The Final Summits: Washington
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington

At the Washington summit, ceremony, substance, and spectacle were woven together, shaken up by the unexpected, and projected to the world in the information age. The main event was the signing of the INF Treaty. An expectant and excited crowd waited in the East Room of the White House. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, “the president of the United States and the general secretary of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.” Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev strode together down a broad red carpet and onto a stage.

Ronald Reagan took the microphone: “It was over 6 years ago, November 18, 1981, that I first proposed what would come to be called the zero option. It was a simple proposal one might say, disarmingly simple. Unlike treaties in the past, it didn't simply codify the status quo or a new arms buildup; it didn't simply talk of controlling an arms race. For the first time in history, the language of ‘arms control’ was replaced by ‘arms reduction’ – in this case, the complete elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles.” Reagan continued, quoting again the old Russian maxim “Doveryai, no proveryai – trust, but verify.”

“You repeat that at every meeting,” Gorbachev interjected with a chuckle.

Reagan nodded, smiled, and answered, “I like it.” The room erupted. The easy and friendly relationship between the two leaders came through in their words and their body language. The message was received with relief by people in both countries and around the world.

Gorbachev then took his turn: “For everyone, and above all, for our two great powers, the treaty whose text is on this table offers a big chance at last to get onto the road leading away from the threat of catastrophe. It is our duty to take full advantage of that chance and move together toward a nuclear-free world, which holds out for our children and grandchildren and for their children and grandchildren the promise of a fulfilling and happy life, without fear and without a senseless waste of resources on weapons of destruction. … May December 8, 1987 [will] become a date that will be inscribed in the history books, a date that will mark the watershed separating the era of a mounting risk of nuclear war from the era of a demilitarization of human life.”

Reagan continued, quoting again the old Russian maxim “Doveryai, no proveryai—trust, but verify.”

Then the two leaders signed the treaty, one copy in a red leather binder for the Soviet Union and one in blue for the United States. They walked back down the hall to the State Dining Room, where each, with the benefit of simultaneous translation, addressed his own country and the world.

The atmosphere was electric with a sense of historic importance. I was as elated as everyone else. But I also had the job of keeping content on track. The day had been exhilarating for the president: a ceremonial arrival on the South Lawn of the White House, a first small meeting with Gorbachev, and now this dramatic event in the early afternoon. The president, I could see, was on an understandable high. We had ahead of us a one-hour meeting scheduled for 2:30 in the Cabinet Room, deliberately chosen so that as many members as possible in both delegations could be part of at least one meeting. The room was crowded, with people seated all along the walls as well as at the cabinet table. After a photo opportunity with the press, the meeting started. I was concerned. I could see that as far as the president was concerned, this meeting was a total anticlimax. He was not up for it, nor was he concentrating now.

The president gave Gorbachev, as the guest, the privilege of speaking first. Gorbachev initiated a discussion of problems in the Soviet Union and his efforts, through perestroika, to reform the Soviet system. Wonderful, I thought: this opening would allow a promising opportunity to learn more about Gorbachev's ideas for reform and even to have some effect, in our discussion, on shaping his ideas.

Soon the president interrupted Gorbachev with a story about the differences between our two countries:

“An American scholar, on his way to the airport before a flight to the Soviet Union, got into a conversation with his cabdriver, a young man who said that he was still finishing his education. The scholar asked, ‘When you finish your schooling, what do you want to do?’ The young man answered, ‘I haven't decided yet.’ After arriving at the airport in Moscow, the scholar hailed a cab. His cabdriver, again, was a young man, who happened to mention he was still getting his education. The scholar, who spoke Russian, asked, ‘When you finish your schooling, what do you want to be? What do you want to do?’ The young man answered, ‘They haven't told me yet.’ That's the difference between our systems.”

Gorbachev colored. However telling the president's story might be, this was not the moment for it. I was disturbed and disappointed. Discussion of Soviet internal problems and Gorbachev's ideas for dealing with them would have been revealing to us and possibly helpful to him.

Gorbachev then switched topics, suggesting that we move on to discuss conventional arms: the subject of multinational negotiations then going on in Vienna as part of the CSCE process. He said that he had noticed interest in the subject on the part of some opponents of the INF Treaty. The president readily agreed. I was upset. I knew the president was not well informed about the subject, and I had no written material at hand to give him for guidance. As the discussion proceeded, the president looked to me to respond. I did so, but reluctantly. The principal in such a major meeting should always be the main interlocutor, with occasional comment from others.

After the president and I escorted Gorbachev and his party to their cars on the ellipse outside the West Wing of the White House, the president, Howard Baker, Colin Powell, and I met in the Oval Office. I criticized the president's Cabinet Room performance. Howard Baker agreed. The president said he realized what had happened and asked what we should do about it. “No more big meetings in the Cabinet Room,” I suggested. “You do much better in smaller groups and in the intimacy of the Oval Office.” The president should also have had brief talking points on specific issues so that he could lay down the main arguments before inviting others to supply details, if needed. This was the only low point in the summit; fortunately, it did not last long or do any real damage.

That night at the White House state dinner, Ronald Reagan was back on the front burner. The event was marvelous in every way. I was seated at the same table as Akhromeyev . “I am the Marshal of the Soviet Union and have had many honors in my career, but I have never been as proud of anything as when I was a sergeant fighting for my country at Leningrad – until now,” he told me. “My country is in trouble, and I am fighting alongside Mikhail Sergeyevich to save it. That is why we made such a lopsided deal on INF, and that is why we want to get along with you. We want to restructure ourselves and to be part of the modern world. We cannot continue to be isolated.” I was stunned by this volunteered story and the analogy to the battle of Leningrad, a hallowed memory, I knew, for Akhromeyev and for the Russian people.

Wednesday, December 9, was my day to engage in ceremony, but it turned out to more than ceremony. After the morning meeting in the Oval Office, I was host to the Gorbachevs at a grand luncheon in the elegant diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department. Everyone wanted to come, and the crowd was the largest ever for such an event.

The guest list was high-powered: key members of Congress, all former ambassadors to the Soviet Union, outstanding Americans from business, finance, agriculture, labor, the arts, members of the cabinet. I had a moment before the receiving line started to show the Gorbachevs my favorite piece of furniture: the desk designed by Thomas Jefferson, where he stood as he wrote portions of the Declaration of Independence. The Gorbachevs had done their homework: they had a personal word with each guest. The receiving line took about three-quarters of an hour. No one seemed to mind the wait.

I had thought carefully about my toast and decided to make it short and, I hoped, instructive. “What should we both be keeping in mind?” I asked. I talked about the unique nature of the relationship, the need to recognize the differences in values, the need for realism, “avoiding extremes, either of hostility or euphoria, through the ups and downs of our relations.” In the spirit of “clarity and candor,” I said, quoting a December 5 statement issued by the heads of government of the European Community, “Respect for human rights and freedom is a prerequisite for confidence, understanding and cooperation.” I turned to a point I sought to emphasize to Gorbachev and the Soviets on every possible occasion:

In five to ten years, our world will be vastly different from the one we know today, and from the postwar world of the past 40 years, which has conditioned so much of our thinking. … The material substances of daily life are being transformed. The speed of human transactions is accelerating. Scientific, economic and political matters are now global in dimension. And through all these changes, runs the thread of knowledge: its discovery, its rapid transmission as information, and the education needed to use it. … The recognition that openness to ideas, information and contacts is the key to future success.

Gorbachev responded at some length:

Urging us on is the will of hundreds of millions of people, who are beginning to understand that as the twentieth century draws to a close, civilization has approached a dividing line, not so much between different systems and ideologies, but between common sense and mankind's feelings of self-preservation, on the one hand, and irresponsibility, national selfishness, prejudice – to put it briefly, old thinking – on the other. … What matters now is that we cannot let those opportunities pass, and must use them as fully as possible to build a safer and more democratic world, free from the trappings and the psychology of militarism. … While moving closer to each other, we have come to appreciate even more the role and importance of Soviet-American relations in the current development of international affairs, together with our enormous responsibility, not only to our own people, but also to the world community.

Then he referred to the many individuals who had helped bring about these events and said he wanted to “pay tribute to the many who dedicated to it their intellect, energy, patience, perseverance, knowledge and a sense of duty to their nation, and to the international community. And first of all, I would like to mention Comrade Eduard Shevardnadze and Mr. George Shultz.” Shevardnadze and I each rose and walked from our respective tables for a handshake as the room echoed with applause.

Later, as we walked to the elevator, Shevardnadze said to me, “George, that was not a luncheon; it was a political event. Thank you.”

How far we had come from the days of tension with Brezhnev, Andropov, and Gromyko. A transformation had occurred.

Very early on the last morning of the summit, I met with Paul Nitze and others from our arms control working group. Carlucci, Powell, and I were in constant communication. They still had not found a way to pin down a top limit on ballistic missiles, and the problem of how to handle the ABM-related issues in the final joint statement was unresolved as well. I discussed the options with Nitze, cleared ideas quickly with Carlucci and Powell, and set off for a meeting with Shevardnadze at the Soviet embassy. I took Nitze with me. Our greatest problems were with the ABM Treaty issues. We wanted to be sure that any agreed language would not curtail the pursuit of the president's Strategic Defense Initiative. We also wanted to advance toward our objectives (acceptance of as broad an array of permitted research activities as possible, recognition of the desirability of explicit discussion of a more defense-oriented form of deterrence, specification of a nonwithdrawal period short enough so that possible deployment would not be inhibited, and the automatic right to deploy at the end of the period if either party chose to do so).

I recalled for Shevardnadze Gorbachev's words in a prior day's discussion, “If you want to deploy at the end of the nonwithdrawal period, that is up to you.” I made some suggestions on bracketed language and handed Shevardnadze a proposed revised text. He seemed agreeable but reserved the right to check with Gorbachev, as I did with Reagan . We agreed to postpone the start of the final meeting between the leaders so that we would have time to go over the material with them. Then off we both went to Vice President Bush's breakfast with Gorbachev.

On his way from the breakfast to the White House, Gorbachev suddenly stopped his motorcade, got out, and to the crowd's delight, mingled and pressed the flesh. The almost adulatory scene, I thought, must have played as well in Moscow as it did in the United States. Gorbachev, with his open manner, easy repartee, and spontaneity, proved to be a captivating figure in the United States and around the world.

The final meeting was short because of Gorbachev's late arrival and was followed by a televised walk around the White House lawn by the two leaders alone. We assembled for lunch, but there were still open items on the joint statement that would be issued at the end of the day. So Carlucci, Powell, and I and our Soviet opposite numbers left so we could resolve these remaining issues. We gathered in the Cabinet Room. Carlucci whispered to me, “Why don't you suggest 4,900 as the limit of ballistic missiles?” “You do it as secretary of defense and look right at Marshal Akhromeyev when you speak,” I suggested, Frank did.

Akhromeyev agreed: “Da.” We had jumped the last hurdle!

Real progress had been made during the summit in many areas, including START, and this was reflected in an outstanding joint statement. On ABM issues, Max Kampelman put it well, “We kicked the can down the road.” We made slight progress and avoided the potential of this issue to blow up everything else.

The leaders took their leave of each other by 2:30 p.m., their words and mood not dampened by cold and drizzly weather. Reagan called the summit “a clear success,” and Gorbachev spoke of his impression that “there is a growing desire in American society for improved Soviet-American relations.” After they said their farewells, I went immediately to provide a lengthy briefing on the summit, first to the Senate and then to the House. The reaction was genuinely positive: not a sour note.

Gorbachev held a press conference in the late afternoon. I watched on television, prepared to leave for the Soviet embassy as soon as it was over in order to be part of the American contingent escorting the Soviets to the airport. I was in a hurry. Right after Gorbachev 's departure, my plane would leave for Brussels, where I would brief the NATO foreign ministers. Gorbachev's opening statement went on and on for almost an hour, and his answers to questions were long. Finally, at 7:45 p.m., his press conference concluded, and I left for the Soviet embassy. I was placed in a holding room. Before long, in bounced Gorbachev. “George, I understand you watched my press conference,” he said, and invited my comment.

“You went on much too long,” I said with friendly candor.

He clapped me on the back. “Well,” I said, “at least there's one guy around here who tells you what he thinks.” He laughed, in high spirits.

At this point, the protocol officers took over and guided us to our respective cars – Vice President Bush with Gorbachev, me with Shevardnadze – for the short ride to Andrews Air Force Base. Floodlights illuminated the tarmac as we jostled around in the wind and rain. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, I could see, were tired but excited. I waved good-bye as they boarded their Soviet aircraft, then moved on to my own. My plane took off right behind theirs.

In Brussels the next day, I took part in still another ceremony, this one underlining the degree to which the INF Treaty was an achievement, not just of the United States but of our whole NATO alliance. I signed, along with the foreign ministers of the five countries where our INF missiles were based (West Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy), an agreement giving the Soviets the right to conduct on-site inspections of the missile bases of our allies.

In the statement on our NATO meeting in the morning, we called INF a “treaty without precedent in the history of arms control” and “all the more meaningful because it opens the way to progress in other arms control areas.” Geoffrey Howe congratulated me on “not only a momentous week, but a week of hope for all mankind.” The treaty, said Hans-Dietrich Genscher, “doesn't reduce but increases the security of Western Europe.” Jean-Bernard Raimond expressed his reserve by refusing language calling INF “historic.” “We will not know for twenty-five years whether anything is historic,” he argued. How French. But he joined the general sense of remarkable progress in our joint effort to improve our security and lessen tensions in East-West relations.

And so the summit ended for me. The results were a tribute to the persistent effort of Ronald Reagan to stick by his basic objectives, to maintain our strength and the cohesion of our alliances, and to be willing to recognize an opportunity for a good deal and a changed situation when he saw one. President Reagan had the courage of his conviction that Gorbachev represented a powerful drive for a different Soviet Union in its foreign policy and in its conduct of affairs at home. Mikhail Gorbachev had come into power in 1985 with a difficult set of problems. He was perceptive enough to see them and bold enough to be decisive in dealing with the critical foreign policy issues we faced. I admired and respected both leaders, and I had told them so. I went to sleep in Brussels feeling exhausted but quietly triumphant.

Editor’s Note: This account is used by permission of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation archives. The article distills passages from George Shultz’s autobiographical account Turmoil and Triumph, which we have edited for the Web.
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