On October 11-12, 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev — and it became a historically pivotal moment in our Nuclear and Space Talks (NST) with the Soviet Union. Although the Reykjavik “summit” was billed as a failure around the world, it actually changed everything in our negotiations, and the consequences are important to this day.
The key moment came when Reagan walked out because Gorbachev demanded, in exchange for the deep reductions the president wanted in our offensive nuclear forces, that he agree to limit our space-based defense research and experiments to the laboratory, rather than in space. That, of course, would have severely limited the president’s objectives in his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
I played a leading role in the Defense and Space Talks (DST) component of the NST that began in March 1985 — initially as Deputy and then Chief Negotiator. Our charge from President Reagan was, in effect, to find creative ways to say “Nyet” to the Soviet demands that we ban all so-called “space strike arms” that could shoot down other systems launched into space or launched from space to attack targets in space, in the atmosphere or on the ground.
Denying those demands was central to our NST talks, which also included the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) talks and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) — where Reagan’s top priority called for an elimination of all INF systems and deep reductions in all strategic nuclear forces.
After limited Soviet movement in INF and START had occurred from our negotiations in Geneva — while we held the line on SDI, we had set the stage for the meeting in Reykjavik, intended to make more specific plans for a full scale summit. But Gorbachev obviously had other plans.
The meeting began swimmingly, as Gorbachev made many concessions toward our position on offensive nuclear arms — to ban all INF systems and cut the START systems in half. Then as the planned session neared an end, Gorbachev made his demand that SDI experiments be limited to the laboratory.
Agreement would have gutted Reagan’s most important objective to build the most truly effective defenses, which would be based in space, as we have understood since the conclusions of the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) studies in the early 1960s. SDI was all about determining whether late-1980s technology would make that objective possible.
The answer was clearly, “Yes” — and the SDI experiments were clearly demonstrating that was so — and the Soviets knew they could not compete with our technological capabilities that would neuter their advantage in offensive ballistic missiles.
In short, President Reagan walked out and we were able subsequently to pocket the concessions Gorbachev had made in our INF and START Treaties — the first ever actually to reduce nuclear weapons, while our SDI efforts continued.
Many, including yours truly, believe that Reagan’s SDI changed the world — as Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher later said, “SDI ended the Cold War without firing a shot.” And many senior former Soviet officials have pointed to Reykjavik as the turning point that began the death knell of the Soviet Union.
Regrettably, the Democrats in Congress and the Clinton administration accomplished what the Soviets could not and completely gutted the SDI program, especially the space components and the pivotal technology that so marked the SDI era (1983-93). And we were then within years of actually being able to build truly cost-effective space based interceptors when Reagan’s SDI was killed for political reasons.
Now, President Trump’s interest in a Space Force could deliver on Reagan’s objective, now with even more advanced technology and for considerably less expense. I pray that it will.
Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary and Science Advisor to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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