Peace Through Strength: Two Cold War Weapons

Posted on Wed, August 3, 2016

This fall is the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit, a landmark meeting held in Iceland's capital between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Reagan on left and Gorbachev negotiate amidst a crowd of onlookers.

President Reagan says goodbye to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev after the last meeting at Hofdi House in Reykjavik, Iceland on October 12, 1986. Image: White House Photographic Office

Although it ended without an agreement to halt the growth of their nuclear stockpiles, this single event marked a watershed in the history of the Cold War. It started the process of drawing back both Superpowers from the brink of nuclear annihilation, a stalemate that had existed for nearly half a century.

What does the Reykjavik Summit have to do with the National Air and Space Museum? Take a stroll through our newly reimagined Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the Museum in Washington, DC. Here, along the west wall of the gallery, you will see the U.S. Army’s Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) and its Soviet counterpart, the SS-20. In December 1987, one year after the Summit, Regan and Gorbachev met in Washington, DC to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (see the full treaty), which banned both classes of nuclear missiles. For the first time, the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.

INF Treaty Signing

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House, December 8, 1987. Image: White House Photographic Office

It didn’t start out that way in the years leading up to Reykjavik. Deployment of the mobile Pershing II in Europe in 1983 (as a counterforce weapon against the SS-20) had further galvanized the public’s opposition to nuclear weapons at home and abroad. The “Nuclear Freeze Movement,” as it became known, railed against Reagan’s defense buildup, the largest in America’s peacetime history. What Reagan saw as a way to force the Soviet Union to the bargaining table—a strategy sometimes called “Peace through Strength”—critics viewed as a reckless gamble that might lead to war. Controversial as it was, his gamble worked, in no small part because the underlying goal—to eliminate all nuclear weapons—resonated with Gorbachev’s own thinking.

Youthful and energetic, Gorbachev had come to power in 1985 determined to modernize his country, especially the stagnant economy, and open up a more productive dialogue with the West. At Reykjavik, and the previous year at Geneva, where he and Reagan first met, they developed a personal rapport and mutual respect that culminated in the signing of the INF treaty.

Two years after Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, the Berlin Wall fell, and in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

A crowd stands on the Berlin wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.

The legacies of the Cold War, now almost 30 years in the past, are still with us today, even in the peaceful, contemplative atmosphere of the Museum. The INF Treaty stipulates that should the Museum’s Pershing II and SS-20 need to be moved for any reason, the United States is required to notify the Russians.