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Wary Antagonists Reagan and Gorbachev Reach Out for Peace with a Handshake

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It was a handshake; for all the pomp and circumstance, that is all it was.

The handshake has a long and cautionary history. In his classic recording The 2000 Year Old Man, Mel Brooks says the handshake was developed as a way of finding out if your enemy’s hand had a rock in it. That is close to the truth. According to one standard dictionary the handshake began as a “taking hold of the weapon hand to insure against treachery…to keep those meeting from stabbing one another.”

So if it was nothing more than a handshake, that was quite enough. The President of the United States and the leader of the Soviet Union—whose societies’ enmity is as elemental as that of two Stone Age alpha males—redefined the gesture. No man, even a superpower’s head of state, can hold a thousand nuclear warheads in his hand, yet at the fingertips of each of these men is the button that, when pressed, could reduce our world to an ash.

The issues are complicated, we are told, and in fact the technical language of disarmament and its hazards confound the layman’s understanding. Yet this handshake was far more than a taking hold of the weapon hand to insure against treachery. It was an insistence on hope—a refusal to accept the idea that even the most perilous international conflicts cannot be resolved by goodwill. And surely that is how the gesture was understood by the millions who witnessed it—as an assertion that we are not finally at the mercy of our terrible powers of invention, that we have the will to destroy our weapons instead of ourselves.