented thaw in the Cold War, which would by 1991 end upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The conference marked the first superpower summit on U.S. soil in fourteen years and endeavored to build upon the November 1985 Geneva Meeting, during which Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to a 50 percent mutual reduction in strategic nuclear weapons, and the Reykjavík Meeting of October 1986, which ended on a negative note over disagreements concerning Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The summit in Washington saw both sides agree to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons (land-based intermediate-range missiles), codified by the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in Moscow during Reagan and Gorbachev's final meeting together in May–June 1988.

In spite of the breakthrough in superpower relations, Reagan and Gorbachev still found themselves in disagreement on key issues during the 1987 negotiations. First, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was interpreted differently by the Americans and the Soviets, which underscored the problems posed by SDI, colloquially referred to as "Star Wars." Gorbachev believed that SDI violated the ABM Treaty, while Reagan tried to legitimize SDI by arguing that it fell into a category of space-based testing and development that did not violate previous agreements. Neither leader even mentioned SDI during postconference speeches to their respective nations, which may explain why the conference was deemed a success. Further, Reagan and Gorbachev failed to come to terms on regional issues in American and Soviet spheres of influence. Reagan criticized Gorbachev for turning a blind eye to the human rights record of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and also for failing to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Gorbachev, in a press conference held three hours after the departure ceremony, stated that a proposal for withdrawal would be instituted as soon as the United States agreed to halt arms shipments and financial aid to insurgent forces battling Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Gorbachev also criticized Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and argued that the time had not yet come for the United Nations (UN) Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran for refusing to accept an earlier UN resolution demanding a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War.

Even if deemed a marginal success, the 1987 Washington meeting should be considered a significant turning point in Cold War history. Americans were well aware of Gorbachev's internal reforms (glasnost and perestroika) and saw his visit as powerfully symbolic, perhaps even foreshadowing the end of the Cold War. People crowded the streets to get a glimpse of Gorbachev, and many scholars indeed argue that Reagan needed the Soviet leader's cooperation in order to improve the image of the United States. Reagan had little choice but to address Gorbachev's initiatives regarding nuclear disarmament as an opportunity to divert public attention from domestic issues, such as the Iran-Contra scandal, to those that involved a dynamic new approach to foreign policy.

Whatever the ramifications of the 1987 Washington Meeting, it must be remembered not as the culmination of a process but rather as the beginning of both a new route to nuclear arms reductions and, perhaps more importantly, the end of the Cold War.

John C. Horn


Further Reading
Bamberg, James. British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950-75: The Challenge to Nationalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1994.; Herrmann, Richard K. Ending the Cold War: Interpretations, Causations, and the Study of International Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.; Lakhoff, Sanford, and Herbert F. York. A Shield in Space? Technology, Politics, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.; Matlock, Jack F. Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended. New York: Random House, 2004.
 

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