Primary Sources

President Reagan Discusses His Meetings With Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland


Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated the October 1986 weekend summit at Reykjavik, Iceland with President Ronald Reagan after progress in arms negotiations had slowed following their first meeting in Geneva the previous November. The meeting was billed as an “interim summit” in preparation for a more substantial one in Washington. At the conclusion of two days of intense bargaining that Secretary of State George Shultz described as “the highest-stakes poker game ever played,” the two leaders shocked many when they revealed that although they had failed to come to an agreement, they nearly had worked out a plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons from their country’s arsenals within ten years. The talks had stalled when Gorbachev insisted that for at least ten years, the US must limit research on its Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—Reagan’s “dream” of a missile defense system to protect against nuclear attack—to the laboratory. The Soviets worried that successful testing of SDI in space could lead to space-based offensive weapons. Reagan believed that Congress would not fund SDI under the proposed limitation. Despite their failure, Gorbachev characterized the meeting as a “breakthrough,” and during the next few days, Reagan and members of his administration conducted a media blitz—of which the following televised address was a part—that succeeded in convincing most of the American public that the summit had been a resounding success. Defense experts and NATO allies, however, expressed astonishment that Reagan and his advisors, without consulting with Congress or other nations, apparently had been willing to discard the policy of nuclear deterrence that long had guided US strategic planning to prevent Soviet military aggression.


Ronald Reagan, "Address to the Nation on the Meetings With Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland," speech, The White House, Washington, D.C., October 13, 1986, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, The Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan, Reagan Library (accessed March 19, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

Good evening. As most of you know, I've just returned from meetings in Iceland with the leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Gorbachev.... The implications of these talks are enormous and only just beginning to be understood. We proposed the most sweeping and generous arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles—Soviet and American—from the face of the Earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons....

We discussed the emplacement of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia and seemed to be in agreement they could be drastically reduced. Both sides seemed willing to find a way to reduce, even to zero, the strategic ballistic missiles we have aimed at each other. This then brought up the subject of SDI....

The General Secretary wanted wording that, in effect, would have kept us from developing the SDI for ... 10 years. In effect, he was killing SDI. And unless I agreed, all that work toward eliminating nuclear weapons would go down the drain—canceled. I told him I had pledged to the American people that I would not trade away SDI, there was no way I could tell our people their government would not protect them against nuclear destruction.

... I can tell you that I'm ultimately hopeful about the prospects for progress at the summit and for world peace and freedom. You see, the current summit process is very different from that of previous decades. It's different because the world is different.... The Western democracies and the NATO alliance are revitalized; and all across the world, nations are turning to democratic ideas and the principles of the free market. So, because the American people stood guard at the critical hour, freedom has gathered its forces, regained its strength, and is on the march. So, if there's one impression I carry away with me from these October talks, it is that, unlike the past, we're dealing now from a position of strength.... Our ideas are out there on the table. They won't go away. We're ready to pick up where we left off.... So, there's reason, good reason for hope.

How to Cite this Source

President Ronald Reagan, "President Reagan Discusses His Meetings With Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland," Making the History of 1989, Item #56, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:26 pm).

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