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Gorbachev’s Nuclear Initiative of January 1986 and the Road to Reykjavik

Hofdi House
Published: Oct 12, 2016
Briefing Book #563

Compiled and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton
Research assistance from Tal Solovey and Nadezhda Smakhtina
Web design by Rinat Bikineyev

For further information, contact:
Svetlana Savranskaya: 202.994.7000 and nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Soviet nuclear abolition proposal in January 1986 welcomed by Reagan, set stage for historic Reykjavik summit and the INF Treaty 30 years ago
Gorbachev believed US dismissed idea as propaganda but declassified documents show major internal debate, consultations with allies, serious presidential support

Washington, D.C. October 12, 2016 – Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s radical proposal in January 1986 to abolish nuclear weapons by the year 2000 met with derision on the part of many U.S. officials, who treated it as pure propaganda, but was welcomed by President Reagan, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive. The records reveal serious internal U.S. debates, consultations with allies, and support by the president that ultimately helped produce the historic Reykjavik summit 30 years ago.

The documents posted today include Gorbachev’s abolition letter of January 14, 1986, Top Secret critical responses by the U.S. defense secretary and by the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (“largely propaganda”), Reagan’s formal response over a month later (February 22), the minutes of a Top Secret National Security Planning Group meeting (February 3) that debated how to respond, key highly classified “OWL” and “SAGE” policy options papers produced by U.S. officials behind the scenes, reports back from consultation missions to allies from London to Tokyo, Gorbachev’s ultimate invitation letter for the Reykjavik meeting (September 15), and the actual declassified transcripts of the Reykjavik sessions where the two leaders came close to abolishing nuclear weapons.

Transcripts covering all of the bilateral summits from 1985 to 1991 will appear next month in the new book, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush: Conversations that Ended the Cold War (Central European University Press, 2016).

Before the January 14 abolition letter, Reagan and Gorbachev had met at Geneva in November 1985 – the first summit in more than six years of heightened Cold War – where they agreed in an historic joint statement that “nuclear war can not be won and should never be fought.” After Geneva, however, U.S.-Soviet momentum on arms control had all but disappeared. The Gorbachev letter and the public statement that immediately followed in January 1986 took the Reagan administration by surprise and generated more than a month of internal debate before Reagan’s February response addressed only the first portion of Gorbachev’s proposal. The documents posted below show that during this time the U.S. administration was split between those who thought abolition was just another Soviet propaganda move and those who believed it was a serious program that needed a substantive response. The records show conclusively that President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz were in the latter camp. 

The history of the Soviet abolition program dates back to the spring of 1985, according to first-hand accounts by the top officials who developed the proposal. Soon after Gorbachev came to power in March of that year, Chief of the General Staff Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev first spoke to Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Kornienko and the head of the Legal and Treaty Department of the General Staff, General Nikolai Chervov, about preparing a detailed program of total elimination of nuclear weapons. Kornienko supported the idea, and Akhromeyev gave orders to selected military experts to study the issues and prepare a draft. Very few people knew about the program until the end of 1985. Soviet arms control expert General Viktor Starodubov mentions that the planners felt the time was right to present it to Gorbachev after his meeting with Reagan in Geneva.[1] 

According to Gorbachev’s spokesman and biographer, Andrey Grachev, the drafters of the program envisioned it in terms somewhat similar to those of the U.S. drafters of Reagan’s “zero option” INF solution of 1981. They thought that the chances of the U.S. side accepting abolition were close to zero, but that making the proposal would provide both strong negotiating grounds and propaganda points to their own side. According to General Starodubov, quoted in Grachev, Akhromeyev’s reasoning was that “if by any chance the Americans accepted the idea, the Soviet side would be able to make full use of its advantage in conventional weapons.” Gorbachev, however, saw the program differently—as an opportunity to advance the U.S.-Soviet arms control discussion that had stalled after Geneva with a bold, radical stroke—which he thought would be acceptable to Reagan because of his strongly expressed belief in a nuclear-free world. Also, by accepting the Akhromeyev-Kornienko drafted initiative, Gorbachev, according to Grachev, “trapped” his own military into supporting very deep cuts in armaments across the board.[2]

Gorbachev approved the abolition plan in late December 1985 and after discussion among the top leadership it became the official Soviet program with Gorbachev’s public announcement on January 15, 1986.

The program envisioned three stages. First stage: a 50-percent reduction of strategic nuclear weapons (over 5 to 8 years) and an agreement to eliminate all medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Second stage: starting in 1990, Britain, France and China would join the process by freezing their arsenals, and all nuclear powers would eliminate their tactical weapons and ban nuclear testing. Third stage: “starting in 1995, liquidation of all still remaining nuclear weapons is completed.” (Document 1) Other important elements of the Soviet program were a ban on space weapons, strict adherence to the ABM Treaty, and a nuclear testing ban. Because of the lack of immediate response, Gorbachev always believed that his program was never taken seriously in the West, and had been dismissed as propaganda.

For example, on April 4, 1986, Gorbachev complained to a visiting delegation of U.S. congressmen that “the United States decided to hide behind the opinions of its allies – West European countries and Japan, otherwise, it would be hard for them to justify their negative position …. We are often accused of making propaganda proposals. Well, if it is propaganda, then why not catch Gorbachev at his word, why not test his intentions by accepting our proposal?” (Document 23)

In fact, recently declassified documents show that President Reagan’s initial reaction to the proposals, according to his diaries, was positive, not dismissive. He launched a serious and thorough process within the administration to study the feasibility of the Soviet proposal and ways to respond, given his own interest in nuclear abolition. On January 15, after a long meeting with Shultz and national security adviser John Poindexter, he wrote that “we’d be hard put to explain how we could turn it down,” and on February 3, after the NSPG meeting devoted to the Soviet proposal, Reagan wrote in his diary: “Some wanted to tag it as publicity stunt. I said no. Lets say we share their overall goals & now want to work out the details. If it is a publicity stunt it will be revealed by them.”[3] (In other words, the American president and Soviet leader were thinking along identical lines.) The minutes of the NSPG meeting show a harder Reagan line than he took in his diary, but this was perhaps for the benefit of the half of his audience that opposed any positive response. (Document 10)

According to senior advisor Paul Nitze, Reagan’s first reaction to the Gorbachev letter after Nitze and Shultz briefed him was, “Why wait until the year 2000 to eliminate all nuclear weapons?”[4] At the same time, Reagan remarked again and again on the fact that Gorbachev had set an actual date, which made the proposal sound more realistic.

As noted, there was a considerable difference of opinion within the administration: from Shultz arguing for engaging Gorbachev and his program, to Weinberger claiming that it was just an effort to “divert energy” and to kill SDI. Shultz devotes several pages of his memoir to the internal debates. His account describes Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle as the most hard-line opponent: “Perle declared to the Senior Arms Control Group in mid-January that the president’s dream of a world without nuclear weapons – which Gorbachev had picked up – was a disaster, a total delusion.” According to Shultz, Perle opposed even holding an NSC discussion of how to respond to Gorbachev “because then the president would direct his arms controllers to come up with a program to achieve that result.”[5]

Most eloquently, Shultz quotes his own speech to the State Department’s arms control group on January 17, 1986: “I know that many of you and others around here oppose the objective of eliminating nuclear weapons. You have tried your ideas out in front of the president from the outset, and I have pointed out the dangers, too. The president of the United States doesn’t agree with you, and he has said so on several very public occasions both before and since the last election. He thinks it’s a hell of a good idea. And it’s a political hot button. We need to work on what a world without nuclear weapons would mean to us and what additional steps would have to accompany such a dramatic change. The president has wanted all along to get rid of nuclear weapons. The British, French, Dutch, Belgians, and all of you in the Washington arms control community are trying to talk him out of it. The idea can potentially be a plus for us: the Soviet Union is a superpower only because it is a nuclear and ballistic missile superpower.”[6]

Nitze describes the deliberations as follows: “The President and his principal advisers were in disagreement, particularly Shultz and Weinberger, over the response to Gorbachev’s January 15 letter. The rest of the bureaucracy, unaware of these high-level discussions, continued the debate on a battle ground already in disarray, which soon degenerated into a free-for-all between the Pentagon and State Department.”

In addition to internal deliberations, which produced two NSPG meetings and two National Security Decision Directives, Nitze and Ambassador Ed Rowny were sent to consult with the allies in Europe and in Asia, respectively. Both brought back negative views, arguing that responding favorably to the Soviet program would be too costly in terms of NATO solidarity. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was strongly against any idea that would eliminate the U.S. nuclear umbrella and, in her view, undermine deterrence. Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany was an outlier, supporting “both the goal of total elimination and zero/zero INF in Europe.” (Document 14)

In the end, the Reagan administration did not dismiss the abolition proposal as propaganda, but came to the conclusion that they were not ready for a program of such a scope. Reagan’s letter to Gorbachev on February 22, 1986, engaged only part of the proposed first stage of abolition—the elimination of intermediate-range missiles. The response and the sense of lost opportunity on the part of some observers was summed up by U.S. Representative Dante Fascell in his conversation with Gorbachev in April 1986: “the reality is such that the United States is not ready, for some reason—either political or military, I don’t know—they are not capable to make the big leap, which you are calling for, at this time.” (Document 22)

Although the Soviet side was dissatisfied with the U.S. response, the interaction did push both sides to work harder on negotiating positions and think about deep disarmament for the next summit. (Document 25) In fact active Soviet diplomacy and the American effort to use the opportunities offered by Gorbachev resulted in a comprehensive review of the entirety of U.S. arms control policy and long-term nuclear strategy in preparation for the next summit, a process which continued throughout spring and summer 1986 (Documents 26 and 27). Meanwhile, the Reagan administration actively engaged the Soviets in all negotiating formats. As a result, the Soviets accepted the U.S. “zero option” on INF, agreed to radical verification measures, and started internal discussions on dramatic reductions in conventional weapons. Gorbachev’s January 1986 initiative and the U.S. response laid the first paver on the road to the most dramatic summit in U.S.-Soviet history – at Reykjavik in October 1986 – which despite its failure prepared the ground for the INF Treaty signed in 1987.

Gorbachev later described Reykjavik as a summit of “Shakespearean passions,” which are particularly evident in the final session transcript, with the astounding agreement to abolish all nuclear weapons, disagreement over constraining strategic defense research to the labs, repeated offers from Reagan to share SDI with the Soviets – a personal plea from Reagan that Gorbachev rejected (“they will call me a fool in Moscow”) – and two tight-lipped leaders stalking out of the summit. The dramatic details may be found in Chapter 2 of The Last Superpower Summits, and in the authors’ package of key declassified documents from both sides, presented to Gorbachev at the 20th anniversary of the summit in 2006.[7]


[1] Viktor Starodubov, Ot razoruzheniya k kapitulyatsii (From Disarmament to Capitulation), (Moscow: Veche, 2007), pp. 261-262. See also the joint Akhromeyev-Kornienko memoir, Glazamy marshala y diplomata (Moscow: Mezdunarodnye otnoshinya, 1992), Chapter 3.

[2] Andrey Grachev, Gorbachev’s Gamble, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), pp. 66-69

[3]The Reagan Diaries, Volume II November 1985-January 1989, Edited by Douglas Brinkley (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), pp. 562, 568

[4] Paul Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glasnost (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989), p. 422

[5] George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribner’s, 1993), pp. 699-705).

[6] Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 701.

[7] Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, “The Reykjavik File: Previously Secret U.S. and Soviet Documents on the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit,” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 203, posted October 13, 2006, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB203/index.htm


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