Military history

—————  11  —————


On Sunday, January 5, 1986, very late in the evening, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, the chief of the Soviet military’s General Staff, telephoned one of his deputies, Colonel General Nikolai Chervov, head of the legal department, which handled arms control negotiations. Both men were products of the World War II generation who rose to the General Staff in the Cold War years. Akhromeyev, the ramrod-straight commander who had promised to help Gorbachev, asked Chervov to report to headquarters at 6 A.M. the next morning. “You will fly to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev,” Akhromeyev said. The Soviet leader was vacationing on the Black Sea coast.

“What must I have with me and what uniform must I wear?” Chervov asked.

“Have your wits about you,” Akhromeyev said. “And wear your military uniform.”

The next morning, Akhromeyev gave Chervov an envelope for Gorbachev, ordered his personal driver to take him to the airport and said Gorbachev would be expecting him at 10 A.M.

“Can I ask a question?” Chervov said, nervously. “What’s inside the envelope?”

Akhromeyev told him it was the draft of the program on global disarmament. “Report all details to the General Secretary.”1

After the Geneva summit with Reagan, Gorbachev was searching for something new. When Chervov arrived with the envelope, Gorbachev greeted him warmly. Gorbachev was vacationing in a house on the coast at Pitsunda, in the republic of Georgia, set in a pine grove, with woodpaneled interiors, spacious rooms and an office. It was a restful place in the solitude of a nature reserve; outside, waves swept across a fine pebble beach. Without wasting words, Gorbachev asked right away, “What have you brought?”2

The envelope contained a written proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons—all, including those of the United States, the Soviet Union and other countries—by the year 2000, in three stages, with specific deadlines. Akhromeyev had been working on the idea ever since the Soviets walked out of the Geneva talks in late 1983. He brought in weapons scientists and the staff of different branches of the military, who debated in secret. Once the proposal was drafted, Akhromeyev put it in his desk drawer. In Gorbachev’s first year, Akhromeyev kept it to himself, thinking the time was not right to bring it out. By the end of 1985, when Gorbachev was searching for new initiatives, Akhromeyev opened the drawer. The file was titled “Proposal of the USSR for a Program of Full Liquidation of Nuclear Weapons in the Whole World by the Year 2000.” It was a sweeping proposal that could grab headlines and win sympathy from antinuclear forces around the world. After a year as chief of the General Staff and eight months working with Gorbachev, Akhromeyev could see pressures were building to reduce nuclear arsenals. He personally wanted to scale back the huge stockpiles of warheads, and he felt that Gorbachev’s proposal might at least bring about significant cuts, if not lead all the way to total elimination. He could see, too, that Gorbachev was a man of action. The Soviet Union had been calling for general disarmament for decades. But what was new in Akhromeyev’s plan was a certain date—the turn of the century.3

When Chervov took out the papers, Gorbachev expressed skepticism at first. “What can there be that’s new in your initiative?” he asked. “We have been harping on this since 1945. Gromyko has been constantly talking about this at the United Nations. Should the General Secretary repeat this all over again?”

“Mikhail Sergeyevich, everything that you say is correct,” Chervov replied. “However, in the past there were only general declarations and wishes to liquidate nuclear weapons. There was nothing concrete. We only came out with a general idea, like ‘We are for the liquidation.’ … This is a completely new program that gives a detailed description of all the possible problems. The nuclear issue is becoming a more burning problem by the day. I ask you to have a look at the document.” Gorbachev was in no hurry to take the papers. As if he were talking to himself, he asked Chervov, “And should we liquidate all the nuclear weapons? In the West they keep saying that the more nuclear weapons there are, the stronger a country’s security is. Should we accept such a concept? What do you think?”

“Mikhail Sergeyevich, everyone has heard the Western leaders’ statements to this effect, such as Thatcher, for example. I believe these are dangerous statements. There is a saying, when there are too many guns, they begin to shoot by themselves. Today, so many nuclear weapons have been stockpiled in the world, they can explode by themselves … the nuclear danger is growing in proportion to the stockpiles.” The proverb was familiar; Gorbachev had recalled a similar one to make the same point to British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe in late 1984. Gorbachev listened, asked a few more questions and took the envelope. He read the documents in silence. Chervov thought Gorbachev fell into deep thought. Then he said, “This is it. This is what’s needed.” But Gorbachev wanted to add more. Why not add something about stopping nuclear tests? Banning chemical weapons? Gorbachev took a blank sheet of paper and began writing instructions. When he was finished, Chervov gathered up the papers and flew back to Akhromeyev in Moscow.4

Gorbachev’s grand plan was visionary, dramatic and dreamy. He proposed in the first phase, five to eight years, to halt all nuclear testing, cut the superpower strategic arsenals by 50 percent, to no more than 6,000 warheads each, and eliminate U.S. and Soviet medium-range missiles in the European zone, including the Pioneers, the Pershing IIs and the ground-launched cruise missiles. He also demanded that the United States and Soviet Union mutually renounce “space strike weapons,” a reference to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. In the second stage, to begin in 1990 and last five to seven years, the United States and Soviet Union would continue to reduce their arsenals, joined by the other nuclear powers, France, Britain and China, and the United States and Soviet Union would also eliminate the small battlefield, or tactical, nuclear weapons. Finally, in the third stage, by 2000, all nations would get rid of nuclear weapons and sign a universal pact that nuclear weapons would never return again.5

For all its sweeping ambition, the plan was unveiled January 15, 1986, in an oblique Soviet fashion. On the regular Soviet evening news program Vremya, an expressionless announcer picked up a sheaf of papers and began droning through a statement on disarmament by the general secretary. Gorbachev was nowhere to be seen. TASS distributed the 4,879-word text. The next morning, the full statement was printed in the official newspapers, Izvestia and Pravda. The declarations were grand: “The Soviet Union proposes at the beginning of 1986 the implementation of a program for freeing mankind from the fear of nuclear catastrophe.” A reader or television viewer might have been excused for asking: so what? Disarmament had been a time-worn Soviet slogan for decades, while the arms race zoomed ahead, ever faster.6

Yet this time it was different. Anatoly Chernyaev, the deputy director of the International Department at the Central Committee, writing in his diary after the statement was announced, could sense that Gorbachev was reaching for the stars. “My impression is that he’s really decided to end the arms race no matter what. He is taking this ‘risk’ because, as he understands, it’s no risk at all—because nobody would attack us even if we disarmed completely. And in order to get the country on solid ground, we have to relieve it of the burden of the arms race, which is a drain on more than just the economy.”

“My God!” Chernyaev wrote. “What luck that there was a man in the Politburo [Andropov] who showed the wisdom of a true ‘tsar,’ finding Gorbachev and dragging him out of the provinces—and in a country which has 95 such regions! And now we have a real find of a leader: intelligent, well-educated, dynamic, honest, with ideas and imagination. And bold. Myths and taboos (including ideological ones) are nothing for him. He could flatten any of them.”7

When the television announcer began reading Gorbachev’s statement on Vremya on January 15, 1986, it was still early in the day in Washington. Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, called Shultz in the morning to alert him that an important announcement was about to be made in Moscow. Shortly before the call, a letter from Gorbachev to Reagan arrived, accompanying the new proposal. Shultz and his advisers puzzled over the text, which had both new ideas, such as tackling some disputes one by one rather than all together, and some old roadblocks, such as Soviet demands to stop Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Paul Nitze was fascinated. “I wonder whose work of art on the Soviet side this is,” he said.8

Weeks earlier, Reagan had appointed a new national security adviser, John M. Poindexter, a retired admiral, to replace McFarlane, who resigned. On the day of the Gorbachev proposal, Poindexter telephoned Matlock, the Soviet expert on the National Security Council, who was across town at that moment. Matlock rushed to the White House, where Poindexter showed him the text and asked whether he thought Gorbachev was serious. “Have they put it on TASS yet?” Matlock asked. Poindexter called the duty officer in the Situation Room and was told the text was coming over the wires at that moment. Matlock said that making the initiative public so quickly “raised the suspicion” that Gorbachev “had nothing more than propaganda in mind.” Most government agencies who looked at the proposal, Matlock recalled, thought it was “nothing more than smoke and mirrors and advised a flat rejection.” A White House official told reporters, “The language is eerie; it’s so extremely flexible that it may look better than it really is.” Doubts were everywhere in Washington that day. “A clever propaganda move,” said Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia.9

Shultz went to see Reagan at 2 P.M., and found the president already liked what he had been told about Gorbachev’s statement. “Why wait until the end of the century for a world without nuclear weapons?” Reagan asked.

That night, Reagan wrote in his diary that Gorbachev “surprisingly is calling for an arms reduction plan which will rid the world of nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Of course he has a couple of zingers in there which we’ll have to work around. But at the very least it is a h–l of a propaganda move. We’d be hard put to explain how we could turn it down.” At a White House photo session the next day, Reagan told reporters, “It is just about the first time that anyone has ever proposed actually eliminating nuclear weapons.”10

But once again, in official Washington, the president was largely alone. Nuclear deterrence had sunk its roots deep into American strategic thinking for four decades. “The naysayers were hard at work, even in my own building …” Shultz said. “No one could accept the thought of a world moving toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.” Richard N. Perle, an assistant secretary of defense and relentless critic of détente, told the White House Senior Arms Control Group that “the president’s dream of a world without nuclear weapons—which Gorbachev had picked up—was a disaster, a total delusion,” Shultz recalled. “Perle said the National Security Council should not meet on the idea, because then the president would direct his arms controllers to come up with a program to achieve that result. The Joint Chiefs’ representative agreed with Perle. They feared the institutionalization and acceptance of the idea as policy.”

Two days after Gorbachev’s proposal, Shultz told his staff to face facts; yes, they were all skeptical about elimination of nuclear weapons, but “the president of the United States doesn’t agree with you.” In fact, Shultz said, “he thinks it’s a hell of a good idea.”

Shultz set up a small steering group of insiders, starting January 25, in a deliberate effort to bypass the rigid interagency process for making policy in Washington. They met every Saturday morning. Shultz and Gates faced off in these sessions. Shultz thought Gorbachev was for real, “bold and agile.” Gates, deputy CIA director, thought Gorbachev was cut from the old Soviet mold. Gates wrote to Shultz at the time, saying “all we have seen since Gorbachev took over leads us to believe that on fundamental objectives and policies he so far remains generally as inflexible as his predecessors.” Gorbachev’s new proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons, Gates said, was “tactically a clever stroke” but “did not change any basic Soviet position.”11

On Monday, February 3, Reagan met in the White House Situation Room with his top advisers to discuss a response to Gorbachev’s proposal. “Some wanted to tag it a publicity stunt,” Reagan wrote afterward. “I said no. Let’s say we share their overall goals & now want to work out the details. If it is a publicity stunt this will be revealed by them. I also propose to announce we are going forward with SDI but if research reveals a defense against missiles is possible we’ll work out how it can be used to protect the whole world not just us.”12

Gorbachev hurtled forward. He telephoned Chernyaev, the deputy director of the International Department at the Central Committee, and asked him to become his adviser on national security. Chernyaev was a liberal but not yet part of Gorbachev’s inner circle. He was known for an encyclopedic mind. He was intensely curious, outspoken and fearless. He loved drama, memorized poetry and read Western literature, even when prohibited. Chernyaev had been schooled in Russian culture and had the best schools and teachers. He went to the front as a volunteer at the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, fought and was seriously wounded. After the war he graduated from and taught at Moscow State University. In the 1950s, Chernyaev had served in Prague on the staff of a new party journal, Problemy mira i sotsializma, or Problems of Peace and Socialism, where the environment was relatively open, compared to Moscow. This left an enduring impression on Chernyaev, who returned to Moscow to spend two decades in the Central Committee apparat, harboring hopes for liberal reform despite the deep disappointments of the era, including Moscow’s crushing of the Prague Spring and the invasion of Afghanistan.

When Gorbachev called, Chernyaev hesitated at first, because it seemed an almost overwhelming responsibility. He was sixty-five years old, and feared he would disappoint Gorbachev. He wanted more time for reading, theater, exhibitions, the conservatory, a steady and quiet life.

“What do you say?” insisted Gorbachev.

“One does not refuse such offers, Mikhail Sergeyevich,” Chernyaev replied.13

In the critical years that followed, Chernyaev remained at Gorbachev’s elbow, a key member of the reformist brain trust who offered candid advice to Gorbachev as well as unblemished loyalty. He joined the other intellectuals who generated the ideas and firepower behind glasnost and perestroika. Chernyaev’s diary, detailed and revealing, is perhaps the single most important contemporaneous account of Gorbachev’s decision making and thinking.14

Change was coming fast in 1986. Boris Yeltsin, the party chief in Sverdlovsk, was brought to the capital, and soon plunged into a populist drive to improve living standards. Alexander Yakovlev, a strong proponent of democratization, was brought from his think tank to head the Central Committee department on ideology, becoming another preeminent adviser to Gorbachev and the heart and soul of “new thinking.” Chernyaev began to take notes at meetings with Gorbachev. Later, other Gorbachev advisers, including Yakovlev, Shakhnazarov and Vadim Medvedev, contributed their notes, making up another valuable contemporaneous account.15

Soon after Chernyaev was appointed came the 27th Party Congress, a mammoth affair in which 4,993 delegates from across the country packed into Moscow hotels and assembled in the scarlet-bedecked hall of the Kremlin Palace of Congresses from February 25 to March 6, 1986. Held every five years to approve the membership of the three-hundred-member Central Committee and ratify the next five-year program, the congress was Gorbachev’s stage for a premiere of “new thinking” and perestroika. In his speeches, Gorbachev referred to the war in Afghanistan as a “bleeding wound,” and described a Soviet foreign policy based on living with the non-Communist world rather than endless confrontation of military blocs. Gorbachev’s words were spoken in billowing paragraphs, wrapped in old rhetoric about American imperialism, and he still attempted to give socialism a boost rather than destroy it. But “new thinking” was on display nonetheless.16

Chernyaev recalled that Gorbachev was in a state of “extreme enthusiasm” when the party congress ended. But just as he savored this success, a chill wind blew in from Reagan. In the wake of the Walker spy ring discovery the year before, Reagan had signed a secret directive in late 1985 to curb Soviet espionage activity, but action had been delayed. On March 7, the day after the party congress ended, the United States ordered the Soviet Union to sharply reduce its diplomatic mission to the United Nations in New York, from about 270 diplomats to 170. Gorbachev took this as an unexpected jab from Reagan. The Soviet mission at the United Nations was believed by U.S. officials to be a headquarters for KGB spies.17 In fact, two of the most devastating spies of all time were not at the Soviet mission but deep within the U.S. government—Ames and Hanssen.

In another setback for Gorbachev, on March 13, U.S. warships carrying sophisticated electronic gear sailed six miles inside the Soviet Union’s twelve-mile territorial limit in the Black Sea, a clear provocation, which the Soviets protested. On March 20, Gorbachev was exasperated when he met aides to plan a speech in the Volga River manufacturing city of Togliatti. According to Chernyaev’s notes, Gorbachev said he hoped to give the Americans a good swift kick. He could not understand European or American indifference to his initiatives and speeches. “What do we see on the part of Europe and the United States?” he asked. “Excuses, evasiveness, attempts to get away with half-measures and promises.”18

Gorbachev had prolonged the Soviet self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing by three months, but Reagan refused to go along. On March 22, the United States set off a twenty-nine-kiloton underground nuclear explosion, code-named Glencoe, two thousand feet below the Nevada desert.19 Gorbachev continued to hold off on Soviet tests, but bitterly complained to his inner circle on March 24 that the moratorium showed the Americans “have no intentions to disarm.” Gorbachev asked that day, “What does America want?” Chernyaev recalled, “It seemed we were sliding back toward confrontation.”

Gorbachev turned again to Reagan’s stubborn Star Wars dream. He vowed that the Soviet asymmetrical response could nullify it for just 10 percent of the cost. “Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of SDI?” he asked. This was a change in tune from his vigorous campaign against missile defense at the Geneva summit just months earlier. “Of course we cannot just disregard this dangerous program,” Gorbachev said. “But we should overcome our obsession with it. They’re banking on the USSR’s fear of SDI—in moral, economic, political and military terms. Therefore they’re pursuing this program in order to wear us out.”20

Speaking just among his top aides, Gorbachev said: “We should do everything not to impoverish our country further through defense spending.”

Gorbachev could not grasp why the spirit of the Geneva summit was fading. He wrote to Reagan on April 2, saying, “More than four months have passed since the Geneva meeting. We ask ourselves: what is the reason for things not going the way they, it would seem, should have gone? Where is the real turn for the better?” He complained “we hear increasingly vehement philippics addressed to the USSR.” On April 3, he lamented to the Politburo: “The whole world sees that Gorbachev makes a suggestion in the evening and the next morning the Americans quickly say ‘no.’” On April 4, he had a long talk with two influential congressional leaders—Dante Fascell, Democrat of Florida, and William Broomfield, Republican of Michigan—who were visiting Moscow. “Disarmament issues cannot be postponed,” Gorbachev said.

“The locomotive is rushing forward at great speed. Today there is still a chance to stop it, but tomorrow it might be too late.”

In the marshy flatlands and forests of the Ukraine, spring breezes arrived early that April, carrying scents of cherry blossoms. A giant nuclear electricity-generating plant with a red-and-white candy-striped smokestack stood astride the Pripyat River, ten miles north of the town of Chernobyl and nestled next to a small town, Pripyat. The station housed four 1,000-megawatt reactors, and two more reactors were under construction that, when finished, would make it the largest nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union. In the early-morning hours of Saturday, April 26, a test was getting underway at Reactor No. 4.21

The reactor core was a mammoth block of graphite 23 feet high and 38 feet in diameter, weighing 1,700 tons, honeycombed with 1,661 holes for rods filled with uranium fuel. When lowered by a crane into the holes, the fuel rods set off nuclear fission, which gave off heat, turning water into steam to power turbines generating electricity. Another 211 holes in the graphite were drilled for control rods. When lowered into the reactor, the control rods absorbed neutrons and slowed or stopped the nuclear fission. Six pumps, capable of moving up to 18.6 million gallons an hour, forced coolant water through the reactor, with two pumps in reserve. Seventeen of the Soviet RBMK-1000 reactors were built in the Soviet Union between 1973 and 1990; the RBMK acronym stood for Reaktor Bolshoi Moshchnosti Kanalnyi, or High-Power Channel Reactor. Unlike reactors in the West, such as the one at Three Mile Island, where an accident occurred in 1979, the Soviet RBMK-1000 design lacked a containment shelter, the overarching, concrete shell to hold radioactivity inside in the event of a disaster.

The rods, pumps and gears used to control and moderate the nuclear fission inside the Chernobyl reactor were dependent on electricity. If outside power were suddenly cut off, it would take forty seconds to kickstart auxiliary diesel engines. Without power for forty seconds, however, the pumps would not force water through the reactor, which would quickly overheat. This forty-second gap was something that Soviet designers knew about and worried over; they were still trying to fix it. On the night of April 26, an improvised work-around was being tested. The operators knew that after a power outage, the spinning turbine blades would keep rotating under their own momentum. So they reasoned: why not use the still-spinning blades to generate enough power to keep the water pumps going for forty seconds? The goal of the test was to see how much power the rotating blades could generate, but the duty operators were ill prepared and the reactor design badly flawed.

One operator, arriving at his station, was confused by the logbook. He called someone else to inquire.

“What shall I do?” he asked. “In the program there are instructions of what to do, and then a lot of things crossed out.”

The other person thought for a minute, then replied, “Follow the crossed out instructions.”22

After midnight Saturday, the reactor was powered down to very low levels for the test. Then, apparently because power was too low, the operators tried to power it up again, perhaps too quickly. Nuclear fission creates by-products that must be allowed to dissipate before the reactor is powered up again, but this danger was ignored.

As they powered up the reactor, a chain reaction began to spin out of control.

A foreman who entered the reactor hall at about 1:23 A.M. saw an unforgettable sight. The reactor had a massive lid. It was the “upper biological shield,” intended to prevent radiation exposure to workers during routine operations. The lid was a circle forty-nine feet in diameter, consisting of cubes, each sitting on top of a channel. When the foreman looked down, he saw the 770-pound cubes start to rumble and dance on top of the channels, “as if one thousand seven hundred people were tossing their hats into the air.”23

The operators hit the red panic button, marked “AZ,” for the emergency power reduction system. But it was too late. They desperately tried to lower the control rods to stop the fission, but the rods, by some accounts, got stuck, perhaps because the holes in the core had warped. Also, there was a design flaw in the rods, which had a section of water and graphite at each end known as the displacer, while the absorber was in the middle. When the rods got stuck, the absorber didn’t make it far enough down into the core to be useful in moderating the fission. Moreover, the rods also may have forced water out from the channels, increasing the heat and steam. In the RBMK-1000 reactor design, excessive steam caused the nuclear chain reaction to accelerate. As the heat inside the graphite core skyrocketed, more of the water then turned to steam, which caused the reactor to get even hotter. More steam, more heat, and the reactor went out of control.

At 1:23 A.M., two explosions rocked Chernobyl. These were extremely powerful, caused by the chain reaction generating huge amounts of heat and pressure. The reactor blew apart, and the explosions were followed by fire. The blast blew a hole straight upward through the roof of Reactor No. 4. The weighty lid was tossed aside like a cocked hat, and radioactive materials—gases, graphite and bits of broken fuel rods—were thrust into the atmosphere. Some debris fell down near the site. Radioactive elements were carried by the winds across Europe. The initial contamination was one nightmare, then came another: the graphite core was on fire and burned for ten days, spewing more dangerous materials into the air.

Hours after the disaster, with the graphite core burning, an “urgent report” arrived at the Central Committee in Moscow from Deputy Energy Minister Alexei Makukhin, who had once been minister of energy in the Ukraine when Chernobyl was first being built. The report said that at 1:21 A.M. on April 26 an explosion occurred in the upper part of the reactor, causing fire damage and destroying part of the roof. “At 3:30, the fire was extinguished.” Personnel at the plant were taking “measures to cool the active zone of the reactor.” No evacuation of the population was necessary, the report said.

Almost everything in Makukhin’s report was wrong. The reactor was still burning and was not being cooled, and the population should have been evacuated immediately. What the report did not say was even worse: at the scene, radiation detectors failed, firefighters and others were sent in without adequate protection and officials were debating—but not deciding—about evacuation.24

Gorbachev recalled many years later that he first heard of the disaster in a phone call at 5 A.M., but he insisted he did not learn until the evening of April 26 that the reactor had actually exploded and there had been a huge discharge into the atmosphere. “Nobody had any idea that we were facing a major nuclear disaster,” he recalled. “Quite simply, in the beginning even the top experts did not realize the gravity of the situation.”25Chernyaev, who was at Gorbachev’s side throughout the crisis, recalled that “even our top leadership did not fully realize the difficulties and dangers associated with nuclear energy.” He acknowledged that “one can blame Gorbachev for trusting those responsible,” but added, “since nuclear energy was directly linked to the military-industrial complex, it was taken for granted that everything was in perfect order. And that there was no chance of a ‘surprise’ like Chernobyl.”26

The reason for the lack of information was the Soviet system itself, which reflexively buried the truth. At each level of authority, lies were passed up and down the chain; the population was left in the dark; and scapegoats were found. Gorbachev was at the top of this decrepit system; his biggest failure was that he did not break through the pattern of cover-up right away. He reacted slowly, a moment of paralysis for this man of action. He seemed unable to get the truth when he needed it from the disaster scene or the officials responsible for nuclear power. While Gorbachev’s personal charisma had sparked excitement on the streets of Leningrad the year before, he did not appear in public for eighteen days after the explosion. While he disdained the secrecy of the military, he was just as silent before his own people and much of Europe in a situation of real peril. Gorbachev, who in January called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, suddenly was faced with a real-time, catastrophic example of what the world might be like after a nuclear explosion, and it was even more frightening than he could have guessed.

Without a containment shelter, radioactive isotopes soared into the atmosphere. Winds carried the contamination north, and by Sunday, radiation was detected in Sweden at the Forsmark nuclear power station, one hundred miles north of Stockholm. The Swedes confronted the Soviets at midday Monday, April 28. Gorbachev had assembled an emergency Politburo meeting at 11 A.M., but the Kremlin had not said a word about the accident, at home or abroad. In notes from the emergency meeting, aides to Gorbachev wrote: “The information was alarming but scant.”27According to Volkogonov, the historian, as the Politburo discussed how to handle the accident, Gorbachev said, “We must issue an announcement as soon as possible, we must not delay…” Alexander Yakovlev also said, “The quicker we announce it, the better it’ll be …” Other accounts suggest some Politburo members wanted to keep silent.28 The announcement was delayed for hours and hours. But people with radios that could pick up foreign broadcasts in Moscow already knew something truly horrible had happened; the reports were alarming.

Gorbachev later claimed there were two reasons for the delay: he lacked information and didn’t want to create panic. The Kremlin eventually instructed the news media to distribute a statement so terse as to relay none of the catastrophic nature of the event. The announcement was issued at 9 P.M. on April 28:

An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaging one of the reactors. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The injured are receiving aid. A government commission has been set up.29

On the next day, April 29, Gorbachev called another Politburo meeting. According to Volkogonov, Gorbachev now realized “that he had anything but a routine problem on his hands,” given the global alarm about the accident. He began consulting with physicists and security officials. Gorbachev opened the Politburo meeting with a terse remark, “Perhaps we aren’t reacting as sharply as the states around us?” Gorbachev proposed they create an operational group to manage the crisis. He then asked, “How are we to deal with the population and international public opinion?” He paused and added a somewhat contradictory remark: “The more honestly we conduct ourselves, the better. To ensure that a shadow of suspicion should not fall on our equipment, we must say that the power station was undergoing a planned repair …”

After more discussion, the Politburo decided to issue another public statement, which Volkogonov described as “terms that might have been used to announce an ordinary fire at a warehouse.”30 The announcement said the accident had destroyed part of the reactor building, the reactor itself, and caused a degree of leakage of radioactive substances. Two people had died, the statement said, and “at the present time, the radiation situation at the power station and the vicinity has been stabilized.” One section was added for socialist countries saying that Soviet experts had noted radiation spreading in the western, northern and southern directions from Chernobyl. “Levels of contamination are somewhat higher than permitted standards, however not to the extent that calls for special measures to protect the population.”31

In the early weeks, firefighters and “liquidators,” people called from all over the country to help mitigate the disaster, fought bravely and worked with amazing courage and dedication in the face of danger. Firefighters recalled standing on a roof so hot their boots melted; helicopter pilots braved the smoldering ruins to dump 5,020 metric tons of sand and other material in an effort to suffocate what appeared to be a red glow, the burning graphite reactor below.32 But while individuals performed acts of heroism, the bosses of the Soviet state obfuscated. One of the first actions of the plant director was to cut nonessential telephone lines around Chernobyl.33 An evacuation of Pripyat was begun only thirty-six hours after the explosion; the second stage of the evacuation, including a wider zone that eventually displaced 116,000 people, did not begin until May 5. The Communist Party in Ukraine insisted that May Day parades should carry on as usual in Kiev even though winds were blowing in that direction. On May 1 in Moscow, Nikolai Ryzhkov, the prime minister, signed an instruction to take Soviet news correspondents to areas adjacent to the Chernobyl power station with a goal of preparing reports in newspapers and television showing the “normal vital activity of these areas.”34 But the truth was dawning at the highest levels in Moscow. The same instruction from Ryzhkov admitted the Health Ministry “failed” to provide full information from the scene and insisted that the ministry “take urgent measures to bring order into this affair.”

Reagan wrote in his diary, “As usual the Russians won’t put out any facts but it is evident that a radioactive cloud is spreading beyond the Soviet border.”35

Vladimir Gubarev, the science editor of Pravda, who had good contacts in the nuclear establishment, heard of the accident soon after it happened and called Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s close adviser and champion of new thinking. But Yakovlev told him to “forget about it, and stop meddling,” Gubarev recalled. Yakovlev wanted no journalists to witness the scene. But Gubarev was persistent, and kept calling Yakovlev every day. Yakovlev finally authorized a group of journalists to go to Chernobyl, including Gubarev, who had a physics degree but also wrote plays and books. He arrived May 4 and returned May 9. His private report to Yakovlev depicted chaos and confusion. One hour after the explosion, the spread of radiation was clear, he said, but no emergency measures had been prepared. “No one knew what to do.” Soldiers were sent into the danger zone without individual protective gear. They didn’t have any. Nor did helicopter pilots. “In a case like this, common sense is required, not false bravery,” he said. “The whole system of civil defense turned out to be entirely paralyzed. Even functioning dosimeters were not available.” Gubarev said, “the sluggishness of local authorities is striking. There were no clothes, shoes, or underwear for victims. They were waiting for instructions from Moscow.” In Kiev, the lack of information caused panic. People heard reports from abroad but didn’t get a single word of reassurance from the leaders of the republic. The silence created more panic in the following days when it became known that children and families of party bosses were fleeing. “A thousand people stood in line in the ticket office of the Ukraine Communist Party Central Committee,” Gubarev said. “Naturally, this was perfectly well known in the city.” When Gubarev returned to Moscow, he gave Yakovlev his written report. It was passed to Gorbachev.36

Gorbachev finally spoke about the disaster on May 14, two and a half weeks after it happened, in a nationally televised address. He looked “like a man bereaved,” recalled Angus Roxburgh, the BBC correspondent. “His face showed that he knew he had lost credibility.” His speech dodged the reasons for the catastrophe, and advanced the line that people had been alerted “as soon as we received reliable initial information.” Gorbachev seemed to lose his cool entirely at some of the wild accusations that spread in the West while the Kremlin had bottled up information, such as early reports of mass casualties in the thousands. He also took umbrage at criticism of his sincerity as a reformer. The United States and Germany “launched an unrestrained anti-Soviet campaign,” he complained.

In the weeks after Chernobyl, Gorbachev began to shake off his early inertia. At the Politburo meeting July 3, his fury boiled over at the nuclear establishment.

For 30 years you’ve been telling us that everything was safe. And you expected us to take it as the word of God. This is the root of our problems. Ministries and research centers got out of control, which led to disaster. And, so far, I do not see any signs that you’ve learned your lesson from this … Everything was kept secret from the Central Committee. Its apparat didn’t dare to look into this area. Even decisions about where to build nuclear power stations weren’t made by the leadership. Or decisions about which reactor to employ. The system was plagued by servility, bootlicking, window-dressing…persecution of critics, boasting, favoritism, and clannish management.

Chernobyl happened and nobody was ready—neither civil defense, nor medical departments, not even the minimum necessary number of radiation counters. The fire brigades don’t know what to do! The next day, people were having weddings not far away from the place. Children were playing outside. The warning system is no good! There was a cloud after the explosion. Did anyone monitor its movement?37

In Gorbachev’s anger after the disaster, he did not turn the spotlight of blame on the Soviet party or the system itself. Rather, he responded by blaming individuals and finding scapegoats, including the plant operators, who were later put on trial. Gorbachev wanted to shake off the lethargy of the system, not challenge its legitimacy. Yet the inescapable truth was that Chernobyl offered a glimpse of how the Soviet Union was rotting from within. The failures, lassitude and misguided designs that led to the disaster were characteristic of much else. “The great glowing crater at Block 4 had revealed deep cracks in the state,” Volkogonov said. “After the Afghan fiasco, which Gorbachev condemned but which dragged on for another four years, Chernobyl was the next bell tolling for the system.”

Gorbachev’s emphasis on glasnost, or openness, grew significantly when he finally came to grips with what happened at Chernobyl. The word glasnost eventually became a signature of his reforms, along with perestroika, which referred to the idea of rebuilding society, politics and the economy. At the July 3 Politburo meeting, he declared, “Under no conditions will we hide the truth from the public, either in explaining the causes of the accident nor in dealing with practical issues.” He added, “We cannot be dodging the answers. Keeping things secret would hurt ourselves. Being open is a huge gain for us.” Shevardnadze’s assistant Sergei Tarasenko said Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were shamed by the way the radioactive cloud floating over Europe had revealed what they failed to announce. “For the first time, they understood that you cannot cover up anything,” Tarasenko said. “You can say, ‘Nothing happened there,’ but with radiation you cannot hide it. It will go in the air, and anyone will know it is there.”38 Shevardnadze wrote in his memoirs that Chernobyl “tore the blindfold from our eyes and persuaded us that politics and morals could not diverge.”39

Akhromeyev, the chief of the General Staff, recalled that Chernobyl changed the entire country’s view of nuclear danger. “After Chernobyl, the nuclear threat stopped being an abstract notion for our people. It became tangible and concrete. The people began to see all the problems linked with nuclear weapons much differently.”40 This was especially true for Gorbachev. In his televised address, he said Chernobyl showed “what an abyss will open if nuclear war befalls mankind. For inherent in the nuclear arsenals stockpiled are thousands upon thousands of disasters far more horrible than the Chernobyl one.” Gorbachev’s words struck some as hollow at the time he spoke, a propaganda diversion from the real crisis of what had just occurred and his bungled response. But once again, as with the January 15 proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons, propaganda reflected what Gorbachev believed. He may well have asked himself, if there were no working dosimeters at Chernobyl, if soldiers lacked proper uniforms, if operators were relying on crossed-out instructions, what would happen to a city hit by a nuclear weapon? The smoldering Chernobyl site held portents more grave.

“In one moment,” he told the Politburo on May 5, “we felt what a nuclear war is.” In a secret speech at the Foreign Ministry on May 28, which was only published years later, Gorbachev implored the diplomats to make all possible effort “to stop the nuclear arms race.”41

Thirty-one people were killed as direct casualties of the Chernobyl accident. Twenty-eight died in 1986 due to acute radiation syndrome, two more from injuries unrelated to radiation and one suffered a heart attack. While it is much more difficult to determine long-term cancer mortality from the contamination, one estimate is that up to four thousand additional cancers may have resulted among the six hundred thousand people exposed to higher levels of radiation, such as liquidators, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas.42

Reagan never lost his antipathy to Soviet communism, but now, in early summer of 1986, he wanted to do business with Gorbachev. Reagan mentioned in a letter to Gorbachev that “we have lost a full six months in dealing with the issues which most merit our personal attention.” Suzanne Massie, the author and cultural expert, came to give Reagan her impressions from a recent visit, and reported “the Soviet Union was on the road to collapse,” recalled Shultz, who attended with the president. “There were shortages of everything, and people now realized they had to turn to free enterprise. Chernobyl was of great symbolic importance, she felt: it showed that Soviet science and technology were flawed, that the leadership was lying and out of touch, that the party could not conceal its failures any longer. Chernobyl means ‘wormwood,’ a reference to bitterness and sorrow from the Book of Revelation. There are many biblical allusions in Russia now.”43 While the shortages had been a feature of Soviet life for years, Massie’s description dramatized the situation for Reagan and clearly left a deep impression on him. “She is the greatest student I know of the Russian people,” he wrote that evening.44

On May 14, the same day as Gorbachev’s televised speech about Chernobyl, Shultz had a long talk with Reagan. He planted a small seed that would grow large in the months ahead. “The Soviets,” he said, “contrary to the Defense Department and the CIA line, are not an omnipotent, omnipresent power gaining ground and threatening to wipe us out.

On the contrary, we are winning. In fact, we are miles ahead. Their ideology is a loser. They have one thing going for them: military power. But even then they have only one area of genuine comparative advantage—the capacity to develop, produce, and deploy accurate, powerful, mobile land-based ballistic missiles. There’s only one thing the Soviet Union does better than we do: that is to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. And that’s not because they are better at engineering. They’re not…So we must focus on reductions in ballistic missiles. Reductions are the name of the game.45

Shultz urged Reagan to begin to think about what he would give up at the bargaining table. “This is the moment when our bargaining position is at its strongest.” Shultz wanted to signal to the Soviets that Reagan would trade limits on his Strategic Defense Initiative for deeper cuts in offensive weapons, like ballistic missiles, but Shultz was opposed at every turn by Weinberger, the defense secretary, who urged Reagan not to even hint at compromise of his dream.

On June 12, Weinberger surprised everyone. At a small, secret meeting in the White House Situation Room, Weinberger made a radical proposal. He suggested that Reagan should ask Gorbachev to eliminate all ballistic missiles. These were the guns of the nuclear age, the fast-flying, no-return, nuclear-tipped weapons that Reagan worried about after he visited Cheyenne Mountain in 1979. It was a radical idea that would go right to the heart of Soviet military strength—the Soviets were most powerful in land-based missiles like the SS-18, while the United States forces were stronger at sea. “Everyone was astonished,” Shultz recalled of the Weinberger proposal. Reagan just smiled. He reflected in his diary that night that the proposal would show whether the Soviets are “for real or just trying for propaganda.”

Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a nuclear weapon had never been used in combat, but hundreds of explosive tests shook the Earth. Kennedy and Khrushchev halted all tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and in the oceans with the 1963 limited test ban treaty, but underground explosions were frequent. The 1974 threshold test ban treaty limited underground tests to less than 150 kilotons, although it was never ratified. Testing was a subject of constant suspicion; the United States carried out its own secret tests and accused the Soviets of violating the treaties.

When Gorbachev announced a unilateral Soviet moratorium on testing in 1985, marking forty years since Hiroshima, he challenged the United States to follow suit. Gorbachev hoped the moratorium would crimp research for Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Tests would be needed to develop an effective nuclear-pumped X-ray laser. “If there is no testing, there will be no SDI,” Chernyaev wrote.46 Reagan refused to go along with Gorbachev’s moratorium, saying a test ban could not be effectively verified. Thus, the dispute over “verification,” whether or not a test ban was being observed, became both a scientific and political issue. Reagan had a second reason for refusing to go along with Gorbachev: American designers wanted to test a new generation of warheads that would be able to survive the radiation effects of a nuclear blast.47 Gorbachev’s moratorium was brushed off as propaganda. From 1949 until the start of the moratorium, the Soviet Union had carried out 628 nuclear explosions, 421 of them at the remote Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The United States had carried out its 978th test, code-named Jefferson, just days before Chernobyl.48

By the spring of 1986, Gorbachev was under pressure from the Soviet nuclear weapons establishment to resume testing. His peace overture, the unilateral moratorium, had borne no results. “It is hard to tell when the new thinking will arrive,” he lamented in a meeting with advisers. “But it will come, and maybe unexpectedly fast.”

In those exhausting days, Velikhov, the open-minded physicist, once again showed the way. His contacts in the West proved critical. Velikhov knew of Americans outside the U.S. government who were skeptical of Reagan’s policies and who were independent thinkers. One of them was Frank von Hippel, a physicist and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, who was chairman of the Federation of American Scientists. The group was founded in 1945 by atomic scientists concerned about control of the technology they had helped create, and von Hippel practiced what he called “public interest science,” attempting to influence government policy. In the early 1980s, he was caught up in the nuclear freeze movement and sought to provide an analytical basis for some of its initiatives. He had met Velikhov several times at conferences, and they enjoyed brainstorming together.49 Riding together in the back of a bus at a conference in Copenhagen, Velikhov suggested to von Hippel: perhaps independent, nongovernment scientists from the United States could help demonstrate the feasibility of seismic verification, which had deadlocked the superpowers?50

A similar notion was gaining ground among American scientists. One who was keenly interested in building such a bridge was Thomas B. Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. Cochran, a nuclear specialist who had opposed the U.S. plutonium breeder reactor program in the 1970s, was digging into evidence of secret U.S. nuclear tests. When Reagan came into office, he became interested in branching out from strictly environmental issues. In March 1986, Cochran was attending a Federation of American Scientists conference in Virginia. During a coffee break, he talked with von Hippel about a seismic verification experiment.

Then, in April, von Hippel was in Moscow and sought out Velikhov. “Do you have any good ideas?” Velikhov asked him, as he always did when he met the Americans. Velikhov was disorganized—von Hippel once found his desk drawer filled with unsorted business cards—but he restlessly sought new ideas. Velikhov and von Hippel decided to hold a workshop in Moscow on seismic monitoring. Three different proposals were aired at the workshop, held in May. A few days after the workshop ended, Velikhov, a vice president of the Academy of Sciences, signed an agreement with Cochran’s group to allow a team to position seismic monitoring equipment adjacent to the Semipalatinsk nuclear weapons test site.51 This was one of the Soviet crown jewels, the counterpart to the Nevada Test Site. Velikhov urged Cochran to get back within a month; the test moratorium was scheduled to expire soon. They needed to do something big to help Gorbachev keep the moratorium in place.

There was just one hitch: Velikhov did not have official permission for the Americans to make the trip to such a secret location. (The Semipalatinsk site was totally closed; during the Cold War, the United States deployed radioactivity-sniffing aircraft and other methods to monitor Soviet weapons tests.) Velikhov took a gamble—if Cochran could somehow show verification was possible, it would strengthen Gorbachev’s hand in prolonging the moratorium.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography loaned the first seismic gear, relatively unsophisticated surface monitors. Cochran and his team lugged them to Moscow in early July.52 The plan was to set them up at three locations outside of Semipalatinsk, within 150–200 kilometers from the center of the testing area, but not actually on the site. The Soviets were not conducting tests at the time. Cochran’s goal was simply to show that the Soviets would allow American seismologists to set up stations inside the Soviet Union, record data, and bring it out. This would be immensely symbolic, calling into question the Reagan argument that a test ban could not be verified, and helping support Velikhov’s effort to get Gorbachev to extend the moratorium.53

The American team arrived in Moscow on July 5, but before they could unpack their equipment, Velikhov ran into trouble.

“All of our military was completely against it,” Velikhov said. Gorbachev got cold feet and decided to ask the Politburo to rule whether Velikhov could allow the Americans to get close to the secret test site. The Soviet leadership was still struggling with the Chernobyl aftermath. “It was a very, very tense meeting on Chernobyl,” Velikhov recalled. “And after this meeting, everybody was tired, and there was a discussion of Semipalatinsk. Gorbachev was tired, and as usual, he wished somebody else would make this decision, not him. I made the case, but he didn’t give me any indication of strong support.”

Then, abruptly, two prominent figures turned against Velikhov. They were Dobrynin, the former ambassador to the United States, and Zaikov, the Politburo member for the military-industrial complex. They demanded: Why isn’t the measuring reciprocal? Why are we not putting our equipment in Nevada at the American test site?

Look, replied Velikhov impatiently, you have it all wrong. Reagan wants to continue testing. We are trying to impose a moratorium. We should help the scientists who will show the world that a test ban can be verified!

“After the meeting, it was inconclusive,” Velikhov recalled. He had no authority to sign the papers and give permission to Cochran. When the meeting was over, Velikhov was sitting with Gorbachev. What should he do?

Gorbachev replied, in his maddeningly vague way: “Follow the line of discussion of the meeting.”

“As I understood it?” Velikhov asked.

“Yes,” said Gorbachev.

Velikhov took that to mean “yes.” He gave a green light to Cochran’s team. The only condition, apparently to satisfy the military, was that the American scientists turn off their monitors in the event of any Soviet weapons test. Cochran agreed.54 The team began to set up the first station on July 9. It was an amazing moment, a toe into a closed zone, accomplished by an environmental group, not by the United States government. It demonstrated that scientists could, on their own, break through the Cold War secrecy and mistrust. It also underscored the unusual clout of Velikhov. “Not only his clout,” Cochran said, “but his chutzpah.”55

When Cochran, von Hippel, Velikhov and other scientists went to Gorbachev’s offices at the Central Committee in Moscow on July 14, they urged him to extend the moratorium. Cochran carried back from the test site the first seismic record, made by a scratchy needle moving across smoked paper fastened to a drum recording device. Pravda played up the meeting in a front-page article the next morning.

A few days later, on July 18, former president Richard Nixon held a private talk with Gorbachev in Moscow. Gorbachev told Nixon he wanted to send a signal to Reagan: he was eager to move ahead, he would not seek to postpone action until Reagan left office. “In today’s tense atmosphere, it means we cannot afford to wait,” Gorbachev said. Nixon reinforced the idea, saying Reagan was also primed to move. Nixon transmitted the message to Reagan, writing up a twenty-six-page memo for the president on his return.

On July 25, Reagan sent Gorbachev a seven-page formal letter, an outgrowth of the meeting at which Weinberger had proposed eliminating all ballistic missiles. The language of the Reagan letter was convoluted. It proposed that either the United States or the Soviet Union could research missile defense, and if they succeeded in creating it, would share, but only if both sides also agreed on a radical idea: “eliminate the offensive ballistic missiles of both sides.” If they didn’t agree to share-and-eliminate, then either side could, after six months, build missile defense on its own. Thus, Reagan had taken his dream of missile defense and hammered it together with Weinberger’s improbable proposal to get rid of the missiles.

On testing, Reagan firmly refused to stop.

On August 18, Gorbachev once again extended the Soviet nuclear-testing moratorium. Velikhov’s efforts had paid off. But Gorbachev was restless. When he went on vacation at the end of the month, Gorbachev was accompanied by Chernyaev, his national security adviser, as a one-man staff. They sat on the veranda or in Gorbachev’s office before lunch, reviewed the cables and made telephone calls to Moscow. Gorbachev asked the Foreign Ministry to provide an outline of ideas for the next meeting with Reagan. When the document came from Moscow, the suggestions were dry repetitions of what had been offered at the stalled arms control negotiations in Geneva.

Gorbachev threw it on the table. “What do you think?” he asked Chernyaev.

“It’s no good,” Chernyaev replied.

“Simply crap!” Gorbachev said.

Gorbachev asked Chernyaev to draft a letter to Reagan inviting him to a summit very soon, suggesting one venue might be Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, perhaps in September or October. When Chernyaev asked why Reykjavik, Gorbachev said, “It’s a good idea. Halfway between us and them, and none of the big powers will be offended.”56 Shevardnadze subsequently took the invitation to Washington on September 19. In the letter, Gorbachev offered a choice of London or Iceland; Reagan agreed to Iceland. The letter proposed “a quick one-on-one meeting … maybe just for one day, to engage in a strictly confidential, private and frank discussion (possibly only with our foreign ministers present).”57 Gorbachev said the talk “would not be a detailed one,” but designed to prepare a few issues for a later summit agreement. Reagan wrote in his diary, “This would be preparatory to a Summit.”58

But what was going through Gorbachev’s mind was something far more ambitious. He began to plan for a grand overture. He wanted to move very far, and fast. In their private discussion and memos, Gorbachev and Chernyaev plotted a dramatic turning point in the arms race. The summit must bring “major, sweeping proposals” to the fore, Chernyaev wrote. On September 22, Gorbachev told the Politburo he was willing to consider releasing twenty-five dissidents on a list demanded by Reagan, a move to assuage the president.59 In early October, a paper on the summit came to Gorbachev from Akhromeyev and others, offering guidelines for what Gorbachev should do. Gorbachev rejected it; he wanted to be bolder.60 Chernyaev offered his views to Gorbachev, which captured the mood: “The main goal of Reykjavik, if I understood you correctly in the South, is to sweep Reagan off his feet by our bold, even ‘risky’ approach to the central problems of world politics.”61 Chernyaev urged Gorbachev to make strategic weapons—missiles, bombers, submarines—his main topic, seeking a 50 percent reduction. Gorbachev agreed on the need for sweeping change, but did not want to get bogged down in arithmetic. “Our main goal now is to prevent the arms race from entering a new stage,” he said. “If we don’t do that, the danger to us will increase. If we don’t back down on some specific, maybe important issues, if we don’t budge from the positions we’ve held for a long time, we will lose in the end. We will be drawn into an arms race that we cannot manage. We will lose, because right now we are at the end of our tether.”

By contrast, Reagan approached the Reykjavik meeting casually, without any of the careful study he had applied before Geneva. There was no precooked agenda, as in previous summits. The Americans had little inkling of what Gorbachev was planning. Shultz wrote Reagan on October 2 that arms control would be central, but the Soviets “are largely talking from our script.” A Soviet specialist at the State Department wrote a two-page memo that opened: “We go into Reykjavik next week with very little knowledge of how Gorbachev intends to use the meeting.” Poindexter wrote “talking points” that he gave to Reagan, including “anticipate no substantive agreements per se,” and “meeting is in no sense a substitute or a surrogate for a summit.”62

But in Moscow, in his instructions to his summit aides October 4, Gorbachev was once again clear and direct about his ambitions—they were sky high. He talked about finding something to offer Reagan with “breakthrough potential,” and at the top of Gorbachev’s list was “the liquidation of nuclear weapons.” As a more immediate goal, he wanted to be rid of the arms race in European missiles, to remove the threat of the fast-flying Pershing Ils. “In our mind we must hold the priority task to kick the Pershing Ils out of Europe,” he said. “This is a gun at our temple.”

Gorbachev mentioned “liquidation of nuclear weapons” repeatedly.

He also told the aides he had a strategy. He would push for bold achievements, and “if Reagan does not meet us halfway, we will tell the whole world about this. That’s the plan.”

“If we fail, then we can say—Look, here’s what we are prepared to do!”

Reagan and Gorbachev met at Hofdi House, an isolated, two-story white structure overlooking the bay with a reputation for being haunted—it had been sold by the British ambassador in 1952 after pictures kept falling inexplicably off the walls. The North Atlantic weather cast cold, driving rain squalls—and brief splashes of brilliant sunshine—across the city on Saturday, October 11. Reagan and Gorbachev met at 10:40 A.M., sitting in brown leather armchairs opposite a small table in a room on the first floor, with a window on the gray and turbulent sea just beyond, and, on another wall, a dark blue oil painting, a seascape of waves crashing onto the rocks. In their initial meeting alone, Reagan repeated his favorite Russian proverb, “trust, but verify,” and Gorbachev wasted no time telling Reagan that the arms negotiations were stalled and they needed to give them an “impulse.” Suddenly, there was an awkward moment. Reagan dropped his note cards. Gorbachev deflected the embarrassment by suggesting they invite their foreign ministers to join them; Shultz and Shevardnadze entered the room. Shultz remembered the scene: “Gorbachev was brisk, impatient and confident, with the air of a man who is setting the agenda and taking charge of the meeting. Ronald Reagan was relaxed, disarming in a pensive way, and with an easy manner.”

Gorbachev launched into his dramatic proposals right at the outset. He proposed a 50 percent reduction in what he called “strategic offensive arms,” a very broad definition that could cover many weapons. He pledged the Soviets would accept deep cuts in the giant land-based missiles. He proposed to eliminate all medium-range missiles in Europe, including the Pioneers and the Pershing IIs. He called for “full and final prohibition of nuclear testing.” Gorbachev proposed that both sides promise for ten years to stick by the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty. This would put restraints on Reagan’s dream: research on missile defense would have to be confined to the laboratory.63

Reagan then replied to Gorbachev rather formally, reading from his cards. They used consecutive translation, which meant each remark was translated after it was spoken, which took time. Reagan’s presentation repeated the idea in his July 25 letter that once his Strategic Defense Initiative was ready, he would share it, and the ABM treaty would disappear, replaced by a new agreement, while both sides would reach “total elimination of strategic missiles.” From this very first exchange, Reagan clung tenaciously to his vision.

At the first break, “excitement was in the air,” Shultz said. He realized that Gorbachev had offered extraordinary and unexpected concessions. “He was laying gifts at our feet,” Shultz said. Shultz and other U.S. officials crowded into the secure “bubble” at the embassy, a small, vaultlike soundproof enclosure. Reagan then joined them, joking, “Why did Gorbachev have more papers than I did?” Nitze said, “This is the best Soviet proposal we have received in 25 years.”

In the afternoon session, Reagan and Gorbachev debated the 50 percent cut in weapons. Gorbachev wanted a simple 50 percent slash, while Reagan was worried that it would still leave the Soviets with advantages. But their talk was businesslike, and Gorbachev passed to Reagan a data sheet of Soviet weapons. “Let us cut this in half,” he said. “You are troubled by our SS-18 heavy missiles, and they will be reduced by 50 percent.” They agreed to leave the details to their staffs to hammer out overnight. Then Reagan returned to his missile defense dream. He told Gorbachev that it would “make missiles obsolete,” and “provide a guarantee against the actions of any madman,” and is “the best possibility for ensuring peace in our century.” Gorbachev took the lecture in stride, but he had heard it all before, and Reagan was giving no ground at all on Gorbachev’s demand to keep the research in the laboratory.

Gorbachev’s temper flared, and he warned Reagan that if he built the Strategic Defense Initiative, there would be a Soviet response—an “asymmetrical” one. He did not say what it would be, only that it would be “different.”

Reagan apparently did not realize that Gorbachev, in talking about a response, was contemplating a massive, offensive assault of nuclear warheads to overwhelm Reagan’s defenses. Rather, Reagan imagined Gorbachev’s system as something benign, like his own. “If you find that you have something a little better, then perhaps you could share it with us,” Reagan suggested.

“Excuse me, Mr. President,” Gorbachev replied sternly, “but I do not take your idea of sharing SDI seriously. You don’t want to share even petroleum equipment, automatic machine tools or equipment for dairies, while sharing SDI would be a second American revolution. And revolutions don’t occur all that often. Let’s be realistic.”

They decided to continue the next day, Sunday, which had not been part of the original plan—and ordered their staffs to work all night on compromises.64

Shultz later recalled that “the whole nature of the meeting we had planned at Reykjavik had changed.” Instead of a quick meeting, it was now becoming a full-scale summit. Through the night, American and Soviet officials sought common ground. The conditions were trying; without photocopying machines, they used carbon paper. Two U.S. officials, Colonel Bob Linhard of the National Security Council staff, and Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense, had nowhere else to work, so they put a board on a bathtub and got down to business. One of the surprises of the marathon overnight talks was that the U.S. officials for the first time got to know Akhromeyev, the chief of the General Staff who had pledged to help Gorbachev, and they found him to be a formidable negotiator. At one point, in an informal moment, Akhromeyev told Shultz, “I’m the last of the Mohicans.” When Shultz asked what he meant, Akhromeyev said he was the last active Soviet commander who had fought the Nazis in World War II. Shultz then asked him where he had learned the phrase. “In boyhood,” Akhromeyev said. “I was raised on the adventure tales of James Fenimore Cooper.” Shultz recalled that Akhromeyev seemed “far more at ease with himself, more open, more ready for real conversation” than earlier Soviet negotiators.65

By morning, as a result of the dramatic all-night conversations, breathtaking agreements to slash nuclear arsenals were drafted on paper. If the summit had just stopped there, if the two leaders had signed the papers, it would have been the climactic turnaround of the arms race. The Euromissiles would be dismantled except for one hundred on each side, and long-range or strategic weapons cut by 50 percent, a stupendous achievement when compared with the strategic arms treaties negotiated by Nixon and Carter. The 1972 SALT I accord, for example, had only put a freeze on missile launchers; now Reagan was slicing into the metal of the feared SS-18. Reagan agreed to negotiations on a nuclear test ban, too.

“We were getting amazing agreements,” Reagan later wrote in his memoirs. “As the day wore on, I felt something momentous was occurring.”66

But then Gorbachev turned up the heat. “Now I am testing you,” Gorbachev said, as he insisted they take up missile defense. He told Reagan that he wasn’t demanding that he abandon his dream, just keep it in the laboratory. This meant Reagan could “show the idea is alive, that we are not burying it,” Gorbachev said. But Reagan would not budge. “The genie is already out of the bottle. Offensive weapons can be built again. I propose creating protection for the world for future generations, when you and I will no longer be here.”

Gorbachev begged for a concession. “As the American saying goes, it takes two to tango,” he insisted.

Soon, perhaps out of fatigue, the two leaders began to shadow-box with their old slogans. Reagan brought out his Marx and Lenin aphorisms, and Gorbachev replied disdainfully, “So you are talking about Marx and Lenin again.” For his part, Gorbachev bristled at the memory of Reagan’s 1982 speech at Westminster, and the prediction that the Soviet Union would wind up on the ash heap of history. “I will tell you, that is quite a terrifying philosophy,” Gorbachev said. “What does it mean politically, make war against us?”

“No,” Reagan replied.

Then, almost as quickly, they gave up and turned back to the danger of nuclear weapons. Reagan launched a defense of his dream. “It appears at this point that I am the oldest man here,” Reagan said. “And I understand that after the war the nations decided they would renounce poison gases. But thank God that the gas mask continued to exist. Something similar can happen with nuclear weapons. And we will have a shield against them in any case.”

Exasperated, Gorbachev concluded, “The president of the United States does not like to retreat.” He seemed resigned to failure. “I see that the possibilities of agreement are exhausted.”

They didn’t give up, however. Gorbachev hammered away at the idea of keeping missile defense confined to the laboratory. Reagan was alternately insistent and unfocused. He told Gorbachev, “I can imagine both of us in ten years getting together again in Iceland to destroy the last Soviet and American missiles under triumphant circumstances. By then I’ll be so old that you won’t even recognize me. And you will ask in surprise, ‘Hey, Ron, is that really you? What are you doing here?’ And we’ll have a big celebration over it.”

“I don’t know whether I will live till that time,” Gorbachev said.

“I know I will,” Reagan replied.

During a break, Shultz attempted to craft new language in an effort to keep alive the hope of some kind of agreement. Reagan offered it to Gorbachev: a ten-year commitment to the ABM treaty, during which there would be “research, development and testing” of missile defenses.

Gorbachev immediately saw what was missing. The new formula omitted any mention of the word laboratory. Was it done on purpose? Yes, Reagan said.

Reagan also proposed two five-year periods for weapons elimination—exactly the same time frame as Gorbachev had suggested in January. But in Reagan’s version, there would be a 50 percent cut in “strategic offensive arms” in the first five years and the remaining 50 percent of “offensive ballistic missiles” in the second. Gorbachev said, correctly, the two five-year periods each eliminated a different category of weapon—how could that make sense? The first phase was all strategic arms, the second phase was only missiles. These were obviously different categories. “There is some kind of confusion here.” Indeed there was. The U.S. draft had been inexact in an effort to satisfy both sides.

Reagan was also confused. “What I want to know is, will all offensive ballistic missiles be eliminated?” he asked.

Gorbachev suggested that in the second phase, the wording should say “strategic offensive weapons, including ballistic missiles.” Perhaps they could improve the language later on, he said.

Then Reagan suddenly took everything further than it had ever gone before. An incredible moment in the history of the Cold War arrived abruptly, without any warning, without preparation, without briefing papers or interagency process, without press conferences or speeches, in the small room overlooking the bay.

“Let me ask this,” Reagan inquired. “Do we have in mind—and I think it would be very good—that by the end of the two five-year periods all nuclear explosive devices would be eliminated, including bombs, battlefield systems, cruise missiles, submarine weapons, intermediate-range systems, and so on?”

Gorbachev: “We could say that, list all those weapons.”

Shultz: “Then let’s do it.”

Reagan’s proposal was, by any measure, the most concrete, far-reaching disarmament initiative by a U.S. president ever to be formally submitted in a superpower summit negotiation. It was not a throwaway line. If earlier he had talked about eliminating ballistic missiles, or been imprecise or cloudy about what was under discussion, at this moment he swept away any doubts and clearly proposed total nuclear disarmament. There was no confusion. Reagan had reached the very core of his beliefs at the very peak of his power.

But Reagan and Gorbachev did not take out a paper and sign it at that moment. It was a huge missed opportunity.

Gorbachev, while saying there was a chance for such an agreement, again insisted that research on missile defense must be confined to the laboratory. “The question of laboratories is of fundamental importance.”

Reagan refused, saying his aim was “to make a kind of gas mask against nuclear missiles” and a system to protect against “the danger of nuclear maniacs.”

Gorbachev: “Yes, I’ve heard all about gas masks and maniacs, probably ten times already. But it still does not convince me.” He added, again, that he only wanted to keep missile defense research in the laboratory.

Reagan: “You’re destroying all my bridges to continuation of my SDI program.”

Gorbachev: “In regard to laboratories, is that your final position? If so, we can end our meeting at this point.”

Reagan: “Yes it is.”

More verbal jousting followed, with no progress. Gorbachev appealed to Reagan’s sense of history. If they could sign an agreement containing all the Soviet concessions, “you will become, without exaggeration, a great president. You are now literally two steps from that.” If they could sign, Gorbachev pleaded with Reagan, “it will mean our meeting has been a success.” And if not, “then let’s part at this point and forget about Reykjavik. But there won’t be another opportunity like this. At any rate, I know I won’t have one.”

Both men seem to have sensed their historic moment was slipping through their fingers.

“Are you really going to turn down a historic opportunity for the sake of one word in the text?” Reagan demanded. The word was “laboratory.”

“You say that it’s just a matter of one word,” Gorbachev shot back. “But it’s not a matter of one word, it’s a matter of principle.” If he went back to Moscow having allowed Reagan to deploy his missile defense, Gorbachev added, “they will call me a fool and irresponsible leader.”

“Now it’s a matter of one word,” Reagan lamented. “I want to ask you once more to change your viewpoint, to do it as a favor to me so that we can go to the people as peacemakers.”

“We cannot go along with what you propose,” Gorbachev responded. “If you will agree to banning tests in space, we will sign the document in two minutes. We cannot go along with something else … I have done everything I could.” Shultz recalled that Gorbachev said, “It’s ‘laboratory,’ or good-bye.”

Reagan passed a note to Shultz: “Am I wrong?” Shultz whispered back, “No, you are right.”

Reagan stood up to go and gathered up his papers, as did Gorbachev, according to Shultz. “It was dark when the doors of Hofdi House opened and we all emerged, almost blinded by the klieg lights. The looks on our faces spoke volumes,” Shultz recalled. “Sad, disappointed faces,” said Chernyaev.

“I still feel we can find a deal,” Reagan said to Gorbachev as they parted.

“I don’t think you want a deal,” Gorbachev replied. “I don’t know what more I could have done.”

“You could have said ‘yes,’” Reagan said.

“We won’t be seeing each other again,” Gorbachev said, meaning that they would not see each other again in Reykjavik. The remark was overheard and set off a rumor that the talks had failed terribly.

Shultz joined Reagan back in the residence, where the president and his top advisers slumped in easy chairs in the solarium. “Bad news. One lousy word!” Reagan said.67

That evening, he summed it up briskly in his diary. “He wanted language that would have killed SDI,” Reagan wrote. “The price was high but I wouldn’t sell & that’s how the day ended. All our people thought I’d done exactly right. I’d pledged I wouldn’t give away SDI & I didn’t but that meant no deal on any of the arms reductions. I was mad—he tried to act jovial but I acted mad and it showed. Well the ball is in his court and I’m convinced he’ll come around when he sees how the world is reacting.”68

“I was very disappointed—and very angry,” Reagan recalled years later in his memoirs.

Gorbachev was also fuming. “My first, overwhelming, intention had been to blow the unyielding American position to smithereens, carrying out the plan we had decided in Moscow: if the Americans rejected the agreement, a compromise in the name of peace, we would denounce the U.S. administration and its dangerous policies as a threat to everyone around the world.” Chernyaev later noted this was the Politburo’s instructions to Gorbachev: to come out blasting Reagan if the Americans refused to give the Soviets what they wanted.

But as Gorbachev walked to a press conference, he was unsure. Had they not accomplished a lot, even if they failed to reach a final agreement?

“My intuition was telling me I should cool off and think it all over thoroughly. I had not yet made up my mind when I suddenly found myself in the enormous press conference room. About a thousand journalists were waiting for us. When I came into the room, the merciless, often cynical and cheeky journalists were waiting for us. I sensed anxiety in the air. I suddenly felt emotional, even shaken. These people standing in front of me seemed to represent mankind waiting for its fate to be decided.”

In another dramatic turn, Gorbachev decided not to follow his instructions from the Politburo. He decided not to smash Reagan to smithereens, and instead he sounded optimistic.

“We have already reached accord on much,” he told the journalists. “We have come a long way.”69

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