Michael Reagan attended the 2004 funeral of his father, former US president Ronald Reagan, the man sitting behind him, he recalls, was the last leader of the Soviet Union: Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Mikhail Gorbachev and my wife and I became friends over the years,” Reagan said from Los Angeles on Tuesday after learning of the Russian’s death aged 91. “What I most remember is him telling me that every time my father and him met, my father would always end every meeting with, ‘If it’s God’s will’, and Mikhail Gorbachev would say to me, ‘I would look around the room to see if God was there’.”
Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev, capitalist and communist, were an unlikely pairing but their series of high profile summits have been praised for helping to end the cold war. Together they negotiated a landmark deal in 1987 to scrap intermediate-range nuclear missiles.
Former Reagan administration officials spoke on Tuesday of the leaders’ chemistry and shared a determination to pull the world back from the brink of a superpower war. They lauded Gorbachev as a Soviet leader who, unlike his relentless predecessorswas willing to constructively engage with Washington.
A new kind of Soviet leader
Reagan had branded the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” but his political soulmate, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, declared in 1984: “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together.” The following years, Reagan and Gorbachev held their first summit in Geneva.
Ken Addelman, who as Reagan’s director of arms control and attended the summit, recalled: “I was at lunch with him and he walks in and says, ‘This is a new kind of Soviet leader’. I was kind of amused because he had never met an old kind of Soviet leader but he was absolutely right.”
I have added: “Reagan saw himself as a great negotiator and considered his life as one of great negotiations. He was very sad that, as he said, he couldn’t talk to all the Soviet leaders before Gorbachev ‘because they keep dying on me. What am I supposed to do?’”
Adelman, 76, author of Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the cold war, would not describe the men as friends but said they were always civil to each other. “What did it was that Ronald Reagan showed great backbone at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 when he walked out without destroying SDI – the Strategic Defense Initiative – when Gorbachev’s top priority was to destroy SDI.
“So I think Gorbachev admired Reagan. Reagan certainly liked Gorbachev because he was a new type of Soviet leader, one that he could deal with, and they saw their futures were intertwined and their greatness was intertwined. That was certainly true when they came up with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was the first treaty that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons.”
Another witness to the impossibly high stakes negotiations was Jim Kuhn, then assistant to the president. Now 70 and based in Alexandria, Virginia, she remembers that Thatcher came to Camp David to discuss her meeting with Gorbachev and convinced Reagan that he was different and willing to listen.
Kuhn said: “The thing that made the difference most to Reagan was when Thatcher told him he never cut me off, he never interrupted me whenever I was making my point. That opened up Reagan’s mind about Gorbachev so he went in there with an open mind. He knew that one summit could lead to another and maybe another and maybe there was some way to begin to scale down the nuclear arms race.”
There’s a chemistry between us
The first one-on-one meeting in Geneva was supposed to run for 20 minutes but lasted an hour and a half, Kuhn continued, and Reagan’s first impression was positive. “His words from him were, ‘There’s a chemistry between the two of us, we listen to one another, we do n’t agree but maybe there’s a way to continue. We’ve got a long way to go here and hopefully we can find some kind of a common ground.’
“We had worked it out that Reagan would, in the second session, take Gorbachev for a walk in Geneva down along the lake there. There was a small lake house and it was just the two of them meeting with interpreters and that’s when Reagan told Gorbachev, ‘Mr General Secretary, you can never win an all out arms race with the United States because we will always have the ability to outspend you’.
“That set the tone for the summits going forward. Gorbachev was very highly intelligent and prepared himself. He understood that things had to change and that Reagan was the kind of guy that he might be able to work with and one summit led to another and then another.”
But Kuhn noted that the leaders, whose wives “didn’t hit it off so well”, also had major disagreements, especially over human rights. “Reagan would give Gorbachev a list of people that were being held against their will, being mistreated in the Soviet Union. It just used to make Gorbachev’s blood boil: like, why do they hit me with this?
“So he would come back and attack Reagan, saying, don’t lecture me on how to run my country or how we treat our people; you’ve got people living on sidewalks and on grates and you’ve got crime out of control.”
In 1987 Reagan famously urged in West Berlin: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later popular revolutions swept away communist governments in East Germany and the rest of eastern Europe. Gorbachev and Reagan’s successor, President George HW Bush, met at a summit in Malta and hailed the end of the cold war.
Ed Rogers, who was a special assistant to Reagan and deputy assistant to Bush, attended the Malta summit and believes Gorbachev deserves more credit. He said on Tuesday: “Gorbachev was intellectually honest about what aspirations he had for the Soviet Union. I wanted a healthy, prosperous society.
“He was intellectually honest about what the economic system had produced in Russia, in the satellite states that comprised the Soviet Union, and he knew that more of the same was undesirable.
“He was intellectually honest about human aspiration. He didn’t turn the guns on people in Berlin. He didn’t turn the guns on people that came to the embassy in Hungary. I have decided the answer to the Soviet Union’s problems isn’t to shoot a bunch of innocent people.”
Rogers added: “Gorbachev did not crash the Soviet Union, he brought it in for a smooth landing. It was a huge geo political nonevent thanks to his honesty and decency of him. ”
Bill Kristol, who also served in the Reagan administration and is now a political commentator, tweeted: “We Reaganites bristled when some gave Gorbachev credit (more than Reagan!) for the end of the cold war and Soviet Union. But I have mattered a lot. He may not have intended the outcomes, but he was unwilling to use force to prevent them. And that was key.”
At a White House meeting in 1987, Reagan remarked: “We have listened to the wisdom in an old Russian maxim. And I’m sure you’re familiar with it though my pronunciation may give you difficulty. The maxim is: Dovorey no provorey—trust, but verify.”
Gorbachev said: “You repeat that at every meeting.”
Reagan replied: “I like it.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism