One was an avid capitalist, an actor-turned-U.S. president determined to quash America’s nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union’s “evil empire.” The other, a young committed communist who rose through the political ranks to lead the USSR, pushing publicly for reform.
“I think, frankly, (that) President Gorbachev and I discovered a sort of a bond, a friendship between us, that we thought could become such a bond between all the people,” Reagan told journalists in Moscow during a visit in 1990.
But moving from “evil” to “friendship” wasn’t automatic. Reagan was initially wary of the kind of leader Gorbachev would be.
Reagan and Gorbachev Both Sought Change
“In Reagan's view, Gorbachev was a communist, and could be expected to act like a communist,” says H.W. Brands, author of Reagan: The Life and history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Gradually, Reagan realized Gorbachev was also a man, not that different from himself—a national leader who wanted the best for his people, and to avoid a nuclear war.”
In his book, Dear Mr. President … Reagan/Gorbachev and the Correspondences that Ended the Cold War, historian Jason Saltoun-Ebin writes that confidential letters between the two world leaders forced the men to “talk, debate, argue, disagree, but also offer proposals even when they thought no agreement would be possible.”
“Both Reagan and Gorbachev recognized that change was coming, and both wanted to be on the right side of history,” he writes. “But they needed to find a way to overcome forty years of Cold War ideology. They needed to find a way to trust each other.”
More than 40 letters, many hand-written, and four summits in just over three years were key to building that trust. In his autobiography, An American Life, Reagan writes: “As I look back on them now, I realize those first letters marked the cautious beginning on both sides of what was to become the foundation of not only a better relationship between our countries but a friendship between two men.”
“Their meetings were critical,” says Melvyn P. Leffler, a professor of history emeritus specializing in U.S. foreign relations at the University of Virginia. “Each came to appreciate the genuine security fears of the other.”
And Cold War fears were cause for great alarm. During his presidency, Reagan was often quoted as saying, “We don’t mistrust each other because we’re armed; we’re armed because we mistrust each other.”
“Reagan wanted arms control, but he wanted to make sure it didn't compromise American security,” Brands says. “He began cautiously with Gorbachev, but he wanted to get past mistrust to the point where each side had some confidence in the good intentions of the other. Even then, he insisted, ‘Trust, but verify.’"
Reagan Retires 'Evil Empire' Label
Timing also came into play. Gorbachev’s rise to leader of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985, followed a string of USSR ruler deaths, when Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, Yuri Andropov died in 1984 and Konstantin Chernenko died in 1985. But Leffler says Gorbachev was different from his predecessors.
“He deeply desired to reform the Soviet system and improve living standards,” he says. “He recognized that ratcheting down military expenditures and modulating the Cold War were necessary preconditions for achieving his domestic priorities.”
Brands adds that the common ground Reagan found with Gorbachev wouldn’t have been possible with Russia’s previous leaders.
“If Brezhnev had lived another six years, Reagan would have made no progress on arms control,” he says. “Reagan needed someone to meet him halfway. He found this person in Gorbachev.”
In his book, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, William Taubman writes that during Reagan’s Moscow visit in 1988, a reporter asked the president at the Kremlin whether he still considered Russia the “evil empire.”
“No,” Reagan replied. “That was another time, another era.” Another reporter asked whether the two were now old friends. “Da! Da!” Gorbachev said, with Reagan adding, “Yes.”
“Perhaps then the real story of the end of the Cold War is just a simple tale of how an old hard-line anti-Communist president of the United States and a young Soviet reformer discovered that, despite their vast differences, all they needed to do was find one common area of agreement to change the world,” Saltoun-Ebin writes. “The elimination of nuclear weapons became their focus.”