The truly Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan knew that summits with Gorbachev were the one way he could directly telegraph a message to the walled-off Soviet public. After all, even Soviet TV was obliged to cover these events.
The partners’ first handshake took place outside a 120-year-old Geneva chateau. Reagan arrived first and burst out the door, bounding down the steps without his coat on a cold day, as Gorbachev’s limo pulled up. Gorbachev, bundled in a gray overcoat, looking very much like the guest, was greeted by a dapper Reagan, 20 years his senior.
To top it off, Reagan put his arm under Gorbachev’s, as if he were aiding him up the stairs. All this was captured live on Soviet TV, and it was the first step in reshaping the view of Reagan in the eyes of the Soviet public.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan smiles as he talks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev outside the villa Fleur D’Eau at Versoix near Geneva, Switzerland, November 19, 1985
In the U.S., Reagan’s talk of the sinister nature of Communism was often dismissed as the rhetoric of a right-wing ideologue. In Moscow, policymakers believed he meant business. The Communist Party newspapers (of course, back then all of them were party newspapers) whipped themselves into a frenzy with invective about the 40th U.S. President.
He was portrayed as a wild “cowboy,” a “shameless liar,” and “a rabid militarist” who employed the “slogans and methods of Hitler.” Cartoons depicted him waving a Stetson as he gleefully sat atop a ballistic missile. He may have called them the Evil Empire, but in the Soviet view, Reagan was evil incarnate.
The Russians watched the budget for the U.S. military increase, culminating in Reagan’s grand promise to create the Strategic Defense Initiative — better known as Star Wars.
While many U.S. experts doubted whether such a missile shield was even feasible — and it never was built — the Soviets were not among the skeptics. They pulled out the generals to give endless press conferences on the insanity of such an “aggressive” move, and the papers were apoplectic with criticism.
But Reagan repeatedly upped the ante — and the Soviets realized that the costs of matching him militarily were beyond their means. The Soviet economy was languishing: Military spending ate up 14% of the budget, while growth slowed to 2.2% — too weak to meet the nation’s economic goals.
One visit to a Soviet shop would explain it all: There was nothing on the shelves. My family once waited more than an hour in a store to buy the one item for sale: cabbage. We usually steered clear of ordinary shops and headed for hard-currency stores, but the pickings were still slim: sausage that was more fat than meat; jarred, yellowed tomatoes from Bulgaria; and, of course, more cabbage. The bottom line: There were no more resources the Soviet military could eke from the civilian economy to match Reagan’s buildup. (link to historical reference)
But what you may not know about “The Coat” Picture:
Jim Kuhn (Aide To President Reagan) – No one said much as we stood behind the glass front doors in the atrium of Chateau Fleur d’Eau, an imposing lakeside chateau in Geneva, Switzerland, on that overcast, chilly November morning in 1985. The president seemed calm, but preoccupied. His foreign-policy team-Secretary of State George Schultz and National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane-and White House Chief of Staff Don Regan stood uneasily near by. Reagan clearly wasn’t in the mood to make one of his well-timed jokes that had so often diffused a tense situation.
Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, we had been told, was enroute from the Soviet diplomatic mission in Geneva, where he was staying. So much depended on this encounter between the Cold War warrior and his younger Soviet counterpart. It would be the first top-level U.S.-Soviet meeting in more than six years. For weeks, there had been speculation about the first meeting between the 74-year-old Reagan and his 54-year-old counterpart, who had come to power in the Soviet Union the previous March. Many wondered whether Reagan would be able to hold his own with this dynamic new breed of Soviet leader, who had been winning raves worldwide, even from Reagan’s friend, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The plan was for Reagan to go out and greet Gorbachev as he stepped out of his limo, shake his hand, escort him up the short flight of stairs, and then the duo would pause for photographs before entering the chateau. Once inside, they were scheduled to meet privately for 20 minutes before being joined by their negotiators to discuss U.S.-Soviet relations.
Gorbachev’s motorcade was 10 minutes away, we were told. President Reagan asked his chief valet, Eddie Serrano, for his coat and scarf. Hearing the president’s request, I suddenly got a sick feeling in my stomach.
We had a problem. We had arrived in Geneva just after 10 a.m. on Nov. 17 for the three-day summit. Flying over on Air Force One, what I remember most are the high spirits of the first lady. Usually tightly wound, Mrs. Reagan was in the best mood I had ever seen her in: She was relaxed, even joyous. For years, Reagan had been making overtures to the Soviets, and he had told his foreign-policy advisers to let him know when the Soviets were ready for a constructive dialogue. But Mrs. Reagan had also privately urged her husband toward the goal of ending the Cold War, saying that he couldn’t wait for the Soviets to get fully ready. She had lived through enough of the Cold War to believe passionately that it had to end, and that her husband could play a major role in ending it. She wanted that to be part of the legacy of the Reagan presidency. And it was my sense that on the flight to Geneva, she could see her hopes and dreams starting to come to fruition.
The president had prepared thoroughly for the meetings with Gorbachev. He had been briefed for many hours and reviewed mountains of briefing materials in the White House residence and at Camp David in the evenings and on weekends.
Usually, from an overall domestic and foreign-policy standpoint, Reagan believed his aides gave him too much paperwork. “Jim, they’re telling me more than I need to know,” he would say in exasperation to me. He didn’t need all the details, he told me. Since he had a very clear vision of where he wanted to take the country, he always knew what the outcome should be, and he wanted to stay focused on the implementation of his domestic and foreign policy agendas. Reagan also believed that change was good, especially if it came to the role of the federal government.
“That’s why we’re here,” he frequently reminded members of his Cabinet and others.
But this time was an exception and Reagan recognized that detailed information was important in terms of negotiating with the Soviets.
Throughout his presidency, Reagan had been making overtures to the Soviet leaders through personal letters, but as he said “they keep dying on me.” Gorbachev, the fourth Soviet leader in less than two-and-a-half years, had replaced President Konstantin Chernenko. Gorbachev, Reagan was told, was different than the previous generation of Soviet leaders. He was confident, impatient, media-savvy, vigorous. Thatcher had spoken highly of him to Reagan at Camp David.
Gorbachev appeared to recognize that the Soviet Union’s closed society was in serious trouble, and he might be more willing to consider opening up the Soviet Union to the rest of the world . But as upbeat as the First Lady was about the Geneva summit, the president was more cautious. He was willing to look Gorbachev in the eye to see if they could begin a dialogue. But he was suspicious of the Soviets and, after all, they still had the nuclear stalemate of Mutual Assured Destruction. While many on his staff, including me, were optimistic about the prospect of this historic encounter, Reagan kept his expectations low.
That morning, we traveled over to the U.S. meeting venue from our residence, La Maison de Saussure, an 18th Century chateau a few miles north of Geneva and the home of the Prince Aga Khan and Princess Salida and their young son. The boy had left a note for the president asking him to feed his goldfish in his second-floor bedroom. The president was faithfully following his instructions. At Chateau Fleur d’Eau, I was uneasy as Gorbachev’s motorcade got closer and closer and Reagan donned his blue cashmere coat and white scarf.
So much rode on this first encounter. Why did the president need to wear a coat? He simply needed to step outside, walk maybe 25 feet to greet Gorbachev and then escort him up the stairs for the official photo. I was thinking fast. Thousands of the world’s press were covering this historic meeting, and it could be a major mistake to have the president all bundled up. What if Gorbachev got out of his car without a coat? Then the world would see a younger, more vigorous man greeting and old and feeble man, dressed as if he couldn’t be out in the cold for just a few minutes with Gorbachev. As the president was donning his coat, I spoke up.
“Mr. President, I’m not so sure you’re going to need your coat,” I said. “You’re only going to be outside for a couple of minutes. Plus, Mr. Gorbachev may not be wearing his coat.”
Schultz, who had heard me, looked at me as if I was crazy.
“Mr. President,” he said, “don’t worry about it. Gorbachev will have his coat on.”
I fired back. “I’m not so sure.” My experience as an advance man had kicked in. Perception was everything, especially at a historic moment like this. “We don’t know what Gorbachev is going to be wearing. These details haven’t been discussed.” Then McFarlane spoke up. “Jim,” he said, “don’t worry about it. He’ll have his coat on. It’s not a concern.”
I thought Regan might back me up. But he joined in: “Jim, it’s not going to be a problem.” The president finished buttoning his overcoat and adjusting his scarf around his neck. Five minutes to go. Schultz, Regan and McFarlane moved into their positions outside at the arrival. It was just the president and me.
I had this intense fear of the world perception of this first encounter if Reagan were seen as old and weak. It would be a bad start to the summit, a setback that would be very difficult to overcome. I took a deep breath and tried again. “Mr. President, I know you’ve got a lot on your mind, but I need to talk to you again,” I said. “We both heard what Schultz, McFarlane and Reagan said. But they don’t have any idea what’s going on with the coats. None of us focused on this until now, but it could become a major thing when you step outside for the first greeting.” Reagan dismissed my concern. “Well, don’t worry about it, Jim,” he said. “I’m fine, and we’re ready to go.”
Two minutes until Gorbachev’s arrival. We were just a few feet from the front door, ready to step outside. I kept seeing a vision of a heavily bundled-up Reagan greeting Gorbachev, who would appear in his business suit. I had to protect President Reagan. I tried yet again. “Mr. President, this is the last thing I’m going to say.”
The president, who rarely got angry, was getting irritated.
“What is it now?” he said. “It’s not the coat again, is it?”
“Yes, sir. But let me ask you one final question,” I said.
“What?” Now the president was definitely irritated. “Suppose I’m right about the coat,” I said. “And Mr. Gorbachev gets out of the car with just his business suit on, looking strong and ready to go. And you’re all covered up the way you are as if you can’t be outside for a few minutes without this heavy wrap on. If that’s the case, then who’s going to look stupid before the whole world? You or Gorbachev?” The president gave in. “All right, dammit, Jim,” he said. “Have it your way.” And he ripped off the scarf, pulled off his coat and tossed it into my arms.
“There, is that what you want?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said. ” Now, you’re ready to go.”
Almost immediately thereafter, we heard distant sirens of the Soviet motorcade. One minute later, the motorcade pulled up, and I opened the door for Reagan. He stepped outside to top of the stairs until Gorbachev’s limo crunched to a halt on the gravel drive. The windows of Gorbachev’s limo were dark, so we couldn’t see inside. Reagan then descended the stairs and approached the limo as the Soviet leader emerged.
Gorbachev wore a dark overcoat. A scarf was tightly wrapped around his neck.
As Gorbachev climbed out, he snatched his dark fedora off his head and held out his other hand to the president.
The two men greeted each other and then turned to climb the stairs. As they did, Reagan reached out and gently placed his hand on Gorbachev’s elbow. It was a warm and welcoming gesture, but it also looked like he was trying to assist the much younger Gorbachev.
At the top of the stairs, they stopped and turned for photographers. And that was the photo that ran on the front page of every newspaper and newsmagazine, and in every news telecast. Ronald Reagan, dressed in his finely tailored blue suit, towering over the stocky Gorbachev, who looked like something out of central casting-a stodgy Russian who has just arrived from snowy Moscow.
We had ended up rolling the Soviets big-time. Without intending to, we had hit them hard. We got off to a great start.
The Soviets were not at all pleased about it and talked about it far after the summit. “I felt like we lost the game during the first movement,” said Kremlin press official Sergei Tarasenko years later.
That day, the coat incident bothered the Soviets so much that as we broke for lunch at the end of the first session, to head back to our respective venues, Gorbachev’s last words to Reagan were “When we meet again, will it be coats on or coats off?” And at every point over the next three days, whenever there was an upcoming departure, Gorbachev invariably asked the president the same question. “The next time we meet, will it be coats on or coats off?” (reference)