The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies is pleased to announce the February 2016 Issue 3 of STEPS: Science, Technology, and Engineering Policy Studies. Please enjoy this featured article:


Dr. Gerold Yonas served as the first Chief Scientist of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. While a true Star Wars defense system never came to fruition, Dr. Yonas always felt that the SDI played some role in the end of the Cold War and the ultimate dissolution of the Soviet Union. He has pondered the mystery of what actually happened when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the historic and SDI-dominated summit talks at Reykjavik in October 1986.

Through the analysis of memoirs, documents from Soviet archives, and interviews of key decision makers, Dr. Yonas uncovered a history of disinformation and deception, missed opportunities and misunderstandings. He learned the tale of two leaders who desperately wanted to abolish nuclear weapons but ultimately failed to reach an agreement that could have changed the world. In this article, Dr. Yonas recounts a story of fear, pride and confusion – a lesson regarding the relationship between politics and technology and the important role of perceptions over reality. He explores how people with vastly different prejudices and worldviews, bereft of an understanding of the issues in technology development, faced a communication crisis. It is a parable on the role that personalities play in global policymaking.


At Reykjavik in October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev almost agreed to abolish all nuclear weapons, but Gorbachev’s fear of initiating a space race with the US, and Reagan’s misguided commitment to SDI prevented what might have changed the course of history. The mystery of why they failed at a historic agreement has haunted me for decades.

The mystery I pondered for many years was focused on something Mikhail Gorbachev said to President Reagan at the Reykjavik summit meeting. He said four words that abruptly changed the course of history: “It’s laboratory or goodbye.” And now I think I understand.

So what really happened at Reykjavik? What role did the SDI play in the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union? Many historians and analysts have considered this question over the decades. None other than the “preeminent historian of the Cold War,” Yale history professor, John Lewis Gaddis wrote that the SDI “may have been the most effective in ... promoting internal reform in the Soviet Union…the SDI may well have pushed them over the edge.” 1 He was not alone in this theory and many well informed scholars have agreed with Gaddis that “…SDI was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Having served as the first chief scientist of the program, and from my vantage point of the SDI program that existed in 1986, I understood that we had few if any technical accomplishments to prompt a giant arms race, let alone the collapse of the Soviet Union. It seemed to me to be like trying to knock over a Sumo wrestler with a feather. When Nigel Hey interviewed me for his book, The Star Wars Enigma about the SDI’S role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was unable to clarify or substantiate Gaddis’ claim. I told Hey “the real SDI story is about human behavior, bluff, fear, confusion and hope.” When Hey asked me about the reported description by Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s national security advisor, that SDI was “the greatest sting operation in history,” I replied, “there was no sting, there was no plan, but the story unfolded anyway. It happened because the role of people – crazy, thoughtful, selfish, drunk, stupid, clever people – is to contribute unpredictably.” 2

So why did Reagan and Gorbachev consider the future of SDI so important that they could not come to an agreement? This, to me, was an enigma, particularly given what I knew about the state of the program at the time. I was not satisfied with just leaving an important part of my life as a mystery, so I set out to uncover the reasoning behind the decisions that took the world to the edge of abolishing nuclear weapons and then backed away.

I now think that Oleg Baklanov, the leader of the Soviet military industrial complex, and the fate of Polyus, the Soviet’s first space based laser experiment, hold part of the key to unraveling the mystery of Reykjavik. At the same time, a clash of ideologies, not between the US and the Soviet Union, but rather between the political and technical leaders within each country, created unresolvable conflicts that led to strategic errors. But before I explore the pivotal role these factors played, I want to take a look at the events that led up to the summit.

Find the full article here.


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The Potomac Institute for Policy Studies is an independent, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit public policy research institute. The Institute identifies and aggressively shepherds discussion on key science and technology issues facing our society. From these discussions and forums, we develop meaningful science and technology policy options and ensure their implementation at the intersection of business and government.


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