Once in a Lifetime

On October 11, 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, history came to a turning point. It was there and then that the opportunity arose to end the superpower arms race and move toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. But it was a turning point upon which history failed to turn because when the hour of decision arrived, the Reagan administration turned its back on this new possibility.

No one expected the Reykjavik summit to turn into an epochal event. But in retrospect we can see some of the factors that helped create a historic moment. The hastily conceived meeting came at a time when both leaders badly needed a success in nuclear arms control. President Reagan was facing a growing congressional rebellion against his military policies and the fear that his party would lose control of the Senate in the November elections. For his part Gorbachev was facing pressure from Soviet "hawks" over the apparent failure of his 14-month-long unilateral nuclear warhead testing moratorium and international embarrassment over the Daniloff affair.

In addition to these compelling political factors, the Reykjavik summit came at a time when the terms of arms control discussion were in a radical state of flux. For 40 years arms control had consisted mostly of managing the incremental growth of the nuclear arsenals and monitoring the mutual introduction of deadly new technologies. But in the last five years, that consensual process of staged escalations has broken down. One powerful faction of the Reagan administration came into office with the conviction that arms control was an illusion and that the only security for the United States lay in lopsided military superiority. To adherents of this view, we have little to discuss with the Soviets except the terms of their eventual surrender.

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