Military history

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In his early days in office in the spring of 1985, Gorbachev worked feverishly. Vladimir Medvedev, the Kremlin security director who had served since Brezhnev, watched in amazement. “After Brezhnev’s many years of illness and lethargy,” he recalled, “there was suddenly a volcano of energy near you.” Gorbachev worked until 1 or 2 A.M. and got up the next morning at 7 A.M. He was on his way to the Kremlin at 9:15 in the ZIL limousine. Gorbachev sat in the backseat, closing the glass sliding partition behind Medvedev and the driver, making notes, and placing calls on the two phones in the car. “Over this short period of time he managed to talk to 3 or 4 people,” Medvedev recalled. “Walking from the car to the office, he gave several orders, advice, promises—not a moment to catch his breath. Still walking, he gave concrete advice to the military, to civilians—whom to talk to, what to say, what to pay attention to, what to insist on, what to ignore. He spoke in short, precise sentences.”1

Gorbachev sent a shock wave of excitement through a moribund society. At a time when people were accustomed to flowery but empty official pronouncements, when portraits of leaders were dutifully hung from every wall, when conformity suffocated public discussion, Gorbachev’s style was refreshingly direct.2 Often he talked too much, wavered on important decisions and was slow to break out of the old Soviet mind-set. Yet the absolute core of his early drive was to halt the decay in Soviet living standards and rejuvenate society. He believed that open discussion was essential to the survival of socialism. He didn’t fear what people had to say. He believed in Lenin’s ideals, but concluded that leaders after Lenin had gone off track, and he wanted to set things right. It would have been so much easier to fall back into the old habits, to take the well-worn old pathways, but Gorbachev did not.

On a visit to Leningrad in May, he bantered with a large, jostling crowd on the street. It was an extraordinary sight to see a Soviet leader talking spontaneously with people. “I’m listening to you,” he told them. “What do you want to say?”

Someone shouted back, “Continue as you began!”

A woman’s voice broke in, “Just get close to the people, and we’ll not let you down.” Gorbachev, hemmed in tightly, responded with a smile. “Can I be any closer?” The crowd loved it.

In a combative speech to Leningrad Communists at Smolny Institute on the same visit, Gorbachev spoke largely without notes, insisting that the economy be reenergized, demanding that people who could not accept change must step aside. “Get out of the way. Don’t be a hindrance,” he declared.3 Gorbachev was skilled at manipulating the elders of the Politburo; he didn’t tell them in advance about the speech, in which he spilled out some of their closed deliberations in March and April. He was thrilled with the enthusiastic response, and took a video home from Leningrad. The following weekend he watched it with his family at the dacha. Then he ordered it to be shown on national television.4 Crowds lined up to get a pamphlet of the text at newsstands. Anatoly Chernyaev, the deputy chief of the International Department of the Central Committee, who played a key role in the great Gorbachev drama, recalled that in the past such texts would lie on the floor of the newsstands until the leader died. “The people are flabbergasted at the TV coverage of Gorbachev’s meetings and speeches in Leningrad,” Chernyaev wrote. “The question of the day is: Did you see it? At last we have a leader who knows what he is doing and enjoys it, who can relate to the people, speak in his own words, who doesn’t avoid contact and doesn’t worry about appearing magisterial. He really wants to get our wheels out of the rut, wake the people up, get them to be themselves, to use their common sense, to think and act.”5

At a Politburo meeting April 11, Gorbachev’s impatience was on full display. He was furious at the dreadful state of Soviet farming and at the food supply, which often spoiled in storage and transport. There were only enough warehouses for 26 percent of the fruit, vegetables and potatoes, and they were rotting; only a third of the storage facilities for produce had refrigeration. The loss of agricultural raw materials was running at 25 percent. As Chernyaev later lamented, any leader would see “the country was on the verge of collapse.” Gorbachev threatened the ministers that he would take away Kremlin privileges—an eatery and special food store—which allowed them to avoid exposure to the misery in most food shops.6

Even in his first blunder, a campaign against alcohol abuse, Gorbachev showed his determination to save the country from itself.7 The campaign was widely ridiculed and eventually dropped, but Gorbachev knew, correctly, that alcoholism had become a scourge. Per capita, the amount of alcohol consumed was two and a half times greater than it had been under the tsars. Gorbachev recalled that the saddest part was that vodka helped fill the consumer goods deficit; there was nothing else for people to buy with their rubles. Chernyaev sensed right away the campaign was doomed. One day he stopped by a grocery. “Everyone there from the manager to the saleswoman is drunk. The anti-alcoholism law is nothing for them. Try to fire them. Who are you going to find to replace them?”8

Less than two weeks after Gorbachev took power, two military men came to his office. Both held the rank of Marshal, the highest in the Soviet military. One was the unremarkable new defense minister, Sergei Sokolov, who had been appointed after Ustinov’s death. The other was Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the General Staff. Lean and muscular, not very tall, with a strong chest like an athlete and a thin face, Akhromeyev carried himself very straight, was known as an exacting commander and rarely smiled. He had joined the Red Army at age seventeen, just before the outbreak of World War II, fought to lift the siege of Leningrad and later commanded a tank battalion in Ukraine. He ended the war as a major. His generation went into the war surprised and outgunned, fighting the Nazi tanks with only rifles and Molotov cocktails. After the war, they graduated from the military academies and devoted their lives to the belief, as Akhromeyev put it, that “everything the Soviet Union achieved in the post-war organization of Europe and the world must be protected.”9 Their determination was only strengthened by the development of nuclear weapons.

By contrast, Gorbachev was a boy when the Germans invaded. He never served as a soldier, nor in the military-industrial complex or the defense establishment. Nor was Gorbachev in thrall to the great designers and scientists who had built the missiles and warheads that turned the Soviet Union into a nuclear superpower. Gorbachev simply did not share the worldview that the generals so deeply cherished and fervently protected. He did not see military power as decisive in global competition; he realized economic power was more potent. “We are encircled not by invincible armies,” he later concluded, “but by superior economies.”10

In the meeting with Sokolov and Akhromeyev, Gorbachev got his first look at the true size and scope of the Soviet defense machine, and it was enormous. As they finished, Gorbachev turned to Akhromeyev. “We begin to work together in difficult times,” he said. “I speak to you as a Communist. I know what I must do in the area of economics to correct the situation. I know where and what to do. But the area of defense is new for me. I count on your help.” Akhromeyev, who had been chief of the General Staff for only six months, and before that deputy chief, held sway over military policy and planning. He promised to give Gorbachev his help.11

Gorbachev realized that the sprawling defense establishment—the Army, Navy, Air Force, Strategic Rocket Forces, Air Defense Forces and all the institutes, design bureaus and factories that supported them—were a monumental burden on the country. How the military-industrial complex functioned, how far it ranged and how much it cost were concealed by deep secrecy, what Gorbachev called the “closed zones.”12 But Gorbachev’s travels around the country had provided him with hints. “Defense spending was bleeding the other branches of the economy dry,” he recalled. “When I visited defense plants and agricultural production complexes, I was always struck by the same picture. The defense production workshop making modern tanks, for example, had the newest equipment. The one working for agriculture was making obsolete models of tractors on old-time conveyor belts.”

“Over the previous five-year plans, military spending had been growing twice as fast as national income. This Moloch was devouring everything that hard labor and strain produced … What made matters worse was the fact that it was impossible to analyze the problem. All the figures related to the military-industrial complex were classified. Even Politburo members didn’t have access to them.”13

On the staff of the Central Committee, one man knew the secret inner workings of the military-industrial complex. Vitaly Katayev had the appearance of a thoughtful scientist or professor, with a long, angular face and wavy hair brushed straight back. As a teenager he loved to design model airplanes and ships. He spent two decades in aircraft and missile design and construction bureaus in Omsk and Ukraine, and took part in some of the largest missile projects of the Cold War before coming to the Central Committee headquarters in Moscow in 1974 to work on defense issues. In private, Katayev was a funny, quirky man who loved to sing and play musical instruments.14 But in his work at the Central Committee, he was very serious and precise. The Central Committee position was located in the heart of power, perhaps roughly equivalent to serving at the White House National Security Council. Katayev worked in the Defense Industry Department, later renamed just the Defense Department, which oversaw the military-industrial complex. Over many years, Katayev kept detailed records in large bound notebooks, often jotting down rows of numbers, drawing schematics of weapons systems, recording major decisions and debates. His notebooks and writings, revealed here for the first time, offer an unparalleled window on the inner workings of the Soviet military-industrial colossus.15Katayev described it once as “a sort of Soviet Texas—everything existed on a grand scale.” But Katayev knew it was not as fearsome as often portrayed. The defense establishment was run in a way that was extremely random, ad hoc, and subjective. Katayev knew that Soviet central planning did not work. Weapons were not built because they were needed, but rather because of the power of vested interests, of prominent designers, generals and Politburo members. To meet the artificial benchmarks of progress, everything had to increase every year, so the military was often saturated with weapons it did not need. The factories often lacked the necessary precision and reliability to produce high-technology weapons. Katayev recalled that while the Soviet Union had advanced science and a high level of design expertise, many projects were wrecked by miserable materials and sloppy production, for which no one was ever fired. Even such a simple ingredient as metals were often of unpredictable quality, so designers had to allow for wide margins. And it was not possible to fix the problems in electronics and high technology by design alone. A circuit board couldn’t be made more reliable by making it twice as large. There was a “permanent gap,” he said, between the drawing boards and the factories. This was the underside of the Soviet military machine.

Katayev’s notes show that the military-industrial complex was indeed as large as Gorbachev feared. In 1985, Katayev estimated, defense took up 20 percent of the Soviet economy.16 Of the 135 million adults working in the Soviet Union, Katayev said, 10.4 million worked directly in the military-industrial complex at 1,770 enterprises. Nine ministries served the military, although in a clumsy effort to mask its purpose, the nuclear ministry was given the name “Ministry of Medium Machine Building,” and others were similarly disguised. More than fifty cities were almost totally engaged in the defense effort, and hundreds less so. Defense factories were called upon to make the more advanced civilian products, too, including 100 percent of all Soviet televisions, tape recorders, movie and still cameras and sewing machines.17 Taking into account all the ways the Soviet military-industrial complex functioned and all the raw materials it consumed and all the tentacles that spread into civilian life, the true size of the defense burden on the economy may well have been even greater than Katayev estimated.

Gorbachev would need deep reserves of strength and cunning to challenge this leviathan. At one Politburo meeting, he lamented, “This country produced more tanks than people.” The military-industrial complex was its own army of vested interests: generals and officers in the services, designers and builders of weapons, ministers and planners in the government, propaganda organs, and party bosses everywhere, all united by the need, unquestioned, to meet the invisible Cold War threat. For decades, the threat had been the overriding reason to divert resources to defense and impose hardship on the Soviet people.18

In title, Gorbachev was the top man in this system: general secretary of the party, supreme commander and chairman of the defense council. But when he came to power in 1985, he was not really in control. The military-industrial complex was in the hands of Akhromeyev’s generation.

Gorbachev’s thinking about security was influenced by a group of progressives, outsiders to the military-industrial complex. They were academics from the institutes, people who, like Gorbachev, had been excited by the Khrushchev secret speech, but had grown fatigued by the stagnation in the Brezhnev years.19 They did not trust the military but knew of its immense power. Now they hoped to see reform rise again, and Gorbachev listened to them.

An important figure in this inner circle was Yevgeny Velikhov, an avuncular and open-minded physicist who was then deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. As a child, Velikhov had devoured books about science. He entered Moscow State University just after Stalin died in 1953. After graduation, he joined the institute, headed by Igor Kurchatov, leader of the Soviet atomic bomb project. Velikhov was lucky to be assigned to a famous physicist, Mikhail Leontovich, who supervised theoretical research on controlled nuclear fusion and plasma physics. “The atmosphere was wonderful,” Velikhov recalled. “Plasma physics was just emerging, and we felt that we had very few rivals anywhere in the world.” Velikhov was allowed to travel, and in the summer of 1962, he visited universities in New York, Boston and Chicago, and stopped at Los Alamos. He built his own network of contacts with American scientists.20

When Velikhov became a vice president of the Academy of Sciences in 1977, he was the youngest to hold the position. His first assignment was to focus on cybernetics and computer technology in the Soviet Union, and he found they were in “very bad shape.” One day in the early 1980s, Velikhov invited Gorbachev, then a Politburo member, to his office at the academy. He recalled telling Gorbachev about the Apple computer on his desk, which he had brought from overseas. “I showed him and I said, ‘Look, this is a revolution.’” Once in power, Gorbachev continued to listen to Velikhov.

Others in Gorbachev’s circle were Yakovlev, the reformist thinker who walked with Gorbachev in the orchard in Canada in 1983 and was now at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and Georgi Arbatov, director of the Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, who was a critical channel of ideas and information for Gorbachev in the early years.

Gorbachev was desperate for real information, cutting through the mountains of artificial data. “We especially need objective information, showing not what we would like to see but what really is,” Gorbachev appealed to the Politburo.21 Georgi Shakhnazarov said the military tried to manipulate the leadership. “They reported to the leadership one thing, while thinking and doing something totally different,” he said. “It was a cat and mouse game.”22

In Afghanistan, the military was sinking deeper and deeper into a losing quagmire. In Gorbachev’s first months, angry letters flooded into the Central Committee from around the country decrying the war. In April 1985, Reagan wrote to Gorbachev, “Isn’t it long overdue to reach a political resolution of this tragic affair?” Just weeks before he wrote this, Reagan signed a classified order, National Security Decision Directive 166, which provided the legal basis for a massive escalation of the CIA’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, setting a new and more ambitious goal. Instead of just supporting resistance to the Red Army, now the CIA decided to push the Soviets out.23 Arbatov gave Gorbachev a memo that included far-reaching ideas, including that “we must cease with Afghanistan.” On June 19, 1985, Gorbachev called Arbatov to the Kremlin and told him Afghanistan was a “paramount issue” for him.24 In August, Soviet soldiers revolted on a train headed to Afghanistan; they did not want to be shipped off to a war where ten soldiers were killed every day. Gorbachev began planning a retreat, but it took years.

Looking back, Gorbachev recalled that he had to “clear up the ‘snow drifts’ left over from Cold War times.” Afghanistan was just one. In foreign policy, he said, what he had in mind were “not simply cosmetic changes, but practically a U-turn.”

Yet the outside world did not see this right away. Gorbachev’s early overtures to Reagan were given the brush-off. When Gorbachev proposed April 7 to freeze the Pioneer missiles in Europe that had stirred the West to deploy the Pershing IIs and cruise missiles, Reagan and Thatcher immediately refused, saying it was a propaganda gambit. Their deployments were only getting started, so a freeze would leave the two sides unequal.25 “Unhelpful,” Reagan wrote to Gorbachev on April 30. “I cannot help but wonder what the purpose could have been in presenting a proposal which is, in its essence, not only an old one, but one which was known to provide no basis for serious negotiation.”26 What Reagan may not have known was that, in the Kremlin, the Pioneer missiles, also known as the SS-20s, were already viewed as a mistake. “Why do we need these SS-20s?” Chernyaev asked in his diary two weeks before Reagan’s letter. “Their installation was as foolish as Khrushchev’s missiles in Cuba in 1962.”27

On April 17, Gorbachev proposed a moratorium on nuclear tests. The United States again said no. The arms control negotiations in Geneva, which resumed in early 1985, soon stalled.28 Out of frustration, Shultz quietly put together a secret overture to Moscow. With Reagan’s approval, he met with Dobrynin in Washington in June and offered a trade-off: if both sides made deep cuts in offensive nuclear weapons, perhaps Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative could be slowed down. Shultz also proposed that negotiations be started through a confidential back channel, bypassing the deadlocked Geneva talks. In two weeks, the answer came back from Moscow: unequivocally no. “The Soviets wanted to stop SDI in its tracks, not just moderate it,” Shultz recalled.29 Dobrynin later said there was another reason: Gromyko had killed the idea because he feared the back channel would bypass him.30

It was Gromyko’s last chance to say “nyet.” On June 29, Gorbachev replaced Gromyko as foreign minister, moving him to be chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Gromyko, who held the post twenty-eight years, was a custodian of the old thinking—the world as a collision of two opposing camps—which Gorbachev was about to demolish. Gorbachev then stunned everyone by naming Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgia party leader, as foreign minister. “This was like a bolt from the blue,” recalled Chernyaev.31 Shevardnadze, who had spent his entire career in Georgia, shared Gorbachev’s understanding of the poverty of the Russian heartland. They stood out from others in the leadership—they did not have experience in heavy industry or the military-industrial complex.32 Shevardnadze had little familiarity with diplomacy, but he was a politician, and he had Gorbachev’s trust. He was promoted immediately to a full Politburo member. In the same session, Gorbachev appointed Lev Zaikov, a Leningrad party official, to oversee the military-industrial complex. Katayev would be one of Zaikov’s key staffers at the Central Committee. “There are many obstacles in this area of our work,” Gorbachev said. “We need to fix things here.”33

Chernyaev said Soviet propaganda was so stale, no one believed it, “and the root of the Geneva deadlock is this. Revolutionary approaches to talks are needed, identical to the one Gorbachev demonstrated in Leningrad.”

“The question is about the fact that we must stop treading water,” Chernyaev concluded, “as the arms race is about to shoot out of control.”34

Just after Gorbachev took office, in the spring and early summer of 1985, the directors, designers and constructors of satellites, space boosters, radars and lasers produced a colossal new plan for Gorbachev’s approval. Unknown to the outside world, the Soviet military-industrial complex laid on Gorbachev’s desk a plea for their own “Star Wars.” It came two years after Reagan had announced his Strategic Defense Initiative. It would propel the Soviet Union on the path of previous decades, faithful to the Cold War trajectory of two worlds in collision and ceaseless competition.

Since 1984, the Soviet leadership had been increasingly anxious about Reagan’s dream, and Reagan gave them plenty to worry about. In his second inaugural speech in early 1985, Reagan offered a high-flying description of his program, calling it a global shield to make nuclear weapons obsolete. “I have approved a research program to find, if we can, a security shield that will destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target,” he said. “It wouldn’t kill people. It would destroy weapons. It wouldn’t militarize space, it would help demilitarize the arsenals of the Earth. It would render nuclear weapons obsolete.”

In Moscow, the KGB made its highest priority gathering intelligence about “American policy on the militarization of space.” That was the title of a ten-page directive issued three and a half weeks after Reagan’s inaugural speech. Soviet spies were ordered to gather intelligence on all the American programs that might deploy systems in space for nuclear and conventional war. They were asked to watch the use of the American space shuttle for deploying weapons in space, the U.S. effort to build an anti-satellite weapon; and they were given extensive tasks to spy on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Woven into the KGB’s instructions were details already plucked from newspapers about Reagan’s program, such as the budget sums and the broad direction, along with ample doses of fear and skepticism about the unknowns. Perhaps Reagan’s program would never work? Perhaps there was a hidden purpose? The KGB was “very anxious to know,” the instruction said, precisely what were the Reagan administration’s plans, how they were evolving, and the “targets, dates and expected financial outlay.” The KGB wanted to know what technical results were achieved in tests, whether it was possible to shoot down a missile using “kinetic weapons,” such as hitting it with another missile or solid object. And what were Reagan’s intentions for negotiating? Was Star Wars really a “large-scale disinformation operation” designed to force the Soviet negotiators into making concessions?35

An avalanche of intelligence reporting began to flow to Moscow, and stacks of it crossed Katayev’s desk. He observed that the spies were lazy and passive; they often simply sent along press clippings as intelligence. What the agents and Soviet military analysts feared the most, Katayev realized, was to underestimate the seriousness of the threat, so they overestimated it. No one could honestly declare that Star Wars would not work, so they reported that it might. The spies flooded the system with reports of the threat; before long, the military-industrial complex geared up to counter the threat. Starting in 1985 and continuing through the decade, Katayev recalled that about ten cables a day came through his offices in the Central Committee on political-military and technical issues. Of them, 30–40 percent dealt with Star Wars and missile defense. Katayev wondered if the Americans were deliberately trying to choke Moscow with fear by leaking a flood of information.36 In the two years since Reagan’s announcement, the Strategic Defense Initiative was not even close to blueprints—it was still little more than a dream—but it had grabbed the attention of the Soviet leadership.

To build a Soviet Star Wars would mean enormous, lucrative new subsidies for work at the design bureaus, institutes and defense factories. Many of these designers and workers already enjoyed better living conditions than the general population. It was, Katayev recalled, like a hunting dog sensing a new quarry. By summer of 1985, the weapons chiefs pulled together a comprehensive plan for a Soviet missile defense system. According to Katayev’s notebooks and papers, there were two major umbrella programs, each of which included a sprawling array of separate projects ranging from fundamental exploratory research to building equipment ready for flight tests. The two umbrella programs had code names. The first was “D-20,” which included research on ground-based missile defenses and was assigned to the Ministry of Radio Industry, which traditionally had worked on early warning, command and control and the Moscow anti-ballistic missile system. The second was “SK-1000,” a product of the design bureaus of the Ministry of General Machine Building, which oversaw missile and space-related research, development and production. Katayev calculated that altogether the programs would have involved 137 projects in the opytno-konstruktorskie raboty phase, or design and testing; 34 projects in nauchno-issledovatelskiye raboty, or scientific research; and 115 in fundamental science. The estimates of the costs ran into the tens of billions of rubles, enough to keep the design bureaus working full tilt into the late 1980s. Given obscure code names such as Fundament-4 and Integral-3, Onega E, Spiral, Saturn, Kontakt, Echelon and Skif, the programs went on for pages and pages in Katayev’s notebooks. Most of the proposals brought to the Kremlin that summer were intended to produce initial results in 1987–1988; Katayev kept track of goals and targets through 1990.37

For all the imposing scope and cost, the grand package concealed deep cracks in the system. Some of the programs, started years earlier, lacked results or purpose, or were starved for resources. Some of them were nearly abandoned or obsolete, hoping for a rebirth. SK-1000 included virtually all the space launcher and satellite programs that were underway in the Soviet Union at that time.

One program that illustrated the ambitions, haste and deficiencies that plagued Soviet space weapons builders was an anti-satellite craft known as Skif. The goal of Skif, started in 1976, was to carry a laser in space that could shoot down enemy satellites. The original idea was to build nothing less than a space battle station. It would be hoisted into orbit by the Energia, an enormous booster then under development, and perhaps serviced by the Buran, the planned Soviet space shuttle. By 1984, the Skif program had yet to produce any hardware because there was no laser that would be suitable for space weaponry. The Soviets were shaken that June by news of the successful American missile interception over the Pacific, the lucky single hit, known as the Homing Overlay Experiment, described earlier. Even without a space laser, the government in August ordered creation of a “demonstration” spacecraft, the Skif-D, which would carry a smaller, substitute laser, one that could not shoot down satellites but would at least replicate the original idea. Then, in 1985, came the renewed planning for a Soviet Star Wars. The Skif-D was modified once again. This time it was to be put on an accelerated schedule to fly by the following year. However, the designers still lacked a laser. So they decided to create a mock-up with no functioning laser equipment on board, and called it “Skif-DM.” The vessel was to be 36.9 meters long and weigh 77 tons. The Skif mock-up demonstrator was among those programs offered to Gorbachev for accelerated work in the summer of 1985.38

Roald Sagdeev, a physicist and director of the Space Research Institute, a leader in the Soviet deep-space exploration effort, recalled attending a small meeting in Gorbachev’s office. Gorbachev was still on a learning curve, asking questions and absorbing details about complicated arms control issues. According to Sagdeev, a top official of the Soviet space industry appealed to Gorbachev to build his own Star Wars. “Trust me,” the official said. “We are losing time while doing nothing to build our own counterpart to the American SDI program.”

“I almost died from suppressing my laughter,” Sagdeev recalled. He realized that the Soviet Union could not afford billions of rubles to do it and lacked critical technology, especially high-speed computers and precision optics.39

These were still early days for Gorbachev, and he was clearly not yet fully in control. The list of D-20 and SK-1000 could only have added to his fears about the military-industrial complex. On July 15, 1985, the Central Committee approved the huge list of proposals for a Soviet missile defense. What is significant here is not so much the approval—most of the programs were years away from materializing—but the unbridled ambitions of the designers and builders. They wanted to construct a massive and expensive response to Reagan’s dream. In the past, they had been the driving force behind Soviet weapons systems. Gorbachev would have to outfox them.

Velikhov, by his own experience and outlook, was ready to help navigate the forbidding obstacle course Gorbachev faced. Both open-minded and entrepreneurial, Velikhov was the right man at the right time. His specialty was nuclear and plasma physics. When the Soviet weapons designers gave Gorbachev their grand plan, he spotted the faults. Velikhov knew the top-secret history of Soviet efforts to build missile defenses, dating back to the 1960s, because he had participated in it. Certainly, they had achieved scientific and engineering breakthroughs against great odds, but the Soviet Union fell short of building next-generation weapons in space.40

The most concrete achievement was completion of a ground-based missile defense system around Moscow, as permitted by the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. In the event of an attack, interceptor rockets were poised to shoot up from locations around the city and knock out the incoming warheads. The Soviets had also launched a relatively primitive anti-satellite weapon, first designed in the 1960s, which would position itself into the same orbit as a target satellite and shoot conventional weapons at it. The system had largely ceased to work by 1983.41

But there were also many setbacks, especially in the quest for exotic laser and space weapons, which consumed huge expenditures in the 1960s and 1970s. A testing ground was constructed for this work at Sary Shagan, near the eastern shores of Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan. Scientists, designers and their military patrons dreamed of building powerful beams capable of striking satellites from space battle stations or stopping missiles in flight. They drew designs of lasers in space and on the ground, long before Reagan’s dream was unveiled. But they never knocked anything out of the sky.

One of the legendary Cold War designers was Vladimir Chelomei, architect of the SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile, the Proton launcher, the Soviet cruise missile and the early anti-satellite weapon. In 1978, near the end of his career, he proposed to build and launch “baby” space shuttles carrying anti-satellite weapons. Velikhov, a rising star in a younger generation, served on a commission to examine Chelomei’s baby shuttle. The commission rejected it, and in the process Velikhov gained a much deeper appreciation of the difficulty of missile defense. “The Chelomei affair was killed,” Velikhov said. “And this was a very good inoculation for Russia against the Star Wars proposal by Reagan, because five years before, we had already had all these internal discussions, with a very detailed analysis on the technical engineering level.”

The challenges of stopping a missile in flight were a technical nightmare. Scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union struggled from 1962 to 1978 to build super-powerful lasers that could knock out satellites and missiles. The first major project, known as LE-1, was a ruby laser, built at Sary Shagan, that eventually proved capable of tracking airplanes about one hundred kilometers away, but not in space, and the laser was not capable of shooting down objects.42 A more advanced laser, code-named Terra-3, was also on the drawing boards for a decade, and the plan was to test it at Sary Shagan, where a structure was built for the power source and laser-beam-pointing system. Although Soviet scientists made advances in laser technology during Terra-3, it never worked as a weapon. The reentry vehicles that the system was supposed to shoot down are very difficult targets. The project was abandoned by 1978.43 A follow-up called Terra-3K was also planned, with a goal of using a high-power laser to attack low-orbit satellites, but it never worked.44

Despite the Herculean efforts, the designers ran into difficulty when they reached the limits of Soviet technology and innovation and the vexing physics of missile defense. Laser weapons demanded enormous energy sources, superb optics and precision targeting. The designers and scientists struggled with the tendency of a beam to dissipate as it shot into space. Velikhov, as a physicist and vice president of the academy, knew the designers and their troubles. In his own research, he had helped build a magneto hydrodynamic generator, which created huge amounts of electricity in a short burst, a potential laser power supply. Velikhov knew as well that an almost insurmountable roadblock for Soviet designers was the primitive state of their computers. Massive amounts of fast calculations would be necessary to hit a bullet shooting through space. Velikhov was in charge of the academy’s department for computer science. He knew the Soviet Union was a decade or more behind in computer technology.

While many Soviet weapons scientists worked in secrecy and isolation, Velikhov benefited from much broader horizons. When Pope John Paul II called for an examination of the dangers of nuclear war by scientists from around the world, Velikhov was chosen by the authorities to represent the Soviet Union. At the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the autumn of 1982, Velikhov had extensive contacts with scientists in debates over nuclear war and weapons in space. The Vatican declaration called on global powers never to use nuclear weapons in war. “The catastrophe of nuclear war can and must be prevented,” the declaration said.45This was consistent with Soviet disarmament propaganda, but the experience in Rome and other meetings gave Velikhov a better understanding of the West that would help him guide Gorbachev. Also, in May 1983, two months after Reagan’s speech on missile defense, Velikhov was named head of a group of twenty-five Soviet scientists intended to warn of the dangers of nuclear war.46 Again, promoting Soviet disarmament propaganda may have been the intent, but Velikhov and the scientists steered their own course.

Velikhov was asked by the Kremlin in late 1983 to once again evaluate the Reagan missile defense proposal from a technical standpoint. The conclusion was that Reagan’s dream would not work. The Soviet scientists knew this from their own hard labor and failures. When Gorbachev came to power two years later, Velikhov dusted off the same document. He had accumulated all the knowledge and experience necessary to give an honest and cold-eyed appraisal of the reality of missile defense.47

He used that experience at a key turning point in the summer and early autumn of 1985. Velikhov urged Gorbachev not to build a Soviet version of Star Wars. He suggested they abandon the Cold War approach of toe-to-toe competition. Gorbachev was naturally open to this argument; he also wanted, in principle, to move away from the zero-sum game. But it was Velikhov who helped lead Gorbachev to something different.

The Soviet weapons designers wanted to match what Reagan was doing, a symmetrical response. By contrast, Velikhov argued for an “asymmetrical response,” one that would answer Reagan but not be the same. To stop ballistic missiles in flight, an American defense system would have to target and destroy a thousand speeding points in space almost perfectly and simultaneously. To counter it, one idea for “asymmetrical response” was to unleash so many speeding points—warheads, either real or fake—that the American defense system would be overwhelmed. Some of the Soviet missiles would penetrate and get through to their targets.

There were different ideas among Soviet experts about the hardware for “asymmetrical response.” According to Katayev’s records, Soviet engineers came up with technological tricks to fool the anti-missile system. For example, they could launch decoys or chaff, to imitate the warheads and deceive the defenses. They could spin and maneuver warheads to avoid detection, or blind the American satellites and command centers, knocking out the eyes of the defensive system.

Another method was more ominous: build more missiles and an avalanche of additional nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union was good at missiles, and it would be easier and cheaper to double or triple the missile warheads than to build an entirely new defense against them. This approach was hypothetical, but not entirely. Katayev recalled that the latest version of the SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile carried ten warheads each. This was the biggest, most feared, multiple-warhead weapon in the Soviet arsenal. But if the missile’s range was shortened somewhat, and the warheads made smaller, he wrote, the SS-18 could actually be modified to carry “up to 40 nuclear warheads. And this one missile alone!” In a separate, more precise chart in his files, Katayev noted the modified SS-18 could carry thirty-eight warheads. At the time, the Soviet Union deployed 308 of these missiles. If they were modified, the fleet would go from 2,464 warheads to a total of 12,084. It would be much more difficult for American defenses to stop. This was only a concept that had been discussed in earlier years by missile designers, but it illustrated what could become a potent Soviet response to Reagan’s Star Wars.48

Gorbachev would most certainly not favor this version of “asymmetrical response.” He wanted to eliminate weapons, not propagate them. In his memoir, he avoided talking about the details of this option. When the author questioned Gorbachev in an interview in 2006, he was still uneasy about discussing it. “We did have a project,” he said. “There was one. It existed. But it is closed down. And destroyed. It’s only tens of billions” of rubles. “But it’s a horrible project, it’s a horrible response.” He added, “What is one missile, SS-18? It’s a hundred Chernobyls. In one missile.”49

More weapons were not the only answer. There was a third approach to “asymmetrical response.” Words were Gorbachev’s stock-in-trade, and his best weapon. He was a robust if long-winded orator. Could he simply say “no” to the Reagan dream, persuade Reagan of his folly and talk it into oblivion? Perhaps he could strike a deal to cancel a giant weapons machine that the United States did not yet possess, that the Soviet Union would have great trouble matching, and exchange it all for something they both wanted: deep reductions in existing nuclear weapons.

Gorbachev realized this was his best answer. If he could talk Reagan out of his dream of missile defense, it would prevent stiff competition on a field—high technology—where the Soviet Union lagged years behind. There was an important domestic component too. The military-industrial complex constantly pressed for more resources, saying the United States was a threat. If Gorbachev could persuade Reagan not to build “Star Wars,” he would find it easier to resist the generals and the missile designers at home. By slowing the arms race, Gorbachev might find time and resources to begin modernizing the country.

Yet in the summer of 1985, the military and defense industries were powerful forces. Velikhov saw Gorbachev was buffeted by crosscurrents. He was a man of the party who depended on the Central Committee bureaucracy; he had no choice but to listen to the generals, the ministers and the KGB; and the military establishment distrusted Velikhov, Yakovlev and other progressive thinkers around the general secretary. Gorbachev was personally wary of the military and defense industry, and surrounded himself with advisers who shared his caution, but he did not, and could not, move overtly or swiftly against them.50

Behind the scenes, however, Gorbachev was starting to lead the country in a radical new direction. A leader’s courage is often defined by building something, by positive action, but in this case, Gorbachev’s great contribution was in deciding what not to do. He would not build a Soviet Star Wars. He averted another massive weapons competition.

Gorbachev didn’t show his hand right away. The full dimensions of this change in direction took time to appear. If anything, Gorbachev was good at tactics.

In late July, he announced the Soviet Union, by itself, would stop nuclear testing, and invited the United States to follow suit. Reagan did not.

To Velikhov’s confident assertion that the Strategic Defense Initiative would not work, his Soviet colleagues often posed a difficult question: if it was not possible to create an effective missile shield with America’s best technology, if Reagan was utterly dreaming when he talked about making nuclear weapons obsolete, then why was the United States devoting so much money to it, year after year? As Katayev recalled it, the Soviet analysts saw “a clear discrepancy between the goals and the means” of Reagan’s announced intentions. “What is it being done for?” the Soviet specialists asked themselves, according to Katayev. “In the name of what are the Americans, famous for their pragmatism, opening their wallet for the most grandiose project in the history of the United States when the technical and economic risks of a crash exceed all thinkable limits?”

“Or,” Katayev wrote, “is there still something different behind this curtain?” To the Soviet specialists on strategic weapons, Katayev said, Reagan’s zeal for his dream led them “from the very beginning to think about the possibility of political bluff and hoax.” They pondered whether it was a “Hollywood village of veneer and cardboard.” The question went unanswered.

According to Katayev, a few Soviet experts—he doesn’t say exactly who—held an even darker view of Reagan’s goals. They concluded that the Americans were always distinguished by their systematic approach to problems, that they “do nothing in vain.” Rather than a hoax or bluff, they decided the Strategic Defense Initiative was a cover story for a gigantic, hidden effort to subsidize American defense contractors, save them from “bankruptcy” and produce a fresh surge of superior military high technology. Perhaps, Katayev said, this “was the major underwater part of the SDI iceberg.” This analysis was woefully misguided. While Reagan did fatten the defense contractors with record military budgets in the early 1980s, defense spending was a relatively small slice of the overall American economy. While there was a fresh surge of high technology, much of it was sprouting in the private sector, in the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. And in the United States, defense contractors simply did not play the same role as the outsized military-industrial complex in the Soviet Union. The Soviet analysts were mistakenly applying their own experience—in which the military-industrial complex was at the center of decisions—to what they could not explain in the United States. Each side in the Cold War remained a mysterious black box to the other. The Americans could not see Gorbachev’s radical intentions. The Soviets could not understand Reagan’s dream.

In late August 1985, Gorbachev gave an interview to Time magazine, his rhetoric offering a refreshing change from the decades of Cold War confrontation. When asked about the Strategic Defense Initiative, Gorbachev said Soviet experts believed it was “sheer fantasy and a pipe dream.” His progressive brain trust had helped prepare his remarks.51Two weeks later, Reagan wrote in his diary, “I made a decision we would not trade away our program of research—S.D.I. for a promise of Soviet reduction in nuclear arms.”52 Arriving in Washington for the first time on September 27, Shevardnadze gave Reagan a letter from Gorbachev offering to cut long-range nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers by 50 percent in exchange for “a complete ban on space attack weapons.” The offer didn’t fly; Reagan could not accept the limits on Star Wars. But he was ready for deep cuts in existing nuclear arsenals.53

In Washington, both the Defense Department under Weinberger and the CIA under Casey and Gates were deeply skeptical of Gorbachev. The Pentagon published a glossy annual booklet, Soviet Military Power, a propaganda piece designed to help boost congressional support for Reagan’s military spending. The fourth edition, published in April 1985, contained the claim that the Soviets had “two ground-based lasers that are capable of attacking satellites in various orbits.”54 This was a gross exaggeration; neither the LE-1 nor the Terra-3 lasers could attack anything. An artist’s conception, a black-and-white pencil sketch, appeared across the top, showing what purported to be the Sary Shagan proving ground. A building with a dome on top was shown firing a white laser beam into the heavens. The caption said, “The directed-energy R&D site at the Sary Shagan proving ground includes ground-based lasers that could be used in an anti-satellite role today and possibly a BMD role in the future.” The key words were “could” and “possibly.” In fact, the long, expensive search to build laser weapons against targets in space had, up to this point, totally fizzled. The Soviets had not given up hope, but the glossy Pentagon booklet took old failures and hyped them into new threats.

In October, the State and Defense departments published a new report titled “Soviet Strategic Defensive Programs.” The pencil sketch of Sary Shagan appeared again. The text claimed that Soviet achievements in laser weapons “have been impressive.” It was true the Soviet scientists had scored advances in lasers, but they had not created an exotic weapon that worked. The text said that the Soviets “may also have the capability to develop the optical systems necessary for laser weapons to track and attack their targets.” In fact, they could track, but not attack.

Reagan picked up the theme in a radio speech October 12. “The Soviets have for a long time been doing advanced research on their version of SDI,” the president said. “They’re doing so well, our experts say they may be able to put an advanced technology defensive system in space by the end of the century.” One might dismiss this as just standard rhetoric, but Reagan’s words suggest that he never really grasped the impact on the military of the economic decay and stifling leadership in the Soviet system. Through superhuman striving, against all odds, the Soviet Union managed to reach superpower status, and yet there were massive internal stresses and agonizing fissures. The Soviet Union was not ready to put a missile defense system in space as Reagan claimed. They were not ready to knock out a satellite with lasers—and would never do so. It was a tragedy that a country that had spawned some of the great minds in mathematics and physics, that had produced chess champions and launched Sputnik, was by the 1980s behind in the computer revolution, sinking in economic backwardness and totally unprepared for the next century. But Reagan saw weakness only on the domestic side of the Soviet Union. He saw the military as ten feet tall.

In one of the more notable errors of judgment, the October report on Soviet strategic defenses accused leading Soviet scientists, including Velikhov, of being hypocrites. In one passage, the document noted that many of them had signed a letter published in the New York Times in opposition to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Velikhov was named and singled out with a photo. It was noted accurately that Velikhov had been head of the Institute of Atomic Energy at Troitsk, a branch of the Kurchatov Institute, located outside of Moscow, “where lasers for strategic and tactical applications are being developed.” The connotation was that Velikhov was a mindless propaganda puppet of the regime and a secret weaponeer. The Americans missed the point. While Velikhov had worked on laser weapons, that was precisely the reason he could tell Gorbachev the unvarnished truth about missile defense.

Reagan was eager to meet Gorbachev and try out his one-on-one persuasive powers as a November summit in Geneva drew near. No summit had been held since 1979; Reagan had only three years of his presidency remaining. He did not want to lose time. “Starting with Brezhnev, I’d dreamed of personally going one-on-one with a Soviet leader,” Reagan later wrote in his memoirs, saying he believed if the leaders agreed on something, all else would fall into place. Now, he was at last going to get his chance.

Reagan, who liked one-page briefing papers, was buried under a mountain of information in preparation for the summit. McFarlane and Matlock assembled two dozen briefing papers from the CIA and State Department, about eight to ten pages each, single spaced. McFarlane said Reagan received them eagerly, jotting notes in the margins.55 But Reagan privately complained, “I’m getting d–n sick of cramming like a school kid.”56 The experts told the president that Gorbachev represented a fresh style of Soviet leader, that dramatic changes were underway, but none threatening the system itself.57 Shultz recalled that “word from the intelligence community and other Soviet specialists around the government was that the Soviet Union would never, indeed could never, change no matter how bad their internal economic and social problems were.”58 The CIA briefing paper given to Reagan, titled “Gorbachev’s Personal Agenda for the November Meeting,” said Gorbachev had “little expectation of any major substantive breakthrough on arms control or regional issues.” Gates, a longtime Soviet specialist, who also briefed the president, predicted that Gorbachev wasn’t going to be pushed around. His conclusion: “Gorbachev simply intended to outwait Reagan.”59

For Reagan, one CIA briefing proved riveting, by specialist Kay Oliver, who had just drafted a National Intelligence Estimate titled “Domestic Stress on the Soviet System.” She told Reagan of the decay in everyday life in the Soviet Union—alcoholism, alienation, drug abuse, economic decline—and explained how the “ruling elite had become stagnant, cynical, outrageously corrupt and ineffective” in the 1970s and early 1980s.60 These themes reinforced Reagan’s lifelong assumptions. He wrote approvingly in his diary that Oliver “confirmed things I had heard from unconfirmed sources. The Soviet U. is an ec. basket case & among other things there is a rapidly spreading turn by the people to religion.”61

Reagan was attentive to Suzanne Massie, the author and Soviet culture expert, and read her book Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. Massie recalled that when she met Reagan, he seemed hungry to learn more about the Russians as people than he was getting from the briefing papers. “He was an actor: actors like to absorb from feeling, and he just wasn’t getting that…kind of juice, if you want, that helped him make sense of affairs, from his official sources.” In her briefing, Massie tried to counter the Hollywood stereotypes of the Russians. She told him Gorbachev had been called to rule a country that was unruly and fractious, “not a whole lot of Communists marching in locked step, that it was far from that.” Massie also told Reagan not to worry about the contrasts being made between himself and the younger Gorbachev—that in fact Reagan was in a stronger position.62

Summing up his impressions, Reagan wrote by hand on a yellow pad a four-and-a-half page memo. The note, which was typed up and then corrected by Reagan in ballpoint pen, offers a valuable snapshot of his thinking before the meeting. Reagan accepted the cautious view that Gorbachev would not bring radical change.

“I believe,” he wrote, “Gorbachev is a highly intelligent leader totally dedicated to traditional Soviet goals.”

Reagan added, “He will be a formidable negotiator and will try to make Soviet foreign and military policy more effective. He is (as are all Soviet General Secretaries) dependent on the Soviet-Communist hierarchy and will be out to prove to them his strength and dedication to Soviet traditional goals.” On arms control, Reagan wrote that Gorbachev wished to “reduce the burden of defense spending that is stagnating the Soviet economy,” and that “could contribute to his opposition to SDI” since “he doesn’t want to face the cost of competing with us.”63

The economic pressures on the Soviet system had gravely worsened that autumn. Saudi Arabia increased oil production in a radical change in policy that was undertaken to boost its market share. A glut of crude hit world oil markets, prices collapsed and so did Soviet foreign currency earnings. By one estimate, Moscow had just lost $20 billion a year. Gorbachev’s backward country suddenly became a lot poorer.64

Reagan’s memo also included a curious statement about the Soviet military. In the original memo, he wrote that an internal study “makes it plain the Soviets are planning a war. They would like to win without it and their chances of doing that depend on being so prepared we could be faced with a surrender or die ultimatum.” The surrender-or-die ultimatum was one of Reagan’s old chestnuts from his anti-communism speeches. Reagan’s comment seemed to be lifted right out of his late-1970s slogans warning of a “window of vulnerability.”

According to Matlock, Reagan “had not been advised that the Soviets were planning to start a war, but that they were planning so that they could fight one and prevail.”

When he read what he had written, Reagan felt misgivings, and crossed out the part about the Soviets planning a war. He substituted instead: “They would like to win by being so much better prepared we could be faced with a surrender or die ultimatum.” It was still a skeptical, fearsome, dark view of the other side.

To prepare for the summit, Shultz and McFarlane went to Moscow and met Gorbachev on November 5. They found Gorbachev in a feisty, uncompromising mood. Gorbachev’s remarks followed the broad outline of the “asymmetrical response,” but he was clumsy. He attacked Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, saying at one point the purpose was to bail out the military-industrial complex in the United States, which Gorbachev claimed employed 18 million Americans. Shultz, an economist and former labor secretary, was surprised at Gorbachev’s bad information, and responded that defense was only a small part of the American economy. He delivered a mini-lecture to Gorbachev—which he had composed in his mind before the trip—about how the global economy was turning to a new information age. Gorbachev was stubborn and unmoved. “We know what’s going on,” he insisted. “We know why you’re doing this. You’re inspired by illusions. You think you’re ahead of us in information. You think you’re ahead of us in technology and that you can use these things to gain superiority over the Soviet Union. But this is an illusion.” If Reagan went ahead with the plan for Star Wars, Gorbachev warned, “We will let you bankrupt yourselves.”

Then he added, “We will engage in a buildup that will break your shield.”65

Shultz called Reagan afterward. Reagan wrote in his journal that night, “Gorbachev is adamant we must cave in our S.D.I.—well, this will be a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.”66

After Shultz flew back and briefed Reagan, the president added, “It seems Mr. G. is filled with a lot of false info about the U.S. & believes it all. For example, Americans hate the Russians because our arms manufacturers stir them up with propaganda so they can keep selling us weapons.”67 Reagan vowed, “In Geneva I’ll have to get him in a room alone and set him straight.”68

In the weeks before the summit, Roald Sagdeev, the space institute director who had been skeptical about a Soviet Star Wars, was invited to a meeting at the Central Committee with others from the academic and arts elite. They were told that, from now on, they were totally free to meet foreigners without asking permission. “It was a thrilling sensation,” Sagdeev recalled. “In a society where everything was under strict control and tight regulation, even phone numbers could not be given to foreigners.” He was ordered to join Velikhov and other leading advisers to Gorbachev on a plane to Geneva one week before the summit. The instructions: be open, give press interviews.69 Hundreds of reporters called, and the group kept busy. A total of 3,614 journalists, including television technicians, registered for the summit. They were drawn by the sense of unpredictability—rarely in the history of superpower summits had there been a meeting without a prearranged script and treaty to be signed; adding to the uncertainty was Reagan’s long history of anti-communism and the curiosity stirred by Gorbachev’s first months in power. The CIA was there, too. The agency “pulled out all the stops to make Gorbachev feel unwelcome in Geneva,” Gates recalled. The CIA sponsored anti-Soviet demonstrations, meetings and exhibits.70

When he arrived in Geneva November 16, Reagan, then seventy-four years old, was full of anticipation. “Lord I hope I am ready and not overtrained,” he wrote. The first meeting was to be held at Maison Fleur d’Eau, a twenty-room, nineteenth-century villa on the western shore of Lake Geneva. He and Nancy Reagan toured it in advance, spotting a cozy pool house on the lakeshore. Reagan made sure the White House advance team knew he wanted to steer Gorbachev there for a private chat, with a fire blazing. In the preparations, Reagan held a mock summit session, with Matlock playing Gorbachev, speaking in Russian and trying to mimic Gorbachev’s gestures.71 In another briefing, Reagan seemed to glaze over. There was a long silence. “I’m in the year 1830,” the president suddenly said, startling his aides. “What happened to all these small shopkeepers in St. Petersburg in the year 1830 and to all that entrepreneurial talent in Russia? How can it have just disappeared?” The aides realized he was absorbed in thought about Massie’s book.72

Cold winds blew off Lake Geneva as Reagan bounded down the steps to greet Gorbachev without an overcoat just after 10 A.M. on November 19. Gorbachev, then fifty-four years old, in office less than a year, stepped out of his black ZIL limousine, bundled up in a blue patterned scarf and overcoat, and took off his fedora, asking Reagan: “Where is your coat?” “It’s inside,” Reagan replied as he motioned toward the glass doors and the warmth of the chateau, guiding Gorbachev by the elbow. As they shook hands for the photographers, Reagan later recalled, “I had to admit…that there was something likeable about Gorbachev. There was a warmth in his face and his style, not the coldness bordering on hatred I’d seen in most senior Soviet officials I’d met until then.”73

Once inside, the original plan called for a short tête-à-tête, fifteen minutes, then a larger session, but Reagan and Gorbachev spent an hour with just interpreters in their first encounter. Reagan declared right away he wanted to ease mistrust between them. They held the fate of the world in their hands, he said. He offered bromides and aphorisms collected from a lifetime of speeches. Countries do not mistrust each other because of arms, but arm each other because of mistrust, he said. People do not get into trouble when they talk to each other, but when they talk about each other. Gorbachev responded with an unemotional, reasoned appeal. The two superpowers could not ignore each other, he said. They were too interrelated. Gorbachev said he had come to improve their relations despite the differences of the past. They needed to create a concrete “impetus,” he said, to show the world they were serious about ending the arms race. Gorbachev, in a preplanned gesture to Reagan, told the president that Soviet scientists had recently calculated there was a high probability of a big earthquake within the next three years in California. Reagan said he realized a quake was overdue. The two leaders had broken the ice.

In the formal meeting that followed, flanked by aides, they turned to the arms race. In both countries, “the military is devouring huge resources,” Gorbachev said. The “central question is how to halt the arms race and disarm.” Reagan brought up Eisenhower’s speech “Atoms for Peace,” offering to internationalize the atom. The United States was always giving, and the Soviet Union rejecting, Reagan complained. While earlier the superpowers reached agreements to slow the growth in weapons, Reagan said, now he wanted to actually reduce the “mountains of weapons.” Reagan then launched into an exposition of his dream of “an antimissile shield which would destroy missiles before they hit the target.” Reagan said he didn’t want to call it a weapon, but a defensive system, and if it worked, he would share it with the Soviet Union. This was a small preplanned surprise Reagan had decided to offer Gorbachev. The Soviet leader did not have time to respond before they broke for lunch, but he was downbeat as he went back to his residence.74

“Reagan appeared to me not simply a conservative, but a political ‘dinosaur,’” he recalled of his first impressions.75

But the president was chipper. “Our gang told me I’d done good.”76

In the afternoon, Gorbachev came roaring back, this time deploying the “asymmetrical response” with energy and verve. Gorbachev fired volley after volley of arguments against the Strategic Defense Initiative. It would lead to an arms race in space, not just a defensive one, but an offensive one, he said. Scholars say any shield can be pierced, he added, so why create it? He threatened retaliation; if Reagan went ahead, there could be no reduction of existing offensive weapons. The Soviet response “would not be a mirror,” Gorbachev added, but “a simpler, more effective system.”

“We will build up to smash your shield,” he said.

If there were “seven layers” of space defenses, Gorbachev added, it would require automation, putting important decisions in the hands of computers. Political leaders would just be hiding in bunkers with computers making the decisions. “This could unleash an uncontrollable process. You haven’t thought this through, it will be a waste of money, and also will cause more distrust and more weapons,” he told Reagan.

Reagan responded the best way he knew how, by articulating his visions and his dream. “There is something uncivilized” about the idea of mutual assured destruction, he said. He told Gorbachev a story. The American ambassador to the United Nations had met some Chinese. They had asked him: what happens when a man with a spear that can penetrate anything meets a man with a shield that is impenetrable? The ambassador said he didn’t know, but he did know what happens when a man with no shield meets that same opponent who has the spear. Neither wants to be in the position of having no shield, Reagan insisted.

At this point, Reagan invited Gorbachev to get some fresh air and go down to the pool house. Gorbachev “leaped out of his chair,” eager to go, Reagan remembered.77 When they reached the small room in the pool house, a fire was already roaring. They sat in easy chairs, only interpreters present.

Immediately, Reagan took papers out of a manila folder and handed them to Gorbachev. These are goals for arms control talks, Reagan said, which could be the seeds of a future agreement. Gorbachev started to read and the room was quiet for a few minutes. Soon they had resumed the most difficult disagreement—missile defense, weapons in space. Gorbachev demanded to know: why was there nothing on Reagan’s list about that? Reagan repeated his dream was defensive and would not aggravate the arms race. Back and forth they went—Gorbachev seeking to talk Reagan out of his dream, Reagan striving to get Gorbachev to feel the magic. The dialogue was captured in the interpreter’s notes:

Gorbachev: If the goal was to get rid of nuclear weapons, why start an arms race in another sphere?

Reagan: These are not weapons that kill people or destroy cities, these are weapons that destroy nuclear missiles.

Gorbachev: Let’s ban research, development, testing and deployment of space weapons, then cut offensive arms by 50 percent.

Reagan: Why do you keep speaking about space weapons? We certainly have no intention of putting something into space that would threaten people on Earth.

Gorbachev: A defense against one level of missiles is one thing, but a defense against a much larger number would not be reliable at all.

Reagan: Our people overwhelmingly want this defense. They look at the sky and think what might happen if missiles suddenly appear and blow up everything in our country.

Gorbachev: The missiles are not yet flying. If S.D.I. is actually implemented, then layer after layer of offensive weapons, Soviet and American, would appear in outer space and only God himself would know what they were. And God provides information only very selectively and rarely. Please understand the signal we are giving you—we now have a chance which we must not miss!

They walked back to the main house, having settled nothing. But something had happened to both of them. They had finally taken the measure of the other. “He’s adamant but so am I,” Reagan wrote that night in his diary. “The ‘human factor’ had quietly come into action,” Gorbachev recalled. “We both sensed that we must maintain contact and try to avoid a break.”78

Gorbachev was chilled suddenly in the air on the walk back. But he told Reagan this would not be their last meeting. Reagan suggested they visit each other’s country. Gorbachev agreed before they got to the door.79

On the second day, tempers rose even higher. Gorbachev said a Soviet scientist had done research and found out the explanation for Reagan’s determination to build the Strategic Defense Initiative was that it would add $600 billion to $1 trillion in new military expenditures. Reagan said the scientist was dealing in fantasy. If a defensive system could be found, it would be available to all. This would end the nuclear nightmare for the people of the United States, the Soviet Union, indeed for “all people.”

Gorbachev started to interrupt Reagan. Why wouldn’t Reagan believe him when he said the Soviet Union would never attack? Before Reagan could answer, Gorbachev repeated the question. He again interrupted Reagan’s answer to insist on a response. Gorbachev questioned Reagan’s sincerity in offering to share research, saying the United States did not even share advanced technology with its allies.

Reagan tried to overcome the interruptions, and in exasperation at one point spilled out one of his deepest hopes—nuclear weapons could be eliminated altogether. At another point, he asked Gorbachev whether he believed in reincarnation and then speculated that perhaps he, Reagan, had invented the shield in an earlier life.

Listening to one of Reagan’s pitches for cooperation on Star Wars, Gorbachev lost his cool. Don’t treat us as simple people! Reagan said he did not see how he had shown disrespect in any way. It was an open debate.

Reagan captured the spirit of the day in his diary that night: “… the stuff really hit the fan. He was really belligerent & d–n it I stood firm.”

That evening, after dinner, Reagan and Gorbachev met in the study over coffee to consider how they would present the summit to the world the next morning. Shultz complained angrily to Gorbachev, his voice rising, finger pointing, that Soviet negotiators—especially the deputy foreign minister Georgi Korniyenko—were backpedaling on agreements. Shultz said the negotiators should stay up all night, if necessary, to hammer it out.

At this point, Reagan and Gorbachev, listening while sitting side by side on a red silk couch, decided to intervene. Reagan insisted they should take matters into their own hands and order the negotiators to go back to the table and work out their differences. Gorbachev agreed. The next morning, November 21, the joint statement was ready. When Reagan and Gorbachev came to the international press center to read their statements, Reagan turned to Gorbachev and whispered, “I bet the hardliners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.” Gorbachev nodded in agreement.80

The headline from the summit was that Reagan and Gorbachev would meet again. But in retrospect, it was not the most important news. Much more significant was a short, innocuous phrase in the joint statement. The two superpowers agreed, the statement said, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

These words could be dismissed as nothing more than a feel-good slogan, and Reagan had spoken them before.81 Not a single nuclear warhead was eliminated at Geneva; Reagan was not any closer to his cherished goal of building a missile defense system; Gorbachev was no closer to stopping it. But in so openly announcing that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought, the radical reformer from Stavropol and the dreamer from Hollywood had called a halt to years of extraordinary tension and fright. They had put behind them the terrible worries of the RYAN operation and Andropov’s fears of imminent attack. They had buried the idea that the Soviets were planning to fight and win a nuclear war. Both of them wanted a world with fewer nuclear weapons, and they had jointly made Geneva their first waypoint on that path. Words had power, and they had found the words. Now they had to find the deeds.

On New Year’s Day, Reagan and Gorbachev exchanged simultaneous televised greetings to people in each other’s countries, an historic first. Reagan’s address appeared at the opening of the main evening news program, and many people in the Soviet Union saw Reagan directly for the first time. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” Reagan said.82

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