In his autobiography, "An American Life," Ronald Reagan writes about how he confronted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with the challenge that would win the Cold War.
"When I had arrived in the White House in 1981," said Reagan, recalling his 1985 summit with Gorbachev in Geneva, "the fiber of American military muscle was so atrophied that our ability to respond effectively to a Soviet attack was very much in doubt.
"I wanted to go to the negotiating table and end the madness of the (Mutual Assured Destruction) policy," Reagan explained, "but to do that, I knew America first had to upgrade its military capabilities so that we would be able to negotiate with the Soviets from a position of strength, not weakness."
In his first term, Reagan did just that. Most significantly, he followed through on a promise to begin deploying nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles in Europe unless the Soviets agreed to dismantle their own intermediate range missiles already deployed within range of western European capitals.
Reagan deployed these U.S. missiles in the face of Soviet demands for a bilateral nuclear freeze that would have frozen in place Soviet nuclear superiority on the continent. He also went ahead with deployment despite bitter opposition from the leftwing of the Democratic Party.
Sen. Teddy Kennedy, pushing a congressional nuclear-freeze resolution that would have pre-emptively given the Soviets the very concession they most wanted, attacked Reagan's strategy in apocalyptic terms. "The real shame is the policy of this administration, which has raised the risk of a third and last world war," said Kennedy.
Undaunted, Reagan showed up in Geneva in November 1985 ready for a showdown with Gorbachev.
"I knew that he also had strong motives for wanting to end the arms race," Reagan writes. "The Soviet economy was a basket case, in part because of enormous expenditures on arms. He had to know that the quality of American technology, after reasserting itself beginning in 1981, was now overwhelmingly superior to his. He had to know we could outspend the Soviets on weapons as long as we wanted to."
So Reagan asked Gorbachev to take a walk to a boathouse with only their interpreters in tow. "We have a choice," Reagan told Gorbachev. "We can agree to reduce arms -- or we can continue the arms race, which I think you know you can't win. We won't stand by and let you maintain weapon superiority over us. But together we can try to do something about ending the arms race." (Emphasis is Reagan's.)
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