Reagan & Reykjavik
In the years leading up to this summit, the United States and the Soviet Union were ideological enemies that had amassed enormous stockpiles of nuclear warheads to deter and, if necessary, fight a protracted nuclear war. By 1986, the combined inventories of the Cold War superpowers exceeded 75,000 nuclear warheads.
Reagan and Gorbachev both abhorred the possibility of nuclear war. Reagan once stated that nuclear weapons were “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing.”
On the last day of the meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev neared an agreement to cut all strategic nuclear weapons by 50 percent within five years, and to eliminate all nuclear weapons and delivery systems by 1996.
Unfortunately, their deal collapsed over the issue of future missile defense development. Reagan and Gorbachev left Iceland bundled in their heavy wool coats and weighted with disappointment.
Their common vision was not enough to surmount years of entrenched mutual national distrust and resistance to change in Washington and Moscow. But neither gave up the quest for a safer world; nor did Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz.
Significant, incremental progress began at Reykjavik and has continued for the past 25 years. In 1987, the two leaders signed a treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons. And four years later, tough negotiations yielded the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which cut deployed long-range nuclear warheads to below 6,000 each.
The dismantling of Cold War-era warheads had begun at last — and has continued since. Russia gave up nuclear testing in 1991 and the United States halted testing in 1992.
In 2002, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed a treaty that pledged to reduce their nuclear warheads to 1,700-2,200 warheads deployed on each side.
Just this past December, the Senate ratified the New START treaty with Russia. New START allows each country no more than 1,550 warheads each, with strict verification measures for both sides. By all accounts, the implementation of New START has progressed rapidly, even ahead of schedule.
Where do we go from here? In Martin and Annelise Anderson’s Reagan’s Secret War, Reagan gives us our instructions: “Our moral imperative is to work with all our powers for that day when the children of the world grow up without the fear of nuclear war.”
The United States and Russia should now seek further reductions in all types of nuclear weapons, which would save both nations’ tens of billions of dollars otherwise spent to maintain excess Cold-War weapons. And it is critical that we continue to engage other nations beyond Russia in a joint enterprise to reduce nuclear dangers.
Next up for the Senate will be a vote on the 1996 CTBT. Already signed by 182 other nations — including all of our European allies and Russia — this treaty institutes a worldwide ban on explosive testing of nuclear weapons.
Without the ability to test, non-nuclear nations would have difficulty developing a nuclear weapon. Nascent nuclear nations would not be able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and thereby increase the range of their nuclear threat.
After more than 1,000 nuclear test explosions and with an effective science-based Stockpile Stewardship program, the United States no longer needs explosive nuclear tests. Verification capabilities have vastly improved in the last decade, aided by nearly 300 operational test monitoring stations spread across the globe. Once the treaty enters into force, we gain the right to ask for on-site inspection if nuclear testing is ever suspected.
The Senate should ratify the CTBT to enhance the safety and security of our world. Ratification is that next incremental step toward fulfilling a dream, which was so near, one hope-filled weekend 25 years ago.
Nathan Pyles is President of Johnson Health Tech North America and Executive Director of TheReaganVision.org. James Goodby held the post of Vice Chair of the US START Delegation in the Reagan Administration.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.