Blogs > There's No There There > Gorby, Ron and Nancy Too: What Might Have Been

Mar 8, 2016

Gorby, Ron and Nancy Too: What Might Have Been

tags: Ronald Reagan,Gorbachev,Polner,nancy reagan,NSArchive

This post is by Murray Polner,  a blogger, writer and HNN's senior Book Department editor.

The first and only time I saw Mikhail Gorbachev was when his motorcade sped down Manhattan's Third Avenue one sunny day in the eighties while tens of thousands cheered the man who was trying to reform his morally and politically bankrupt nation and reduce the threat of cold and hot wars. As his car raced by I raised two fingers in  V, Dove-like, style.

I also saw Ronald Reagan once when I caught sight of him as he and Nancy entered a posh Manhattan hotel for some party bash. The large crowd cheered, but I didn't raise my fingers in salute. I had, after all, voted for the Carter and Mondale.

Who thought then that Gorby the communist, and Ron the hawk, urged on by his shrewd and smart wife to meet and talk with the Russian, would become friends and warm pen pals and more importantly, advocates for a more peaceful, non-nuclear world, as we now definitively know from the release of the Gorbachev File, which marked the Russian's  85th birthday on March 2, 2016, by the non-governmental National Security Archive, which houses an invaluable collection of declassified material.

The Gorbachev File covers once-secret British and American documents from March 1985 to 1991 and especially the Reagan-Gorbachev correspondence. After meeting Gorbachev in London in December 1984, Margaret Thatcher was so taken with him that she wrote Reagan that the Russian was "fully in charge" and "determined to press ahead with his internal reform," except on nuclear abolition, which she opposed but Reagan did not. Still, she told Reagan, whom she liked and admired, "I like Gorbachev. We can do business together."

Three months later, the CIA agreed, accepting that something new and different was happening in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev was "the new broom," a conclusion Washington's unreconstructed cold warriors and especially its neocons, always ready to fight wars with our kids but rarely if ever with theirs, found hard to accept.

But the CIA had its doubts and still considered Gorbachev a "tough" hard-liner who would be a difficult partner at any summit meeting. They believed his "new broom" only applied to domestic affairs, which was an error, comments the National Security Archive, given that, for example, the old Stalinist Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was soon dumped by the moderate Eduard Shevardnadze, indicating that Gorbachev was in fact concerned with foreign policy.

In 1985, Reagan sent Gorbachev a handwritten letter (Reagan, as we know, was a compulsive, serious writer who kept a diary and  often wrote his own letters, without secretarial help) telling him he was ready "to cooperate in any reasonable way to facilitate" a "Russian removal" from Afghanistan, Moscow's calamitous version of the American debacle in Vietnam.

That same year the two men met for the first time in Geneva. According to the National Security Archive, "both spoke about the mistrust and suspicions of the past and of the need to begin a new stage in U.S.-Soviet relations.... They both spoke about their aversion to nuclear weapons."

Gorbachev quoted the Bible about moving past disagreements and Reagan responded by remarking  that "if the people of the world were to find out that there was some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth approaching on Halley's Comet, then that knowledge would unite all peoples of the world." Here again is the National Security Archive: "The aliens had landed, in Reagan's view, in the form of nuclear weapons, and Gorbachev would remember this phrase, quoting it directly in his famous 'new thinking' speech at the 27th Party Congress in February 1986."

Visibly impressed, Reagan again wrote Gorbachev of his wish to work with him on arms control measures to "provide us with a genuine chance to make progress toward our common ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons," yet another outrage to Washington's entrenched hawks when they learned of Reagan's intentions. They were even more indignant when Reagan invited Gorbachev to a summit in Washington where their friendship deepened.

Gorbachev, obviously pleased, wrote back that the USSR and USA had to maintain peace and "not let things come to the outbreak of nuclear war, which would inevitably have catastrophic consequences for both sides."

Was Reagan, untutored in the intricacies and duplicities of foreign policy, a man who had once played dumb about Iran-Contra and backed a proxy war in Central America simply naive and too trusting? Yet somehow, unknown to his closest aides, let alone his pugnacious supporters, Reagan, the loner, was taken by his fear of a nuclear clash. Their correspondence and the 1986 Reykjavik, Iceland, summit shows them trying to pursue a course which their successors have ignored. NSA's post has Reagan's letters "sometimes personally dictated, even handwritten, explain their positions on arms control, strategic defenses, and the need for nuclear abolition."

When they met in Iceland, they shocked many of their advisors and supporters by agreeing "in principle"  to remove intermediate range nukes from Europe and to restrict the number of missile warheads and then all nukes by within ten years.

The deal fell apart for a variety of reasons such as differences over "trust and verify" and the Star Wars Initiative, which Thatcher considered unworkable. The next year, however, saw some progress with the approval of the INF treaty but for both nation's unrepentant hawks, the two leaders had been too nice to one another, too forgiving, too willing to forgive and forget. Reagan was denounced as an appeaser by some of his former admirers, and Gorbachev would be forced out in 1991. Among his other sins: Letting East Germany go without killing rebels, as the Chinese did at Tiananmen Square, and withdrawing Russian troops from Afghanistan, something Bush2 and Obama have not done. For both nations, then, negotiation was out and escalation was in.

All the same, one supportive group, the National Threat Initiative, chaired by former Senator Sam Nunn, had it right: Reykjavik "has remained in history as a near successful attempt of leaders of nuclear powers to agree on complete elimination of nuclear weapons."

With Reagan retired, the deposed Gorbachev opposed the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1995, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and especially, despite American promises, the US-NATO move ever closer to Russia's borders, which he believed represented a serious threat. Interviewed by the British newspaper, the Telegraph, in May 2008, he sounded bitter. "We had ten years after the Cold War to build a new world order and yet we squandered them," adding, "The United States cannot tolerate anyone acting independently," and "Every U.S. president has to have a war." The article was headed, "Gorbachev: The U.S. Could Start a New Cold War."

But still, Mikhail Gorbachev never forgot Ronald Reagan and their unusual friendship and what they hoped to accomplish. In 2004, he represented Russia at Reagan's funeral and also traveled to Eureka College, Regan's old school, where the aging Russian reformer was named "Honorary Reagan Fellow of Eureka College."

And when Nancy died, Gorbachev told Interfax: "It was with deep sorrow that I learnt the sad news and I can rightfully say well done, Nancy. She said to Ronald Reagan: when you quit the post of U.S,. president, you need to go as a peacemaker. And the fact that we established human relations, which led to trust was mainly Nancy's merit. Without trust, there is and can be no moving forward."

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