The Globe and Mail article
Fiction has its place -- especially at the time of one's passing. And so, the American airwaves glisten these days with tales about how it was Ronald Reagan who engineered the defeat of communism and the end of the Cold War.
It was his arms buildup, Republican admirers say, and his menacing rhetoric that brought the Soviets to their knees and changed the world forever. He was a pleasant man, the 40th president, which makes this fairy tale easier to swallow than some of history's other canards. Truth be known, however, the Iron Curtain's collapse was hardly Ronald Reagan's doing.
It was Mikhail Gorbachev, who with a sweeping democratic revolution at home and one peace initiative after another abroad, backed the Gipper into a corner, leaving him little choice -- actors don't like to be upstaged -- but to concede there was a whole new world opening up over there.
As a journalist based first in Washington, then in Moscow, I was fortunate to witness the intriguing drama from both ends.
In R.R., the Soviet leader knew he was dealing with an archetype Cold Warrior. To bring him around to "new thinking" would require a rather wondrous set of works. And so the Gorbachev charm offensive began. The first offering, in 1985, was the Kremlin's unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests. "Propaganda!" the White House declared.
Then Mr. Gorbachev announced a grandiose plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons by 2000. Just another hoax, the Reagan men cried. More Commie flim-flam.
Then came another concession -- Kremlin permission for on-site arms inspections on Soviet land -- and then the Reykjavik summit. In Iceland, Mr. Gorbachev put his far-reaching arms-reduction package on the table and Mr. Reagan, to global condemnation, walked away, offering nothing in return.
Glasnost and perestroika became the new vernacular. For those in the White House like Richard Perle, the prince of darkness who still thought it was all a sham, Gorby now began a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. He released the dissident icon Andrei Sakharov and hundreds of other political prisoners. He made big strides on freedom of the press, immigration and religion. He told East European leaders that the massive Soviet military machine would no longer prop up their creaking dictatorships. He began the process of something unheard of in Soviet history -- democratic elections.
By now, the U.S. administration was reeling. Polls were beginning to show that, of all things unimaginable, a Soviet leader was the greatest force for world peace. An embarrassed Mr. Reagan finally responded in kind. Nearing the end of his presidency, he came to Moscow and he signed a major arms-control agreement and warmly embraced Mr. Gorbachev. A journalist asked the president if he still thought it was the evil empire. "No," he replied, "I was talking about another time, another era."
The recasting of the story now suggests that President Reagan's defence-spending hikes -- as if there hadn't been American military buildups before -- somehow intimidated the Kremlin into its vast reform campaign. Or that America's economic strength -- as if the Soviets hadn't always been witheringly weak by comparison -- made the Soviet leader do it.
In fact, Mr. Gorbachev could have well perpetuated the old totalitarian system. He still had the giant Soviet armies, the daunting nuclear might and the chilling KGB apparatus at his disposal.
But he had decided that the continuing clash of East-West ideologies was senseless, that his sick and obsolescent society was desperate for democratic air. His historic campaign that followed wasn't about Ronald Reagan. It would have happened with or without this president. Rather, it was about him, Mikhail Gorbachev: his will, his inner strength, his human spirit. As for the Gipper, he was bold and wise enough, to shed his long-held preconceptions and become the Russian's admirable companion in the process.
In the collapse of communism he deserves credit not as an instigator, but an abettor. Best Supporting Actor.
I remember Ronald Reagan with nothing but fondness and admiration.
My first epiphany came early in his administration, when we gathered in a formal National Security Council meeting in the Cabinet Room. Secretary of State Alexander Haig opened by lamenting that the Law of the Sea Treaty (search) was something we didn't like but had to accept, since it had emerged over the previous decade through a 150-nation negotiation.
Mr. Haig then proceeded to recite 13 or so options for modifying the treaty -- some with several sub-options.
Such detail, to put it mildly, was not the president's strong suit. He looked increasingly puzzled and finally interrupted. "Uh, Al," he asked quietly, "isn't this what the whole thing was all about?"
"Huh?" The secretary of state couldn't fathom what the president meant. None of us could. So Mr. Haig asked him.
Well, Mr. Reagan shrugged, wasn't not going along with something that is "really stupid" just because 150 nations had done so what the whole thing was all about -- our running, our winning, our governing? A stunned Mr. Haig folded up his briefing book and promised to find out how to stop the treaty altogether.
That set the tone for the first Reagan administration.
Arms-control negotiations were at the heart of Mr. Reagan's second term. In November 1985 came the first superpower summit in six years. The new Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev (search), was nearly a generation younger than the president, reportedly brighter and surely more conversant on technical issues.
The summit took place in a private chateau in Geneva. Mr. Reagan arrived first. As Mr. Gorbachev's limo pulled up, the president bounded down the stairs looking young and eager, without topcoat or hat. Slowly out of his car emerged Mr. Gorbachev, bundled for the brisk weather with big hat, thick scarf and huge overcoat. Compared to the sprightly man in his 70s, the Soviet leader looked as cold and lumbering as the country he ruled.
After shaking hands and posing for the cameras, Mr. Reagan pointed at the chateau in a gesture of welcome. They climbed the stairs together, Mr. Gorbachev a bit slower, and Mr. Reagan slipped his hand under Gorbachev's arm -- just in case he needed some support to make it to the front door. The Soviet delegation got the picture.
"I felt like we lost the game during this first movement," press-meister Sergei Tarasenko recounted years later. "We started with the wrong move."
While Mr. Tarasenko watched with disappointment from one side, we watched with trepidation from the other. So far, so good: The president personified a vigorous and forward-looking America. But that was stagecraft. How would our man do on statecraft in the high-stakes summit sessions?
Just fine, it turned out. Mr. Gorbachev, as expected, made the best negotiating points. But the president made all the important points. No, we weren't giving up the Strategic Defense Initiative (search). Yes, we do consider our democratic system superior. No, you can't keep your 100,000-plus troops in Afghanistan.
Yes, we can have another summit in Washington. Always graceful, the president was somehow always on the offensive. On each topic they debated (heatedly at times), it was Mr. Reagan who seized the moral high ground, leaving Mr. Gorbachev surprised and off-balance.
That must have bothered Mr. Gorbachev during the nine months before he proposed the come-as-you-are, October 1986 snap summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a strange and wondrous event. The two leaders met in the supposedly haunted Hofti House (search). Secret Service agents manned their communications gear in one half of the basement; KGB agents did likewise in the other half (which inconveniently had the only bathroom). On the floor above, a U.S. Air Force officer stood holding the "football," the briefcase containing the president's nuclear launch codes. Eight feet away, a Red Army officer held a similar briefcase, presumably containing similar wares. I never saw either officer acknowledge the other all weekend long.
As has since become legendary, Mr. Gorbachev began by unloading a briefcase full of proposals. In arms control, as in other technical realms, Mr. Reagan "kept aloof from all details, drew magnificent plans, and let others to find magnificent means," as Horace Walpole (search) said of British statesman William Pitt (search).
We found magnificent means during a negotiating session that began at 8 p.m. and ended a little after 6 a.m. the following day. That night alone we made more progress on reducing strategic arms than we had in the previous four years. Later that morning, the president told us that he and Mr. Gorbachev had agreed on key provisions for a "zero option," which for the first time would eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. The two leaders signed the INF treaty (search) 14 months later.
But nothing was set yet, and Mr. Gorbachev staked all his concessions on gaining one single concession from the president -- confining SDI to "the laboratory." We all came up with gimmicks to counter the move -- defining laboratory to include the universe and the like -- but Mr. Reagan established the policy: No concessions on SDI, however strong the pressure to do so.
Negotiations between the two leaders went into overtime. Periodically, the president would climb the stairs to consult with us on the second floor. Finally, after reading a redraft and suggesting that we change one item to toughen our position, he headed for the door with our final offer in hand. We wished him luck. But just as the president reached for the doorknob, he hesitated. "Do any of you fellows think we're giving away too much?" he asked. "Are we protecting everything we should?"
It was a most impressive question. Some 3,000 journalists from around the world waited on the Hofti House lawn for an arms-control "breakthrough." But Mr. Reagan cared more about U.S. security interests. And he understood how crucial SDI was not only to America's safety but also to the Soviet Union's undoing.
Within minutes, a huge Secret Service agent flung open our meeting-room door to say, "They're breaking!" We grabbed our papers and raced downstairs. I spotted Mr. Gorbachev and then the president leaving the parlor for the front door. Mr. Reagan's face, red and angry, told me all I needed to know.
The president escorted the general secretary to his limousine -- no gentle arm-holding here. Mr. Gorbachev tried to console. He said he couldn't imagine anything else they could have done. Mr. Reagan, still steaming, looked him in the eye and said, "Well, you could have said yes!"
Some dozen years later, when visiting the U.S., Mr. Gorbachev was asked how it happened. How he came into office ruling the communist Soviet Union, and left office with no Soviet Union and no communism. What was the turning point?
Without hesitation, he answered: "Oh, it's Reykjavik."
Ken Adelman was a U.N. ambassador and arms-control director in the 1980s, accompanying President Reagan on his superpower summits with Mikhail Gorbachev. He now serves on the Defense Policy Board, and co-hosts
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