When Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985, Reagan wrote in his diary that he was “too cynical” to believe reports that Gorbachev was a “different kind” of Soviet leader. Gorbachev thought Reagan was “a dinosaur,” fully slavish to America’s capitalist class. But by degrees they warmed to each other personally, ironically by means of bitter and direct philosophical arguments in their unprecedented five face-to-face meetings over the next three years that led each to respect the other. Even though Reagan held Communism in contempt, he was able to perceive that Gorbachev had genuine liberal reformist instincts, even if he was confused about the inherent defects of socialism.
The best portal into this interpersonal dynamic came at the climactic mini-summit in Reykjavik, where the two men came close to agreeing to abolish all strategic nuclear weapons in 10 years. The meeting broke up in failure—or so it was thought at the time—because Reagan refused the demand to confine missile defense research to “the laboratory,” even though ironically Pentagon bureaucrats were strangling the program by doing exactly that. But the Soviets didn’t know that, and knew they were losing the arms race because of Reagan’s steadfastness.
The drama of the arms question caused everyone to miss several fascinating exchanges between the two men. The Soviet transcript of the face-to-face meetings, translated and declassified in the 1990s, is much more complete than the State Department notes. Here are just a few of many interesting moments, picking up with the end of a long complaint from Gorbachev that revealed his sensitivity to Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric:
Here Gorbachev reveals himself to be a fully orthodox Marxist, with the same historicist view that is central to every progressive college professor in America. Gorbachev may have thought he won this argument with Reagan, but the “historical process” had rather different ideas.
Reagan persisted in bringing up what Straussian political philosophers call “the regime question,” and Gorbachev’s responses were sometimes unintentionally comical. Like this exchange:
Talk about leading with your chin. If you think about this for a moment, it must have taken all of the restraint for Reagan—a former Hollywood star who knew a thing or two about box office—not to respond with a guffaw about the quality of Soviet movies, let alone Gorbachev’s complete ignorance of how a private market economy works. Gosh—if only American theaters had screened the Soviet film version of Lord of the Rings, we might never have heard of Peter Jackson. See a sample of what I mean:
But the two men did have a personal rapport that was extraordinary:
It is hard to conjure up any of these back-and-forth exchanges about both fundamental and personal matters between Nixon and Brezhnev, or Carter and Brezhnev, or Eisenhower and Khrushchev.