October 11, 1986, brought the opening of a two-day summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – a turning point in a four-decade-old Cold War with a Communist empire that threatened the liberty of the world.
Gorbachev, desperate to cut his ailing nation’s military spending, offered major weapons cutbacks if the United States would do the same. Reagan was astounded and delighted. Previous Soviet leaders had answered nyet to serious proposals for nuclear arms reductions. The U.S. president responded by suggesting that both sides scrap all offensive missiles within ten years. Soon both leaders were trading breathtaking proposals to dismantle nuclear stockpiles. We have negotiated the most massive weapons reductions in history, an exultant Reagan told himself.
Then Gorbachev threw a curve: “This all depends, of course, on you giving up SDI.” The demand angered Reagan. He had made it clear that the Strategic Defense Initiative – a U.S. research program to develop a defensive shield against incoming missiles – was not a bargaining chip. In his view, SDI would ultimately prove the best defense against foreign threats.
Reagan could have left Reykjavik hailed as a great statesman for making the deal. All he had to do was give up SDI. Instead, he ended the summit. “The price was high but I wouldn’t sell,” he wrote in his diary.
Critics accused the president of being too stubborn. But others believed that standing firm would pay off. “You just won the Cold War,” an administration official predicted on the plane ride home. Reagan was confident that the bankrupt Soviet empire could not stand up to U.S. resolve. “I’m convinced he’ll come around,” he wrote of Gorbachev. Sure enough, the Soviets came back to the bargaining table, and the two countries soon reached historic agreements to reduce nuclear arms.