U.S.-Soviet Summit

The first summit meeting in six years between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union prompted a series of important summits that led to arms reductions.

Summary of Event

U.S.-Soviet relations were deteriorating in the early 1980’s, with President Ronald Reagan overseeing a buildup of the U.S. military and a series of aging Soviet leaders overseeing an expansionist foreign policy. U.S. and Soviet troops, advisers, and weapons faced each other in such places as Angola, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. Negotiations to limit the two countries’ nuclear weapons—a mainstay of U.S.-Soviet diplomacy since the late 1960’s—had been broken off in 1983. Geneva summit (1985)
U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
[kw]U.S.-Soviet Summit (Nov. 19-21, 1985)
[kw]Soviet Summit, U.S.- (Nov. 19-21, 1985)
[kw]Summit, U.S.-Soviet (Nov. 19-21, 1985)
Geneva summit (1985)
U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
[g]Europe;Nov. 19-21, 1985: U.S.-Soviet Summit[05850]
[g]Switzerland;Nov. 19-21, 1985: U.S.-Soviet Summit[05850]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 19-21, 1985: U.S.-Soviet Summit[05850]
Gorbachev, Mikhail
[p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]
Shevardnadze, Eduard
Shultz, George P.

U.S. president Ronald Reagan (left) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev chat by the fireside in Geneva, Switzerland, in November, 1985, at their first summit. The two leaders met several more times in subsequent years, reaffirming their shared desire to normalize relations and secure peace in Europe.

(Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to the post of general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party in March, 1985, spawned some hopes in the West that the hard-line Soviet stance might be open to revision. Gorbachev began ambitious domestic reform programs in the Soviet Union and stated his intention to establish a rapprochement with the West. Arms control negotiations, called the Nuclear and Space Talks, Nuclear and Space Talks (1985) were resumed in Geneva. As a sign of a new dialogue between the two countries, Gorbachev and Reagan agreed to meet face-to-face in the Swiss capital in the fall of 1985. It would be the first meeting between a U.S. president and his Soviet counterpart since the 1970’s.

The Geneva summit began on November 19, 1985. The subject of arms control was the most closely watched aspect of the discussions between the two leaders. In particular, the two sides sought to limit, and possibly reduce, the number of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INFs) based in Europe. Prior to the summit, the Soviet Union had staked out a position that these weapons should be reduced by 50 percent on each side. Nuclear weapons;disarmament
Weapons;nuclear That position had three conditions, however. First, only nuclear weapons deployed in Europe would be counted; weapons based on U.S. and Soviet soil would be exempt. U.S. negotiators had routinely opposed such provisions, arguing that INFs in the Soviet Union could reach Western Europe, but such weapons based in the United States could not reach Eastern Europe. Second, the Soviets demanded that French and British nuclear forces be reduced by the same proportion, arguing that those forces were essentially under U.S. control through NATO. The United States rejected that logic. Third, the Soviet negotiating position required that the United States terminate its program to research and develop a nuclear defense system. This program, the Strategic Defense Initiative Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known at the time as “Star Wars,” had been proposed by Reagan in 1983 and had been opposed continuously by the Soviet Union ever since. The Reagan administration stood by its decision to research and develop a strategic nuclear defense, although it remained vague on the question of deployment.

Such was the diplomatic history leading up to the Geneva summit. The talks began with the formal meeting of the two heads of state before cameras on the morning of November 19. Breaking with traditional practice for superpower summits, Reagan and Gorbachev quickly left to meet privately, without advisers or negotiators, for an hour. At other points during the two-day summit, these private meetings were repeated, for a total of six hours of face-to-face discussions between Reagan and Gorbachev with no one but translators present. The summit also was unique for the news blackout that kept the talks shrouded in secrecy until a joint statement was issued on November 21.

A number of agreements were signed at the Geneva summit covering such areas as environmental protection and educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges. Of particular interest were the agreements concerning security and nuclear weapons. In their joint statement, the two leaders pronounced their belief that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” reaffirmed their commitment to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and to the principle of a 50 percent reduction in nuclear arms, and promised to seek an interim agreement reducing INF. The two leaders also stated their intention to meet twice more over the next two years. Observers made references to the “Spirit of Geneva”—an optimistic (and short-lived) sense of cooperation that had come out of the Geneva summit meeting that took place in July, 1955, between President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. and Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev. Khrushchev, Nikita S.


Despite the air of civility and the photos of the two leaders speaking amicably by a fire, the 1985 summit produced little of immediate substance. No formal agreement on arms control was achieved, and virtually no progress was made on the major issues that had divided the two sides prior to the summit. Reagan remained committed to the Strategic Defense Initiative, and Gorbachev continued to stress that no arms control treaty could be signed until Reagan relented on SDI. Those who had expected the meeting of the new, vigorous Soviet leader and the second-term U.S. president to bring an immediate breakthrough in the superpowers’ nuclear impasse were disappointed. At the same time, those who had feared that one or the other leader would “give away the store”—a fear that became especially pronounced after the Reykjavik summit the following year—were relieved.

The 1985 Geneva summit thus ended on a note of guarded hope. After a decade of increasingly strained relations between Moscow and Washington, the highest officials of the two countries were again speaking to each other face-to-face. They had found some common ground on the principle of nuclear arms reductions and other subjects. They saw the necessity of communication and cooperation. Gorbachev had established his credentials as a world leader important enough to secure a private audience with the president of the United States. Reagan maintained his strong commitment to SDI but also was depicted as someone willing to talk and negotiate with the Soviet leadership. It later would become clear that the Geneva summit marked the beginning of a new, and, it turned out, final era in superpower relations.

In the months following the Geneva summit, arms control talks continued in Geneva, and the vague commitment to a 50 percent arms reduction in Europe began to take form. True to their stated intentions, Gorbachev and Reagan met several more times in subsequent years, each time reaffirming their shared desire to normalize relations and secure peace in Europe. By the end of 1987, a treaty to eliminate all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe—including those based in the Soviet Union west of the Ural mountains, and excluding those owned by France and Britain—had been signed. Reagan’s commitment to SDI remained intact. Clearly, the Soviet Union’s resolve had eroded since the time of the Geneva summit. Geneva summit (1985)
U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations]

Further Reading

  • Arms Control Association. Arms Control and National Security: An Introduction. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1989. Presents basic explanations of arms control negotiations and treaties. Chapter 10 examines nuclear forces in Europe, including the 1987 INF Treaty.
  • Dallin, Alexander, and Gail W. Lapidus. “Reagan and the Russians: American Policy Toward the Soviet Union.” In Eagle Resurgent? The Reagan Era in American Foreign Policy, edited by Kenneth A. Oye, Robert J. Lieber, and Donald Rothchild. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987. Scholarly, analytic essay covers Reagan’s Soviet policy since 1981, with several pages devoted to events leading up to the Geneva summit and to the summit itself. Includes extensive footnotes.
  • Mandelbaum, Michael, and Strobe Talbott. Reagan and Gorbachev. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Examines the issue of how the separate agendas of Reagan and Gorbachev, as well as their attempts to find common ground, influenced the future of Soviet-U.S. relations in the mid-1980’s. Provides especially thorough discussion of SDI.
  • Powaski, Ronald E. Return to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1981-1999. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Discussion of the arms race includes extensive attention to disarmament talks. Chapter 2 includes brief discussion of the 1985 Geneva summit.
  • Rotblat, Joseph, ed. Nuclear Weapons: The Road to Zero. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Collection of essays covers a wide range of issues related to international nuclear disarmament.
  • Rueckert, George L. Global Double Zero: The INF Treaty from Its Origins to Implementation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Provides good background on the INF negotiations, of which the Geneva summit was a significant watershed. Explains the context of arms control and diplomacy in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
  • “World Press Report: Beyond Geneva.” World Press Review 33, no. 1 (January, 1986): 39-44. Presents a compilation of articles concerning the Geneva summit culled from newspapers in Great Britain, Germany, Brazil, Israel, Japan, and France.

Europeans Demonstrate Against Nuclear Weapons

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions

United States and Russia Reach Nuclear Arms Reduction Agreement