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The Cold War Report December 6, 2007
Megatons and Memory Holes
Richard Rhodes, Richard Perle, and the Man Who Saved the World By Alexander Zaitchik Browse author Email
Page 4 of 5

Among the scariest of these radicals was Richard Pipes, father of Daniel. The Harvard historian thought nuclear war was not only thinkable, but winnable. Moreover, the Soviet Union was hell bent on total world domination and would readily fight a nuclear war to achieve it. Those who thought the Soviets were afraid of WW III were simply “mirroring” their values on the enemy. He based these views on his “deep knowledge of the Russian soul.” 

Almost three-dozen people like Pipes were swept into office on the coattails of Ronald Reagan in 1980. All told, Reagan hired 31 members of the Committee on the Present Danger, the threat inflation lobby and hawk-workshop that had been hurling public invective at arms control and détente from the sidelines of power since 1975. Soon the biggest military buildup in peacetime history was underway, matched by provocative rhetoric and military maneuvers along Russia’s borders. As the Euromissile debate intensified, the sky around U.S.-Soviet relations grew darker than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was in the midst of this darkness that a computer told Stanislav Petrov an American attack was underway. 

Then high-level sanity made a comeback. Within a few years, Reagan and Gorbachev would come to similar conclusions about the arms race and nuclear weapons. As they edged toward a new and more radical détente, Rhodes describes how the nuclear hawks in Washington began to lose influence to relative doves like Secretary of State Shultz and Reagan himself. In Moscow, too, Gorbachev either outmaneuvered the hawks or brought them on board. 

The dramatic climax of this double re-think was the informal 1986 meeting in Rejkjavik, a tale Rhodes tells with all the suspense it deserves. In what has become a legendary afternoon, Reagan and Gorbachev came within one detail of a deal to abolish all nuclear weapons within ten years. The one sticking point was the pipedream of SDI, which Reagan refused to give up or compromise on. Gorbachev demanded one thing in exchange for the Grand Deal of total, mutual nuclear disarmament: a treaty limiting SDI research to the laboratory for 10 years. During a break in the negotiations, Reagan turned to Richard Perle, the “prince of darkness,” for guidance. Rhodes quotes Perle’s biographer in describing the scene: 

The president first looked at Perle. “Can we carry out research under the restraints the Soviets are proposing?”

Perle’s mouth went dry; he felt short of breath. Reagan was asking him for a reason.… [Perle said] “Mr. President, we cannot conduct the research under the terms he’s proposing. It will effectively kill SDI.”

And with that, the Grand Deal collapsed. 

With the passing of Reagan and Gorbachev from the world stage, leadership-level interest in abolition among nuclear powers passed as well. But the broad international support for arms control and abolition that encouraged Reagan and Gorbachev to think big remains. 

According to a November poll conducted in the United States and Russia by in conjunction with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, there is robust support for bold cooperative steps to reduce nuclear dangers and move toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons. 

The poll, carried out in Russia by Moscow’s Levada Center, found that the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons is endorsed by 73 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Russians. Seventy-nine percent of Americans and 66 percent of Russians want their governments to do more to get the disarmament ball rolling again. (Likely the Russian numbers would be higher were it not for America’s missile defense program and NATO expansion.) 

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Alexander Zaitchik is an editor at The eXile. Email him at

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