Blessed are the peacemakers, Reagan and Gorbachev
By Mike Haynes
I couldn’t resist climbing the eight steps in front of the boxy white house in Iceland. While my wife and the rest of the tour group stayed in the bus on a dreary December 2015 day in Reykjavik, I wanted to plant my insulated boots where pictures show Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev stood in 1986.
Out front of the city-owned Hofdi House, which sits a snowball’s throw from the North Atlantic Ocean, are some stone plaques written in Russian, English and Icelandic. One reads:
“In this historic house 11-12 October 1986 the Reykjavik summit meeting of the superpowers took place between Ronald Reagan, president of the United States of America, and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, secretary general of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
“This summit meeting is regarded as heralding the beginning of the end of the Cold War.”
Not every historian agrees that President Reagan ended the decades-long Cold War between the United States and the USSR, but many do, especially if you also give Mikhail Gorbachev part of the credit.
Reading about that short Iceland encounter and the other three meetings between the two leaders described as summits – in Vienna, Austria; Washington, D.C.; and Moscow – reminds me what can be accomplished when people meet face to face.
As eyewitness Ken Adelman recounts in his 2014 book, “Reagan at Reykjavik,” and journalist Bret Baier describes in this year’s “Three Days in Moscow,” those two world leaders not only became friends over three years but reduced their nations’ nuclear arsenals substantially. And the firm stance that Reagan consistently projected plus his encouraging words of freedom to the people of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries were major factors in the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the USSR in 1991.
Reagan started his presidency with tough talk, calling the USSR an “evil empire” in a 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals. The same month, he announced plans to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative, envisioned as a way to shoot down nuclear missiles before they could hit the United States. SDI, which many ridiculed as “Star Wars,” turned out to be unrealistic, but it was taken seriously by the Soviets and contributed to their willingness to negotiate.
It is clear from those present at the four summits that both Reagan and Gorbachev sincerely wanted to rid the globe of the danger of nuclear destruction. This chief Communist operated in a more human way than the stiff Soviet leaders of the past, and his motivation apparently was an honest desire to make the world a better place.
Reagan’s inspiration was a strong patriotism and belief system born in his small-town Illinois upbringing. Ron and Nancy Reagan didn’t attend church much during their White House years, which author Baier attributes to the disruption it would have caused. But the president often quoted Abraham Lincoln about praying on his knees, and in a letter thanking a reporter for a story, Reagan wrote:
“…there are a lot of people in the media who are very ‘broad-minded’ except when it comes
This display in Reykjavik, Iceland, describes the 1986 summit meeting there
between Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan
of the United States. The words are in the Icelandic language. (Photo by Mike Haynes)
Reagan’s “evil empire” speech included a quote from C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters”: “The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered … in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
But as he warned about evil creeping in, Reagan was adaptable, as was Gorbachev. By the time of their third summit in Washington, they knew each other well, and I think they realized they both genuinely wanted peace. When in 1988 during a walk in Moscow’s Red Square, reporter Sam Donaldson asked Reagan, “Do you still think you’re in an evil empire?” the president replied, “No, that was another time, another era.”
The climax of Baier’s book is a speech Reagan gave during that Moscow summit to students at Moscow State University. By then, the purpose of the man who had been so hard on Communism and the USSR was to encourage and inspire the students and, by extension, the Soviet people.
He talked about the shared yearning for freedom of all humans, including Americans and Russians. He quoted Russian writer Boris Pasternak about “the irresistible power of unarmed truth.” Standing under a huge bust of Vladimir Lenin, Reagan finished with the hope for “a new world of reconciliation, friendship and peace.”
Since Gorbachev and Reagan passed the reins to others, the U.S.-Russian relationship has regressed. We don’t see the same desire for peace or the same goodwill. The current leaders don’t, like those two did, bring to mind Jesus’ words:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
(This column was in the Amarillo Globe-News Oct. 2, 2018 - with the last line, the Bible quote, left out!.
(It’s plenty long already, but I had intended to include something about the Czech woman who led a tour in the Czech Republic on another trip Kathy and I took. She remembered when the Communists left her country around 1990 and said she and everybody she knows love Ronald Reagan for that. –Mike H.)