Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Lesson of Reykjavik: TALK About Nuclear Disarmament (You Never Know)

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
On the day the nuclear weapons states are meeting in London, it seems like an appropriate time for a reality check.

Just such a reality check comes from reading Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War by Ken Adelman. Three hundred and forty-two pages of this book are a depressing depiction of lots of apparatchiks (U.S. and Soviet) hovering around the two most powerful people in the world, trying to convince themselves (and us) that they are adding value, while the whole time it's quite clear that that's pretty hard to do when you don't know what Ronald Reagan is gonna say next . . . .

The payoff comes on pp. 167-168, where Reagan and Gorbachev get down to brass tacks.  Gorbachev begins by chasing down some specific language about laboratory testing, which seems limiting, evoking this response:

Reagan: I'm ready to include all the nuclear weapons we can.

Then this:

Gorbachev: Then we should include the whole triad.
Reagan: Okay, let's take out 'strategic.' Then all ballistic missiles would be eliminated.

Holy smokes!

"It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons," was a bold move that then popped in Reagan's mind. Saying this aloud may have even startled himself, as he then scribbled on a piece of paper, "George [Schultz, Secretary of State], am I right?" and passed it to his left. Schultz leaned over and whispered in the good left ear: "Absolutely, yes."

So we have:

Reagan: It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons.
Gorbachev: We can do that. We can eliminate them.
Schultz: Let's do it!
Reagan: If we can agree to eliminate all nuclear weapons, I think we can turn this over to our Geneva folks with that understanding, fro them to draft up an agreement. Then you can come to the U.S. and sign it.
Gorbachev:Well, all right. Here we have a chance for an agreement.

All of this proves one thing: you never know what might happen.

It can all happen very fast.

No one really knows ahead of time what will happen.

That's why it's so important for people to get together and talk.


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A Reflection on You Never Know!

Philadelphia: 10 Strawberry Street, with U.S. Customs 
House visible in the background.
When I was in my 20s, I worked in an import-export company, doing business throughout China and other countries in Asia. This was in the 1980s, overlapping with the time that Reagan was in office.

I worked for a man named Howard, one of the smartest and most humane people I've ever known. The main thing that our work involved was going to faraway places and talking to people.

Given that it took a lot of time and effort to go halfway around the world and talk to people, Howard and I used to spend a lot of time researching and talking about upcoming meetings.

We would estimate and imagine and forecast possibilities, all in the hopes of working efficiently and not going off on wild goose chases. 

But one problem with this was that we sometimes fooled ourselves into thinking we knew what to expect before we even talked to people. It was usually Howard who remembered these words of wisdom:

"You never know!"

And, in fact, there were so many times that "You never know!" proved to be acutely true, that I once proposed to Howard that we should make it the company motto. We came very close to having the words "You never know!" embroidered on a large banner and hung outside our building at 10 Strawberry Street in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia.


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TIME magazine, October 20, 1986:
NO DEAL
Star Wars Sinks the Summit

The Lesson of Reykjavik

The conventional wisdom is that Reykjavik was a fiasco: Reagan refused to back down on the Strategic Defense Inititive ("Star Wars"), and as a result the deal on total disarmament wasn't completed.

On the other hand, Reykjavich was the start of a spectacular process of arms reductions.

When Reagan came into office, U.S. nuclear warheads totaled over 25,000. By the end of the George H.W. Bush administration, that total had been cut in half. By the end of the two terms of the second Bush, the total had been halved again.

The infographic below illustrates this dramatic change:

The American Nuclear Stockpile
Click to view full size on The New York Times website.


There remain over 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, so the job is not yet done. And we certainly can't tolerate a situation in which the world is subject to the whim of one or two people. But what Reykjavich does tell us is: Obama and Putin need to sit down together and talk total nuclear disarmament.

Will the very next conversation be the one that results in eliminating nuclear weapons?

You never know . . . .


Related posts

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(See When the facts all point to one conclusion: "No More Nukes" )







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