Geneva: The Giants Meet
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva

“Peace through strength” has many interpretations. Leading up to the first Superpower summit in 1985,Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and a cadre of ultra-cold warriors thought strength meant moving President Reagan’s position away from disarmament. Secretary Shultz thought strength could be demonstrated with firm diplomacy. The White House was thus divided. The division pitted Secretary of State George Shultz against Defense Secretary Weinberger, the latter who did not approve of making any concessions to the Soviets.

Weinberger and his group had become increasingly uneasy about Reagan moving towards any agreement with the Soviets. They viewed disarmament progress as a potential trap, which was reasonable given the history of the Cold War, even though Gorbachev had not made any moves to inspire American distrust. Still, the stakes were high. If one side could gain strategic advantage, the balance of power could shift unalterably. That was enough to make Weinberger suspicious.

Before what was to be the first Superpower summit in Geneva, Weinberger had taken the incredible step of writing a "top-unclassified" letter to the president. In it, he warned the president to neither limit nor abandon SDI, and not to make any other arms concessions. The letter was eventually leaked to the press – most likely by forces within the White House who shared Weinberger's opposition to arms control. This group was convinced that Secretary of State Shultz was leading the president in the wrong direction.

By 1985 Shultz had the President’s ear and his trust. Shultz also saw Reagan’s vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. It was thus Shultz’s obligation to work towards that vision, despite the rift between him and others in the Reagan administration.

“Once the summit began, however,” wrote Shultz in his retrospective Turmoil and Triumph, “this storm simply blew away.” In fact, the letter never even came up during that first summit. At the time, the summit seemed marked more by what was not discussed than what was. Don Oberdorfer, writing in the Washington Post, commented:

“Perhaps the most interesting were the omissions -- the expected issues that the Soviets chose not to emphasize. Officials said there was only a brief mention of extension of the SALT II treaty, which Moscow had proposed in advance, and of the U.S. reinterpretation of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty. There was no discussion of the line between permissible research and banned testing of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and no mention was made at all, according to U.S. officials, of the leaked letter of Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger that had dominated American press attention as the summit meeting began.”

Secretary of State Shultz knew that this would be a summit of baby steps that could lead to greater strides in subsequent negotiations. This was, after all, Reagan and Gorbachev’s first tête-à-tête.


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Regional disputes took center stage at Geneva that first day. Specifically, the superpowers talked about Afghanistan, an occupation going on its sixth year for the Soviets. Gorbachev was increasingly keen to extricate the Soviets from what had become a quagmire—and the U.S. team signaled a willingness to quietly aid them in such a withdrawal. (Of course, the U.S. had been supplying the Afghan opposition mujahedeen with weapons, which many believe would come back to haunt the U.S. later.) At the end of the first day, recalls Shultz, “the big story of the day, everyone felt, was the extended time that the two men had spent together. Personally, I thought the big story was that they had hit it off as human beings.” (T&T, 602)

Day two was tough for both sides. There was a lot of mutual criticism, but the focus had mostly been on SDI. The Soviets were immensely concerned about the implications of “Star Wars” for the balance of power. Gorbachev had referred to SDI as “weapons in space,” while Reagan had referred to it as “a shield in space.” Neither side made much headway on the issue, so in some respects Weinberger’s team had won the day in Geneva--at least in the short term. But in the long run, Reagan’s refusal to budge on SDI “nailed into place an essential plank in our negotiating platform” for future summits that would include unprecedented arms control agreements. (T&T, 603)

The Superpower summit in Geneva

Prior to the closing of Geneva, the teams managed to come to their first agreements, including a cultural exchange between Kiev and New York, early progress on an “interim IMF agreement,” commitments to human rights issues, and a statement of commitment by both sides that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” (which would be cited by both sides in subsequent summits). In the end, talks that seemed to the outside world to be of very little substance, were, to Secretary Shultz, an auspicious beginning:

“The fresh start the president wanted had become a reality in Geneva, not least because the two leaders had come to like and respect each other. They had agreed; they had disagreed. We had heated moments; we had light moments. We had come in order to get to know each other as people by working hard on the issues, and we did, as did the two leaders, who spent almost five of the fifteen hours of official meetings talking together privately” (T&T, 606). Of course, precedents and windows of opportunity had been opened that would be useful in negotiations of the future. Geneva turned out to be the first major step on a path to peace.

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