SMDC History: Remembering the Reykjavik Summit

By Sharon Watkins Lang, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Historical OfficeOctober 12, 2017

SMDC History: Remembering the Reykjavik Summit
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

On this date, Oct. 12, 1986, the two-day arms control summit held in Reykjavik, Iceland, half-way between Washington D.C. and Moscow, between American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev came to a close. During a weekend of lengthy negotiations, the two leaders "came close to striking a radical arms reduction deal."

Initially conceived as an introductory meeting between the two leaders, the Reykjavik meeting moved forwarded at a dramatic pace. An initial proposal to eliminate all new strategic weapons expanded into a discussion of eliminating all nuclear weapons.

Working toward the goal of nuclear disarmament, they addressed both intercontinental and intermediate-range nuclear weapons and included an ultimate goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons within 10 years. Gorbachev's proposal included a 50 percent reduction in strategic offensive arms, the complete elimination of Soviet and American intermediate range missiles in Europe, non-withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty for 10 years.

As the afternoon progressed the agreement under discussion would initially limit each nation to 1,600 ICBMs with 6,000 warheads. Intermediate range nuclear missiles would be restricted to 100 warheads with neither nation deploying these weapons in Europe. Specifically the Soviet missiles were restricted to Asia, and the American missile bases to the United States. The ultimate goal was to eliminate all nuclear missiles within 10 years.

Given the positive results of their discussions, Gorbachev suggested an additional meeting on Sunday to continue the negotiations on one topic of disagreement -- the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI.

President Reagan was committed to the SDI program but he agreed to continue development and testing of the missile defense system for another decade within the bounds of the ABM Treaty. At the end of that timeframe, however, he wanted a plan in place to deploy the system.

Gorbachev, though, would only agree to the missile defense development if testing was limited to the laboratories for the next 10 years. Only then could a deployment decision be made. Ultimately the negotiations would break down with no final agreements.

As the BBC noted, "Soviet officials questioned the need for Star Wars if America's stated ambition was an arms reduction." While for the Americans, according to Secretary of State George Shultz, SDI "was the best insurance policy" to prevent Soviet withdrawal from the arms reduction agreements.

Although the two leaders failed to reach an agreement during this meeting, progress was made. As Gorbachev would later write, in Arms Control Today, "Reykjavik, seen by many as a failure, actually gave an impetus to reduction by reaffirming the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and by paving the way toward concrete agreements on intermediate range nuclear forces and strategic nuclear weapons".

One year later the United States and the Soviet Union would sign the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which would eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, meanwhile was signed only a few years later in 1991.

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