H-Diplo FRUS Review 35 on Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981-1988, Volume VI, Soviet Union, October 1986-1989

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H-Diplo FRUS Review No. 35
Published 28 June 2019

Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor:  George Fujii

H-Diplo FRUS Review of James Graham Wilson ed. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1981-1988, Volume VI, Soviet Union, October 1986-1989. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Publishing Office (GPO), 2016. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1981-88v06.

URL:  https://hdiplo.org/to/FRUS35

Review by Christian Peterson, Ferris State University

The sixth volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on the Reagan administration deserves a wide audience. Editor James Graham Wilson has compiled a stimulating collection of documents that elucidate the evolution and complexities of U.S.-Soviet relations from the immediate aftermath of the Reykjavik Summit (11-12 October 1986) to the end of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. Even if these documents confirm much of what scholars already know about the behavior of key U.S. and Soviet policymakers, they deserve attention for a number of reasons. They highlight the pivotal role that Secretary of State George Shultz played in shaping the engagement policies that the administration employed to promote internal reform in the USSR and reach agreements with Soviet leaders.[1] They provide fascinating details about the substance of superpower negotiations, especially the exchanges between Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. These documents testify to how policymakers tried—and sometimes failed--to build trust with each other. They also raise important questions about existing interpretations or point to developments that need more scholarly attention.

This FRUS volume will interest scholars for other reasons. Its contents reinforce the limitations of the argument that Reagan “won” the Cold War by carrying out an integrated strategy of political, economic, military, and ideological competition that forced the Soviet Union to crumble (i.e. The Reagan Victory School).[2] Along with revealing weaknesses in the Reagan Victory School thesis, these documents also show the limitations of three competing lines of thought on the Reagan administration’s role in ending the Cold War. The first argues that Reagan’s hardline policies impeded Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the USSR and improve relations with Western countries (impediment school); the second contends that Reagan’s hardline policies proved “irrelevant to the ending of the Cold War” given Gorbachev’s behavior (irrelevancy school); and the third emphasizes that a conscious shift away from a policy of confrontation to one of engagement near the end of his first term played an important role in ending the Cold War (engagement school).[3] As demonstrated in this volume, the engagement school has obvious limitations in light of how even pragmatists like Shultz refused to negotiate issues or reach agreements with the Soviets that they felt undermined U.S. military power and compromised important Cold War interests.[4] The fact that the Reagan administration might have signed more far-reaching agreements with the Soviets does not fully vindicate the “irrelevancy” or “impediment” schools, however. Instead, it points to how engagement scholars could strengthen their arguments by explaining how the Reagan administration used the Helsinki Accords (Final Act) and other cooperative agreements to link the tasks of improving Soviet human rights performance, building liberal democratic institutions in the USSR, and reducing military armaments in Europe.[5]

Overall, the documents in this volume confirm much of what scholars already know about the behavior of key U.S. and Soviet policymakers. In particular, they reinforce that George Shultz played the most important role in shaping the Reagan administration’s negotiations with the Soviets. It was Shultz who overcame the resistance of hardliners like National Security Adviser William Clark and helped the president act on his preference of engaging in productive negotiations with the Soviet Union. As many authors have pointed out, Shultz helped convince Reagan to settle on pursuing a “four part” negotiating framework with the USSR that addressed the issues of human rights, bilateral relations, regional conflicts, and arms control. In effect, Reagan and Shultz favored this framework because it gave the United States the flexibility to engage in the most productive negotiations with the Soviets that were possible without sacrificing U.S. interests and values—an approach consistent with the wording of the hardline National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 75, which was issued in January 1983.[6] As Shultz wrote in a “non-paper” that he distributed during a 18 November 1987 White House meeting, pursuing the “four part” framework would put the administration in the best possible position to use a “balance of toughness and inducement” to manage the evolution of Superpower relations in positive ways. After all, Shultz recounted, the Soviet Union had no choice but to reform itself in an emerging “information age” that would punish nations that cut themselves off from global production and denied citizens the freedom to innovate—trends that the growing prosperity of market oriented, export-led nations like China portended. Therefore, by remaining the “psychologically superior party” in negotiations, the United States could afford to let Gorbachev take credit “for moves that come in our direction and follow our agenda.” He even went so far as to muse that if the General Secretary’s reform campaign continued, and the U.S. kept negotiating from a “position of strength” and with confidence, the USSR “is going to be seen by history as Ronald Reagan’s ‘China’” (530-31).

Shultz’s influence mattered because hardline officials like Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and National Security Council staffers repeatedly tried to convince Reagan to be wary of negotiating agreements with the Soviets because they might weaken the strength and resolve of the United States. For example, about three weeks before the 1987 Washington Summit took place (8-10 December 1987), U.S. National Security Advisor (soon to be Secretary of Defense) Frank Carlucci wrote a memorandum to Reagan warning him that Gorbachev had no real interest in improving superpower relations consistent with U.S. interests and values. Instead, the General Secretary only hoped to use negotiations to secure the “breathing space from competition” required to revive “the communist system at home” and create the “détente environment” needed to undermine the [Cold War] competitiveness of the U.S. and its allies.” According to Carlucci, Gorbachev, like all of his predecessors, including Lenin and Stalin, only “sought detente with the West to consolidate and ultimately advance Soviet power” and influence across the globe (535). Given this reality, the United States should act on the assumption that Gorbachev had no real interest in reforming the Soviet system or giving up the Cold War struggle in less developed countries (535). Reagan received similar advice from hardliners such as the Deputy Director of the CIA Robert Gates throughout his presidency (see, for example, 125, 267, and 592).

The negotiations that “hardliners” warned about ultimately provided U.S. and Soviet policymakers with forums in which to build mutual trust with each other—a subject that scholars have increasingly explored in more depth.[7] In the case of Reagan, despite his inability to grasp important details of complex negotiations in areas like arms control, he made every effort to cultivate a personal relationship with Gorbachev. Time and time again, he told stories and jokes, and uttered phrases that he found instructive, including, infamously, his hunch that human beings of different backgrounds would come together if aliens ever attacked earth (319). At one point, in an effort to highlight his personal support for Gorbachev’s domestic reform program, Reagan asked Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze if the General Secretary’s reforms “harked back to concepts of Lenin which had been blocked under Stalin” (318). Reagan also emphasized how a decrease in Soviet human rights violations would enhance trust between the two nations, and supported numerous efforts designed to break down the barriers between the two nations through cultural and informational exchange programs. Furthermore, Reagan and Shultz continuously argued that the Soviets could enhance U.S. trust of their government if they dismantled the Krasnoyarsk phased-array radar, which many Americans viewed as “an early warning radar” that violated the missile defense restrictions of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.[8]

As many scholarly works have argued, Reagan also approached the task of enhancing Superpower trust by trying to show pragmatism and flexibility when negotiating with the Soviets.[9] For instance, in September 1988, the president privately admitted to Shevardnadze that he had “perhaps been unrealistic to have suggested then [in the Brandenburg Gate speech of June 1987] that the Berlin Wall be torn down in its entirety.” He, as much as anyone, understood that the “division of Germany and of Berlin was a product of World War II” (1216). He also grasped that the Soviet Union and the leaders of many other countries believed that “Germany should never again be allowed to be the strongest and most dominant power in central Europe.” Nevertheless, “since we had talked earlier about the elimination of mistrust between us,” he continued, “one clear way of eliminating mistrust in Europe would be to allow the two parts of Berlin to work together, and the two part Germany to work together.” After all, the United States only wanted the Germans to decide their own fate and “live cooperatively together” (1216-7).

As for Gorbachev, he worked to gain Reagan’s trust by not mocking the president’s often lame jokes and use of simplistic catch phrases such as the Russian proverb “Doveryai, no proveryai (trust but verify).” He also urged U.S. executive branch officials not to follow the advice of hardliners, especially those in the National Security Council, who framed the USSR as an enteral enemy of the United States (772). In a similar vein, the General Secretary emphasized that his government might trust the Reagan administration more if it stopped demanding Soviet concessions in order to reach arms control agreements—a topic explored in more detail below (639).

The efforts to build superpower trust that are featured in this volume bore at least some fruit. During the discussions at the Governor’s Island (New York City) meeting in December 1988, Shultz told Shevardnadze that they had developed the “trust and confidence in one another” necessary to move negotiations forward in useful and productive ways” (1230-1), sentiments that Reagan said applied to himself and Gorbachev during the same meeting (1233-35).[10] At one point during the luncheon, Reagan discounted the importance of the individuals who opposed his approach to improving relations with the USSR (i.e., members of the domestic conservative opposition) by reinforcing just how much he and Gorbachev had accomplished. According to Reagan, because of the working relationship that they had forged, a “recent poll showed an overwhelming majority of Americans, over 80%, liked what had been going on between our two countries.” Unfortunately, Reagan continued, some Americans (i.e., his conservative critics) objected to recent improvements in Superpower relations because “our freedom [of speech and press] allowed people to sound off . . . in favor of ridiculous views (1246).”

As well as illustrating the importance that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze placed on enhancing mutual superpower trust (see, for example, 199, 612, 761, 772, 1052, and 1069), this volume substantiates much of what scholars already know about the policy preferences of the two nations. Committed to transforming Soviet-style socialism into something resembling Western European social democracy, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze defended Soviet reform efforts and challenged the existence of U.S. human rights violations and other American problems such as homelessness. As part of a larger effort to end the Cold War, these leaders worked to curb the economic burden of military expenditures by signing agreements that reduced nuclear and conventional weapons, as well as banning the testing of nuclear devices—goals that did not prevent them from fulfilling what they deemed obligations, especially financial ones, to long-time Soviet friends like Cuba, Nicaragua, and North Korea. They also opposed Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a research program that aimed to create a defense system against nuclear weapons in space.

The U.S. and Soviet disagreements about SDI drive home an important point: The building of trust that policymakers like Shultz and Gorbachev hoped to build took place despite the pursuit of tough, often contentious negotiations. These talks frequently became heated because of fundamental disagreements about issues such as how best to settle regional conflicts and what constituted fair arms control agreements. In the case of SDI, the Reagan administration defended a “broad” interpretation of the 1972 ABM treaty that gave the United States the right to test and deploy a defense against nuclear weapons in space. Besides his hatred of the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine and desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Reagan defended SDI as a means to improve strategic stability in case the Soviets and Americans ever agreed to significant reductions in “strategic offensive arms.” In his view, such a defensive system would protect populations against an accidental nuclear launch and remove any incentive “to strike first in a crisis” (630). Reagan also liked to point out that if the two sides ever agreed to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, they would need to protect themselves from “madmen” who might learn how to produce nuclear weapons and then “blackmail the world—a position that helps account for why he kept offering to share SDI technology with the Soviets should researchers produce a workable defense system” (1070).

As the documents reveal, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze rejected the general thrust of Shultz’s and Reagan’s arguments about the benefits of SDI. Hoping to slow the progress of SDI research, they in effect called for a “narrow” interpretation of the ABM treaty that precluded the United States from placing a missile defense system in space—the same position that Gorbachev claimed the U.S. government held until Reagan embraced a “broad” ABM treaty interpretation after announcing the SDI program in March of 1983. In the General Secretary’s view, the pursuit of the SDI only expanded the superpower arms race and decreased the prospects of achieving meaningful arms control agreements. He also disagreed with Shultz’s argument that the ABM treaty had become obsolete because U.S. and Soviet policymakers had dramatically increased their offensive nuclear weapons arsenals instead of reducing them as expected. Not impressed with this line of argument, Gorbachev told Shultz that “if the United States ever deployed a SDI system in space,” the USSR “would implement its program to defend its interests,” which would “create a most dangerous situation.” Taking steps to counter SDI would not only erode “[Soviet] trust for the U.S,” he continued, “but also destabilize “existing arrangements and SALT at a time when the contours of a strategic arrangement were emerging.” Gorbachev wondered whether taking such a perilous course of action meant that the Reagan administration now accepted the “illusion . . . [that] he who rules space rules the world (199-200)?” Thus, disagreements over SDI and the meaning of the ABM treaty further complicated already difficult arms control negotiations.

Such disagreements also help account for why Gorbachev had to make so many concessions to keep the arms control process going, a reality that he often complained about (see, for example, 188, 200, 639, and 763). In February 1987, he retreated from his insistence at the Reykjavik summit that the signing of any Intermediate-Range Nuclear (INF) treaty depended on the Reagan administration’s confinement of SDI research to laboratories. Overcoming significant domestic opposition, especially in the military, Gorbachev also accepted the Reagan administration’s “global double zero” option for the INF treaty that eliminated intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles on a global basis without significant U.S. concessions on SDI research. When taken together with disputes about placing limits on conventional weapons like Sea-Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCM), the issue of SDI made the signing of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) all but impossible during Reagan’s time in office.[11] Negotiations bogged down when Gorbachev and Shevardnadze began to argue that the United States had abandoned the general arms control framework that had been reached in Reykjavik when Shultz began to push for an ABM treaty non-withdrawal period of seven-and-a-half years rather than ten (330). Tensions also simmered when the two accused the United States of abandoning language in the concluding statement of the Washington Summit that in their view confirmed Soviet positions on what constituted permissible SDI development and the ABM treaty non-withdrawal period (796-7).

The building of trust also did not prevent the negotiations about regional issues from sometimes becoming quite acrimonious. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze found the Reagan administration’s sending of money and weapons to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, whom Reagan and other officials referred to as “freedom fighters” particularly distasteful (see, for example, 109, 681, and 792). At the Moscow Summit, Gorbachev implored Reagan and Shultz to use the recently signed Geneva Accords of April 1988 to show the rest of the world how the Americans and Soviets could work together for “real reconciliation on the basis of a balance of interests.” If either side worked for unilateral advantage or to secure a “military victory,” Gorbachev feared that an Islamic fundamentalist regime would take root in Afghanistan (1110-1). These words failed to have much impact on the behavior of Reagan or Shultz. The United States continued to support the Mujahedeen and in effect refused to help the Soviet Union forge a broad coalition centered on the government of Mohammad Najubluuah to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from coming to power after Soviet troops left.

The issue of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua also produced heated debates between U.S. and Soviet policymakers. Both Shultz and Reagan refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Sandinista government; they also referred to the Contras as “freedom fighters” and defended a wide array of activities designed to help the Contras destabilize the Sandinistas that lay outside the scope of this review (see, for example, 670, 681, 734, 805, 876, 879-880, and 960). [12] In March 1998, Shevardnadze found Shultz’s defense of U.S. activities in Latin America particularly galling. He argued that “the U.S. could not “strangle the Nicaraguan revolution [because] it was the people’s struggle.” In lieu of engaging in the serious dialogue needed to settle disputes, “some Administration officials still hewed to the old, notorious policy of trying to establish an order acceptable to the U.S. in every country and in every region of the world (878).” He then in effect accused the United States of acting like an empire, noting that the U.S. had complained about the Soviet shipment of arms to Nicaragua, asking on what basis the U.S. shipped arms to Pakistan. The U.S. did not even stop at shipping arms to governments close to the Soviet Union’s borders. It aided groups fighting legitimate governments all over the globe. Why should the Soviet Union not supply a government [Nicaragua] which was represented in the UN and was universally recognized (878). Gorbachev shared these sentiments. In his April 1988 meeting with Shultz, he accused the United States of still approaching superpower relations in an “empire-like” fashion based on using “force” and other methods to impose their policy preferences on the world (969).

In addition to elucidating the difficulties of U.S.-Soviet negotiations on regional issues, this FRUS volume also accomplishes other important tasks. As expected, it gives readers a fuller, richer account of superpower negotiations than many works provide, especially the exchanges between Shultz and Shevardnadze. During discussions about how the Superpowers could best facilitate the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Shevardnadze raised the possibility that considering the recent Iran Contra scandal, the Soviet Union could not trust U.S. pledges never to arm Iran. “That was the way things were in the U.S.,” Shevardnadze quipped, “the Secretary of State said one thing; other members of the Administration did something else.” These words prompted an amazing exchange in which Shultz vowed that the U.S. would never undertake such a “misguided enterprise again” and wondered out loud why the Foreign Minister would say such things. Perhaps grinning, Shevardnadze countered that he had believed the Secretary’s assurances on Iran until their negotiations about reaching a framework for ending military hostilities in Afghanistan had broken down earlier that day. He offered that “now his confidence was shaken” in U.S. judgment and trustworthiness (881-2).[13]

The contents of this volume also offer important insights concerning how Gorbachev and Shevardnadze framed the growing ethnic and nationality unrest in the USSR that accompanied Soviet reform efforts. These leaders mostly tried to downplay the significance of ethnic unrest in republics such as Armenia and Lithuania, although at times they appeared quite out of touch with the danger this issue posed to the continued existence of the Soviet Union.[14] For example, in April 1987, Gorbachev explained that the Soviet leaders had done so well handling nationality issues since the October Revolution of 1917 that his government could give Americans “counsel” on how best to handle their own nationality (i.e., racial) and ethnic (i.e., Poles, Italians, etc.) problems (204). During the Governor’s Island meeting, Gorbachev rejected any suggestion that domestic opposition would undermine his reform campaign. “Did anyone think,” he asked, “that a government as big as ours could not solve the problems of 130,000 people who live in a Baltic republic?” (1246-1247).

The documents in this volume also raise important questions about existing interpretations or point to developments that deserve more scholarly attention. Take, for example, Gorbachev and Reagan’s well-known exchange in Reykjavik about eliminating nuclear weapons. Contrary to the impression that he leaves in his memoirs, Shultz made a conscious effort to distance Reagan from the goal of abolishing nuclear arms.[15] One month after this meeting ended, he remarked to Shevardnadze that even if the president truly wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons, he grasped that the superpowers would have to negotiate a lot of complex issues over a long period of time to make such a development possible (32). At the Washington summit, Shultz told Gorbachev that the exchanges in Reykjavik about eliminating nuclear weapons “were no longer a factor in our discussions” (614).

The contents of this volume also serve as a useful reminder that Reagan linked the abolishment of nuclear weapons to obtaining the conventional military power required to negotiate with the Soviets from an unquestioned position of strength—a connection that is at times not emphasized enough in existing works.[16] The official “Memorandum of Record” for the Reykjavik summit mentions this connection when it states that Reagan premised his exchange with Gorbachev about eliminating nuclear weapons on negotiating an agreement with the Soviets that was designed to “reduce conventional arms” or “otherwise assure conventional force balance” (14)—a position that does not come through in the U.S. and Soviet Memocons of the summit.[17] Even if Reagan did not emphasize such a premise in Iceland, he made it explicit during a National Security Planning Group Meeting on 27 October 1986. We will “pay through the nose,” he asserted, to prevent the Soviets from maintaining a conventional military superiority over U.S. should the superpowers significantly reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons. The United States could pursue such a course of action, Reagan reasoned, because Soviet leaders knew that their economically weak nation could not outspend the United States on military forces over the long term (21). This insight prompted the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Kenneth Adelman to ask “if massive arms control” now necessitated “massive [defense] spending,” to which Reagan replied, “Yes, maybe it does” (21-3).

This volume also draws attention to why scholars who write about Reagan’s engagement policies need to reference how his administration exploited the provisions of the Final Act (Helsinki Accords) to promote Soviet internal reform.[18] This reality should come as no surprise given how well the provisions of the agreement aligned with the administration’s “four-part” negotiating framework and even the language of NSDD 75.[19] More to the point, the Final Act linked the advancement of security, peace, human rights, trade, and human contacts in an interrelated negotiating framework that is best defined as the Helsinki process. Aware of these linkages, Shultz and other officials used the Final Act follow-up meeting in Vienna (November 1986 to January 1989) to improve Soviet human rights performance and promote the creation of liberal democratic institutions in the USSR (see, for example, 62, 172, 260, 836, 865, 899, and 1035). During his talks with Shevardnadze, Shultz also emphasized how the follow-up meeting in Vienna gave the superpowers an excellent opportunity to negotiate “balanced” agreements that linked the issues of improvements in human rights performance, increasing contacts across Cold War boundaries, and enhancing military security in Europe (836 and 1076). To reinforce this linkage, the Secretary of State stuck to the position that the superpowers could not finalize agreements on reducing conventional arms in Europe until the Vienna follow-up meeting concluded, which could only happen if the Soviets improved their human rights record and further opened up their society to the outside world (890 and 899).

The Reagan administration also exploited the Soviet desire to sign a concluding document to the Vienna follow-up meeting that allowed Moscow to host a “Human Dimension” conference. Behind closed doors, Shultz reiterated that the United States could only sign such a document if the Soviets made a public promise and began to take the specific steps of easing restrictions on immigration, releasing all political prisoners, stopping the jamming of foreign radio broadcasts into the USSR, and institutionalizing democratic reforms (see, for example, 286, 415, 543, and 899). These demands did not fall on deaf ears. On 7 December 1988, Shevardnadze informed Shultz that Gorbachev would publicly answer U.S. concerns about Soviet human rights violations and military armaments when speaking before the United Nations later that day (1220-2). The words that Gorbachev uttered in New York, especially his staunch defense of the Helsinki process, undoubtedly impressed Shultz.[20] Afterwards, Richard Schifter, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, worked in close consultation with Shultz to work out the arrangements with the Soviets that resulted in Reagan’s signing a concluding document to the Vienna follow-up meeting in January 1989.[21] Besides allowing the Soviets to hold a “Human Dimension” conference in 1991, the provisions of this document offered further protections for religious freedom, the rights of national minorities, and the ability of private citizens to participate in the Helsinki process. They also resulted in the negotiations that produced the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact signed in 1990.

Reagan officials also took other creative steps aimed at improving Soviet human rights performance and promoting the building of liberal-democratic institutions in the USSR, important issues that scholars do not always emphasize enough. For example, Schifter arranged to have a Soviet representative read the appropriate papers of a Supreme Court case and then witness the case’s actual proceedings (647). In March 1988, a series of human rights roundtables commenced, the first of which addressed the issue of psychiatric treatment, capital punishment, freedom of conscience, and the relationship between national and international human rights standards (793). A “Rule of Law” Conference took place in Moscow five months later that allowed U.S. and Soviet representatives to discuss the complexities of creating an independent judiciary and conducting fair trials.”[22] Such events may have influenced the eventual demise of the Soviet regime, and therefore demand more scholarship.

The descriptions of covert activities in this volume raise some questions about the Reagan administration’s efforts to smuggle western media into the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries. With the increased funding for the “Soviet/East European media and influence program,” that Reagan approved in August 1987, the administration strove to meet the “unprecedented demand for our books, periodicals, and audio and video material” that Gorbachev’s glasnost reform program had unleashed. As one document recounts, the United States smuggled 6,000 copies of a publication into the Soviet Union that claimed to support Gorbachev even as it demanded the “completion of democratic reforms well beyond what the regime will tolerate.” The same document also outlined how improvements in communications technology had put the U.S. government in an even stronger position to help Soviet underground groups transmit their monthly publications to the widest possible audience—a course of action that in effect shattered “the ability of totalitarian regimes to control the news” (1128). One CIA report went so far as to assert that in 1986 “500,000 books, periodicals, audio cassettes, and videocassettes were distributed inside the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe . . . two-thirds of [which]. . . reached their intended audience, i.e., the intelligentsia and other elite groups” (529). These types of assessments raise questions about how the CIA and other officials working for the executive branch pulled off such a feat. One also wonders how the covert endeavors listed in these documents relate to those of groups like the Joint Baltic American National Committee and Center for Democracy that received public funds from the National Endowment for Democracy to smuggle videos, literature, and periodicals into the USSR.

The documents in this volume also demonstrate the need for further research on SDI. During the Washington summit, National Security Adviser Carlucci told Gorbachev that the superpowers could reach arrangements to ensure that each side benefitted from the United States placing a missile defense system in space. In theory at least, they might implement confidence-building measures such as having the Soviets use their “near-space vehicle” to observe a U.S. “sensor experiment in space.” The superpowers could also allow each other to inspect their missile defense research facilities so Reagan officials could see the Soviet buildings that “produced chemical lasers (632).” How Carlucci reached the erroneous conclusion that the Soviets could produce “chemical lasers” remains a mystery. He might have taken this idea from the pro SDI film A Defense that Defends, which the private group High Frontier released in 1984. If he did, then one can speculate as to whether he also believed this film’s claim that the Soviets possessed a secret camp in space called “Star Town” whose “Communist cosmonauts” could operate satellite weapons.[23]

Whatever Carlucci thought, Reagan hoped to use pro-SDI films to gain more public support for building a missile defense. In October 1987, the president asked his Chief of Staff Howard Baker to arrange for the U.S. Public to see the American Defense Preparedness Association’s documentary SDI: A Prospect for Peace (1987), which the President had watched at Camp David over the weekend. “If the American public saw this film,” Reagan insisted,” then it would understand the benefits of SDI “a hell of a lot better” (402). Just how Reagan reached such a conclusion when this documentary framed SDI as a limited, cost-effective way to enhance nuclear deterrence rather than providing a shield capable of rendering nuclear weapons “obsolete” remains murky. Nevertheless, Reagan’s request to increase public viewership of the film SDI likely went nowhere because, as the historian William M. Knoblauch has persuasively argued, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO)—a private group that tried to work with the administration to promote missile defense—had little interest in showing SDI to general audiences. More concerned with securing Congressional funding for missile defense than facilitating unpredictable public debate about Reagan’s goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, the SDIO only carried out private screenings of SDI after the documentary aired just once in public on a local Washington DC station.[24]

Once again, James Graham Wilson deserves credit for a compiling a stimulating collection of documents with appropriate background information and overwhelmingly accurate annotation.[25] He has provided scholars with an important tool to navigate the shoals of evaluating the evolution of the Reagan administration’s relationship with the USSR. Those sympathetic to the “Reagan Victory” school will no doubt argue that the documents in this volume demonstrate how the Reagan administration’s pursuit of “peace through strength” played a pivotal role in the transformation and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. To substantiate this argument based on the contents of this volume, they will probably emphasize how Gorbachev moved toward the Reagan administration’s preferred positions on arms control and worked to end the Cold War on U.S. terms because he feared the successful deployment of a missile defense system in space and losing an accelerated arms race to the United States.[26]

This line of argument has some merit even if nothing in this volume reveals that Reagan hoped to use SDI to bankrupt the Soviet Union. As mentioned before, Gorbachev viewed SDI as a dangerous escalation of the arms race and wanted to reach agreements that slowed the development of this initiative. In practice, Reagan’s staunch defense of the “global-zero” option and SDI ended up resulting in an INF treaty that reduced more nuclear weapons than the proposals that Gorbachev had made before accepting this agreement would have.[27]

Acknowledging the concessions that Gorbachev made to conclude the INF treaty does not vindicate the argument that the Reagan administration’s hardline policies forced Gorbachev to reexamine the tenets of Soviet-style socialism and undertake a reform campaign. A careful reading of existing evidence still demonstrates that Gorbachev embarked on an ever-evolving campaign to reform Soviet-style socialism based on his understanding of Soviet problems and exposure to Western life and ideas.[28] He also wanted to abolish nuclear weapons and sign a groundbreaking START treaty.[29] To put these insights another way, the Soviet Union only had the chance of becoming Reagan’s “China,” as Shultz put it, because Gorbachev acted on his belief that his nation needed to end the Cold War, open itself up to the outside world, and utilize the resources freed by reduced military spending to improve life in the Soviet Union. If anything, the concessions that Gorbachev made on the INF Treaty speak to his desire to remove the “American nuclear presence away from Soviet borders,” and move in the direction of nuclear disarmament.[30]

Any sound evaluation of Reagan’s role in ending the Cold War also needs to acknowledge what else his administration might have accomplished with Gorbachev. This consideration deserves attention because even pragmatists like Shultz who worked to engage the Soviets only did so on terms that protected U.S. military power and important Cold War interests. For all the sympathy Shultz professed to feel for Reagan’s nuclear abolitionist instincts, this FRUS volume illustrates that he did little to further Soviet proposals designed to ban nuclear testing. Despite Soviet protests, Shultz also supported the position that the United States would never negotiate reductions in naval armaments and refused to budge on limiting SLCM (354, 720, 723, 958, 1096). Reflecting the concerns of the Pentagon, Reagan officials also cited verification issues when advancing proposals that in effect complicated efforts to reach agreements with the Soviets on how to count and limit Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) and Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCM) (954). At Governor’s Island, Gorbachev expressed his frustration with such behavior when he lamented that START negotiations with the Reagan administration had failed because the Soviet negotiators had not convinced the United States to deal with “space weapons” and SLCMs (1244). As mentioned earlier, Reagan officials also cared far more about removing Soviet troops from Afghanistan than helping Moscow prevent its client government in Kabul from falling to Islamic fundamentalist forces.[31]

Thinking about what else Reagan might have accomplished with the USSR does not mean that his engagement policies were counterproductive or irrelevant. Along with agreeing to the INF Treaty, the Superpowers managed to forge agreements that helped finalize the removal of Cuban troops from Angola and secured the independence of Namibia; they also agreed to participate in an international conference held in Paris (7-11 January 1989) aimed at eliminating chemical weapons (1252-3). Working with U.S. allies and non-aligned nations in Europe like Austria through the Helsinki process, Reagan and other officials helped ensure that Gorbachev’s top-down reform campaign actually began the process of building liberal democratic institutions and allowing pluralism to develop—a reality that helps explain why George Shultz recalled in 2002 that the Final Act “turned out to be a great advantage for us.”[32]

Even if Reagan and Shultz might have reached more agreements with the Soviets, their behavior highlights the profound difference between negotiating from strength with purpose and only going through the motions of negotiating. In retrospect, would Reagan have accomplished as much as he did with the Soviets by accepting the advice of hardliners who only viewed Gorbachev’s reform campaign as a sophisticated plot to weaken the United States? Would Reagan have better served U.S. interests by avoiding reaching agreements with the Soviets like the INF treaty until his nation had built even more military power? Did his administration do more to promote democracy and pluralism in the USSR by defending the right to deploy SDI in space and “rolling back” Communism in Latin America, or through participating in meetings with Soviet officials that addressed topics such as the “rule of law” and how police could gather evidence without endangering basic civil liberties? Perhaps today’s policymakers should ponder these questions before they decide that building military power and boasting about moral clarity matter more than conducting actual negotiations aimed at making this world a safer and more humane place.


Christian Peterson teaches history at Ferris State University (MI). Besides winning several teaching awards, he has published numerous book chapters and peer-reviewed articles in publications such as Diplomatic History. He has also written or co-edited three books, including The Routledge History of World Peace since 1750 (2018). During the summer of 2016, he co-directed a National Endowment for the Humanities Institute for high school teachers entitled “War, Revolution, and Empire: U.S.-Russian/Soviet Relations, 1776-present.”

© 2019 The Author. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.



[1] James Graham Wilson elucidates the important role that George Shultz played in shaping the Reagan administration’s strategy of engagement with the Soviet Union. See James Graham Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014). Whereas Wilson emphasizes the “improvised” nature of Reagan’s policies towards the USSR, Beth A. Fischer focuses on how Reagan abandoned a hardline approach for one of active engagement long before Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet General Secretary. See Fischer, The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000). For other works that reveal Reagan’s pragmatism and efforts to engage the Soviets in productive negotiations, see Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 298-301, 307, 312, 316, 752-753, 783-784; Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 347-348, 360-364, 381, 383, 401, 418-420. James Mann, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War (New York: Penguin, 2010).

[2] For a sample of works that on the whole favor the Reagan Victory School thesis, see Douglas E. Streusand, Norman A. Bailey, and Francis H. Marlo, eds., The Grand Strategy that Won the Cold War: Architecture of Triumph (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016); Francis H. Marlo, Reagan’s War: Conservative Strategists and America’s Cold War Victory (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2012); Peter Schweitzer, Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-Year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism (New York: Doubleday, 2002); Norman A. Bailey, The Strategic Plan that Won the Cold War: National Directive 75 (MacLean: Potomac Foundation, 1999); and Paul Kengor, The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (New York: Harper Collins, 2006).

[3] This historiographical framework draws on the insights of Beth A. Fischer. See Fischer, “US Foreign Policy under Reagan and Bush,” in Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, eds., The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume III: Endings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 267-288.

[4] For a similar view that focuses on how Gorbachev reformed the Soviet Union in spite of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations’ “tough bargaining,” see Raymond L. Garthoff, The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the END of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1994), 768-778.

[5] Most authors gloss over how the Reagan administration exploited the provisions of the Final Act to promote pluralism and internal reform in the Soviet Union. For notable exceptions to this oversight, see Christian Philip Peterson, Globalizing Human Rights: Private Citizens, the Soviet Union, and the West (New York: Routledge, 2012); and Sarah B. Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] For an example of a document that demonstrates how Reagan and Shultz worked together to improve Superpower relations in ways that were consistent with the “four-part” framework, see Memorandum, Shultz to Reagan, 16 March 1983, accessed 10 May 2014, http://thereaganfiles.com/19830316-shultz.pdf. See also Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation, Chapter 3, especially 69-71 and 78-86. NSDD 75 called on the Executive branch “to promote within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the privileged ruling elite is gradually reduced.” To accomplish these goals, officials needed to stress “the superiority of U.S. and Western values” such as “individual dignity” and a “free press.” They also had to strengthen “the President’s London initiative to support democratic forces” and “U.S. governmental efforts to highlight Soviet human rights violations.” When negotiating with the Soviets, the United States “must insist that Moscow address the full range of U.S. concerns about Soviet internal behavior and human rights violations.” National Security Decision Directive Number (NSDD) 75, 17 January 1983, 1-3, 5-6. Available at the Digital National Security Archive.

[7] For a recent treatment of this topic, see Sarah B. Snyder, “‘No Crowing’: Reagan, Trust, and Human Rights,” in Martin Klimke, Reinheld Kreis, and Christian F. Ostermann, eds., Trust, but Verify: The Politics of Uncertainty and the Transformation of the Cold War Order, 1969-1991 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 42-55.

[8] For a fuller treatment of this subject, see Garthoff, The Great Transition, 518-9; and George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), 464-5, 522-3, and 1108.

[9] See Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation. See also John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 374; Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (New York: Random House, 2004), 101, 105, 144, 152, 156, 161, 166, 169, 175-6, 212, 217, 222, 226, 259, 265, 268, 283-4, 291-5; Matlock, Jr., “Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War,” in Cheryl Hudson and Gareth Davies, eds., Ronald Reagan and the 1980s: Perceptions, Policies, and Legacies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Joe Renouard, Human Rights in American Foreign Policy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); and Cannon, President Reagan.

[10] Shevardnadze voiced similar sentiments in his memoirs. See Eduard Shevardnadze, The Future Belongs to Freedom, trans. by Cathy Fitzpatrick (London: Sinclair-Stevenson LTD, 1991), 71-72.

[11] Frances Fitzgerald offers a cogent summary of the U.S and Soviet disagreements that stalled progress on arms control during the Reagan administration. See Fitzgerald, Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 444-459.

[12] For a solid treatment of the Iran-Contra scandal, see Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (New York: Harper, 2008), 209-244.

[13]Shevardnadze was referring to a breakdown in the negotiations that led to the Geneva Accords of 1988. This agreement consisted of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’ signing of three bilateral accords designed to bring about the removal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and an end to official warfare in that country. The Soviet Union and United States agreed to serve as guarantors of these accords by signing a “Declaration on International Guarantees.” For more information on this subject, see Rosanne Klass, “Afghanistan: The Accords,” Foreign Affairs (Summer 1988), accessed 10 March 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/1988-06-01/afghanistan-accords.

[14] In contrast to his downplaying of Soviet ethnic and nationality tensions throughout most of this volume, Shevardnadze voiced his concern about the destabilizing effects of disturbances such as the Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes over the Nagorno-Karabakh region during a conversation with Shultz on 22 September 1988. He even expressed his regret that the Soviets had chosen to “preserve the ethnic character of the various national groups” instead of blending a “mixed population . . . into one” like the United States had. See pages 1177-1178 of this volume.

[15] Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 778-780.

[16] Chester Pach, Jr. makes the important observation that Reagan continued to ask for increases in defense spending until the end of administration. In other words, Reagan always hoped to negotiate with the Soviets and deal with global issues from a “position of strength.” See Pach, Jr., “Sticking to His Guns: Reagan and National Security,” in Elliot W. Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham, eds., The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2003), 85-112.

[17] Memocons stands for “Memorandum of Conversation.” For copies of the Reykjavik summit Memocons, as well as Soviet transcripts of the summit, see https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB203/index.htm , accessed 1 March 2019.

[18] Robert Service and Odd Arne Westad all but ignore the impact of the Helsinki Accords in their works on the Cold War. See Robert Service, The End of the Cold War, 1985-1991 (New York: Public Affairs, 2015); and Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York: Basic Books, 2017). Carole K. Fink devotes more attention to how Carter administration officials exploited the provisions of the Final Act to challenge Soviet human rights violation than she does to the Reagan administration’s efforts. See Fink, Cold War: An International History (Boulder: Westview Press 2014).

[19] Signed by the United States, Canada, the Soviet Union, and thirty-two other European nations in August 1975, the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords pledged each signatory to respect the existing boundaries of each other (save the possibility of peaceful change in the future). It also stressed the importance of respecting basic human rights and increasing the level of contact among signatories in areas as diverse as information flows and scientific agreements. The commitments undertaken in this document proved difficult to ignore because, beginning in 1977, the language of Basket IV resulted in a wide array of follow-up and expert meetings on particular subjects such as human rights that allowed signatories to discuss each other’s implementation records and undertake new commitments.

[20] Gorbachev used this address to announce three initiatives: drastic cuts in Soviet armed forces, his commitment to creating a law-abiding socialist state, and a desire to work with the rest of the world to solve common local problems. For a transcript of this speech, see http://www.literaster.com/writing/gorbachevs-speech-un-7-december-1988, accessed 10 March 2019. For a description of why Shultz supported signing a concluding document to the Vienna follow-up meeting, see Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 1138.

[21] For an excellent description of how the United States worked with the Soviets to finalize a concluding document to the Vienna follow-up meeting, see Anatoly Adamishin and Richard Schifter, Human Rights, Perestroika, and the End of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute for Peace, 2009), 151-182.

[22] American Foreign Policy Current Documents 1988 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1989), 323-6; and CSCE Digest (July/August 1988): 5.

[23] William M. Knoblauch, Nuclear Freeze in a Cold War: The Reagan Administration, Cultural Activism, and the End of the Arms Race (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), 89-90.

[24] Knoblauch, 97-102.

[25] On page 260, this volume mistakenly notes that the “The Vienna CSCE Follow-Up Meeting took place January 15-18, 1989.” This meeting actually took place from 4 November 1986 to 19 January 1989. Page IX also mistakenly notes that the Reykjavik Summit took place from 10-11 October 1986.

[26] For an example of this argument, see Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 181.

[27] Before agreeing to the terms of the 1987 INF treaty, Gorbachev insisted on deploying 100 intermediate-range missiles in Asia. He probably would have preferred to freeze Soviet short-range missiles in Europe, but eventually agreed to eliminate them. See Taubman, Gorbachev: His Life and Times (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017), 294-295 and 393-401.

[28] Many works advance this basic point. See Andrei Grachev, Gorbachev’s Gamble: Soviet Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War (Malden: Polity Press, 2008), especially Chapter 2; Archie Brown, “The Gorbachev revolution and the end of the Cold War,” in the Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume III, 244-66; Brown, Seven Years that Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), especially Chapter 2. See also See Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenek Mylnar, trans. by George Shriver, Conversations with Gorbachev: On Perestroika, The Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[29] For example, see Svetlana Savranskaya, “Learning to Disarm: Mikhail Gorbachev’s Interactive Learning and Changes in the Soviet Negotiating Positions Leading to the INF Treaty,” in Leopoldo Nuti, Frederic Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, and Bernd Rother, eds, The Euromissile Crisis and the End of the Cold War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 85-103.

[30] The quotation comes from Grachev, Gorbachev’s Gamble, 97-100. See also Brown, “The Gorbachev revolution and the end of the Cold War,” 261-263; Matlock, Jr., Reagan and Gorbachev, 274-276.

[31] See Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Chapters 9 and 10.

[32] Ronald Reagan Oral History Project. “Interview with George Shultz,” 18 December 2002, accessed 17 March 2017, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-oral-histories/george-p-shultz-oral-history-secretary-state.