Invariably billed as a Cold Warrior's Cold Warrior, in office Ronald Reagan took risks to establish a personal relationship with the Soviet leadership. In April 1981, still recuperating from the Hinckley assassination attempt, he wrote a heartfelt letter to Brezhnev inviting dialogue, horrifying some of his closest advisers who thought the approach naive and dangerous. In the letter Reagan recalled a meeting between them in the early 1970s when he believed the Soviet leader had responded warmly to his talk of the common aspirations of mankind: "You took my hand in both of yours and assured me that you were dedicated with all your heart and mind to fulfilling those hopes and dreams".
Remarkable though it was, the approach led nowhere. Brezhnev was not dedicated to fulfilling the hopes and dreams of mankind. But, characteristically, Reagan refused to be put off. After Gorbachev's emergence as Soviet leader in March 1985, he simply repeated the experiment, writing (in a slightly cooler style) to invite his adversary to Washington and affirming his "personal commitment ... to serious negotiations".
Gorbachev, of course, was no Brezhnev, and this time the President's private diplomacy began to bear fruit. Their correspondence during 1985 opened the way to a full-scale summit meeting, against the background of arms control talks and serious discussion of regional conflicts. Much of Reagan's thinking is already apparent from these early letters, particularly his commitment to the visionary goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Public relations between the two powers began to improve, though they were still strained at times.
MT played her part in these events, notably by publicly declaring Gorbachev a man she could do business with (17 December 1984) and by briefing President Reagan on this new style of Soviet politician at Camp David a few days later (22 December).
When Reagan and Gorbachev finally met, media attention was huge. Images of the President and the Soviet leader in affable conversation - particularly shots of them by a blazing fireside - dominated front pages and news bulletins for days. Reagan's hawkish reputation made them all the more striking.
US records of the Geneva Summit became available to the public some years ago at the Reagan Library and were published for the first time in full on this site.
Geneva led on to four further meetings: Reykjavik in October 1986 (where agreement on the elimination of strategic nuclear weapons momentarily seemed possible), Washington in December 1987 (to sign the INF Treaty), Moscow in May 1988 (the President meeting crowds in Red Square) and finally Governors Island in New York Harbour in December 1988 (a valedictory event the month before Reagan left office). Records of all these events have been declassified and are available on line exclusively on this site.
The National Security Archive has posted online fresh material about the Geneva Summit, including documents from Soviet sources such as Politburo minutes.