May 31

This Day in History

Cold War

May 31, 1988:

Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow ends

President Ronald Reagan ends his first trip to Moscow, and his fourth summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on notes of both frustration and triumph. Although there were no breakthroughs or agreements on substantive issues, the "Great Communicator," as Reagan was known in the United States, was a hit with Soviet audiences.

The May 1988 summit between Gorbachev and Reagan was billed as a celebratory follow-up to their breakthrough summit of October 1987. At that meeting in Washington, D.C., the two leaders had signed the groundbreaking Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear missiles from Europe. The May meeting, however, got off to a rocky start as Reagan lectured Gorbachev about the need to improve the Soviet Union's human rights record. From that inauspicious start, the summit went downhill and ended with no further progress on arms control. Gorbachev's frustration boiled over as he declared to Reagan, "Maybe now is again a time to bang our fists on the table" in order to hammer out an arms agreement. During his final day in Moscow, Reagan turned away from strictly political issues and spoke before a group of students and Russian intellectuals and then took a walking tour of some old churches. He praised Russian cultural achievements, particularly the nation's great literary tradition and disarmed his audiences with his usual self-effacing humor.

The May 1988 summit meeting was a victory of style over substance. Both Reagan and Gorbachev kept up positive fronts in their public statements, but in fact, the meeting had been a great disappointment for both sides. No further progress on arms limitation was made, and Reagan's efforts to push the human rights issue met a frosty response from Gorbachev. The summit indicated that despite the progress made in improving U.S.-Soviet relations in the past years, serious differences still existed.

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