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When the Cold War Cooled Down

Reagan and Gorbachev among fire and ice.

By From the June 2014 issue

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Thursday, October 9, 1986
Keflavik International Airport, Iceland, 7:00 p.m.

In the chilly twilight of an autumn evening, Air Force One touched down at Keflavik International Airport, on the coast some thirty miles west of Reykjavik. Keflavik did double duty as Iceland’s main commercial airport and as an American-run NATO air base where three thousand airmen and women serviced jets flying north to track Soviet planes coming over the Arctic Circle. Before going there, Eduard Shevardnadze quipped that Iceland had been selected partly because its NATO base assured Russian leaders of their safety.

A few years back, a large demonstration was held to protest American military aircraft operating from there. While protests elsewhere were staged by peace demonstrators, those in Iceland were protesting the Phantom flights endangering “the wee folk,” the local elves. A University of Iceland poll found that 55 percent of the population believed in elves and spirits of sundry sorts. In his UPI filing on October 4, Rolf Soderlind described Iceland as “one of the strangest places on Earth—a windblown volcanic moonscape populated by sheep, ponies, elves, pagan gods and 241,000 bookish descendants of the Vikings.”

Rain pelted President Ronald Reagan as he emerged from Air Force One. With his light tan raincoat buttoned to the neck, he shook hands quickly with those awaiting him on the tarmac. For a long-time politician, Reagan was remarkably bad at recalling or pronouncing names. So he did not even attempt to greet by name Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s president. She was the only elected female president in the world then, having been trained in theater and schooled in French literature. Nor did he make a stab at pronouncing Steingrímur Hermannsson, the name of the prime minister standing beside her. As a wag put it, consonants were one of Iceland’s main products.

Reagan wasn’t the first American president to come there. Richard Nixon had made the journey in 1973, with disappointing results. A local photograph snapped Nixon’s arrival at Bessastadir, the official home of Iceland’s president, with the ever-awkward U.S. president being knocked over by a sudden gust of wind. After that awful moment was immortalized on film, Nixon dismissed Iceland as “that God-forsaken place” and claimed that the stench of fish is only relieved by its incessant winds.

Icelanders were able to watch Reagan’s arrival live on nationwide television. This was a distinct honor, since Icelandic television, only one channel then, went black on Thursdays, as the nanny-state’s way of fostering a more wholesome life for its citizens. When people feared that having a Thursday broadcast would spark an outbreak of permissiveness, the station manager pledged that the weekly blackout would never again be violated. The Wednesday ban on all alcohol sales across the land, likewise imposed for public wholesomeness, continued uninterrupted.

Because the summit would be brief, the need for transportation around Reykjavik scant, the population tiny, and the nearby U.S. military huge, the Secret Service decided not to fly in one of its nuclear-holocaust-survivable presidential limos. Hence, twelve minutes after stepping onto the tarmac, Reagan ducked into a locally rented armor-plated limousine.

His motorcade then sped into town. The thirty-mile route had been closed to all traffic, reminiscent of Gorbachev’s unimpeded progress through Moscow. Part welcome gesture, part peace protest, hundreds of citizens stood along the route holding candles.

It was dark by then, but the president wasn’t missing any picturesque countryside. The airport road cut through monochrome stretches of wind-battered black carbuncled lava, unrelieved by trees or vegetation. It was more moonscape than landscape, evident from NASA choosing that area for astronaut rehearsals of their own version of a moon walk.

A half hour later, the president’s limo pulled up at the American embassy on Laufasvegur Street. A small crowd, corralled behind yellow barriers, watched as Reagan emerged from his car, waved, and entered the blockish three-story, stucco-fronted building. He entered into the basement, as the house sits on a slope with its main entry one floor up. All homes in that affluent neighborhood had been searched the day before, and each neighbor given a special identity card for the duration of the president’s visit.

The ambassador’s residence was attached to the embassy. On the first floor—as we were to see the next morning—was a richly furnished living room, a den with a fireplace, a dining room, and a covered patio. Ambassador Nick Ruwe was a serious hunter, and striking amidst the residence’s classical European décor was his overwhelming assortment of antlers on the walls. On the second floor, which we were not to see, the president slept in the master bedroom with an adjoining dressing area, its own bathroom, and a small study. The three other bedrooms and two baths were taken by the security and communications staffs and the president’s physician.

While the president settled into Laufasvegur Street, the rest of the cars continued the few blocks along to the Holt Hotel, where the senior staff would be housed in clean, tidy, tiny rooms. A U.S. embassy information sheet admitted that the Holt’s rooms “are not furnished to the standards of the grand European hotels” and instead called them “well-appointed.” Rooms in the rear of the hotel, like Secretary of State George Shultz’s, looked out over the National Cathedral. Those in the front, like mine, had a fine view of the miniature downtown. The hotel lobby contained what was billed to be among Reykjavik’s finest restaurants, which served horsemeat and whale chops along with other delicacies.

A block from the Holt was a grammar school which the government had seized under its emergency powers to provide the U.S. delegation with office space. Above the schoolhouse doorway someone pasted a sign “IEOB—Iceland Executive Office Building.” The real executive office building in Washington, “the EOB,” being the ornate structure adjacent to the White House that houses presidential staff.

As the summit progressed, no one actually worked in the cubicles assigned us in the IEOB. The mail cubbies were constantly replenished with State Department cables that might be skimmed and then tossed in the classified waste bin. Anything important happening in the world that weekend was happening right there.

On Friday morning, a number of us met in the living room at the ambassador’s residence to brief the president. We sat under Ruwe’s impressive antlers in massive, ornately carved furniture most befitting a first-class salon of a nineteenth-century luxury liner. Reagan was so groggy from jet lag that it quickly became painful to watch him endure us.

His relief was palpable when our session was cut short, so he could head off to Bessastadir. That was just as well, since we had little to brief him about.

One of the earliest Viking sites, Bessastadir was settled before the year 1000. Once the home of its conquering rulers—first Norwegians, then Danes—it had become the home of Iceland’s elected leaders. It is a beautiful compound south of Reykjavik, with a ceremonial manor house where Reagan was received, an ancient church, and several old farm buildings. It is surrounded by pastures with Icelandic horses running free and, at that time of year, loads of geese and swans fluttering about.

Reagan wore a full-cut, fur-collared Ulster-like coat popular in the 1930s—which I never saw him wear before or afterward—as he strolled around the grounds with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who had run the City Theater before becoming the country’s fourth president. As they walked, she observed that since there was no school to teach anyone how to be a president, “the best place you could learn that was at the theater, where you were defining life and society all the time.” Reagan liked that notion, and her, so much that he called her “my old colleague” afterward.

After the stroll, President Reagan met with the prime minister and foreign minister. He wasn’t any better with them than he had been with us. They tried to discuss nuclear weaponry with him, but it didn’t take. Prime Minister Hermannsson later wrote that Reagan was “a very likable person but somehow distanced” since he “was not paying attention” to what the two Icelandic officials said.

Evidently, the president of the United States didn’t much care about Iceland’s views on nuclear disarmament.

Instead, Reagan told a series of jokes. As described later in a biography of Hermannsson, the prime minister again tried to “discuss nuclear disarmament [and] Reagan took a little note from his pocket and replied, ‘Prime Minister, I announce to you that Icelandair will get a landing license for Boston.’” While welcome, that was surprising news to Hermannsson, who had “not known the airline had applied for that.”

After twenty more minutes of agony, the meeting ended awkwardly. Per his biography, to Hermannsson “something felt not right” and he later wondered whether “Reagan’s health problem [Alzheimer’s disease] was perhaps affecting him already in 1986.”

It was not an auspicious start to a critical weekend.

Friday, October 10, 1986
Keflavik International Airport, Iceland, 1:18 p.m.

When Mikhail Gorbachev stepped off his plane, a sudden gust of wind on that raw, blustery day made him grab his gray fedora and falter a bit, almost Nixon-like, as he descended the ramp. At the bottom, he became the first Soviet leader to ever visit Iceland and the first to ever step onto a NATO base.

The Icelandic police formed an honor guard along a red carpet but, as the Soviets had been sternly warned, Iceland’s top leaders were elsewhere, leaving only a mid-level official of the Foreign Ministry to welcome the superpower leader. As if to compensate, the weather favored his arrival, albeit briefly. During
Gorbachev’s perfunctory remarks at the quick arrival ceremony—“The time has come for serious, decisive action…”—a burst of sunshine broke through the cloud covering.

At Gorbachev’s side was a striking woman whom he referred to, Russian style, as Raisa Maksimovna but who was known everywhere outside the USSR as Raisa Gorbachev. Wearing a black coat with a leather-trimmed hat, she was ushered over to meet her weekend host. Being more adept with names than Reagan, she greeted Edda Gudmundsdottir, the prime minister’s wife, by name.

Mrs. Gorbachev, fifty-four, had become a sensation after the Gorbachevs’ international debut in London. She was good looking and dressed fashionably, especially for a Soviet leader’s wife—admittedly, a modest standard. As with her husband, the contrast with her predecessors was sharp. As one wag then put it, Raisa was the only wife of a Soviet leader who weighed less than her husband. Plus, she was intellectually as sharp as she looked. She had received a doctorate and lectured on philosophy, albeit of the Marxist-Leninist variety, at Moscow State University.

Unlike the Americans, the Soviets had flown in a bulletproof Zil limo for the Gorbachevs’ use. As the motorcade pulled out of the airport, it passed a billboard with “Welcome” written boldly across it in Russian. This kindly gesture was marred only by the fact that the brief greeting was misspelled.

The bulk of the massive Soviet delegation stayed at the Hotel Saga— the KGB’s pre-announcement booking made this possible—with its hundred rooms, close to the university. A large billboard facing the hotel had advertised the current hit film Top Gun, which glorified the prowess of American fighter pilots against threatening enemies. But that billboard had been removed by the time the Russians arrived there.

The Gorbachevs chose to stay aboard the Georg Ots in Reykjavik’s large harbor. The five-hundred-foot Polish-built vessel was named for an Estonian singer nicknamed the “Soviet Sinatra,” whose signature song was fittingly “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. When asked why they had decided to stay aboard the ship, Mrs. Gorbachev said because it was “wonderful, very romantic.”

Docked alongside the Georg Ots was the Baltika, a forty-six-year-old ocean liner that had carried Nikita Khrushchev to the United States in 1959. Those Soviets not at the Hotel Saga would stay aboard the Baltika.

Now full of Soviets, Reykjavik’s harbor was thus full of security. Phalanxes of KGB officers—almost caricatures of themselves—wore long gray coats and black hats and carried boxlike walkie-talkies. A local resident was quoted in one of the mini town’s four daily newspapers as saying, “They don’t have to be afraid. There’s no such thing as an Icelandic terrorist.”

The KGB turned away the Sirius, a Dutch ship that Greenpeace had recently acquired to hassle Iceland’s whalers. Some local officials objected when the Soviets kept the colorfully refitted Sirius, its hull decorated with a rainbow and the dove of peace, out of the harbor.

But the locals objected more to the KGB and U.S. Secret Service packing high-caliber heat in their weaponless land. The island nation had no armed forces, its police carried no weapons, there was no hunting, and virtually no armed robbery (one alleged incident had been recorded the previous decade). The prime minister’s response to such objections— “These men are so accurate that they can shoot a man between his eyes in every single position imagined”—offered little comfort.

After getting settled in, the Gorbachevs headed out, with their big Zil surrounded by police cars and motorcycles. Dark-windowed KGB vans were trailed by reporters and cameramen and emergency medical vehicles, with an ambulance at the end, caboose-like. Reykjavik had never seen anything like it, a huge motorcade speeding through its closed-down, closed-off narrow downtown streets.

Their destination was Bessastadir, where President Reagan had made his call earlier. Finnbogadóttir returned from the Althing’s opening to meet Gorbachev, who would greet but not eat at Bessastadir. The week before, Gorbachev had told his staff to arrange “courtesy visits to the Icelandic authorities…but decline lunch politely” (according to notes taken at the time by Anatoly Chernyaev). He instructed staff to tell the Icelandic officials “that Raisa Maksimovna will be coming” and would like “a cultural program for her—everything that they offer.” She would end up doing more than everything they offered.

Later that night, Ted Koppel devoted his Nightline broadcast to Reykjavik. At its close, the anchor mordantly observed that “Rarely does the payoff match the pomp.” At that point, even the pomp had been anemic.

As the U.S. and Soviet delegations were settling in, members of the Fourth Estate were still streaming in.

The Icelandic government was trying its best. It had hired Gray & Co., then Washington’s top-drawer PR firm, to show the country off to advantage. It printed up a handout explaining that Iceland meant “island” and not “ice-land,” and that Reykjavik meant “smoky bay” because the steam rising from its underground springs was mistaken by the town’s Viking founder, Ingolfur Arnason, for smoke. The handout boasted that Iceland had more geysers than anywhere on earth, its hot springs supplying the hot water for all those above, that its capital lies midway between Moscow and Washington and contains half of the nation’s 240,000 population.

The Gray & Co. spinmeisters also presented material on the culture, especially Iceland’s sagas. Written between AD 1200 and 1300, the sagas are all but bred in the bones of every Icelander. They chronicle epic battles of gods, elves, and leprechauns through the centuries and across the land. Time’s essayist Roger Rosenblatt wrote that “the Icelandic sagas [were] populated by heroes with unpronounceable names who made elegant speeches and went at each other with axes.” He summarized one:

In Njal’s Saga, known to every schoolchild, the hero is burned to death, and it falls to his son-in-law Kari to avenge the family. Coldly, he knocks off fifteen of his enemies, but then suddenly the killing stops. He feels he has overdone it.

Horses are revered along with legends, there being sixteen Icelandic words for the proud beast, frequently seen in odd positions—they sleep on their sides, looking dead—and in odd places. “Along the steepest mountainsides, small horses stick like burrs, grazing where no American horse could maintain its balance,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote in the New York Times. “The Icelandic horse, too, is unique with its quick, short-steeped gait, so smooth a rider wouldn’t spill a drink.” For centuries horses were the main mode of transport, since the country never had a railroad and cars were not introduced until the 1920s.

Iceland’s government-run tourist bureau established a clearinghouse to find housing for journalists, but it was quickly overwhelmed. The government did better with its international press center, which opened Thursday morning with celebrity speeches and a noisy brass band. A lottery was held with such prizes as smoked salmon and woolen sweaters for lucky winners. The center offered journalists local delicacies, including cod liver oil. “We encourage you to take it,” the spokesman said. “You will feel better, stronger, and live longer.”

Outside the center there were six tan Icelandic ponies carrying U.S., Soviet, and Icelandic flags. And for all four days, reporters could meet and interview the newly crowned Miss World, Iceland’s own Hólmfríður Karlsdóttir, who had been summoned back from an Asian goodwill tour for the summit festivities. She wore a white T-shirt with sketches of Reagan and Gorbachev during her press availability. When not reigning globally, the blue-eyed, blonde Karlsdóttir taught nursery school. Also in the international press center was Miss Young Iceland, who was available for interviews each day after her high school classes ended.

The onslaught of voracious journalists and probing photographers had descended on a people unaccustomed to change and resigned to their fate. “In Iceland the geology is primary, humans are secondary,” O’Rourke observed. “In Iceland, you are aware at every turn of your smallness, the irrational, slow forces at work.”

As in most cultures, language captures essence. Icelandic is antique Danish flash-frozen for the past thousand years. Hence, an eleventh-century Viking suddenly returned to Reykjavik could understand what his startled hosts were saying about the startling happenings in his ancestral land.

Because of its lack of much happening and long dark winters, Icelanders can be fond of drink. Visiting in 1872, the linguist and explorer par excellence Richard Burton found “more cases of open, shameless drunkenness…during a day in Reykjavik than a month in England.” The Reykjavik city administrator blamed this on the inhabitant’s heritage: “We are the descendants of the most boring people in Europe, the Norwegians,” Bjorn Fridfinnsson told foreign reporters, “and the drinkingest, the Irish.”

And now, the Reykjavik summit,” intoned ABC’s Peter Jennings at the top of his evening broadcast on Friday, October 10. “President Reagan doesn’t begin to meet with Mr. Gorbachev until Saturday, but already on this island there is a very heightened sense of anticipation.…There was some indication…how [Reagan] felt about the prospects. ABC’s Sam Donaldson traveled with him.” The broadcast then cut to the intrepid Donaldson, who tried to eke some significance out of Reagan’s anodyne arrival remarks.

For television viewers around the world, Hofdi House became the signature site, practically the logo, of Reykjavik. Yet, it was not the government’s first choice to host the summit sessions.

When, shortly after midnight on September 29, the prime minister received the call that Iceland had won the summit sweepstakes, the exact meeting place was undecided. He had announced and personally preferred the new Hotel Saga, or an old mansion downtown that had just been remodeled to host conferences. As third choice was the rickety old Hofdi House.

The government hastily formed a Summit Preparatory Committee to decide on arrangements. The committee, like the summit itself, soon got bloated, with more than fifty members from U.S., Soviet, Icelandic, and Reykjavik government agencies. Its first agenda item was the site where the superpower leaders would actually meet. Iceland’s recommendation was opposed by both superpowers. They preferred Hofdi House solely because its physical isolation offered greater security.

Nonetheless, it was an inspired choice. A stunning art nouveau wooden structure in a land void of trees, Hofdi House was built with large wooden planks running horizontally on all sides. There are symmetrical windows on every side of the boxlike structure and a mansard roof with dark shingles. It is fairly small, each floor some twenty-two hundred square feet. There are six small rooms, a kitchen pantry, and a bathroom on the main floor. Upstairs are an additional six rooms as well as one bathroom with a tub, ordinarily an unremarkable feature but one which would play its own supporting role in the weekend’s drama.

Given more time, Hofdi’s history may have discouraged the committee, as the striking white structure has a distinctly dark side. Its construction was linked with death, its history marked by spirits.

At the turn of the twentieth century, French fishing crews began working the cod-rich northern seas. The unpredictable weather and turbulent waters soon claimed some four hundred French ships and four thousand sailors. The French government established a hospital in Reykjavik to treat survivors and appointed a French consul to oversee the operation.

The first consul, J.P. Brillouin, asked to build his residence adjoining the new hospital, but his request was turned down. He was offered land a mile away, on a forlorn hayfield on the bleak Felagstun Bay. Reluctantly, he accepted. Brillouin hired a French architect who admired Norwegian wood.

Above Hofdi House’s living room entrance is an inscription: “Anno 1909, J.P. Brillouin, Consul Erat.” But Brillouin spent only a few years in his striking new house. When World War I began in 1914, the fishing lanes were closed, and he returned home to join the army.

The house was then occupied by Iceland’s foremost poet, Einar Benediktsson, who christened it Hofdi House after his childhood home. In the late 1930s, it was rented to and then bought by the British government for its ambassador’s residence. Winston Churchill spent a night there in August 1941, after meeting President Franklin Roosevelt on the battleship Prince of Wales, where they sang hymns together and wrote the Atlantic Charter.

According to the Iceland government, when “the war between the British empire and Hitler’s Third Reich was at its peak, Hofdi became the nerve center of British operations in Iceland,” such as they were. Marlene Dietrich also spent the night there.

After the war, the British ambassador, John Greenway, came to believe he had company in Hofdi House since dishes fell off his shelves at night; framed pictures got twisted or tumbled down; walls cracked; and the whole house creaked. He felt the spirit of a young girl who had drowned, or committed suicide, or both, when living on that land. Another legend had the spirits being Viking warriors, whose fort on that site had burned down a thousand years before.

No matter where the spirits came from, they were there, according to the ambassador. He felt that the “bumps in the night” he heard were because of spirits and not because of Hofdi House’s being wooden and situated on lava soil which expands and contracts with temperature changes in the springs below. Wooden structures, unlike those built of brick or stones (like nearly all other buildings in Iceland), react to such fluctuations by moving a bit.

The city of Reykjavik took the house off the jittery ambassador’s hands in 1958 and refurbished it for use on ceremonial occasions, the zenith of which was about to take place. Neighborhood kids still refer to it as “the ghost house.” On the summit’s eve, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed the prime minister during his daily dip in the thermal springs. Standing poolside in his skimpy bathing suit, Hermannsson said that all his family believed in ghosts, so if any resided in Hofdi House, they were most welcome there.

When the Foreign Ministry spokesperson was asked about that legend, in that land filled with glorious legends, he replied: “We do not confirm or deny that the Hofdi has a ghost.” 


Editor's Note: This piece is excerpted from Ken Adelman's latest book, Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War, copyright 2014 by Ken Adelman. Reprinted by permission of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarpersCollins Publishers. 

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About the Author

Ken Adelman was President Reagan's arms control director.