Reagan and Gorbachev: Warming of a Relationship

Times Staff Writer

A handclasp and a walk in the woods in Geneva. Frigid stares and tight lips in the blustery cold of Reykjavik. The signing in Washington of a historic treaty on medium-range nuclear weapons. And now in Moscow, a walk through the heart of the "evil empire."

The moods and images of the four summits of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev have differed in ways both subtle and striking. And the pattern tells the tale of the evolving relationship between the two men and the long-antagonistic nations they lead.

Both leaders proclaimed Wednesday that they have built up trust over four meetings in less than three years. Any doubt about this surely vanished when President Reagan put his arm around Gorbachev in Moscow's Red Square this week and told a group of Russians nearby, "I'm glad we are standing here together like this."

Unsteady Growth

But the line of trust has not grown steadily from summit to summit. The mood, in fact, turned so down and dark at the second summit, in Reykjavik, that anyone there could hardly imagine the two men meeting again, let alone embracing each other in genuine warmth less than two years later.

President Reagan met Gorbachev for the first time on Nov. 19, 1985, the first day of their celebrated summit in Geneva.

Reagan was 74 years old, a politician who had built his career on rigid, steadfast anti-communism. Four years earlier, in one of his first presidential speeches, he had described the Soviet Union as "the evil empire" and had never seemed to change his mind.

But in his second term as President, he was hoping to fix a place in history for himself by starting a disarmament dialogue with America's most powerful antagonist.

Gorbachev, then 54, had taken over half a year earlier as leader of the Soviet Union. Not much was known about him. He seemed more sophisticated than previous leaders. He had a shrewd sense of public relations, and he had pledged to transform Soviet society. American Kremlinologists believed he needed a breather in the arms race to salvage his economy.

The image of that first meeting was etched by a handshake and a walk. Gorbachev, wearing a coat and clutching his hat on a wind-chilled morning, rushed to the portico of a mansion by Lake Geneva to take the outstretched hand of President Reagan. The President smiled and seemed to joke.

Gorbachev pointed at Reagan, a show of polite wonder at the hardiness of the President standing in the cold without a topcoat.

Later in the afternoon of the wintry, clouded day, Reagan led Gorbachev in a tranquil walk in the woods by the lake. Their sessions, it was learned later, sometimes bristled with sharpness and bite and produced little, but the cordial handshake and the peaceful walk seemed to tell the world that two very different men had made contact, a start, and that seemed to count for something.

In Moscow on Wednesday, Gorbachev could not keep from reminding Reagan of one of those images. When photographers called on the two leaders to shake hands for the cameras, Gorbachev told the President: "This recalls our first handshake in Geneva. The spontaneous handshake. The photographers at that time captured the atmosphere. It was a very interesting photo."

American officials billed the second meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October, 1986, as a mini-summit, a kind of trial run for an expected major summit a few months later. But Gorbachev came to Reykjavik prepared to do major business.

The two men, extending their talks for several hours, came close to a dramatic agreement to eliminate half their long-range nuclear weapons in five years and all of them by the end of the century. But the deal foundered on Reagan's refusal to give up testing for his Strategic Defense Initiative, his cherished plan for a space-based "Star Wars" defense against nuclear weapons.

Two Glum Men

Failure and anger lined their features as they stepped out of the Icelandic government mansion where they had negotiated for two days. The smiles, the joking, the banter--all were gone in the cold dusk. The two men could manage no more than a perfunctory handshake, a cold stare with tight, rigid lips as they turned away from each other.

In the gloom of an Icelandic capital shivering under wind and rain, summitry seemed over for the two glum men.

Gorbachev and Reagan would not meet again until their lieutenants finally negotiated a treaty eliminating all the ground-launched intermediate-range missiles of the two superpowers. Gorbachev came to Washington last December, 14 months after Reykjavik, to sign the treaty with Reagan.

In ceremonies that symbolized the third summit, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the treaty in the East Room of the White House on a heavy wooden table that once served Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet. A new mood was set as well.

Until then, whether in the first cordiality of Geneva or in the rancor of Reykjavik, the two men had always addressed each other by formal title, "Mr. General Secretary" and "Mr. President."

But after the treaty was signed, Reagan said quietly to Gorbachev, "In working situations, my name is Ron."

"My name is Mikhail," Gorbachev replied.

"Maybe," Reagan then said, "in private session, we can go by first names."

At the fourth summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, specialists poring over the documents and statements find hardly any movement on the weighty disarmament issues. But that probably does not matter to most other people who have seen the gush of extraordinary images rushing out of Moscow this week.

The Moscow summit will surely be identified for all time with the scene of the archconservative Reagan entering the heart of "the evil empire" and announcing to the world that he no longer thinks of it that way.

The President worked with Gorbachev in the Kremlin, the headquarters of V. I. Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, and the fearsome tyrant Josef Stalin, and toured Red Square, the site of all the military parades to the glory of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. And he seemed to relish the experience, despite all the overtones and all his deep conservatism. He told reporters that talk of an evil empire belonged to "another time, another era."

'Relationship of Greater Trust'

The two men had evidently developed something akin to genuine warmth and what Reagan described as "a relationship of greater trust." And this mood infused the Moscow summit just as icy steeliness had dominated Reykjavik. Reagan, in fact, seemed to go out of his way to support Gorbachev's program of internal change, something American policy-makers were reluctant to do only six months ago.

At his news conference Wednesday, Reagan brought up "Perestroika," the recent book by Gorbachev in which he outlines his program of transforming the economy, society and bureaucracy of the Soviet Union.

"I read 'Perestroika,' " the President said, "and I found much in it that I could agree with."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°