Home/Daniel Larison/Reagan and the Mythology of Reykjavik

Reagan and the Mythology of Reykjavik

Santorum gave a foreign policy speech last night at the Jelly Belly Candy Co. to show that there is no Reagan-pandering too egregious that he won’t try it. Among other things, Santorum invoked the spirit of Reykjavik:

In a reference to Reagan’s 1986 summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in which their nuclear treaty talks fell apart, Santorum said: “Ronald Reagan didn’t whisper to Gorbachev, ‘Give me some flexibility.’ He walked out of Iceland.”

What’s interesting here is that Reagan’s decision not to give up on SDI was arguably one of the biggest missed opportunities in the history of arms control. Ever since, it has been hailed and built up in Republican mythology as an example of what Reagan got right when he was dealing with the Soviets. What the mythology usually leaves out was how willing Reagan was to support nuclear abolition. Reagan didn’t whisper about flexibility to Gorbachev. They briefly entertained the possibility to eliminating both the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals, which is a lot more significant than a throwaway line about post-election flexibility. This discussion of the issues at the Reykjavik summit offers a helpful review. What Santorum doesn’t acknowledge in his speech was Reagan’s position on nuclear disarmament:

The abolition moment was over. Reagan lost the initiative on the U.S. side, as the Iran-contra scandal in November 1986 sank his approval ratings and the allies, the U.S. military, and the foreign policy establishment registered their astonishment that he was prepared to junk the entire mutual-assured-destruction deterrence scheme. Reagan was serious about that, but he was the only one in Washington who was.

Despite its failure, the Reykjavik summit also helped lay the groundwork for the next stages of arms control and created new trust between Reagan and Gorbachev that would be important in the remaining years of Reagan’s second term:

A spark of understanding was born between them, as if they had winked to each other about the future. And Gorbachev retained a certain sense of trust in this person. After Reykjavik, he never again spoke about Reagan in his inner circle as he had before.

While Santorum would like us to remember the Reykjavik “walk-out” simply as an example of tough defiance, it yielded later arms control agreements and contributed to a more cooperative relationship between Reagan and Gorbachev during the remainder of Reagan’s second term. In fact, the failure of the Reykjavik summit encouraged “flexibility” on both sides. The results were the INF Treaty and eventually START I:

The INF Treaty proved to be a political and strategic watershed that helped transform the U.S.-Soviet relationship. The pact established new verification provisions and eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, many of which had been deployed under Reagan’s watch.

Work on the draft strategic arms agreement continued during 1988 and at the next summit meeting in Moscow in late May and early June 1988. Despite the earlier success on intermediate-range nuclear forces, the sides failed to resolve remaining differences over the interpretation of the ABM Treaty and the terms of the offense/defense relationship under START. The START negotiations under Reagan would, however, lead to the eventual negotiation and signing of START I by Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush in July 1991.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Santorum’s selective memory of how Reagan related to Gorbachev as more of the usual ideological Reaganolatry that is unfortunately so common, but it becomes more meaningful when he uses this distorted interpretation of Reagan’s second term to mislead his audience into thinking that Reagan was opposed to diplomatic “flexibility.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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