Thirty years ago, an improbable U.S.-Soviet partnership took dramatic cooperative security steps to end the Cold War.
BY JAMES E. GOODBY
George Kennan made public his ideas about what became the American Cold War strategy of containment in 1947 in an essay published by Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X”. The article was based on the “Long Telegram,” a strategic analysis of the sources of Soviet conduct he had written and sent as a cable while posted in Moscow in 1946. One question that he obviously thought he had to address was: How does it all end?
Kennan’s answer was strikingly close to what actually happened to the Soviet Union more than four decades later, in December 1991: “If … anything were ever to occur to disrupt the unity and efficacy of the Party as a political instrument, Soviet Russia might be changed overnight from one of the strongest to one of the weakest and most pitiable of national societies.” His rhetoric got a bit out of hand with adjectives like “overnight,” “strongest,” “weakest” and “pitiable,” but the general sense of his prediction was spot on.
In his “X” article, Kennan did not venture to discuss the possibility that the leaders of the two bitter Cold War protagonists, the Soviet Union and the United States, could ever become partners in the global political arena. In fact, he ruled that out for what he called “the foreseeable future.” With no evidence to suggest that a Reagan and a Gorbachev would emerge simultaneously at the tops of their respective governments, he could not have anticipated what took place during the 1980s. Selling containment as the preferable alternative to a war that then seemed all too likely was uppermost in his mind.
And yet, they did become partners, and from the late 1970s through the 1980s, just before the collapse of the USSR, took dramatic cooperative security steps that ended the Cold War. It is the most surprising and unpredicted part of the story, and well worth remembering today. In the following we explore how that came to be and where it led.
With the Soviet Union’s achievement of strategic nuclear parity with the United States in the early 1970s, arms control had become a central policy concern. Negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) started under the aegis of President Jimmy Carter and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev following Soviet deployment of SS-20s, multiwarhead ballistic missiles targeted on Western Europe, in 1976. At a combined NATO Foreign Ministers–Defense Ministers meeting in December 1979—in which I participated as State’s European Bureau representative—NATO had agreed on a two-track policy: The Alliance would offer negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit deployments of intermediate-range missiles but would also prepare to deploy such missiles in the territories of European alliance members if agreement could not be reached with Moscow.
This was the same formula NATO had been prepared to use in a negotiation with Moscow over NATO’s proposed deployment of the “neutron bomb,” until President Carter decided the weapon was not needed and was politically divisive. No progress was made in the remaining year of President Carter’s term, and Ronald Reagan became president in January 1981.
By that time, a suggestion that all INF missiles on both sides should be banned had gained traction among defense experts in West Germany, and Richard Perle, then a top aide to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, had advocated that this become the U.S. position. The idea appealed to Reagan, and the zero option became the position presented to Moscow by the Reagan administration in November 1981, contrary to the advice of Reagan’s first Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. (As a former Supreme Commander of NATO, Haig favored some NATO INF deployment in Europe to fill what some Europeans saw as a deterrence gap in NATO’s posture.)
By 1983, no agreement on INF had been reached with the Soviet Union, and deployments of ground-launched cruise missiles had begun that year in a few NATO countries.
By 1983, however, no agreement on INF had been reached with the Soviet Union, and deployments of ground-launched cruise missiles had begun that year in a few NATO countries. West Germany had agreed to deploy Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles in its territory, and these deployments also had begun in 1983 despite a major Soviet effort to persuade the German government and people not to do so. The Soviet delegation in the Geneva INF talks was ordered to walk out when its campaign to block Pershing II failed, and that act meant the suspension of any negotiations on INF.
George Shultz long maintained that the German decision to proceed with Pershing II deployments in 1983 over strong Soviet objections was the turning point in the Cold War, because it proved to Moscow that the Western allies would stick together in standing up to Soviet threats. This display of NATO solidarity must have added to the feeling in Moscow that their government lacked the clout their people expected it to have.
In the meantime, circumstances arose in America and Russia that solidified that turning point. This is the most unexpected part of the unlikely partnership that ended the Cold War. It comes down to a story of “the odd couple”—two leaders steeped in the values of their respective systems but whose thoughts turned to an imagined better future, and who gained the power to act on those visions.
After Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to the top positions in the Soviet hierarchy in 1985, he vigorously pursued conditions he perceived as necessary for the economic health of the Soviet Union—or, as he put it, to achieve the full potential of socialism. Gorbachev thought it was possible to end the military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States that had been the driver of defense expenditures in both countries. He believed, in fact, that the Cold War had to be ended if he was to achieve his ambitions for the Soviet Union. His actions quickly led to a changed outlook for agreements with the West, both in U.S.-USSR cooperative security negotiations and in political relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
Gorbachev had probably read or perhaps listened to the State of the Union message that Ronald Reagan delivered in January 1984. Gorbachev certainly paid attention to this part of the American president’s speech: “People of the Soviet Union, there is only one sane policy, for your country and mine, to preserve our civilization in this modern age: A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then, would it not be better to do away with them entirely?”
To a man looking for a way to end the Cold War, Reagan’s words must have seemed like manna from heaven. A year later, in January 1985, George Shultz and Andrei Gromyko achieved an agreement that was aimed at expediting nuclear negotiations between the two sides, another signal that Reagan and Shultz were serious. They restructured the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) negotiations, and Reagan appointed new heads of the negotiating teams for strategic and space arms. The table was set for progress.
Gorbachev had thought a lot about how to revive the Soviet Union, and he took office with change in mind and policies to make change happen.
After becoming General Secretary in 1985, Gorbachev lost no time in joining President Reagan for what became known as the “Fireside Summit” in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 19-20, 1985. The joint statement released by the two leaders included these words from President Reagan’s State of the Union message: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
In October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev met again, this time in Reykjavík at the Hofdi House. That meeting was supposed to be for the purpose of preparing for a summit to be held later, in Washington, D.C. Gorbachev surprised his counterparts by coming prepared to talk, in effect, about the question that President Reagan had raised about nuclear weapons in his 1984 State of the Union message: Wouldn’t it be better to do away with them entirely? Encouraged by Secretary of State George Shultz, this issue became a major focus of the discussions, and it produced the most extraordinary meeting that leaders of the two nations ever held.
The typical outcome of such discussions would have been to refer their bold exchanges with each other to their strategic arms negotiators in Geneva so that the issues could be sorted out and made ready for the planned summit. What happened instead was that the talks broke up in disarray over the issue of testing ballistic missile defenses. In a back room at Hofdi House, the veteran presidential adviser Paul Nitze and others had been having an exchange with Soviet counterparts, including the powerful Soviet Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, on issues that had arisen in talks on intermediate-range ballistic missiles. They were at an impasse, but it was only a temporary setback in what proved to be a momentous process.
In 1987, following up on the 1986 discussions in Reykjavík, Gorbachev agreed to zero out INF missiles and two types of short-range ballistic missiles. This move had been considered highly unlikely when Reagan first proposed the zero option, but Gorbachev saw it as part of his campaign to end the Cold War. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in Washington in December 1987, and it was ratified and entered into force in June 1988.
The two men met again in May-June 1988 in Moscow but failed to resolve differences over issues in the strategic arms treaty. It was too late in Reagan’s term to reach agreement on START, but a good beginning had been made under the leadership of Reagan and Shultz. A treaty would be concluded and signed on July 31, 1991, by Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush during the latter’s single term and what turned out to be the last year of Gorbachev’s tenure as president of the USSR. The START Treaty was succeeded by the New START Treaty in 2010 under President Barack Obama and Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, and that treaty was extended for five years by President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin soon after Biden took office in 2021.
While all that was going on in the nuclear arena, Gorbachev was trying to end the Cold War in Europe.
While all that was going on in the nuclear arena, Gorbachev was trying to end the Cold War in Europe, believing that good relations with Western Europe would be a key element in improving Russia’s economic condition. He had told the members of the Warsaw Pact—known as the “satellites” in the West—that they were free to adopt their own policies without interference from anyone. The political climate in Europe had been ready for such a move because of the agreement in 1975 on the Helsinki Final Act, which amounted to a definition of the international order for the Euro-Atlantic community of nations, including the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Gorbachev’s actions were consistent with the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act, which had been signed by Brezhnev.
Soon, East and West Germans were discussing unification. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Germany was reunited in 1990. Gorbachev received assurances from the United States and its allies that even with a united Germany as a member of NATO, the alliance would not expand its military footprint eastward and these assurances were observed through Gorbachev’s tenure as leader of the Soviet Union and through the term of President George H.W. Bush.
As the 1980s came to a close, the U.S. and USSR had achieved arms control successes that George Kennan would not have imagined possible. Kennan did, however, foresee what the USSR’s “end” would look like with striking accuracy: it hinged, Kennan said, on something that would “disrupt the unity and efficacy of the Communist Party as a political instrument.”
The proximate cause of such a disruption was the decision of eight top officials of the Communist Party to stage a coup against USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. A crisis had been brewing as Communist Party chiefs in several of the 15 republics declared independence from the central government. The trend had been encouraged by no less a personage than the ambitious, recently elected president of the Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin. Though Yeltsin saw USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev as an obstacle to his consolidation of presidential power, staging a coup to reverse the trend toward the independence of the Soviet republics was the last thing that Yeltsin wanted, so his opposition to the coup was practically guaranteed.
Gorbachev, for his part, planned to address the crisis in the party by moving toward a new “Union Treaty” defining the legal relationships between the 15 constituent republics of the USSR. Fearing a loosening of the legal bonds that the founding treaty had created in 1922, the plotters intended to preempt any such moves. They seized Gorbachev and his family at their vacation home on Aug. 18, placed them under house arrest, announced that the president could not speak to the public because he was ill, and proclaimed themselves an emergency committee empowered to deal with the crisis in the Soviet Union.
By Aug. 21, the coup attempt had failed, thanks to the leadership of Yeltsin and the active opposition of hundreds of thousands of others who had their own good reasons for not wanting to turn back the clock. The episode was, however, the straw that broke the camel’s back. By virtually forcing Yeltsin to redouble his efforts to create a counterweight to the power structures of the USSR, the disruptive actions of the Gang of Eight only accelerated the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And so, on Dec. 8, 1991, the sovereign states of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the heartland of the Slavic world, agreed to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Other republics were not far behind. The USSR was finished.
On Dec. 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and only president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, accepted the reality that there was no longer a viable legal entity called the Soviet Union, and he resigned as president, acknowledging that the position, in fact, no longer existed. The flag of the Soviet Union that had been hoisted that morning over the Kremlin’s walls was lowered for the last time that evening, and the old flag of Russia was raised in its place. The next day, Dec. 26, 1991, the Upper House of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union also acknowledged that the Soviet Union no longer existed. These formalities brought the de jure situation into conformity with the de facto situation: a revolution had taken place within the borders of what had been the USSR.
Mikhail Gorbachev, of course, is blamed, or credited, by practically every observer for losing an empire. But nearly every historian and economist also accepts that the seeds of the Soviet Union’s downfall were planted when successive Communist Party General Secretaries refused to make basic reforms in the Soviet economic structure that had been set in place grosso modo under Stalin’s rule. Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin in 1953, ended the most repressive features of Stalin’s governance but did not essentially change the economic system. Khrushchev’s reckless decision to deploy ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba in 1962 can be seen as a desperate effort to reduce the huge costs of building a new fleet of nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. His failure, labeled “adventurism and capitulationism” by the Communist Party of China, led to his removal from office in 1964.
His successor, Leonid Brezhnev, who led the country for 18 years, strengthened the authority and priorities of the Soviet military-industrial complex and devoted enormous resources to building nuclear weapons and the means to carry the warheads to their targets in North America and elsewhere. (The SS-20 was a top priority in the aftermath of Khrushchev’s dismissal and figured as a negotiating issue in Gorbachev’s later efforts to change relations with the West.) Yet his rule was later characterized by Soviet critics as the “era of stagnation,” which it was so far as the Soviet economy was concerned.
Indeed, when Brezhnev died in 1982, Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, is said to have favored Gorbachev as the next Soviet General Secretary, apparently because he agreed with Gorbachev that the Soviet economic system was not delivering the goods and services needed by a modern state. Instead, Andropov, himself, was chosen as Brezhnev’s successor, probably because he was thought capable of enforcing discipline in the Soviet workforce. But Andropov died in February 1984, after just 16 months in office.
I watched as his son, a member of the Soviet Union’s delegation to the 1984-1986 Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and disarmament in Europe, also known as the Stockholm Conference, abruptly left a plenary meeting. We learned later that he had been summoned back to Moscow because his father lay near death. At the time, when asked about getting on with nuclear arms talks, President Reagan said that he would like to, “but they keep dying on me.”
Andropov was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, an elderly product of the Brezhnev era, selected because he seemed next in line and was a safe bet to continue the policies thought to have been supportive of internal stability as well as the Soviet Union's international interests. Chernenko, too, died, after just 13 months in office.
The stage was set for a younger, more dynamic leader to take the reins of power in Moscow. Gorbachev was 54 when selected in March 1985 by the Politburo to succeed Chernenko—indeed, to replace leaders who ever since the death of Stalin had resisted changes in the status quo. Gorbachev had thought a lot about how to revive the Soviet Union, and he took office with change in mind and policies to make change happen. He summarized his policy in two words: “perestroika” and “glasnost,” by which he meant that he wanted to restructure the old Soviet system while making it more open and transparent.
Gorbachev helped usher in a new era, one in which cooperation with the U.S. on curbing the nuclear arms race was possible.
The world of 2021 is a far different place from the world of the 1980s. In 1984, Reagan was able to argue in a State of the Union message that the only purpose of nuclear weapons was to see that they were never used and that the logic of that suggested they should be done away with. Imagine a U.S. president saying such a thing now!
On May 31, 1988, standing with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Kremlin in Moscow, Reagan was reminded by a reporter of his speech castigating the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” He replied simply: “No, that was another time, another era.” Today there is no counterpart either to Reagan in Washington or to Gorbachev in Moscow. There is no “nuclear freeze movement” in which Americans demonstrate in the streets to ask their government to slow down the nuclear arms race. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Reagan-Shultz-Gorbachev INF treaty effective Aug. 2, 2019, citing Soviet noncompliance and suggesting that China should be covered by any INF treaty.
Russia today is in much the same situation economically as it was when Mikhail Gorbachev diagnosed its problems.
Four distinguished statesmen of the Cold War wrote several articles between 2007 and 2013 that argued for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, hoping to rekindle the flame of hope that had burned brightly in Reykjavík. George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn met with President Barack Obama, who supported their goal and gave a speech in Prague that laid out an ambitious arms control and disarmament program. Obama spoke later in Berlin to advocate deeper reductions in nuclear weapons after New START. He also spoke in Hiroshima about the need for moral advances to match technological advances.
Leaders of other nations spoke in support of working toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The U.N. Security Council in 2011 adopted a resolution asking for efforts to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons in line with the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. But today, late in the year 2021, little is heard of eliminating nuclear weapons as a national priority. Obviously, the pandemic has sucked all the oxygen out of the room available for debate about great public issues, but we should not forget the far greater global catastrophe that awaits us if a nuclear war should ever start.
Russia today is in much the same situation economically as it was when Mikhail Gorbachev diagnosed its problems. Much like Leonid Brezhnev before him, President Vladimir Putin has opted for the status quo in the name of maintaining a stable society. Putin does not have a Communist Party nomenklatura, true; but he does have wealthy oligarchs eager to do his bidding. He has relied on Russia’s natural resources as the driver of gross domestic product rather than encouraging entrepreneurship, and has thus sacrificed the potential offered by science and technology for modernizing the economy.
Despite evidence that Russia is a nation in decline, or maybe because the behavior of a weak Russia could be more dangerous than that of a strong and secure Russia, the United States should look for chances to work constructively with that nation.
George Shultz’s last book before he passed away at age 100 in February 2021, was about the future. Titled A Hinge of History, it was written with James Timbie, a leading figure for many years in nuclear negotiations with the Soviet Union. In that last testament of a great American patriot, Shultz and his co-author eloquently argue for renewed engagement with Russia. They write: “Russia is a major power, armed with the most dangerous weapons on earth. It will always be important, so the United States must figure out how to work with Russia constructively. It has been done before, and it can be done today, even in a new and changing world.”
[Editor’s Note: This version of the article was updated on Dec. 9, 2021, to correct the succession from Leonid Brezhnev to Mikhail Gorbachev.]