It’s easy to look back on the collapse of Communism and conclude that it must have been inevitable. But during the Cold War things looked very different, even–and especially–toward its end. Twenty-eight years ago today, on November 19, 1985, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met face to face for the first time to discuss a potential way forward for the two superpowers. It happened at a chateau in Geneva called the Maison de Saussure, and while few knew it at the time, it turned out to be a very significant moment in the history of superpower relations.
No one had any idea how the summit was going to come off. The 1985 Geneva meeting was the first summit meeting between US and USSR leaders in six years. Relations for most of that time had been horrible. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Soviet intervention in Poland two years later, the shootdown of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, and Reagan’s wildly unpopular decision to deploy American nuclear missiles in Western Europe had poisoned the relationship between the superpowers and deepened the tensions of the Cold War. Soviet leadership since 1979 had been unstable. Leonid Brezhnev, the last Soviet leader to meet with a US President, died in 1982 and was succeeded by two decrepit old men–Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko–before the relatively young (compared to them) leader Mikhail Gorbachev took power in March 1985.
The 1985 summit was held at the historic Maisson de Sassure mansion, which was then owned by British millionaire the Aga Khan.
Things were also shaky on the US side. Although very popular, Ronald Reagan was seen as an ideological cold warrior; his hawkishness regarding the Soviets was arguably voters’ number one unresolved concern about him when they elected him in 1980 and reelected him in 1984. No one was sure how he’d do once they got him in a room with the leader of the “Evil Empire.” Reagan was also personally committed to a concept called SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, an idea to build and deploy space-based weapons that could shoot down nuclear missiles. Many people regarded this concept as profoundly unrealistic, but Reagan, sold on it back in 1983, wouldn’t let it go.
The political content of the November 1985 summit meeting was less than impressive. When they finally did get into a room with each other, Reagan and Gorbachev talked mostly about generalities: the need for peace, each country’s desire for peace, and human rights. Later they wandered around the grounds of the Maison de Saussure for more talks, mainly focused on SDI, which Gorbachev was keen to get Reagan to repudiate. He didn’t. Little was accomplished substantively. The summit ended the following day with a rather bland joint statement that was more a photo op than a real political compromise.
Nevertheless, the Geneva summit of 1985 was hugely consequential, historically speaking. It was that way because at this meeting Reagan and Gorbachev began to develop a personal rapport with one another, from which political benefits would eventually flow–such as the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty of 1987, the first superpower agreement to reduce (as opposed to just limiting) nuclear weapons. Reagan and Gorbachev met four more times before Reagan left office, and Gorbachev held seven summits with his successor, the first George Bush. Reagan and Gorbachev liked each other personally and each came to believe the other was committed to real progress in superpower relations. This rapport was arguably crucial to the eventual end of the Cold War.
The personal relationship of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev was, to hear them tell it in later years, transformative for both men, and arguably for the world.
There is a sad but illuminating postscript to the story of the 1985 Geneva summit, chronicled in Bob Woodward’s book Shadow. In 1992, three years after Reagan left office, the former 40th president was called upon to attend a deposition related to an ongoing investigation of the Iran-Contra affair. Reagan was then suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease although he didn’t announce it publicly for two more years. The lawyers’ early questions made clear that Reagan’s memory had deteriorated so much that he could be of no substantive help to the investigation. But when asked what he did remember about his presidency, Reagan described being in a cozy room with a fireplace, sitting across from a man whose name he didn’t remember but who he knew was a very important world leader. Reagan recalled telling this man that the two of them held the key to world peace in their hands and they must not fail to bring it about.
Although he couldn’t remember the circumstances, Reagan was describing the November 1985 summit in Geneva. When so much else of his own past was fading, it was a memory of this event that stood out to him as particularly important.