Richard Rhodes is the author or editor of 24 books including THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB (Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award) and DARK SUN: THE MAKING OF THE HYDROGEN BOMB (finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History). REYKJAVIK, his first play, will be presented as part of Plan-B’s Script-In-Hand Series on Monday, June 24. Tickets are free but required – reserve yours here.
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, an island country located about 500 miles northwest of Scotland in the North Atlantic that was first settled by the Norse more than a thousand years ago. Its parliament, the Althingi (the “all things”) is the oldest such democratic institution in the world.
In 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev, the Chairman of the Politburo of the Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, invited Ronald Reagan, the President of the United States, to meet with him in London or Reykjavik to begin discussing the issues they would take up the following year at a previously-scheduled Washington summit.
Reagan chose Reykjavik. That meeting, on Saturday and Sunday, 11-12 October 1986, famously expanded from a preliminary discussion to a full-blown summit. Most notably, the President and the General Secretary came within a hair’s-breadth of agreeing to begin the process of eliminating all the world’s nuclear weapons in concert with the other nuclear powers of the day (which were the UK, France, China, India and, undeclared, Israel). In 1986, there were a total of 60,056 known nuclear weapons in the world, the vast majority of them in the arsenals of the two superpowers. (Today that number has been reduced to about 15,000.)
Mikhail Gorbachev came to his high office by a very different route from his predecessors. He had grown up on a collective farm in the Caucasus and had won a four-year scholarship to the best college in the Soviet Union, Moscow University, by combining more wheat in one harvest than any other seventeen-year-old in the country. He had trained as a lawyer and then returned to the Caucasus, to Stavropol, to serve as a regional party secretary, gradually working his way up through the government hierarchy. He was elected to the Politburo in 1979. His first assignment in Moscow was as minister of agriculture, which gave him a clear view of the decay and despair of his country and countrymen. As his old friend and future foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze said to him during this period, “Everything’s rotten; it has to be changed.”
Earlier in 1986, Gorbachev had introduced a program of economic restructuring and domestic development that he called perestroika (“reconstruction”), intended to activate a stagnant Soviet economy and improve the lives of Soviet citizens. He understood that the only way he could increase the Soviet Union’s budget share for domestic development, which his country desperately needed, was by reducing the share of the budget devoted to military spending (estimated to be as high at that time as 40 to 50 percent or even higher). Gorbachev’s scientific advisers had convinced him that nuclear weapons were so destructive that they were essentially unusable. The Soviet military-industrial complex continued to stockpile them with abandon, however, following the standard Soviet industrial policy of “overproduction” —meeting annual quotas and overproducing by ten percent. The arms race involved profligate conventional weapons production as well.
Gorbachev was also strongly influenced by ideas of “common security” communicated to him by West German chancellor Willy Brandt and his advisers. Common security approached international conflicts as common problems to be solved rather than challenges to be defended against. Instead of arms races, common security favored deep arms reductions to reduce tensions and increase trust between antagonists.
Reagan to the contrary conceived of the Soviet-American conflict in more conventional terms, i.e., the Soviets were America’s enemies, they were evil (an “evil empire,” he called them in a 1983 speech), they followed classic Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory in pursuing world domination, and they couldn’t be trusted.
At the same time, however, Reagan had been personally committed since shortly after the end of World War II to the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the world. Not trusting treaties, he had long sought an answer to the problem of possible cheating in a post-nuclear world. He believed he had found that answer in a new technology that the hawkish nuclear physicist Edward Teller had first described to him during his years as governor of California: a “shield” of warhead-destroying defenses in orbit around the earth. Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative in a speech to the American people on 23 March 1983, concluding:
Tonight, consistent with our obligations under the ABM Treaty and recognizing the need for closer consultation with our allies, I am taking an important first step. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles. This could pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate the weapons themselves.
There, in a paragraph, is Reagan’s basic bargaining position at Reykjavik. It was not, however, the bargaining position his advisers prepared him for.
Reagan’s advisers suspected that Gorbachev had a surprise up his sleeve when he proposed a meeting preliminary to the planned Washington summit. Gorbachev had already made far-reaching proposals to Reagan in private letters and public statements, including deep reductions in nuclear weapons. Reagan’s advisers anticipated that the Soviet General Secretary would bring new proposals to the meeting, and they had recommended to the President, cynically, that he listen to Gorbachev’s offerings and simply pocket them without offering any equivalent American concessions.
Reagan followed their advice most of the way. He was irresistibly attracted, however, to Gorbachev’s opening the door to nuclear abolition. Now that Reagan had found what he believed to be the key to overcoming the danger of cheating—a technological solution that did not depend on trusting a treaty; a way, as he said, to “trust your neighbor, but cut the cards”—he was prepared to move to mutual agreement for nuclear abolition, but only if the U.S. could continue to develop SD.
Gorbachev, for his part, had maneuvered his Politburo and Military-Industrial Council colleagues brilliantly to commit themselves to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. They had agreed to the commitment thinking it was merely more Soviet boiler-plate propaganda. When they saw that Gorbachev actually intended to hold them to their commitment, they agreed to do so only if Gorbachev elicited a comparable commitment from Reagan to limit SDI research to the laboratory and not deploy any SDI systems in space for at least ten years. Gorbachev was instructed to offer all his various proposals for reducing and eliminating nuclear arms as a package, contingent upon Reagan restraining SDI, and if Reagan refused to do so, Gorbachev was to withdraw his entire package of offers and return to Moscow.
Thus the Reykjavik meeting was set up to pit an irresistible force against an immoveable object. When I wrote about it in the third volume of my four-volume history of the nuclear age, Arsenals of Folly, I was struck by how inherently dramatic the meeting was. It asked to be shaped into theater, and that was what I proceeded to do.
More than half of the text of Reykjavik is verbatim or near-verbatim transcript of the actual Reykjavik discussions. Gorbachev, of course, spoke Russian, but the translation was simultaneous.
The more personal parts of the text come from both men’s writings—their memoirs and, in Reagan’s case, his autobiography.
Nuclear weapons harness the fundamental forces at work in the nuclei of atoms. Atomic bombs fission uranium, the heaviest natural element, and because their chain reaction ceases when the bomb core explosively disassembles, they are naturally limited to a maximum yield of about 500,000 tons of TNT equivalent—500 kilotons. Hydrogen bombs fuse hydrogen, the lightest natural element, into helium. They require an atomic bomb to start the fusion reaction by heating and compressing the hydrogen fuel, but once those conditions are met, fusion can proceed as long as there is fuel—like a fire. Hydrogen bombs are therefore potentially unlimited in yield, typically in the millions of tons of TNT equivalent—megatons.
In both fission and fusion, a small amount of mass is converted into energy, and since E (energy) = mc2 (mass times the square of the speed of light, a very large number), even a very small amount of mass can produce a prodigious amount of energy, most of it in the form of heat. Only about one kilogram of uranium fully fissioned in the Hiroshima bomb, but it was enough to destroy a medium-sized city and kill 70,000 people.
Hydrogen bombs are actually multi-stage devices. The first stage, a small atomic bomb, provides the energy to compress and heat (to well above 100 million degrees C) the second stage, a volume of hydrogen, until nuclear fusion can occur. More hydrogen stages can be added; the notorious Czar Bomba, a 68-megaton Soviet device tested in the Arctic in 1961, was a three-stage system as exploded, with a fourth stage removed to reduce it from its design yield of greater than 100 megatons.
Most of the destruction that nuclear weapons produce is the result of mass fire (the present technical term for what was formerly called a “firestorm”). A 300-kiloton nuclear weapon exploded a thousand yards above the Pentagon would rubbilize every structure around it out as far to the northeast as Capitol Hill (and of course equally far in every direction); but the resulting mass fire, ignited simultaneously across the entire city by the nuclear fireball, would burn everything in Washington to mineral ash all the way out to the Beltway, a circle with a radius of about 15 kilometers (nine miles). A one-megaton hydrogen bomb exploded over Manhattan would destroy all life in all five boroughs of the city of New York; a pall of radioactive fallout from the explosion and mass fire would release lethal doses of radiation up the East Coast all the way to Boston.
And even a small nuclear exchange—a few megatons—if the warheads exploded over cities and started mass fires, would release smog and smoke into the stratosphere that would slowly spread across the world. By blocking sunlight, such a pall of smoke and smog would cool the entire earth by an annual average of 2 to 3 degrees for a period of a decade or more. The result would be the prompt deaths of 20 million or more people, followed by the slow mass starvation of another two billion or more.
Given these horrors, it’s unsurprising that no nuclear weapons have been exploded in anger since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So long as nations continue to maintain such terror weapons in their arsenals, however, a nuclear apocalypse remains a real prospect for humanity.
SOME TECHNICAL TERMS
Strategic: as applied to weapons, those capable of reaching the enemy’s homeland, such as ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and intercontinental bombers.
Tactical: as applied to weapons, those used against enemy combatants and of relatively short range; battlefield weapons.
Intermediate-range: as applied to weapons, those of range intermediate between tactical and strategic, such as the American nuclear weapons positioned with NATO forces in western Europe to defend against Soviet tanks pushing west from East Germany.
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: This treaty, signed between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1972, banned defenses against ballistic missiles. (The United States under George W. Bush unilaterally abrogated it in 2002.) It did so to prevent development of a defensive system such as Reagan’s SDI, which (had it worked) might have undercut nuclear deterrence by making it possible to launch a missile attack from behind the safety of such defenses. (Nuclear deterrence was based on the idea that if each side had ICBMs or other nuclear delivery systems that could survive a sneak attack, a “first strike,” then neither side would dare attack the other, because doing so would guarantee comparable retaliatory nuclear destruction—provided, of course, that the recipient of the first strike, whose country would already be destroyed, was willing to launch his second-strike missiles purely in revenge. (Reagan and Gorbachev discuss this question in the course of the play.)
“The Briefing”: national leaders of nuclear powers receive a full briefing on their nuclear-weapons options (first strike, second strike and so on), and the consequences for the targets of exercising those options, shortly after taking office.
Chernobyl Disaster: The meltdown and burning, beginning on 26 April 1986, of one of four Soviet nuclear power reactors at the Chernobyl power station north of Kiev in the northeastern Ukraine. All Soviet technological systems were considered by the Soviet military to be dual-use, i.e., designed for both civilian and military applications. Thus automobile factories could be quickly converted to manufacture tanks in time of war. Similarly, the reactors built at Chernobyl were of a type—water-cooled, graphite-moderated—that could be, and were, used to breed plutonium for nuclear weapons as well as to generate civilian power. Tragically, the dual-use policy meant that the operations of Soviet nuclear power stations were considered to be military secrets; thus, problems at any one such station were not communicated to the managers of other stations, meaning design flaws and technical errors went unshared.
The accident at Chernobyl occurred when its managers decided to test the reactor’s ability to generate electricity sufficient to operate its control room even while the reactor was going offline and the generators were spinning down. To conduct the experiment it was necessary to shut off all the reactor’s safety systems. Dual-use reactors such as those at Chernobyl had a known but dangerous design flaw: they were unstable at low power and at risk of power surges. A power surge, if it boiled away the reactor’s cooling water, would increase rather than decrease the system’s reactivity—increasing the runaway to higher power, boiling off more water, increasing the runaway further. That’s what happened in the early morning hours of 26 April 1986 at Chernobyl power station number four. In less than a second, the reactor surged to more than one hundred times its normal operating power, and the resulting steam explosion blew off the reactor’s 200-ton lid, blew out the roof of the building and ejected highly radioactive fission products and graphite half a mile into the air. The tons of graphite left in the reactor (pure carbon, like charcoal briquettes) began burning. Burning melted the protective cladding on the uranium slugs in the reactor, which released further large quantities of highly radioactive fission products that were carried with the heat and smoke high into the air. From there, the wind dispersed the radioactive particles across Europe. Despite the heroic efforts of Soviet firefighters to quench the fire, Chernobyl burned for ten days, until its entire inventory of graphite and of radioactive fuel was depleted. Some historians believe the Chernobyl disaster contributed centrally to the Soviet people’s loss of faith in their system. It certainly had that effect on Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mutual Assured Destruction: As mentioned above, the condition of opposed nuclear armaments protected in such a way that enough nuclear capability would survive a first strike to wreak comparable destruction in a second strike on the side that had dared to attack.
Cruise Missile: An unmanned aircraft capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Cruise missiles fly below enemy radar, following a moving terrain map loaded into their computers that they compare with a real-time radar image of the terrain below. They are accurate to within a few feet across thousands of miles.
Baruch Plan: A plan for international control of nuclear weapons which the United States offered to the world at the United Nations in 1946. Bernard Baruch, a celebrity Wall Street financier, presented the plan on behalf of President Harry Truman. As modified by Baruch, the plan provided that the United States would only disarm itself of its nuclear weapons after all other states had agreed to the Plan and been inspected. Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union rejected the proposal.
Korean Airliner: On the night of 1 September 1983, Soviet air forces in the Soviet east detected a Korean 747 jetliner crossing Soviet territory off the Sea of Japan. Unable to contact their superiors in Moscow, and fearful of punishment if they allowed further intrusion, they intercepted the aircraft and shot it down, killing everyone aboard including a U.S. Congressman. The incident soured Soviet – U.S. relations for several years thereafter.
Reagan did in fact decide to make military GPS available to the whole world (with its resolution degraded from 3 meters to 100 meters) as a result of the incident; the Korean pilot had been using his magnetic compass to navigate rather than his more accurate inertial guidance system and had mistakenly flown off-course. GPS was still under development at the time of the Reykjavik meeting and not yet available.
Pentecostal Families: Pentecostalism is a Protestant sect. A group of Pentecostals from Siberia sought and received asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1978 to avoid persecution by Soviet authorities. They lived in the embassy basement for five years, until Reagan won their release with Gorbachev’s help in 1983.
Anatoly Sharansky, Yuri Orlov, Andre Sakharov: Soviet dissidents. Sakharov was in fact released from internal exile in Gorky shortly after Gorbachev returned from Reykjavik; the play compresses this concession to within the Reykjavik time frame.
Elena Bonner: I interviewed Bonner in Moscow in 1992; she told me Gorbachev had called her a “Jewish bitch” in his discussions within the Politburo. He may have been anti-Semitic, or simply pretending to be as crude and gangsterish as most of his Politburo colleagues. Bonner believed him to be genuinely hostile to her.
REYKJAVIK by Richard Rhodes is presented as part of Plan-B’s Script-In-Hand Series on Monday, June 24 at 7pm. The evening features Robert Scott Smith reading Reagan and Jason Tatom reading Gorbachev and a post-show discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes led by Mary Dickson. Tickets are free but required – click here for more information and to reserve your free tickets.