Shultz (George)

Cold War: Geneva (Reagan-Gorbachev) Summit (Shultz memoirs)

Document type: Press
Source: George Shultz Turmoil & Triumph
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 4,010 words
Themes: Defence (arms control), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states)

The Summit Begins

On Tuesday, November 19, the summit began. Ronald Reagan greeted Mikhail Gorbachev at 10:00 a.m. with an engaging smile. Flashbulbs lit the landscape. The image was dramatic: the hatless, coatless seventy-four-year-old who had bounded out energetically in the bitter cold to greet the leader twenty years his junior. In the photos, Gorbachev – in topcoat and brown fedora – looked older than the president. President Reagan steered his guest into a side room for what was planned to be a meeting of about twenty minutes. Thirty went by, then forty. Jim Kuhn , the president's personal assistant and keeper of the schedule, approached me asking whether he should go in and give the president an opening to break up the meeting. What did I think?

"If you're dumb enough to do that, you shouldn't be in your job," I said, perhaps a bit harshly, as Don Regan , I discovered later, had sent him to me with the question. The rest of us, Americans and Soviets, sat around the large table that had been set up in the villa's dining room, engaged in casual conversation, and stared through the high windows at the frozen scene outside. While the president and Gorbachev met, I spent the time in conversation with Shevardnadze . We agreed to go through our own agenda when our bosses were meeting as a way to prepare ground for them. We started on regional issues, beginning with a mutual assessment of developments in Southern Africa.

After about an hour and a quarter, the leaders emerged, smiling. The president later told me that he and Gorbachev hit it off well. The president described how he brought up the importance of human rights and said that the balance of their talk had been a short version of what had followed at the big table.

Gorbachev opened by giving President Reagan a firm line: the United States should not have illusions about being able to "bankrupt" the Soviet Union; neither could we gain military superiority over the Soviets. "Make no mistake," Gorbachev said, "we can match you, whatever you do." It was the same line he had given me in Moscow, but with his punches pulled now for the president. Gorbachev was pleasant. Reagan was more stern and direct, talking of the Soviet post–World War II buildup and their responsibility for the cold war.

Gorbachev replied that the war had left the USSR far behind and that they had caught up with the West. The president, to emphasize the difficult problem of trust in our relationship, recounted how the Soviets in World War II had refused to let U.S. bombers land and refuel in the USSR after our runs over Nazi targets.

During a break, Georgi Kornienko , deputy foreign minister and a man I had come to know, exploded at me. "Your president was totally wrong, I know," he said, "because I was stationed at a Soviet base where your bombers came in to refuel. What can we think of a president who is so misinformed?" I later checked the story out and found that Kornienko was right. But the negotiations to authorize such refueling had been painful, slow, and acrimonious. Many times I would try to correct the president on particular facts of a favorite story. It rarely worked. Once a certain arrangement of facts was in his head, I could hardly ever get them out. Usually, as in this case, there was an underlying kernel of truth, even if aspects were off the mark.

After adjourning for lunch, Gorbachev brought up Afghanistan. He talked about withdrawal of Soviet troops "as part of a general political settlement between us." He even indicated that the United States could "help" the Soviets get out. I thought I saw the beginning of an opening there, but no one else picked up on this. Gorbachev described the "process" that our two nations should use to advance the relationship. He envisioned contacts at various levels, starting with foreign ministers and ranging through a wide variety of topics. As I listened, I thought to myself, Gorbachev could be reading right out of the president's own briefing book.

Gorbachev then moved on to arms control. He had a set of questions about SDI, which he claimed was taking us into a new arms race, as it would require the Soviets to increase their offensive weaponry while developing their own SDI. Theirs would be cheaper and better than ours, Gorbachev assured us.

President Reagan did not pick up at all on Gorbachev 's lightly veiled hint about pulling out of Afghanistan. Instead, the president cited Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Nicaragua as examples where Soviet intervention and troublemaking were undermining peace. He then talked about the substantial reductions of battlefield nuclear weapons – and withdrawals of such weapons – undertaken unilaterally by the United States since 1969.

In midafternoon, coffee was brought in. The president said to Gorbachev , "We get along pretty well talking alone" and suggested they walk down to the pool house by the lake. Comfortable chairs and a blazing fire awaited them. Outside it was unbearably cold. "There's nothing like a little shared hardship to form a bond," I remarked. While they were talking by the fire, Shevardnadze and I and all the others chatted among ourselves. The two leaders returned an hour later, having discussed inconclusively our approach to arms control. Both were obviously in a good mood. The president made an important announcement to us. They had agreed on reciprocal visits: first Gorbachev to a Washington summit, then Reagan to a Moscow summit. I was surprised and encouraged, as much by the obvious rapport between the two men as by their quick agreement without hesitation on reciprocal visits for two follow-on summit meetings. Such agreement was one of our main objectives in Geneva. The president's brand of personal diplomacy seemed to be working.

At the end of the afternoon in our postmortem with the president, the general conclusion was that the tone had been good and that Gorbachev had come toward our positions on quite a few topics. Gorbachev was long-winded, but his talk had content. He was not filibustering. He made far fewer misstatements of fact about the United States with the president than he had in the preparatory meeting with me in Moscow. Beyond agreement on home-and-home summits, the big story of the day, everyone felt, was the extended time that the two men had spent together. Personally, I thought the big story was that they had hit it off as human beings.

The Soviets had let me know that they wanted to get work going on a joint communiqué. I thought we should listen to whatever they might say and, at the same time, let them see what an agreed statement, as we would call it, might look like. I was still not authorized by the president to proceed with a real negotiation. I authorized Roz to meet and learn what she could about the Soviet ideas.

I then left for the dinner the Gorbachevs were hosting at the Soviet mission. The evening was pleasant and cordial, and the Gorbachevs were warm hosts. The first course at dinner was caviar. Shot glasses were filled with vodka. Shevardnadze raised his glass, as though to make a toast, and said with a smile, "Mr President, I have to come all the way to Geneva to get vodka." Gorbachev joined the laughter. The incident showed me the easy relationship that existed between Shevardnadze and Gorbachev . Suddenly everyone was talking about visiting California, visiting Moscow. It was wonderful in a way, but there was little real movement yet on key issues of substance. It would be hard for President Reagan to be disagreeable to Gorbachev after this. "You know," Reagan had told Gorbachev , "people have come to think of us as enemies. We don't have to be."

Wednesday morning, Roz Ridgway came in to report on her night's work. "There is not a single formulation of ours they can accept," she told me in obvious frustration. So Gorbachev 's mood had not been translated into a new approach by his staff. "Their tone is quite measured, but we have a real problem," Roz explained. "They have a game to go through – letting us know they wanted to develop a communiqué weeks ago and making us pay now for holding back then. We face the same old sourness. We have a lot of work ahead."

Day Two

The second summit day, Wednesday, November 20, was tough from start to finish. The Soviets were hosts. Gorbachev began by inviting President Reagan into a side room in their embassy for a private session. We had predicted this would happen, and the president had decided to use the opportunity to take up human rights issues again. When the two leaders emerged, they were not smiling. The atmosphere had been highly charged. The president told me that after he made his points, Gorbachev attacked human rights practices in the United States, citing discrimination against blacks and women and unemployment figures, which he contrasted with full employment in the Soviet Union. The president had argued back. The exchange had been intense. Again, that sounded good to me. The Soviets were talking with us about the subject. They weren't stonewalling. Maybe we could move forward through this process of mutual criticism.

In the plenary session, we turned to strategic arms. Regan , McFarlane , Nitze , Ridgway , and Hartman joined the president and me on our side, facing our Soviet counterparts. Gorbachev again harangued us about SDI. President Reagan exploded. The two leaders went back and forth, interrupting each other and expressing their views with vehemence. Ronald Reagan got the floor. He spoke passionately about how much better the world would be if we were able to defend ourselves against nuclear missiles. He was intense as he expressed his abhorrence at having to rely on the ability to "wipe each other out" as the means of keeping the peace. "We must do better, and we can." The depth of the president's belief in SDI was vividly apparent. Ronald Reagan was talking from the inside out. Translation was simultaneous. Gorbachev could connect what the president said with his facial expression and body language.

When the president finished, there was total silence. After what seemed an interminable time, Gorbachev said, "Mr President, I don't agree with you, but I can see that you really mean what you say." Ronald Reagan had made an immense impression on Mikhail Gorbachev , who must have realized that he could not talk, con, bully, or in any other way manipulate Ronald Reagan into dropping his SDI research program. Ronald Reagan had nailed into place an essential plank in our negotiating platform.

Showdown on an Agreed Statement

Meanwhile, I got a green light from the president to work on an agreed statement with the Soviets. "You told us before you wanted no communiqué, but here you work with us on it," one Soviet said to me. At the end of the day, Gorbachev and Reagan were sitting together just chatting casually while I organized teams to keep working the text. I stood for a while with Gorbachev , along with Shevardnadze , Kornienko , and Dobrynin , after the president's motorcade left. In the presence of his delegation, and deliberately, I was able to get Gorbachev to express his agreement on some of the essential ideas for the joint statement: 50 percent reductions in strategic arms, the possibility of an interim INF agreement, the process of follow-up meetings, and the importance of an exchange of people and a cultural agreement. On the basis of Gorbachev 's public concurrence with his delegation surrounding him, I thought Roz would have a relatively easy time finishing her work. As I was taking my leave, Sam Donaldson yelled at Gorbachev , "Do you think that women understand throw weight?" a reference to Don Regan 's statement that women were interested in people, not issues like throw weight.

Back at my hotel, I called together our working group. "You should be prepared," I told them, "to spend the night exploring how the areas where views are similar might fit together; now is the moment to shoot for an agreed statement." Suddenly the entire delegation was eager. Those who had most vehemently attacked the idea of a joint statement in sessions back in Washington now wanted to be part of the all-night drafting team. Everyone was pumped up. "Okay," I said. " Roz is chairman." Drafters would be Richard Perle , Mark Palmer , and Bob Linhard , an air force colonel and arms control expert on the NSC staff. Others could be present as needed. "You'll have a rough night," I said. "The Soviets can call it anything they want; to us it is an agreed statement."

Nancy Reagan had orchestrated a wonderful dinner that night at Maison de Saussure. Both Reagan and Gorbachev were relaxed. They spoke with warmth in their toasts at the dinner table, and the toasts had real content. We then moved into the library for coffee. Arrangements for the next day were not at all settled. There would be a final ceremonial meeting at the International Press Center. The agreed statement, I thought, would shape up satisfactorily. But what would the leaders do? I said to the president and Gorbachev , "You can't just sit there while a statement is being presented. You are the leaders. You each must say something." I sensed reluctance. Each was hesitant, I surmised, to risk being seen on worldwide television while the other might level criticism. "Agree to speak for three minutes each, along the lines of the toasts you gave at dinner," I urged. They both knew they should speak, and each was looking for a little reassurance from the other.

Just then I received a message that Roz Ridgway urgently wanted to speak to me on the phone. I stepped out. Roz told me that the Soviets were "stonewalling." At their lower levels, they had concluded from a Reagan speech, delivered before coming to Geneva, that a broadened exchange of people and a cultural agreement were of central importance to the president. So, in classic Soviet style, the Soviet negotiators now told Roz that we had to agree to their terms on a civil aviation agreement being negotiated in Moscow or there would be no cultural agreement. Gorbachev had agreed on the exchanges, and having been told earlier about this point of contention, I had confirmed with Gorbachev himself – in front of his negotiators – the Soviet agreement on these points in my conversation at the end of the afternoon. I had told all this to Roz .

Instinctively, I saw Georgi Kornienko 's hand and knew exactly what he was doing. He was not acting in accordance with what Gorbachev had said. Kornienko was responsible for the fact that negotiations on an agreed text had stopped. The Soviets' new demand had led Roz – based on the discussions she and I had had on "old style" Soviet negotiating and linkage – to snap her briefing book shut, saying, "So be it. We aren't going to negotiate that way." With that, she left and made her call.

After hearing this from Roz , I returned to the dinner party and took Kornienko on in a vehement way. I was genuinely upset. All other conversation ceased. I accused Kornienko of trying to prevent the general secretary's approach to the agreed statement from being carried out. I turned directly to Gorbachev . I reminded him of our own conversation at the end of the afternoon. The president was startled by my suddenly explosive demeanor, and Gorbachev was struck by this as well. Our interpreter heard Gorbachev say to Kornienko , "We don't go back on our agreements."

After dinner I called Roz . "Do not change anything in our position," I told her. "Wait for the Soviets to get back in touch with you. I am sure they will."

They did. And negotiations started again at midnight. New instructions had been given.

At 1:00 a.m., now Thursday, November 21, I was awakened by a trumpet playing outside the hotel. I thought that it might be a Swiss army version of taps. At the same time, a messenger came in with a text sent over by Roz from the U.S. mission and the news that she was on her way. Roz arrived in my suite shortly thereafter. "We're finally getting somewhere," she said. I looked at the text.

"I can see you are. You're going to make it," I said smiling.

"I'm enjoying this," Roz replied. All the while, the trumpet playing continued, but the army-style music had now given way to other melodies. Finally, I heard "Amazing Grace," after which the odd musical interlude ceased. Roz went back to work and by 6:00 a.m. had achieved excellent results.

At 7:30 a.m., I gathered our delegation in my suite to go over the agreed statement produced the night before. After the summit, the entire delegation would fan out around the globe to brief our allies and friends on what had been achieved at Geneva, the first summit of the decade.

The statement covered our four-part agenda. The 50 percent reduction idea, "appropriately applied,"

The key issue now was how to reduce strategic weapons so that the result would leave us equal, even though the exact weapon structure would differ, since the two sides had historically developed different force structures.

was endorsed, as was a call for "early progress" toward an "interim INF agreement." I took this as the first sign that we might succeed in breaking INF out for special treatment. Nuclear and chemical nonproliferation, the conventional arms reductions talks, and efforts in Stockholm to agree on confidence-building measures were all treated in positive terms. A statement right out of an earlier Reagan speech was included, "The sides … agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." This statement about nuclear weapons would be cited by Reagan and Gorbachev again and again in subsequent meetings.

The statement also announced agreement on an arrangement to ensure air safety in the northern Pacific, negotiations for resumption of air services, the opening of consulates in Kiev and New York, an important and ambitious people-to-people exchange program, and cooperation on fusion research. The statement called for a process of dialogue, regular meetings of foreign ministers, periodic discussions of regional issues, and the encouragement of "greater travel and people-to-people contact." A start was made in the area of human rights with the sentence "They [ Reagan and Gorbachev ] agreed on the importance of resolving humanitarian cases in the spirit of cooperation."

Roz and her team had done a masterful job. All in all, I thought, the statement reflected well the positive and serious spirit created by the two leaders.

A Momentous Day

Thursday, November 21, was a big day for Ronald Reagan . We all went with him to the International Press Center, where the final ceremony would take place, beginning at 10:00 in the morning. The agreed statement was available. We all milled around in the holding room offstage. I said to Kornienko that it had turned out well and was the product of a lot of give-and-take.

"Yes, and we did all the giving," he said sardonically.

Reagan and Gorbachev each spoke in direct and positive terms. The personal chemistry was apparent. The easy and relaxed attitude toward each other, the smiles, the sense of purpose, all showed through.

The first Reagan – Gorbachev summit had come to an end. The fresh start that the president wanted had become a reality in Geneva, not least because the two leaders had come to like and respect each other. They had agreed; they had disagreed. We had heated moments; we had light moments. We had come in order to get to know each other as people by working hard on the issues, and we did, as did the two leaders, who spent almost five of the fifteen hours of official meetings talking together privately.

Precedents were being established that could be useful in big meetings with the Soviets down the line. The two-day news blackout had worked well, as it had in my previous meeting with Gromyko in Geneva. The press grumbled, but not too much. The key was that there were no leaks and no scoops. The great benefit of a blackout was that the leaders and their delegations could concentrate on the business at hand rather than dissipating energy on efforts to get out to the press your side of the story or knock down this or that account.

Then there was the matter of our – and their – large delegation of high-ranking people. When I had first proposed taking representatives of all key players to my January negotiation with Gromyko, I ran into opposition from those in the State Department who wanted to keep the delegation small and from others who resisted attending a meeting in which they would play, at most, a supporting role. Ken Adelman protested that he didn't want to be "part of a traveling road show." I disarmed him with the simple question "Has it occurred to you that experts might actually be needed?" They were, and the wide involvement brought a new sense of cohesion in the administration and support for what we were doing.

The combination of private or very small meetings of key people followed by larger meetings with specialists working on particular issues worked effectively. Ronald Reagan 's one-on-one meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev were clearly productive, and I was finding Eduard Shevardnadze to be a person I could talk with in an easy and straightforward way. The Soviets, I could see, also valued these personal interchanges.

Most of all, the precedent of serious and direct talk had been established. We could find issues where agreement was possible and, without the hesitations of the past, go ahead and agree. We could disagree, sometimes passionately, as on SDI, without getting set back or discouraged. And we could see the real possibilities of a better relationship built not on seeking such a relationship for its own sake but on constructive efforts to deal with problems of real concern. So, all in all, I felt that the summit – and a summit it was – was a great success.

With the ceremony in Geneva over, we boarded Air Force One and headed to Brussels, where the president briefed thirteen heads of NATO governments and two foreign ministers. They expressed their firm support and heard him respond actively and articulately to their questions. Then we were off to Washington.

At 9:20 p.m., Washington time (by then the time was 3:20 a.m. in Geneva), Ronald Reagan stood before a joint session of Congress and, on television, before the American people. "I called for a fresh start, and we made that start," the president said. "We understand each other better, and that's a key to peace. … We remain far apart on a number of issues, as had to be expected." He went on, "We're ready and eager for step-by-step progress." He concluded, "As our forefathers who voyaged to America, we traveled to Geneva with peace as our goal and freedom as our guide. For there can be no greater good than the quest for peace and no finer purpose than the preservation of freedom. It is 350 years since the first Thanksgiving, when Pilgrims and Indians huddled together on the edge of an unknown continent. And now here we are gathered together on the edge of an unknown future, but, like our forefathers, really not so much afraid, but full of hope and trusting in God, as ever."

When the president finished with "God bless you all," he also finished a momentous day: he had zeroed in on the character of the human being in the other chair. He was genuinely impressed by what he saw and felt in his first encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev . That impression, apparently reciprocated by Gorbachev , would define Ronald Reagan 's outlook and his new sense of the possible with the Soviets.