Let’s Make a Dealby William R. Keylor
In October 1962 the world came as close as it ever had to nuclear war. An American spy plane had discovered Soviet offensive missile sites under construction in Castro’s Cuba. The Soviet foreign minister and the ambassador to the United States denied the sites’ existence even as construction crews hastened to complete their work. Once President John F. Kennedy revealed to the world the fact of the missiles and demanded their prompt removal, frank exchanges between Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to resolve the dispute offered the only hope of averting catastrophe.
The situation was all the more dicey, explains Fredrik Stanton ’96CC in Great Negotiations: Agreements that Changed the Modern World, because the two principals were 5000 miles from each other and had no way of probing each other’s intentions in search of a workable compromise. Compelled to exchange negotiating positions in formal statements through time-consuming telexes — the hotline was set up the following year — Kennedy and Khrushchev both realized that misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the written word could have unthinkable consequences. They therefore resorted to intermediaries who could explore a negotiated solution through face-to-face meetings.
Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg’s old NKVD handler, Alexander Feklisov, who had resurfaced under a pseudonym as the KGB’s Washington station chief, floated trial balloons through the ABC News state department correspondent John Scali. Attorney General Robert Kennedy held top-secret talks with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to hammer out a face-saving deal. A nuclear war was averted with the assistance of these ad hoc, impromptu contacts between third parties, while the two decision makers half a world apart operated in the dark.
In tackling these high-level negotiations, most of which were conducted in utmost secrecy by upper-class white men, Stanton’s book is something of a throwback: history from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Diplomatic history, or the history of international relations as it is sometimes called, has been dismissed by many social and cultural historians as an elitist, state-oriented, male-dominated, old-fashioned form of historical inquiry that focuses on the activities of governments at the expense of the broader and deeper dimensions of human history. Great Negotiations makes the case that we still need to pay attention to the indisputably important role of individual statesmen and -women who negotiate matters of international dispute at critical turning points in history.
Stanton offers a concise, entertaining account of eight such momentous encounters, evocatively portraying the small cast of characters whose diplomatic skills, as he puts it in his subtitle, “changed the modern world.”
Among the most riveting of these involved, again, Soviet and American leaders whose principal topic of discussion was the fate of humanity: the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. In contrast to the long-distance improvisations to prevent a nuclear Armageddon 24 years earlier, the American and Soviet leaders sat across the conference table from each other in a cooperative effort to end the nuclear arms race once and for all. The main theme of Stanton’s account is the extraordinary personal chemistry between the two men, which enabled them to reach the verge of a stunning agreement that would have eliminated all Soviet and American intercontinental ballistic missiles within 10 years. Reagan later recalled that he and Secretary of State George Shultz “couldn’t believe what was happening. We were getting amazing agreements.” Even the old hardliner Paul Nitze, head of the U.S. negotiating team, conceded that, “This is the best Soviet proposal we have received in 25 years.”
There was a hitch, however. In exchange for Soviet concessions, Gorbachev wanted Reagan to scrap his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). When Reagan refused to abandon SDI, the agreement collapsed.
But, as Stanton reminds us, the last-minute failure of this bold bid to remove the Sword of Damocles that had hung above the world since the beginning of the Cold War paved the way for two significant arms-control agreements: the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), which eliminated all intermediate-range nuclear weapons from the European theater, and the first version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (1991), which radically reduced the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union.