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Talbott on the Reagan Years

The changing notion of arms control agreements during The Reagan Administration: Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars, Reykjavik Summit.  Fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm alter Isaacson to the Aspen Institute I'm here with former Deputy Secretary of State strobe talbott we've been talking about the toolbox of American diplomacy during the Reagan years the notion of arms control continued but was there a change in tone and the arms control agreements stunning and transformative change and I think it had a lot to do with the two men themselves the American president and the US and the Soviet president when ronald reagan came into the White House the Soviet leadership as it were dying like flies it was literally the case that Radio Moscow couldn't play sad Tchaikovsky music for fear that the people would think that the General Secretary of the Communist Party had died again there was one funeral after another then came I think one of the most important moments in the history of the late 20th century which is that the Soviet leadership decided to take a bet on a young reformer to end this cycle of old men dying in office but also put some energy back into the Soviet system in the Soviet economy and that was Mikhail Gorbachev and Mikhail Gorbachev decided that reform included not just lessening tension with the West but converting what had been a ferocious long-standing antagonism towards the west into a partnership with the west and he found his ideal partner in Ronald Reagan why was a Reagan such an ideal partner since he was a dyed-in-the-wool any communist who had run on standing up and being tough to the Russians I think that Ronald Reagan was a lot smarter than he was given credit for by his critics at the time there was a lot of scorn towards one of our most successful presidents and he was a student of personalities he was convinced fairly early on before some of his own advisors that Gorbachev was for real that is Gorbachev had his own doubts about the Soviet system and the communist system and Reagan's conclusion from that was well let's help him let's test the proposition that he really is a reformer including by taking some of the pressure off of and one of the things Reagan does is he violates one of the tenants that we discussed early on about arms control which is by pushing a defensive system called the Strategic Defense Initiative why did he do that and what was that about well that I don't think was his finest hour in fact I think Mars and otherwise quite admirable foreign policy record and national security record because he liked to avoid details and as it were think big thoughts he was captured by advocates of the very dubious proposition that if you have a strong enough shield let's call it a giant piece of body armor then you can beat the odds and no offense will be able to penetrate it it was a attractive idea but it turned out to be technically and scientifically virtually impossible do you think it's frightened the Russians a bit though yes it there's an irony in that just as we thought that the Russians were ten feet tall that was the expression back in our youth the Russians thought we were 12 feet tall and particularly 12 feet tall when it came to new gadgets they could make really big rockets and we could make very sophisticated and faster and more accurate rockets and then when they heard the United States talking about a strategic defence system or what was called Star Wars even though our own experts were in the main very skeptical that it would work the Russians who were always obsessed with the worst-case scenarios and well maybe the Americans can do this so we should we'd better make some compromises with them one of the most amazing moments in US Russian relations was it reykjavík summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in which they decided both of them to at least profess that they wanted to eliminate all nuclear weapons but somehow they got hung up on the Star Wars or defense shield issue explain Reykjavik the reason that the reykjavík summit went from being a great success even though it would have appalled people who thought we had to keep them to put nuclear weapons was as you say because of Star Wars and the Russians were so terrified that Star Wars might work that Gorbachev could not get the backing of his own team to accept that as a condition for a Raikou Vic deal but not too long afterwards by 1989 suddenly Gorbachev has allowed the communist system to just dissipate in Russia and the Cold War suddenly ends to what extent was were Reagan's policies responsible for quote winning the Cold War I think Reagan and another conservative leader Margaret Thatcher the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom were smart enough to see that if Gorbachev was able to stay in office long enough his reforms would change the nature of the Soviet Union I don't think that they were so prophetic as to see that the Soviet Union would come apart but the essence of Gorbachev's reforms boiled down to this one much less reliance than had been the case for decades on force both to keep the Soviet people cowed and to keep the rest of the world cowed and second less resort to the big lie and instead of the big lie having a policy of glossing us where you're transparent and you tell the truth well it turned out that once you remove the mailed fist of force and the big lie the Soviet system couldn't stick together and what happens is that Reagan successor the first president George Bush helps with Brent Scowcroft and many others a calm end to the Soviet Union the breakup of the Soviet Union of collapse of the berlin wall and they do it in a very sort of cautious way as opposed to dancing in the end zone how important was that hugely important i think that future historians will give George Herbert Walker Bush credit for being one of the most important and most successful and farsighted foreign policy presidents we've ever had largely because of the way in which he played the role that you just described the way I see it is just as Ronald Reagan had developed a very warm and productive personal relationship with Gorbachev so did bush and Gorbachev had enough faith and trust in Bush to let Bush and advise you on how to deal with certain issues it was a little bit as though President Bush 41 was a air controller in a airport and here comes this plane that is in very serious danger of crashing and he talks the pilot down for a soft landing that's essentially what he was able to do and the big picture is that after 40 years beginning with the doctrine of containment in the late 1940s after 40 years it finally does succeed in containing the spread of Soviet Communism and we have the Cold War ending is that about right yes and it ended symbolically and appropriately were at it started which is to say in Germany with the Berlin Wall coming down the Berlin Wall going up of course was a particularly important and ominous moment in the Cold War and and the Cold War grew out of World War two and Stalin's determination to keep as much of Germany as he could under his candor his control as well as the rest of Eastern Europe and the perhaps the single most important thing that President Bush was able to do with Gorbachev was to get Gorbachev to accept that what had been a separate state a calm state under the thumb of Moscow East Germany the German Democratic Republic to allow that to stop being a separate state and rejoin the rest of Germany so you would have a reunified or unified Germany that would remain in NATO a Western alliance and in the European Union and that I think then created the precedent for both NATO and the European Union to move further east so what we've said is that from Truman to Eisenhower Kennedy Johnson Nixon Ford Carter Reagan and Bush presidents of both parties pursued a common policy it is really quite amazing how much continuity there was from one administration to another Democrats came in Democrats went out Republicans came in Republicans came out there were liberals they were conservatives but the basic line remained the same and it worked thanks