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Star Wars, the Pentecostals and a Minithaw

1983. The road to engagement was rocky and Secretary of State George Shultz now found himself at a critical juncture. It was time to begin talks with the Soviets. Talks would have to start slow and small. What issues could be revisited to the mutual gain of the United States and the Soviet Union? What could be achieved without biting off more than either side could chew?

That year, a series of events involving Secretary of State George Shultz had the potential either to torpedo these new talks, or expand them. One event, Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech, threatened to derail any progress before it began. Another, working to release the Pentecostals, held tremendous promise for human rights in the Soviet Union. And finally, opening talks – a minithaw - would set the stage for direct negotiations between Cold War superpowers, with Shultz as a prime negotiator.

Let us explore these events in turn.


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The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – “Star Wars”

Whether or not you agreed with his politics, Ronald Reagan was a visionary. He made clear that he despised the fatalistic calculation of mutually assured destruction (MAD). In this calculation, deadly nuclear missiles would pass each other mid-flight, guaranteeing the annihilation of both Superpowers if one side decided to attempt a first strike. In March 1983, President Reagan proposed something radical: a way out.

The official title for the proposed program was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). And the idea, though ambitious, was built on a few simple premises. First, compared to the Soviets, the United States enjoyed technological supremacy and wealth. This meant that the U.S. could afford a rapid research and development program for defense. Second, while the precise technology could not yet be determined, the goal was to create a defensive technology that would allow the U.S. to defend itself from nuclear missile strikes and thus escape the MAD decision matrix. In theory, this would make nuclear missiles obsolete. Reagan believed SDI could be achieved by the year 2000.

There were serious detractors, many with conceptual objections. Shultz was, in some respects, among those detractors, and “continued to be disturbed” by drafts of the speech.

“The next day, March 22, we received a new draft of the strategic defense speech. The style and substance were toned down, but it still proclaimed, ‘Tonight we are launching a truly new beginning which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.’ The effect remained unsettling,...” (T&T, p. 252-253)

But once he saw that Reagan was committed to the vision, Shultz knew it was his responsibility to ensure the vision was not interpreted the wrong way: “Again, I could see the depth of his {Reagan’s] feelings about this issue, his abhorrence of reliance on the ability to ‘wipe each other out’ that it we could learn how to defend ourselves, that would be wonderful. (T&T, p. 253)

On March 23, 1983, the President delivered what would come to be known as the “Star Wars” speech. Here’s an excerpt from that very speech:

“I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves. We see neither military superiority nor political advantage. Our only purpose—one all people share—is to search for ways to reduce the danger of nuclear war.” (T&T, p. 258).

Leading up to Reagan’s delivery of the speech, Shultz had worked with others to moderate the language, fearing the Soviet perception of a strengthening of the American military in space. He knew he had to find a way both to quell the concerns of the Soviets and manage the interpretations of the media.

In the days and weeks following the speech, Shultz would have to express the vision of getting beyond the nuclear calculation with the ultimate goal of peace in mind. It meant convincing the Soviets that that the U.S. did not currently possess such a disruptive technology. And it meant that the U.S. would carry out any such research and development within the confines of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which both countries had signed in the 1970s.

The speech had been a domestic success, but foreign leaders were concerned that “fortress America” would escalate the arms race. In the short term, many found the concept of SDI troubling. But in the longer term, it would eventually work to America’s strategic advantage--becoming the ultimate bargaining chip. According to Shultz “we played it for all it was worth.”

The Russian Pentecostals

After reassuring the Soviets that the underlying aim of the SDI was long-term peace, one of the issues Shultz wanted to address with the Soviets was human rights. Political dissidents and religious people were treated harshly in the Soviet Union. Ironically, because human rights were not so great a priority for the Soviets, some concessions could be made fairly easily on the Soviets’ part. So, Shultz set to work on a human rights issue of particular salience: The Pentecostals.


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The Pentecostals were a small group of devoutly religious Siberian Orthodox who refused to give into state doctrine on religious matters – i.e. that all should, a la Karl Marx, practice atheism. In 1978 they had gotten past Soviet guards into the U.S. Embassy, and remained in protective custody within the Embassy (read: camped in the basement) for years. Shultz wanted to get them out of the Embassy and out of the USSR. As Shultz recalls:

“A breakthrough on the Pentecostal Christians would open other avenues for progress. I drew up a set of ideas for the president presenting a longer-term view of our relations with the Soviets. I urged that we work to set up a systematic dialogue, consider renewing some languishing agreements, point toward a possible Reagan-Gromyko meeting, reopen the idea of reciprocal consulates in Kiev and New York, and consider a new agreement on cultural exchange. Above all, we had to devise a clear strategy on human rights.” (T&T, p. 168)

Any deal between the U.S. and Soviets would have to be done as quietly as possible, so as not to create the appearance that Moscow was dithering or that Reagan would capitalize on any release with ’crowing‘ by Reagan in the manner of the “evil empire” speech. This was a concession for which the Soviets would get an end to the multi-year ordeal, greater access to President Reagan and a new beginning. But Shultz and Reagan would have to be very careful. Quiet diplomacy was in order.

U. S. negotiator Max Kampelman remembers how things transpired:

“My decision to move quietly with the KGB general who was the designated deputy in the Soviet delegation proved to be correct. After he had expressed his consternation and anger at what was being proposed, I said it was his duty to deliver my president's message to his superiors in Moscow. He did so. A few days later, he informed me that Soviet leader Yuri Andropov had authorized him to negotiate with me on the condition that nobody other than Secretary Shultz, the president and I be informed. No other Soviet officials, including Dobrynin, were to be told.” (Max Kampelman. ”Rescue with a Presidential Push, Washington Post, June 11, 2004.)

The Christian Science Monitor reported the event on June 27, 1983:

“A brief announcement Sunday by the Soviet news agency Tass said Pyotr Vashchenko, his wife, and their 13 remaining children would be allowed to join Lydia, a daughter who left for Israel in April.

Lydia, weakened from a hunger strike and encouraged by hints from the authorities that she might be allowed to emigrate, left the US Embassy earlier this year, returned to Siberia, and formally reapplied for a visa. She ultimately got it. A week later the other embassy refugees returned to Siberia to ask for permission to leave.”

Due to the terms, this diplomatic success went virtually unnoticed. Reagan kept his end of the bargain and did not extract any political advantage from the affair. The gain was only the freedom of a handful of human souls. It did earn something for the Secretary of State. Shultz gained the respect of President Reagan and allowed both to “pursue our efforts to turn the superpower relationship into something far more positive.”’ (T&T, p. 171)

A Mini-thaw

Shultz’s diplomatic success with SDI and the Pentecostals led President Reagan to give Shultz considerable latitude. This latitude hastened what Shultz terms a “minithaw.” Specifically, Shultz was allowed to start direct negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. The last of the Pentecostals, as well as some Jewish “refuseniks,” were released during this time. According to Shultz:

Talks were also going forward on the hot line, on keeping nuclear capabilities out of terrorist hands, and on nuclear nonproliferation.” (T&T, p. 281)

These improvements—the finessing of SDI’s rollout, the emigration of the Pentecostals, and the meeting with Dobrynin, marked a new beginning in U.S.-Soviet relations.

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