World Affairs

Fireside Chat Features Account of Reagan/Gorbachev Summit

January 21, 2014  • Catherine Lutz, Guest Blogger

Ken Adelman, author of the upcoming book “Reagan at Reykjavik,” speaks at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colorado.

Like an Agatha Christie novel, the 1986 Reykjavik summit is a great story with fascinating characters and a dramatic setting. That’s how President Ronald Reagan’s former arms control director Ken Adelman set up his telling of the pivotal meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Adelman, author of “Reagan at Reykjavik: The Weekend that Ended the Cold War (to be published in May 2014, HarperCollins), recently spoke as part of the Aspen Institute Fireside Chat Series. With humor and skill, Adelman gave the ultimate insider’s account of the 48 hours Reagan and Gorbachev spent in a US ambassador’s residence, a house that was believed to be haunted, in a country “in the middle of nowhere” that became the focus of the world thanks to the 3,147 accredited media that flocked to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the event.

The meeting was not actually meant to be a summit, Adelman explained. Planned in a mere 10 days, it was supposed to be a precursor to more substantive talks later on. There were only six other people in the small meeting room where Reagan and Gorbachev talked for ten-and-a-half hours: the US secretary of state, the Soviet foreign minister, two translators, and two note takers. The entire meeting was conducted without prepared notes, briefing papers, or talking points.

Reagan was widely believed to be the intellectual inferior at the meeting, but that’s not what came across in the notes, said Adelman, who pored through them for his book and an upcoming movie, called Reykjavik, in which actor Michael Douglas plays Reagan

No intellectual difference is evident in the summit notes, Adelman said. “And the most amazing thing was that more than 10 times in ten-and-a-half hours, Gorbachev says, ‘I’m making all the concessions; you haven’t given me anything yet.’ And Reagan says nothing. He’s probably thinking, ‘what’s wrong with that?’”

In the end, talks stumbled over Reagan’s refusal to compromise over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, more commonly known as Star Wars). Reagan and Gorbachev each left Reykjavik angry and disappointed, and TIME magazine ran the headline “No Deal: Star Wars Sinks the Summit” on its cover.

But, as Adelman explained, Reykjavik was a breakthrough. “We accomplished more in that night and morning than in seven years of continuing negotiations,” he said. The talks precipitated a series of events that eventually ended the Cold War: Gorbachev calling for reforms — the signing of a nuclear treaty between the two superpowers chief among them.

Yet the story Adelman tells isn’t confined to the small room in which the two leaders met. A master storyteller, he lent his account plenty of color.

There were the characters. As Adelman put it, Gorbachev was like an American CEO, with an agenda that he wanted to get through; and Reagan, like a Russian artist, who would go off on tangents and tell long-winded stories.

There was the location. Iceland — chosen because it’s precisely halfway between Washington and Moscow — was a country with not a lot going on and a quirky populace. Adelman showed a photo of Tom Brokaw with the country’s prime minister — who met the television journalist for an interview in his Speedos after his daily swim. Another photo showed Miss World, an Iceland native, whose job that weekend was to wear a Reagan and Gorbachev summit T-shirt and “run around town looking fabulous.”

The Hofdi House, where the summit took place, was the residence of the US ambassador, but while he had to give up his home for the event, “there was no room at the inn” anywhere, said Adelman, because the media and Gorbachev’s 300-person entourage had maxed out the area’s limited lodging resources.

In the home itself, the Russian spy agency KGB and American intelligence personnel filled the basement with all their communications and intelligence gear. While they were able to split the space equally, one of the two bathrooms was bigger than the other, which caused some awkward negotiations. 

And while Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated, so did their key staffers: from 8 am Saturday until 6:15 the following morning. Periodically, each side would retreat to what’s known as a bubble: a soundproof, sealed-off chamber for confidential discussions. This being Iceland, where “nothing ever happens,” said Adelman, “it was the smallest bubble in the world” — containing eight tightly packed-in folding chairs that put the men shoulder to shoulder without room to move independently. 

The visual Adelman then painted was priceless. After the first negotiating session, the president was announced, and the eight men in the bubble stood up, “now belly to belly.” Reagan entered, joking that the chamber should be turned into an aquarium, and Adelman figured that as arms control director, he was “not at the top of this food chain.” He quickly offered Reagan his chair, and knelt down.

“For the next half hour, I was basically resting against the presidential knees,” he said. 

Adelman concluded on a somber, yet touching note. At Reagan’s 2004 funeral, Gorbachev flew in unannounced, approached the casket, and reverently touched the American flag that draped it.

This Fireside Chat was presented by the Society of Fellows. If you are interested in joining, please contact Peter Waanders ([email protected]) at 970-544-7912.