Mary Dickson is a well-known advocate for Downwinders. Her play, EXPOSED, received its world premiere at Plan-B in 2007 and toured Utah in 2008.
I remember being in Moscow in 1990 in the midst of Glasnost, driving with two political science professors – one Russian, one American – on a grey rainy day over muddy roads. The windshield wipers on a car that should long ago have been retired barely worked. I went back to my hotel room after our outing to a library, overwhelming depressed. This was the country that had struck terror in our hearts throughout my childhood – Reagan’s “Evil Empire.” Their roads were in dire need of repair and they couldn’t even make a functioning windshield wiper. The Soviet Union’s internal infrastructure was in a horrible state, yet they had the power to blow us up.
It underscored the utter absurdity of the arms race that had held the world hostage for decades and that had led two civilized nations to brainwash their citizens and to test nuclear weapons on their own people in the name of national security.
I thought of that afternoon in the Soviet Union as I read Richard Rhodes’ two-man play, REYKJAVIK, which gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the historic two-day summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in October of 1986. These two men, who both described themselves as “coming from nowhere” but had emerged as the most powerful world leaders of their time, came together for a one-on-one confidential and frank meeting to slam the brakes on the out-of-control arms race. By the time they met, more than 100 proposals had already been tabled at the Geneva Summit in 1985, so their task in Reykjavik was an enormous one.
They recognized the lethal absurdity of a nuclear weapons build up that had taken on a life of its own. Both had been looking for “a way out of the madness” for years. And they knew they had the power – and the moral responsibility “to their own citizens and the world” as Gorbachev said – to try and stop it. Of course, history showed that the meeting in Reykjavik, fraught with heated debates, tempered by personal discussions and driven by common purpose, did not achieve the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. It did, however, come close, slowing the arms race and leading to later disarmament agreements.
Rhodes’ play, which draws on transcripts of the meeting as well as the men’s memoirs, reconstructs their dialogue, showing two men who genuinely wanted peace and who wanted to “lift the terrible burden of nuclear danger off our shoulders.” They knew, in Reagan’s words, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Each side had hair-trigger weapons that could wipe out the other’s homeland at the push of a button. Gorbachev talks of common security, that one nation can only be secure if the other is secure. Reagan speaks of verification, penning his often quoted “trust but verify” line.
Both men talk about knowing the mortal consequences of nuclear weapons when they each took office. “I’ve never been so depressed,” Reagan recalls, before quoting President Eisenhower’s warning about nuclear war that “there wouldn’t be enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
The stand-off is summed up when Gorbachev pointedly asks, “If it came to that , would you push the button?” “Well I sure wouldn’t want to,” Reagan bristles. “But damn it, if you attacked us, I’d have to, wouldn’t I. I wouldn’t have a choice. What about you?”
“I found my answer at Chernobyl,” responds Gorbachev. The accident, he says, opened his eyes and showed him “what my country had become. I knew everything had to change.”
How to make that change is the problem. Arms control has been and remains a heady issue that is difficult for ordinary citizens to unravel given its political and technological complexities. Who really understands the ins and outs of the Strategic Defense Initiative, intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, medium range missiles, antiballistic missiles and the rest? What people intuitively realize is that regardless of the mounds of details, nuclear arms don’t make sense.
Rhodes’ play, while also steeped in detail, puts a human face on two men grappling for a solution to one of the world’s most vexing problems. Rhodes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has penned some 24 books dealing with these issues. With REYKJAVIK, he takes to the stage for the first time to make an important chapter of arms control history accessible to the rest of us.
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.