Ronald Reagan: Setting back the ‘doomsday clock’ of nuclear war

This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.

Journalist and historian Lou Cannon, author of five books about President Ronald Reagan, spoke to Yahoo News about Reagan’s defining moment of presidential leadership: the courageous decision to defy his conservative base and pursue nuclear disarmament with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.


Late in March of 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot and almost killed in an assassination attempt. And when he was recovering from his wounds, he told Cardinal Terence Cooke, who visited him, that he believed that he had been spared to do something.

What it was he wanted to do was rid the world of nuclear weapons.

I think that’s a much more powerful vision than the anti-communist vision. If everybody kills everybody, what difference does it make whether you’re a communist or a capitalist, or a conservative or a liberal?

John Gaddis called Reagan a saboteur of the status quo, and he listed others in that group: Margaret Thatcher, the pope. These were people who, for one reason or another — moral, political, or religious — didn’t accept the prevailing doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD.

The notion that you could forever sustain the peace by having two highly armed powers on hair-trigger status, ready to destroy the other, is a truly “mad” idea.

Reagan thought that there could be a change in this permanent fighting between the Soviets and their allies or satellites, and between the United States and her allies.

At first Reagan didn’t seem like a nuclear dove. The Soviets were building missiles at a ferocious rate. Reagan campaigned on building up our forces so we would be better able to counteract the Soviets, and someone asked him if the military buildup he was proposing wouldn’t cause a greater arms race. Reagan in effect replied yes — but that he also thought the Soviet Union would [eventually] come to the bargaining table.

Then there was the Strategic Defense Initiative. This was essentially the idea that you could put up a missile defense system that would shoot down or destroy incoming Soviet missiles. It wasn’t scientifically feasible, but it scared the hell out of the Soviets. They did one thing and they did it very well: They built these big, heavy, land-based ICBMS. The Soviets had no way of competing with [SDI].

But Reagan’s emphasis changed in the second term for two reasons. The first was that the buildup had been completed. Then along came Gorbachev. He was the first Soviet leader who didn’t talk in terms of destroying the United States or capitalist countries. He was practical.

Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1985 in Geneva. They didn’t have any great thing they accomplished there, but they pushed the ball along in the sense that they agreed to meet again.

Reykjavik wasn’t supposed to be a major summit. But it developed a life of its own. Gorbachev came there with this idea of introducing this plan of getting rid of nuclear missiles in return for the United States killing SDI. Reagan was moved by this anti-nuclear vision. So it became a seminal meeting.

They were very, very near an agreement. But Reagan, at the end, walked out.

Even so, Reagan and Gorbachev thought that Reykjavik had advanced goals of nuclear arms reduction — and pretty soon they were on the road to doing that. Finally, in 1988, Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It was the first agreement in the history of the Soviet Union and the United States that reduced nuclear arms.

Ridding the world of nuclear weapons is still the most powerful idea in the nuclear age, and no two people did more to advance it than Reagan and Gorbachev.


Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.

Cover thumbnail photo: President Ronald Reagan discusses U.S. – Soviet relations in 1988. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Doug Mills/AP, Mal Langsdon/Reuters)