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Gorbachev and Reagan: a friendship that ended the Cold War

Mikhail Gorbachev stepped onto a Washington street and began shaking hands to cheers and applause in 1990 — a bit of unaccustomed political showmanship worthy of his friend Ronald Reagan.

Ana Maria Guzman was in the park on her lunch break that May when she saw the Soviet leader, who died on Tuesday at 91.

“We knew he was in town and we saw his motorcade. Then he just got out of his limousine and began shaking hands,” she recalled. “It was very emotional. He was like a people’s person. Wow!”

It was the personal touch that Reagan, the Hollywood actor who became president and an icon of the American right, was known for.

Reagan and Gorbachev broke through decades of tensions between their countries to form one of the unlikeliest relationships of the 20th century, bonding over their shared desire to reduce nuclear tensions and ultimately bringing about a momentous shift in world politics.

At the beginning, the longtime Soviet apparatchik had almost nothing in common with his US counterpart.

The two came from countries where mistrust of the other was set in cement.

But when Reagan came to office in 1981, one of his primary — and secret — goals was to ease Cold War and nuclear tensions with Moscow.

He made overtures to three Soviet leaders — Leonid Brezhnev, Turi Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko — but all were change-resistant and none survived long enough to establish a relationship.

When Gorbachev became Communist party general secretary in March 1985 after Chernenko’s death, the White House sensed a potential opening, said Jack Matlock, then Reagan’s top negotiator with Moscow and later ambassador to Russia.

“Early in his term, Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an evil empire,” Matlock told AFP.

“But from the very beginning, he talked about negotiating and the possibility of establishing a peaceful relationship if the Soviet leader was willing to get along with the free world.”

“There was very little response until Gorbachev. With Gorbachev, they finally began communicating, and within two or three years, they were almost, you might say, reading off the same piece of music.”

Gorbachev was no blind idealist, said John Lenczowski, who was principal Soviet affairs adviser on Reagan’s national security council.

The White House understood he was inheriting a weakened economy, a military that saw the Pentagon as increasingly superior and threatening, and a Communist Party rotting from the inside out.

Gorbachev needed to ease the military competition with the United States first if he was to address the other two challenges and preserve the Soviet Union.

“He came in to the general secretaryship seeing that the Soviet Union was in a state of multiple crises. He was trying to overcome those crises in order to save the Soviet system,” said Lenczowski.

Reagan, for his part, saw Kremlin paranoia about the United States as dangerous for both.

“Reagan began to think that we really needed to tone it down, and to try to manage the relationship a little bit more gently,” said Lenczowski.

He saw “that we were in a position of strength to negotiate better with Moscow, and that we should explore some of the different venues.”

Reagan had an invitation to visit Washington passed on to Gorbachev at Chernenko’s funeral, but nothing much happened for months.

Paul Handley, "Gorbachev and Reagan: a friendship that ended the Cold War," Business recorder. 2022-09-02.
Keywords: Political sciences , Political showmanship , weakened economy , Cold war , Leonid Brezhnev , Ana Maria Guzman , Jack Matlock , John Lenczowski , United States , America , Lenczowski

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