The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
51. Reagan Goes to Moscow

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
Reagan at Moscow State
University, 1988

In early 1988, President Ronald Reagan made an announcement in the White House Rose Garden -- he would be traveling to the Soviet Union, the nation he had described, not too many years before, as an "evil empire." There he would meet his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. It would be their fourth summit. The previous December, Gorbachev had come to Washington, D.C. to sign the INF Treaty that called for the elimination of all medium-range nuclear missiles, a milestone in superpower relations. Now, though, there were some doubts in the press and the public as to whether anything substantive could come from Reagan's visit to Moscow. There were still many unresolved issues between the U.S. and the USSR and even though Reagan and Gorbachev seemed to get along quite well, those issues had long overshadowed their relationship.
Could the two leaders finally make some progress on a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that would cut by half their respective nations' arsenals of long-range nuclear missiles and warheads? That seemed unlikely; the problem of verification procedures had heretofore proven intractable. Even less likely, according to pundits, was the possibility of accord on Reagan's missile defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Soviets were making a START agreement conditional on strict observance of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty which, according to them, forbade the U.S. from deploying the SDI's space-based defenses. Yet Reagan was committed to his dream of making the American people secure from nuclear attack and had rejected the idea of using SDI as a bargaining chip. The superpowers were also at odds over Afghanistan. The U.S. would not curtail its support of Afghan rebels until the last member of the Soviet occupation force was withdrawn and the Kremlin cut off military aid to the Communist government it had installed in Kabul. The Soviets had already decided on a gradual (nine month) withdrawal, but insisted that a 1921 treaty with Afghanistan required them to render aid. That being the case, Afghanistan appeared destined to a continuation of a civil war that had claimed one million lives during the decade, with the U.S. supporting one side in the conflict and the USSR backing the other.
The Soviets went all-out to prepare for Reagan's historic visit. Buildings across from the Kremlin were painted in pleasing pastel colors. Street were repaved. Flowers were planted along the boulevards. The president's schedule included attending the Bolshoi Ballet, speaking to students at Moscow's State University and visiting Danilov Monastery, while First Lady Nancy Reagan would tour Leningrad. It was vitally important to Gorbachev that the summit go well. In order to carry through his ambitious internal reform programs based on the twin principles of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), he had to demonstrate to his people -- and a skeptical Politburo -- that the Soviet Union had entered a new era of peaceful coexistence with the United States, and that the USSR had nothing to fear from an American president who in the past had been represented by the Kremlin as a bellicose Cold Warrior bent on the destruction of Communism. Party conservatives resisted Gorbachev's reformist efforts to decentralize the Soviet economy. They did not agree with him that money spent on military preparedness would be put to better use in economic revitalization. They disapproved of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and pointed out that the rebels were making significant gains as the Russian presence diminished, to the point of seriously threatening the survival of the Communist government there. In their eyes, the withdrawal was the ignominious end to the worst military setback suffered by Soviet arms since World War II, a disaster symbolic of diminishing Soviet power and prestige under Gorbachev's leadership. But the Russian people, as a whole, were glad to see the unpopular war come to a close.
Reagan had his own conservative critics at home. When he downplayed the plight of Russian dissidents during the Moscow visit, blaming their suffering on bureaucratic red tape rather than intentional repression by the Kremlin, an editorial in the Manchester, New Hampshire Union Leader described the remark as "appalling." The president had "convinced himself that the man who heads the evil empire has ended its treachery . . . and facts to the contrary will not sway him. It was a sad week for the free world, indeed." Writing in the National Review, conservative doyen William F. Buckley, Jr. described Reagan's retreat from his characterization of the USSR as an evil empire as "what Orwell called vaporization." Buckley pointed out that the Soviets still supported repression in Cuba and Eastern Europe, still backed the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu, who was systematically starving his people into submission, and still supported North Vietnamese aggression in Southeast Asia. Reagan, said Buckley, "decides to change a historical or present fact, and evidence inconvenient to the new thesis is simply made to -- disappear." In short, American conservatives had been much more comfortable with the early Reagan, the implacable hardliner who had perceived the USSR as the greatest threat to mankind the world had ever known.
It took some measure of astuteness divorced from ideology to understand that Reagan was engaged in pragmatic geopolitics. His tough Cold Warrior stance had in no small measure brought the Soviets back to the negotiating table; as Walter Isaacson wrote in Time: "His . . . stubbornness had led to a nascent strategic-arms accord far more ambitious that anyone would have imagined when he took office." Now, Reagan put the stick away and proffered the carrot. Once criticized by political foes for being the only modern president not to have met his Soviet counterpart during a term in office (his first), Reagan had attended a record number of summits in his second term.
During the Moscow summit, Reagan and Gorbachev signed seven agreements on such matters as student exchanges and fishing rights. Clearly, though, substance was not as important as the image conveyed by both men to a carefully watching world. Reagan managed to praise his host's reform efforts while still criticizing the Kremlin's human rights record. The General Secretary managed to maintain an aura of chummy cooperation while still blasting the president for meddling in Soviet internal affairs. Some observers commented on the fact that Reagan looked tired and at times disengaged, while Gorbachev always seemed confident and in command. When asked about repression of American Indians, Reagan seemed nonplussed, professing not to "know what their complaint might be." And when hectored by reporters about why he was visiting an"evil empire," Reagan's only retort was: "I was talking about another empire." Still, the conventional wisdom was that both men accomplished their goals. Reagan's persistent reference to human rights -- and the abuse of those rights by the Soviet power structure -- placed that issue at the forefront of future superpower negotiations. And he received kudos from America's allies for thawing a Cold War some of them thought he had made colder by past actions. Gorbachev demonstrated he could be tough in defending his nation while strengthening his case for focusing resources on the economy rather than the military now that the threat posed by the U.S. had diminished.
On his way home, Reagan stopped off in London to give a well-received speech in London's 550-year-old Guildhall stressing the differences between the Eastern bloc and the Western alliance where freedom and self-determination were concerned. He arrived to a hero's welcome in the U.S. But the summit was not without its mishaps. When Reagan and his wife took an unscheduled walk through the Arbat, a Moscow shopping mall, security police rushed in and roughed up a throng of onlookers, including children. "It's still a police state," Reagan was heard to say. When the president's advance team asked the Russian Orthodox Church to pave the access to the Danilov Monastery so that Reagan could arrive in his limousine, a clergyman coolly informed them that "One does not ride to see God. One walks either upon his feet or upon his knees." Because he wore no ID badge, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater found himself pursued by security personnel on his way to a Kremlin dinner. And Reagan dozed off during the performance at the Bolshoi; it was Gorbachev who woke him with a tap on the shoulder, just in time to see the curtain rung down.

Reagan at Moscow U.
(Excerpts from the president's remarks before students at Moscow State University)
"I could be looking out at an American student body as well as I'm looking out here, and would not be able to tell the difference . . . . I think there's . . . an awareness on the part of most of you about what you want your adulthood to be and what the country you live in, you want it to be."
[On American Indians] "They from the very beginning announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life . . . And we set up these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to help take care of them. . . . Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in wanting to stay in that kind of primitive life-style."
[On human rights abuses in the USSR] "Now I'm not blaming you. I'm blaming bureaucracy. We have the same type of thing happen in our country, and every once in a while somebody has to get the bureaucracy by the neck and shake it loose and say, 'Stop doing what you're doing.'"

Some perceived Reagan as a Ramboesque Cold Warrior eager to do battle with Communism


Time, 4 April 1988, 30 May 1988, 6 June 1988, 13 June 1988

The Gorbachev Strategy: Opening the Closed Society
Thomas H. Naylor (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Company, 1988)

The Great Universal Embrace: Arms Summitry -- A Skeptic's Account
Kenneth L. Adelman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989)

President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime
Lou Cannon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991)

Reagan as President: Contemporary Views of the Man, His Politics, and His Policies
Paul Boyer, ed. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990)