The conversation I am referring to took place on the morning of October 16, 1986. From the CNN website you can read the entire transcript of these talks. In this post I just want to provide a piece of it.
Secretary General Gorbachev: We know that you plan to deploy SDI. But we do not have such plans. And we cannot assume an obligation relative to such a transition. We have a different conception.
Secretary of State Shultz: I would like to mention also the third question, which we included because you emphasize it so much. This is the situation which would exist until the time when the conditions indicated above were realized. The question is: what general understanding can the parties reach relative to the restrictions imposed by the ABM Treaty on activity related to creating a long-range strategic defense?
The President stated to you and the whole world that he will not renounce the SDI program. You do not agree with that. But as I understand it, you recognize his problem and that he is trying to meet your concern half-way.
Secretary General Gorbachev: But I think that I am even helping the president with SDI. After all, your people say that if Gorbachev attacks SDI and space weapons so much, it means the idea deserves more respect. They even say that if it were not for me, no one would listen to the idea at all. And some even claim that I want to drag the United States into unnecessary expenditures with this. But if the first ones are right, then I am on your side in this matter, but you have not appreciated it.
President Reagan: What the hell use will ABM's or anything else be if we eliminate nuclear weapons?
Secretary General Gorbachev: Absolutely right. I am for that. But the point is that under the ABM Treaty the parties do not have a large-scale antimissile defense, and you want to deploy such a defense.
President Reagan: But what difference does it make if it is not nuclear weapons? What difference whether it exists or not?
On the other hand, you know that even in this situation we will not be able to guarantee that someone will not begin to make nuclear weapons again at some point.
Secretary General Gorbachev: Mr. President, you just made a historic statement: What the hell use will SDI be if we eliminate nuclear weapons? But it is exactly because we are moving toward a reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons that I favor strengthening the ABM Treaty. In these conditions it becomes even more important. As for your arguments about the madman who decides to resort to nuclear weapons, I think that we will be able to solve that problem, it is not that serious.
President Reagan: It appears that the point is that I am the oldest man here. And I understand that after the war the nations decided that they would renounce poison gases. But thank God the gas mask continued to exist. Something similar can happen with nuclear weapons. And we will have to shield against them in any case.
Secretary General Gorbachev: I am increasingly convinced of something I knew previously only second-hand. The President of the United States does not like to retreat. I see now that you do not want to meet us half-way on the issue of the ABM Treaty, which is absolutely essential in conditions where we are undertaking large reductions in nuclear arms, and you do not want to begin negotiations on stopping nuclear testing. So I see that the possibilities of agreement are exhausted.
Secretary General Gorbachev: It is a shame, Mr. President, that you and I do not have enough time to discuss humanitarian issues. We have concrete ideas on this which we simply are not going to have time to discuss. I have to say that people in the Soviet Union are very concerned about the human rights situation in the United States. There is one other important subject. This is the importance of mutual information in our day. The situation now is this: the Voice of America broadcasts around the clock in many languages from stations you have in various countries in Europe and Asia, while we cannot present our point of view to the American people. Therefore, to achieve parity, we are forced to jam Voice of America broadcasts. I propose the following: we will stop jamming Voice of America and you will be able to broadcast what you consider necessary to us, but at the same time you will meet us half-way and help us lease, from you or in neighboring countries, radio stations that would allow us to reach the American people with our point of view.
President Reagan: The difference between us is that we recognize freedom of the press and the right of people to listen to any point of view. This does not exist in your press. Today in Washington there will be a press conference, and Americans will see it, and newspapers will publish the text of it. It is not that way in your country. Your system envisions only a government press.
Secretary General Gorbachev: But I asked a concrete question. I proposed that we can stop jamming Voice of America if you will meet us half-way and give us an opportunity to lease a radio station from you or lease or build a station in one of your neighboring countries.
President Reagan: I will consult about this when I return to the United States, and I will take a favorable position.
Secretary General Gorbachev: We are for parity in general. In the information field, for example, or in film. Almost half of the movies showing in our theaters are American. Soviet movies are hardly ever shown in the United States. That is not parity.
President Reagan: We do not have any ban on your movies. The film industry is a free business, and if someone wants to show your films he can do it.
Secretary General Gorbachev: I see that the President avoids this question and goes into talk about business.
President Reagan: Our government cannot control the film market. If you want to inundate us with your movies go right ahead. How our movies get to your country, I do not know.
Secretary General Gorbachev: It is an interesting situation, simply a paradox. In your country, the most democratic country, obstacles arise to showing our movies, while in our country, a totalitarian country, almost half the movies being shown are American. How can you reconcile this, that the Soviet Union is an undemocratic country but your films are being shown?
President Reagan: There is a difference between free enterprise and government ownership. You have no free enterprise, everything belongs to the government and the government puts everything on the market. In the United States we have private industry, and other countries have the right to sell their goods, movies and so on. You have the right to set up a rental organization in our country to distribute your movies, or to lease some theater. But we cannot order it.
Secretary General Gorbachev: One more question. There were two television bridges between the USSR and the United States recently. One involved the participation of the communities of Leningrad, Copenhagen, and Boston, and the other had Soviet and American doctors. In our country they were watched by 150 million people, but in the United States they were not shown.
President Reagan: The only thing I can answer is that the movie theaters and all belong to your government, and you show what you want in them. But our government cannot compete with private business.
But I want to tell you that your performing groups, such as the Leningrad Ballet, draw an enormous crowd in the United States, and they are shown on television too. But if you want to show other things too, please do. We have leasing companies, and theaters which show foreign films.
Secretary General Gorbachev: Mr. President, we have quite a few complaints about the United States. Here is the last question. For 30 years now you have refused to let our trade union figures enter the United States. Mr. Shultz simply does not give them visas. Where is the parity here? You know, your trade union figures come to the USSR and have interesting professional contacts and meetings with workers. But you do not let our people in. In your country, which is so self-confident, they are viewed as subversive elements.
President Reagan: I would like to look into this. Maybe I will have some proposals on the film problem that you mentioned.
Secretary General Gorbachev: Good.
This exchange is historic, and to me it marked the beginning of collapse of the USSR. Frank Kaplan wrote an article at Slate magazine where he points this out.
The Reykjavik talks finally fizzled. Gorbachev said he'd accept the zero-nukes plan if Reagan pledged not to test nuclear weapons in outer space (a crucial element of SDI). Reagan wouldn't accept that condition.
However, Gorbachev returned to Moscow persuaded that Reagan—who had earlier struck him as a "caveman"—honestly had no intention of launching a first strike against the Soviet Union, and he made this point clear to the Politburo. He could continue with perestroika, which involved not just economic reforms but—as a necessary precondition—massive defense cuts and a transformation of international relations. He needed assurances of external security in order to move forward with this domestic upheaval. Reagan gave him those reassurances. Subsequent conversations between his foreign minister, Edvard Shevardnadze, and Secretary of State George Shultz reinforced his confidence.
In the last couple years of the Reagan administration, Reagan would propose extravagant measures in arms reductions. His hawkish aides would go along with them, thinking the Soviets would reject them (and the United States would win a propaganda victory). Then, to the surprise of everyone (except perhaps Reagan, who meant the proposals without cynicism), Gorbachev would accept them.
In the end, Reagan and Gorbachev needed each other. Gorbachev needed to move swiftly if his reforms were to take hold. Reagan exerted the pressure that forced him to move swiftly and offered the rewards that made his foes and skeptics in the Politburo think the cutbacks might be worth it.
Gorbachev wasn't the only decisive presence. If Reagan hadn't been president—if Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale had defeated him or if Reagan had died and George H.W. Bush taken his place—Gorbachev almost certainly would not have received the push or reinforcement that he needed. Those other politicians would have been too traditional, too cautious, to push such radical proposals (zero nukes and SDI) or to take Gorbachev's radicalism at face value. (There's no need to speculate on this point. When Bush Sr. succeeded Reagan in 1989, U.S.-Soviet relations took a huge step backward; it took nearly a year for Bush and his advisers to realize that Gorby was for real.)
My heart swells with pride when I read this transcript, and I am so thankful our country had a President who knew how to converse and defend the USA instead of apologizing. This president knew how to explain the freedoms of a private sector capitalist system vs the tyranny of a communist system.
When I think who amongst the current crop can stand up for the USA in this manner I have reached the conclusion that they include:
1. Fred Thompson
2. Rudy Giuliani
3. Mitt Romney