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  • Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War by Kenneth Adelman
  • Nicholas Daniloff
Kenneth Adelman, Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. 375 pp.

Reagan at Reykjavik is a good read and has won praise from eminent reviewers including Henry Kissinger, Senator John McCain, and the writer Walter Isaacson. But is it good history? Is it literature? Is it journalism? [End Page 145]

I crossed paths with Kenneth Adelman on numerous occasions when I was covering foreign policy in Washington, DC, for United Press International in the 1970s and 1980s. He was director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, having served previously as an assistant to the secretary of defense. It seemed to me then that his main goal was to block Soviet-slanted proposals rather than to reach agreements.

In 1986, as the Moscow bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report, I had the good fortune of covering the 1986 Reykjavik summit, which Adelman viewed from the inside as a member of Ronald Reagan’s official delegation. I had no idea then that he had literary ambitions, was an aficionado of William Shakespeare, and had taught courses on Shakespeare at George Washington University.

What this book clearly demonstrates is that Adelman is a man of deeply conservative views, an admirer of President Reagan but by no means uncritical, an accomplished writer with an eye for color who can spin phrases with a wry sense of humor. He has read the documentary sources—prime among them the declassified Reykjavik file at George Washington University’s National Security Archive—as well as other U.S. and Soviet documents and all the relevant memoirs, including the published version of Reagan’s diary. Adelman provides copious endnotes, listed by page but without superscripts for notes in the text.

But one gets the feeling that, writing 28 years after the events, Adelman and his publisher were anxious to produce a trade book that would sell in what has become a down market. They did not want a dry history. Thus, they try to catch the reader at every turn with titillating details to keep the pages turning. The smallest example is that the volume is subtitled Forty Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War. Ended the Cold War? Really? To be fair, Adelman acknowledges in the text that Reykjavik was only an initial step.

The most valuable part of Adelman’s account is his description of the impromptu all-night meeting that began at 8:10 p.m. on Saturday night, 11 October 1986, and lasted until 6:20 a.m. on Sunday morning, 12 October, during which the two delegations fell into unusually candid, serious exchanges. This positive atmosphere was set by Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, chief of the Soviet General Staff, whom Mikhail Gorbachev brought with him as a total surprise in place of the long-time negotiator, Ambassador Viktor Karpov. For the first time during the Cold War, officials at the expert level were dealing seriously, rather than talking past each other. Participating in this unusual give-and-take were such tough-minded U.S. officials as Ambassador Paul Nitze and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle.

At around 4:00 a.m., Marshal Akhromeev dropped a bombshell after hurried consultations with Gorbachev. He disclosed that the Soviet Union was willing to accept a 50 percent cut in all types of strategic nuclear weapons, brushing aside myriad objections of the past. This would have been a major step toward President Reagan’s proclaimed vision of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the United States, the Soviet Union, and eventually other countries like China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and India. But the proposal needed a high degree of trust that was lacking on both [End Page 146] sides. Furthermore, Gorbachev constantly insisted that the U.S. development of a space-based missile defense system (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI) must be restricted to the laboratory without field-testing.

“The leaders’ intensity on SDI was likewise remarkable,” Adelman writes. “Indeed it was the most remarkable aspect of Reykjavik. Reagan’s total faith in this chimerical...


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