Jonathan Power: Can Obama Better Ronald Reagan on Nuclear Arms Control?

By Jonathan Power

A 50 percent reduction in the nuclear arsenal of Russia and the United States was proposed by President Barack Obama this past weekend. And President Dmitry Medvedev seems to be receptive. What neither have mentioned is that we have been here before—with presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But, in a bit of infrequently told history, this earlier attempt at a grand disarmament was undermined by a key adviser on the American side and short sightedness on the Soviet side.

Although Russia and the United States keep their missiles on hair-trigger alert, there is almost nobody in the higher reaches of policy making on either side who thinks they would ever be used. Indeed, this has been so for years.

Doubts about the reasoning for the vast number of nuclear weapons in America’s stockpile go back a long way. President Dwight Eisenhower, the former World War II commander in chief, observed that, “military statements of nuclear weapons requirements were grossly inflated.”

Indeed, nuclear stockpiles seem to have always been governed by a calculus of confusion. Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, once replied to a question posed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Richard Rhodes (whose latest book, Arsenal of Folly, is the best single read on the subject) by saying, “Each individual decision to increase the number of nuclear weapons seemed rational at the time but the result was insane.”

Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, certainly no dove, while negotiating with the Soviet Union in Moscow, said at a press conference, “One of the questions we have to ask ourselves as a country is what in the name of God is nuclear strategic superiority?”

Ronald Reagan was the first American president to break through the murk and horror of the nuclear weapons debate. Many have judged Reagan as a bit of a simpleton. But now, thanks in part to good biographies on him, we may have a more nuanced view. Yes, he wasn’t an intellectual, but his political instincts were fine-tuned and turned out to be right more often than the counsels of his experts. Within his administration it was he who felt the strongest about nuclear abolition. Jack Matlock, Jr., who served as Reagan’s principal adviser on Soviet affairs, said in one interview that he “suspected that Reagan would not retaliate in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.”

In 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a summit meeting on arms control. Gorbachev surprised the Americans by declaring at the onset that he wanted an outcome that would lead to the complete liquidation of nuclear arms.

After a couple of days of discussing cuts in European- and Asian-based missiles, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and offensive strategic systems, Gorbachev asked if Reagan had agreed to his proposal for 50 percent reductions in strategic offensive missiles. “Yes,” said Reagan.

A day later Reagan made the astonishing proposal: if the two countries found a way to totally eliminate their arsenals would Gorbachev allow the Americans to put up a space-based defense system to deal with rogue nations who might develop nuclear weapons and attack the United States? “No,” said Gorbachev.

In a crucial last meeting, the exchange—according to Rhodes, who studied the recordings of the conversation—went like this:

Reagan: It would be fine with me if we got rid of them all [nuclear weapons].”

Gorbachev: “We can do that. We can eliminate them all.”

George Shultz (the secretary of state): “Let’s do it!”

But Gorbachev added a caveat that Reagan would never accept: “If you agree to restrict your research to how a space-based defense system might work to the laboratory then within two minutes I’ll be ready to sign the treaty.”

But Reagan couldn’t agree. An hour or so before, Richard Perle—often called the dark eminence of American arms control—persuaded Reagan, against the advice of Schultz and Paul Nitze (his two most experienced advisers), to insist that restricting his space-based defense plan to the laboratory would effectively kill it.

Gorbachev told Reagan in riposte, “It is a question of principle. If I return to Moscow and say that I agreed to allow you to test in the atmosphere and in space, they would call me a fool and not a leader.” The implication was that Gorbachev was aware of rumblings in the Kremlin and feared being overthrown.

Perle’s concern was that Congress would never ratify such a deal. Also he didn’t trust the Soviets one bit. Yet if Reagan (along with such well placed conservatives as Shultz and Nitze) had agreed to restrict the “Star Wars” program to the lab, they could have persuaded Congress and perhaps tempered the hawks’ ambitions into giving up a specious concern for a space-based missle defense system that even today is just a pipe dream. Gorbachev, for his part, knowing that Reagan’s idea would never fly, should have compromised too.

What fools they both were, and now we must start all over again.

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Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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