October 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Ronald Reagan & Mikhail Gorbachev

Dominating the era, two small-town boys with big ideas broke up the Cold War ice-jam and parted the curtain on a vista of world peace

It takes two to tango—or to tangle. Traditionally, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have viewed the world more as a battlefield than as a dance floor. But in 1984 President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev—the two towering figures who, more than anyone else, shaped the character of the ’80s—launched into a strenuous pas de deux of personal negotiations that, for fascinated millions, became the diplomatic dance of the decade. At times it was a galumphingly comical performance, the sort of minuet for a bear and an eagle that Alice might have watched in Wonderland. But the partners were well aware they were dancing on the brink of a nuclear abyss. Step by nervous step they transformed the war dance of an earlier day into an international flirtation waltz, the coziest contact between capitalism and Communism since FDR and Uncle Joe Stalin swapped saucy stories on the terrace at Yalta. Was the Cold War over? As Reagan left office, both partners seemed warily hopeful that they had waltzed the world into a new era of unfolding freedom. If they were right, the ’80s may well be remembered as the historic moment when humanity pulled itself together to move out of a troubled century into larger dreams and kindlier times.

The lanky, corrugated old movie actor and the pudgy, whey-faced apparatchik made a laughably odd couple, but ideologically they were at daggers drawn. Gorbachev saw Reagan as a capitalist lackey; Reagan saw Gorbachev as the Red czar of an “evil empire.” The Russian was laser-sharp and wily, the American famously foggy in the crumpet—he once assured the press that submarine-launched ICBMs could turn around in midair and fly back home. But Reagan was clear as ice about his grand strategy: Speak angrily and brandish a bouquet of nukes. After a $1.4 trillion buildup of U.S. forces, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. stood eyeball to eyeball. Both blinked. With the Soviet economy a mess, Gorbachev was ready to call off the arms race. So in 1985 he angled for a summit in Geneva, and Reagan, hard-pressed by his NATO allies, decided to test his footwork with the new boy from Moscow.

At first the partners circled like antsy teenagers at a sock hop. Then Reagan eased Gorbachev into a private setting (see box) and gave him a charm massage. Before long, Reagan was telling his optimism story, the one about the kid who got a ton of manure for Christmas and promptly attacked it with a shovel, chortling, “There must be a pony in here somewhere!” Well, nobody found the pony in Geneva. Both men made iffy offers, and when Reagan did his tap dance about sharing the Strategic Defense Initiative, Gorbachev stopped the music. “Ban all space weapons!” he bellowed. The summit ended in stalemate.

Eleven months later the leaders met again in Reykjavik, and Gorbachev soon had Reagan dancing on hot coals. The Russian arrived with a dramatic proposal to scrap 50 percent of all strategic missiles on both sides. All he asked in return was cancellation of SDL The proposal was a trap. If Reagan said yes, he lost his pet project. If he said no, his allies would see him as the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Grimly, Reagan said no. At one stroke Gorbachev had set himself up as the prince of peaceniks and presented Reagan with a disarmament agenda he could not long ignore. But Reagan also had reason to be pleased. By leading from strength, he had encouraged the U.S.S.R. to make huge concessions. The pattern of the dance was now clear: Gorbachev was making the big moves, but most of them furthered the American’s goals.

In December 1987, when the General Secretary arrived in Washington, D.C., to sign a treaty banning intermediate-range missiles from Europe, the choreodrama came to a climax. Since Reykjavik, gales of glasnost and temblors of perestroika had shaken the Soviet order. Greeting Gorbachev, Reagan suggested they call each other Ron and Mikhail. There was friction. When Reagan badgered him about human rights, Gorbachev shot back: “Mr. President, I am not on trial here, and you are not a prosecutor.” But there was, as Nancy Reagan noted, “good chemistry between the two men. They enjoy the one-on-one.”

Reagan and Gorbachev took their final spin around the geopolitical parquet at the Moscow summit in June 1988. The old red-baiter needled Gorbachev about human rights, but there were affectionate moments too. One day in Red Square, Mikhail held a bright-eyed little Russian boy in his arms and smilingly urged him: “Shake hands with Grandfather Reagan!” And he did. For two aging statesmen who had so strenuously rechoreographed the era, the moment was sweet.

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