President Reagan Answers Questions about the Iceland Summit
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the October 1986 weekend summit at Reykjavik, Iceland with President Ronald Reagan after progress in arms negotiations had slowed following their first meeting in Geneva the previous November. At the conclusion of two days of intense bargaining in what they had described only as an “interim summit” prior to a more substantial proposed meeting in Washington, the two leaders shocked many when they revealed that they nearly had agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons from their country’s arsenals within ten years. The talks had stalled when Gorbachev insisted that for at least ten years, the U.S. would have to limit research on its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—Reagan’s “dream” of a missile defense system to protect against nuclear attack—to the laboratory. The Soviets worried that successful testing of SDI in space could lead to space-based offensive weapons. Reagan thought that Congress would not fund SDI under the proposed limitation. He believed intently that the ongoing nuclear arms race that had resulted from the policy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that previously had guided Cold War strategic planning could lead to the battle of Armageddon prophesied in the Christian Bible that would destroy the world and that SDI would liberate the US from depending on any other country's adherence to MAD. In a press conference following the meeting, excerpted here, Reagan’s adamant attitude regarding SDI was in evidence.
Ronald Reagan, interview by Broadcast Journalists, The White House, Washington, D.C., October 14, 1986, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public Papers, Reagan Library (accessed March 25, 2008).
Q. Mr. President, on the subject of the one sticking point that looms so large, if you could just explain to us your reasons for the way you handled it, on one point in particular? When it became apparent that all of the concessions that General Secretary Gorbachev was willing to make in the offensive area were contingent on this demand with regard to SDI, did you feel that you had an option of saying: We'll get back to you. We'll study this. We'll turn it over to our experts. I'll give it some more thought? If you had that option, you clearly didn't take it. You decided to make clear to him, then and there, and subsequently in public, that you were rejecting it. Why was that necessary, particularly given the fact that you told us here only a week or so ago that no great agreements were expected out of this meeting? It's not as though we were all out there waiting for you to come out with either a big agreement or a big disagreement.
The President. No, actually, as a matter of fact, he himself from the very beginning had said that what we were talking about is the necessity for coming to some agreements that would then lead to being able to sign things and finalize things at the forthcoming summit. So, actually, we progressed in those discussions farther than I think either one of us had anticipated we would. And with SDI, I think that is the absolute guarantee. First of all, I'd pledged to the American people that there was no way that I would give away SDI.... [SDI] would be the guarantee against cheating. You wouldn't have to be suspiciously watching each other to see if they were starting to replace missiles. This would be the guarantee against—in the future—a madman coming along....
Q. But are you saying, sir, that he left you no choice but to say yes or no there on the spot and that you had no option to say: Very interesting, we'll study it, we'll get back to you?
The President. There wasn't any need of that. There wasn't any way that I was going to back away from SDI.