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RONALD WILSON REAGAN / 1911- 2004

Reagan Dies at 93

Popular President Changed the Political Landscape

June 06, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

So it was that prospects seemed dim when Reagan and Gorbachev sat down on Nov. 19, 1985, in Geneva for their first summit. Reagan was the first U.S. president since Eisenhower to go more than four years without meeting his Soviet counterpart. During those four years, there were three Soviet leaders. They "kept dying on me," he quipped.

From the start, Reagan was relaxed and cordial. As Gorbachev, bundled against the cold, approached the mansion on Lake Geneva where they would hold their initial session, Reagan took off his overcoat and strode out onto the top step to greet him.

In "An American Life," he wrote: "As we shook hands for the first time, I had to admit -- as Margaret Thatcher and [Canadian] Prime Minister Brian Mulroney predicted I would -- that there was something likable about Gorbachev."

Reagan developed a personal sense of Gorbachev as someone he could deal with. But by afternoon the two of them were arguing about SDI. Reagan said the United States would never launch an initial strike with nuclear weapons and would prove it by sharing SDI technology with the Soviets.

Gorbachev did not believe him. For his part, the Soviet leader said that his nation had no aggressive intentions.

How could Americans believe that, Reagan asked, if Gorbachev did not believe him?

Reagan suggested some fresh air. He and Gorbachev strolled out to a pool house and talked in front of a blazing fire. They achieved no momentous breakthrough, but as they walked back, Reagan invited Gorbachev to meet again, this time in Washington. Gorbachev accepted and proposed a subsequent meeting in Moscow.

It set the stage for negotiation, not denunciation. The two leaders shared "a kind of chemistry," Reagan told Cannon. "Yes, we argued, and we'd go nose to nose. But when the argument was over, it was like it is with us. He wasn't stalking out of there and [saying] 'down with the lousy Americans' or anything. We fought it out, and maybe knew we were going to fight it out again, but when the meeting was over, we were normal."

In "An American Life," Reagan said he was reminded of his after-hours relationship with Tip O'Neill. The Soviet leader "could tell jokes about himself and even about his country, and I grew to like him more."

They ended the summit with a promise: to seek a 50% cut in nuclear weapons.

It looked impossible. Gorbachev remained adamant: no SDI, or no cuts. Reagan was committed to both: SDI and cuts. Worse, Cannon says, Reagan's advisors were more sharply divided than ever. Weinberger and Perle distrusted arms control and wanted SDI, at least partly to block an agreement. But Shultz and Nitze wanted an agreement so badly they were willing to give ground on SDI.

Gorbachev suggested meeting in Iceland or Britain before the Washington summit to see if he and Reagan could break the deadlock. Reagan chose Iceland. They met on Oct. 11, 1986, in Reykjavik. The two leaders argued about the missile cuts and about SDI, and their advisors negotiated through the night. By morning, they had neared agreement on the cuts -- but they remained far apart on SDI.

In "An American Life," Reagan says that Gorbachev would not budge on any SDI development outside the laboratory.

Reagan stood. "The meeting is over." He turned to Shultz. "Let's go, George. We're leaving."

Shultz was crushed, but Reagan was unfazed. "I went to Reykjavik determined that everything was negotiable except two things," he told the American people afterward. "Our freedom and our future."

Over the coming year, Shultz, Gorbachev and his advisors negotiated persistently to eliminate at least a lower level of weaponry: the U.S. and Soviet arsenals of intermediate and short-range missiles. In September 1987, Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced an agreement in principle on an Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, and Gorbachev came to Washington that December.

Crowds along the streets applauded him. Like an American politician, Gorbachev stopped his car, got out and shook hands.

On Dec. 8, Reagan and the Soviet leader sat at a White House table once used by Abraham Lincoln and put their names to a ban on all nuclear missiles with ranges of 300 miles to 3,400 miles.

The destruction of these missiles -- about 1,700 by the Soviet Union and 800 by the United States -- was well underway by the time Reagan left office.

As for the long-range missiles, it was obvious before the remaining Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow that SDI would be an insurmountable obstacle to any reduction. But Reagan went to the Soviet Union anyway.

He received a welcome from the Russians to match Gorbachev's in America. As Reagan walked through the Arbat, where artisans sold their wares, crowds pressed forward to greet him. KGB agents charged the people, causing a panic. But their friendly intentions carried the day.

Reagan spoke to students at Moscow State University, offering them his vision of the American dream. He met with 96 dissidents and pressed Gorbachev on human rights.

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