President Ronald Reagan travels to Moscow to begin the fourth summit meeting held in the past three years with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Though the summit produced no major announcements or breakthroughs, it served to illuminate both the successes and the failures achieved by the two men in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations.
In May 1988, President Reagan made his first trip to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev and begin their fourth summit meeting. Just six months earlier, during a summit in Washington, D.C., in December 1987, the two men had signed the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons from Europe. In many ways, Reagan’s trip to Moscow in May was a journey of celebration. Demonstrating the famous Reagan charm, the president and his wife waded into crowds of Russian well wishers and curiosity-seekers to shake hands and exchange pleasantries.
Very quickly, however, the talks between Reagan and Gorbachev revealed that serious differences still existed between the Soviet Union and the United States. From the beginning, Reagan–who had in the past referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”–pressed Gorbachev on the issue of human rights. He urged Gorbachev to ease Soviet restrictions on freedom of religion and also asked that the Soviet Union relax the laws that kept many Russian Jews from emigrating. The Soviets were obviously displeased at Reagan’s insistence on lecturing them about what they considered purely internal matters. A spokesman from the Soviet Foreign Ministry showed his irritation when he declared to a group of reporters, “We don’t like it when someone from outside is teaching us how to live, and this is only natural.”
Despite the tension introduced by the human rights issue, the summit was largely an opportunity for Reagan and Gorbachev to trade compliments and congratulations about their accomplishments, most notably the INF Treaty. As Reagan stated after their first day of meetings, “I think the message is clear–despite clear and fundamental differences, and despite the inevitable frustrations that we have encountered, our work has begun to produce results.”