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Nuclear Disarmament: Looking Back at Reykjavik

March 17, 2011

I’ve been looking at some of the documents in “The Reykjavik File” at the National Security Archive. This coming October will mark 25 years since Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev almost completed a startling nuclear disarmament deal.

Had they been successful, both superpowers would have been disarmed 15 years ago!

The US proposal at Reykjavik was fairly startling, as reported in the Memorandum of Conversation, Reagan-Gorbachev, Final Meeting, 12 October 1986, 3:25 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. – 6:50 p.m., October 16, 1986. Document 15 (or see this archive for educators):

“Both sides would agree to confine themselves to research, development and testing, which is permitted by the ABM Treaty, for a period of 5 years, through 1991, during which time a 50% reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals would be achieved. This being done, both sides will continue the pace of reductions with respect to all remaining offensive ballistic missiles with the goal of the total elimination of all offensive ballistic missiles by the end of the second five-year period. As long as these reductions continue at the appropriate pace, the same restrictions will continue to apply. At the end of the ten-year period, with all offensive ballistic missiles eliminated, either side would be free to deploy defenses.”

Obviously, the US was interested in the possibility of researching and testing anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems during the offensive disarmament period and then potentially deploying the systems after a 10 year period.

This is the somewhat different Soviet counterproposal (as reported in the same document), which also aims at disarming offensive arsenals over a 10 year period. However, it includes somewhat tougher language about research and testing limits under the 1972 ABM Treaty:

“The USSR and the United States undertake for ten years not to exercise their existing right of withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which is of unlimited duration, and during that period strictly to observe all its provisions. The testing in space of all space components of missile defense is prohibited, except research and testing conducted in laboratories. Within the first five years of the ten-year period (and thus through 1991), the strategic offensive arms of the two sides shall be reduced by 50 percent. During the following five years of that period, the remaining 50 percent of the two sides strategic offensive arms shall be reduced. Thus by the end of 1996, the strategic offensive arms of the USSR and the United States will have been totally eliminated.”

Sadly, nuclear disarmament was blocked by a fairly narrow difference over a pipe dream technology.

For a U.S. government analysis of the negotiations, written in the first person and signed by Ronald Reagan, see Document 25: National Security Decision Directive Number 250, “Post-Reykjavik Follow-Up,” 3 November 1986, 14 pp.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.