Revealed – The Gorbachev File by the NSA – TOP SECRET

(L to R) Vice President George H. W. Bush, President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev during the Governor’s Island summit, December 1988. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

Marking the 85thbirthday of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the National Security Archive at George Washington University ( today posted a series of previously classified British and American documents containing Western assessments of Gorbachev starting before he took office in March 1985, and continuing through the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The documents show that conservative British politicians were ahead of the curve predicting great things for rising Soviet star Gorbachev in 1984 and 1985, but the CIA soon caught on, describing the new Soviet leader only three months into his tenure as “the new broom,” while Ronald Reagan greeted Gorbachev’s ascension with an immediate invitation for a summit. The documents posted today include positive early assessments by Margaret Thatcher and MP John Browne, CIA intelligence reports that bookend Gorbachev’s tenure from 1985 to 1991, the first letters exchanged by Reagan and Gorbachev, the American versions of key conversations with Gorbachev at the Geneva, Reykjavik and Malta summits, German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s credit to Gorbachev in 1989 for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. transcript of the G-7 summit in 1990 that turned down Gorbachev’s request for financial aid.

The Archive gathered the Gorbachev documentation for two books, the Link-Kuehl-Award-winning “Masterpieces of History”: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe 1989 (Central European University Press, 2010), and the forthcoming Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan and Bush (CEU Press, 2016). The sources include the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, and Freedom of Information and Mandatory Declassification Review requests to the CIA and the State Department.

Leading today’s Gorbachev briefing book is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s “discovery” of Gorbachev in December 1984 during his trip to Britain as head of a Soviet parliamentary delegation. In contrast to his elderly and infirm predecessors who slowly read dry notes prepared for them, Gorbachev launched into animated free discussion and left an indelible impression on Lady Thatcher. The Prime Minister, charmed by the Soviet leader, quickly shared her impressions with her closest ally and friend, Ronald Reagan. She commented famously, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”

Alexander Yakovlev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze walking in the Kremlin, 1989 (personal archive of Anatoly Chernyaev)

Soon after Gorbachev became the Soviet General Secretary, a Conservative member of the British parliament, John Browne, who observed Gorbachev during his visit to Britain and then followed information on Gorbachev’s every early step, compared him to “Kennedy in the Kremlin” in terms of his charisma. By June 1985, the CIA told senior U.S. officials in a classified assessment that Gorbachev was “the new broom” that was attempting to clean up the years of debris that accumulated in the Soviet Union during the era of stagnation.

But Reagan had to see for himself. For four years before Gorbachev, as the American president complained in his diary, he had been trying to meet with a Soviet leader face to face, but “they keep dying on me.” In his first letter to Gorbachev, which Vice President George H.W. Bush carried to Moscow for the funeral of Gorbachev’s predecessor, Reagan invited Gorbachev to meet. Gorbachev and Reagan became pen-pals who wrote long letters – sometimes personally dictated, even handwritten – explaining their positions on arms control, strategic defenses, and the need for nuclear abolition.

Their first meeting took place in Geneva in November 1985, where in an informal atmosphere of “fireside chats” they began realizing that the other was not a warmonger but a human being with a very similar dream—to rid the world of nuclear weapons. That dream came very close to a breakthrough during Gorbachev and Reagan’s summit in Reykjavik; but Reagan’s stubborn insistence on SDI and Gorbachev’s stubborn unwillingness to take Reagan at his word on technology sharing prevented them from reaching their common goal.

Through a series of unprecedented superpower summits, Gorbachev made Reagan and Bush understand that the Soviet leader was serious about transforming his country not to threaten others, but to help its own citizens live fuller and happier lives, and to be fully integrated into the “family of nations.” Gorbachev also learned from his foreign counterparts, establishing a kind of peer group with France’s Mitterrand, Germany’s Kohl, Britain’s Thatcher, and Spain’s Gonzalez, which developed his reformist positions further and further. By the time George H.W. Bush as president finally met Gorbachev in Malta, the Soviet Union was having free elections, freedom of speech was blossoming, velvet revolutions had brought reformers to power in Eastern Europe, and the Berlin Wall had fallen to cheers of citizens but severe anxieties in other world capitals.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wrote in his letter to Bush at the end of November 1989: “Regarding the reform process in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the CSSR [Czechoslovakia], and not least the GDR [East Germany], we have General Secretary Gorbachev’s policies to thank. His perestroika has let loose, made easier, or accelerated these reforms. He pushed governments unwilling to make reforms toward openness and toward acceptance of the people’s wishes; and he accepted developments that in some instances far surpassed the Soviet Union’s own standards.”

In 1989, the dream of what Gorbachev called “the common European home” was in the air and Gorbachev was the most popular politician in the world. When he was faced with discontent and opposition in his country, he refused to use force, like his Chinese neighbors did at Tiananmen Square. And yet, the West consistently applied harsher standards to Gorbachev’s Soviet Union than to China, resulting in feet dragging on financial aid, credits, and trade. As Francois Mitterrand pointed out during the G-7 summit in Houston in 1990: “the argument put forth for helping China is just the reverse when we are dealing with the USSR. We are too timid […] regarding aid to the USSR. […].”

What Gorbachev started in March 1985 made his country and the world better. In cooperation with Reagan and Bush, he ended the Cold War, pulled Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, helped resolve local conflicts around the globe, and gave Russia the hope and the opportunity to develop as a normal democratic country. As with many great reformers, he did not achieve everything he was striving for – he certainly never intended for the Soviet Union to collapse – but his glasnost, his non-violence, and his “new thinking” for an interdependent world created a legacy that few statesmen or women can match. Happy birthday, Mikhail Sergeyevich!


Memorandum of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher. December 16, 1984, Chequers.
This face-to-face encounter between British Prime Minister and the leader of a Soviet parliamentary delegation produced a conversation that both Thatcher and Gorbachev would refer to many times in the future. Gorbachev engaged Thatcher on all the issues that she raised, did not duck hard questions, but did not appear combative. He spoke about the low point then evident in East-West relations and the need to stop the arms race before it was too late. He especially expressed himself strongly against the Strategic Defense Initiative promoted by the Reagan administration. Soon after this conversation Thatcher flew to Washington to share her enthusiastic assessment with Gorbachev with Reagan and encourage him to engage the Soviet leader in trying to lower the East-West tensions. She told her friend and ally what she had told the BBC, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together” – and described him to Reagan as an “unusual Russian…. [m]uch less constrained, more charming,” and not defensive in the usual Soviet way about human rights.
Letter from Reagan to Gorbachev. March 11, 1985
Vice President George H.W. Bush hand delivered this first letter from President Reagan to the new leader of the Soviet Union, after the state funeral for Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985 (“you die, I fly” as Bush memorably remarked about his job as the ceremonial U.S. mourner for world leaders). The letter contains two especially noteworthy passages, one inviting Mikhail Gorbachev to come to Washington for a summit, and the second expressing Reagan’s hope that arms control negotiations “provide us with a genuine chance to make progress toward our common ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.” Reagan is reaching for a pen-pal, just as he did as early as 1981, when he hand-wrote a heartfelt letter during his recovery from an assassination attempt, to then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev suggesting face-to-face meetings and referring to the existential danger of nuclear weapons – only to get a formalistic reply. Subsequent letters between Reagan and the whole series of Soviet leaders (“they keep dying on me,” Reagan complained) contain extensive language on many of the themes – such as the ultimate threat of nuclear annihilation – that would come up over and over again when Reagan finally found a partner on the Soviet side in Gorbachev. Even Chernenko had received a hand-written add-on by Reagan appreciating Soviet losses in World War II and crediting Moscow with a consequent aversion to war.
Gorbachev Letter to Reagan, March 24, 1985
This lengthy first letter from the new Soviet General Secretary to the U.S. President displays Gorbachev’s characteristic verbal style with an emphasis on persuasion. The Soviet leader eagerly takes on the new mode of communication proposed by Reagan in his March 11 letter, and plunges into a voluminous and wide-ranging correspondence between the two leaders – often quite formal and stiff, occasionally very personal and expressive, and always designed for effect, such as when Reagan would laboriously copy out by hand his official texts. Here Gorbachev emphasizes the need to improve relations between the two countries on the basis of peaceful competition and respect for each other’s economic and social choices. He notes the responsibility of the two superpowers for world peace, and their common interest “not to let things come to the outbreak of nuclear war, which would inevitably have catastrophic consequences for both sides.” Underscoring the importance of building trust, the Soviet leader accepts Reagan’s invitation in the March 11 letter to visit at the highest level and proposes that such a visit should “not necessarily be concluded by signing some major documents.” Rather, “it should be a meeting to search for mutual understanding.”
Reagan Letter to Gorbachev. April 30, 1985
Perhaps as a reflection of the internal debates in Washington (and even in Reagan’s own head), it would take more than a month for the administration to produce a detailed response to Gorbachev’s March 24 letter. The first two pages rehash the issues around the tragic killing of American Major Arthur Nicholson by a Soviet guard, before moving to the sore subject of Afghanistan. Reagan vows, “I am prepared to work with you to move the region toward peace, if you desire”; at the same time, U.S. and Saudi aid to the mujahedin fighting the Soviets was rapidly expanding. Reagan objects to Gorbachev’s unilateral April 7 announcement of a moratorium on deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe, since the Soviet deployment was largely complete while NATO’s was still underway. The heart of the letter addresses Gorbachev’s objections to SDI, and Reagan mentions that he was struck by Gorbachev’s characterization of SDI as having “an offensive purpose for an attack on the Soviet Union. I can assure you that you are profoundly mistaken on this point.” Interestingly, the Reagan letter tries to reassure Gorbachev by citing the necessity of “some years of further research” and “further years” before deployment (Reagan could not have suspected decades rather than years). This back-and-forth on SDI would be a constant in the two leaders’ correspondence and conversations at the summits to come, but the consistency of Reagan’s position on this (in contrast to that of Pentagon advocates of “space dominance”), not only to Gorbachev but to Thatcher and to his own staff, suggests some room for Gorbachev to take up the President on his assurances – which never happened.
“Mr. Gorbachev-a Kennedy in the Kremlin?” By John Browne (Member of Parliament from Winchester, England). Impressions of the Man, His Style and his Likely Impact Upon East West Relations. May 20, 1985.
British MP John Browne, member of the Conservative party, was part of the Receiving Committee for Gorbachev’s visit to London in December 1984 and spend considerable time with him during his trips (including to the Lenin museum). This long essay, sent to President Reagan, and summarized for him by his National Security Adviser, describes Gorbachev as an unusual Soviet politician-“intelligent, alert and inquisitive.” Browne notes “that Gorbachev’s charisma was so striking that, if permitted by the Communist Party system, Mr. and Mrs. Gorbachev could well become the Soviet equivalent of the Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy team.” On the basis of his observations in 1984 and after Gorbachev was elected General Secretary, Browne concludes that politicians of Western democracies are likely to face an increasingly sophisticated political challenge from Mr. Gorbachev both at home and abroad.
Letter from Gorbachev to Reagan. June 10, 1985
In this long and wide-ranging response to Reagan’s letter of April 30, the Soviet leader makes a real push for improvement of relations on numerous issues. The date June 10 is significant because on this day in Washington Reagan finally took the action (deactivating a Poseidon submarine) necessary to keep the U.S. in compliance with the unratified (but observed by both sides) SALT II treaty. Here Gorbachev raises the issue of equality and reciprocity in U.S.-Soviet relations, noting that it is the Soviet Union that is “surrounded by American military bases stuffed also by nuclear weapons, rather than the U.S. – by Soviet bases.” He suggests that all previous important treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union were possible on the assumption of parity, and that Reagan’s recent focus on SDI threatens to destabilize the strategic balance – yet again demonstrating Gorbachev’s deep apprehension about Reagan’s position on strategic defenses. The Soviet leader believes that the development of ABM systems would lead to a radical destabilization of the situation and the militarization of space. At the heart of the Soviet visceral rejection of SDI is the image of “attack space weapons capable of performing purely offensive missions.” Gorbachev proposes energizing negotiations on conventional weapons in Europe, chemical weapons, the nuclear test ban, and regional issues, especially Afghanistan. He calls for a moratorium on nuclear tests “as soon as possible” – the Soviets would end up doing this unilaterally, never understanding that the issue is a non-starter in Reagan’s eyes. Here, the Soviet leader also welcomes horizontal exchanges between government ministers and even members of legislatures. However, Gorbachev’s position on human rights remains quite rigid-“we do not intend and will not conduct any negotiations relating to human rights in the Soviet Union.” That would change.
Dinner Hosted by the Gorbachevs in Geneva. November 19, 1985.
In their first face-to-face meeting at Geneva, which both of them anticipated eagerly, Reagan and Gorbachev both spoke about the mistrust and suspicions of the past and of the need to begin a new stage in U.S.-Soviet relations. Gorbachev described his view of the international situation to Reagan, stressing the need to end the arms race. Reagan expressed his concern with Soviet activity in the third world–helping the socialist revolutions in the developing countries. They both spoke about their aversion to nuclear weapons. During this first dinner of the Geneva summit, Gorbachev used a quote from the Bible that there was a time to throw stones and a time to gather stones which have been cast in the past to indicate that now the President and he should move to resolve their practical disagreements in the last day of meetings remaining. In response, Reagan remarked that “if the people of the world were to find out that there was some alien life form that was going to attack the Earth approaching on Halley’s Comet, then that knowledge would unite all peoples of the world.” The aliens had landed, in Reagan’s view, in the form of nuclear weapons; and Gorbachev would remember this phrase, quoting it directly in his famous “new thinking” speech at the 27th Party Congress in February 1986.
Last Session of the Reykjavik Summit. October 12, 1986.
The last session at Reykjavik is the one that inspires Gorbachev’s comment in his memoirs about “Shakespearean passions.” The transcript shows lots of confusion between just proposals on reducing ballistic missiles versus those reducing all nuclear weapons, but finally Reagan says, as he always wanted, nuclear abolition. “We can do that. Let’s eliminate them,” says Gorbachev, and Secretary of State George Shultz reinforces, “Let’s do it.” But then they circle back around to SDI and the ABM Treaty issue, and Gorbachev insists on the word “laboratory” as in testing confined there, and Reagan, already hostile to the ABM Treaty, keeps seeing that as giving up SDI. Gorbachev says he cannot go back to Moscow to say he let testing go on outside the lab, which could lead to a functioning system in the future. The transcript shows Reagan asking Gorbachev for agreement as a personal favor, and Gorbachev saying well if that was about agriculture, maybe, but this is fundamental national security. Finally at around 6:30 p.m. Reagan closes his briefing book and stands up. The American and the Russian transcripts differ on the last words, the Russian version has more detail [see the forthcoming book, Last Superpower Summits], but the sense is the same. Their faces reflect the disappointment, Gorbachev had helped Reagan to say nyet, but Gorbachev probably lost more from the failure.
Letter to Reagan from Thatcher About Her Meetings with Gorbachev in Moscow. April 1, 1987
Again, Margaret Thatcher informs her ally Reagan about her conversations with Gorbachev. The cover note from National Security Advisor Carlucci (prepared by NSC staffer Fritz Ermarth) states that “she has been greatly impressed by Gorbachev personally.” Thatcher describes Gorbachev as “fully in charge,” “determined to press ahead with his internal reform,” and “talk[ing] about his aims with almost messianic fervor.” She believes in the seriousness of his reformist thinking and wants to support him. However, they differ on one most crucial issue, which actually unites Gorbachev and Reagan-nuclear abolition. Thatcher writes, “[h]is aim is patently the denuclearization of Europe. I left him with no doubt that I would never accept that.”
Letter to Bush from Chancellor Helmut Kohl. November 28, 1989.
This remarkable letter arrives at the White House at the very moment when Kohl is presenting his “10 points” speech to the Bundestag about future German unification, much to the surprise of the White House, the Kremlin, and even Kohl’s own coalition partners in Germany (such as his foreign minister). Here, just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German leader encourages Bush to engage with Gorbachev across the board and to contribute to peaceful change in Europe. Kohl points that Gorbachev “wants to continue his policies resolutely, consistently and dynamically, but is meeting internal resistance and is dependent on external support.” He hopes Bush’s upcoming meeting with Gorbachev in Malta will “give strong stimulus to the arms control negotiations.” Kohl also reminds Bush that “regarding the reform process in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the CSSR [Czechoslovakia], and not least the GDR [East Germany], we have General Secretary Gorbachev’s policies to thank. His perestroika has let loose, made easier, or accelerated these reforms. He pushed governments unwilling to make reforms toward openness and toward acceptance of the people’s wishes; and he accepted developments that in some instances far surpassed the Soviet Union’s own standards.”
Malta First Expanded Bilateral with George Bush. December 2, 1989.
Being rocked by the waves on the Soviet ship Maxim Gorky, President Bush greets his Russian counterpart for the first time as President. A lot has changed in the world since they last saw each other on Governor’s Island in December 1988-elections had been held in the Soviet Union and in Poland, where a non-communist government came to power, and the Iron Curtain fell together with the Berlin Wall. After Bush’s initial presentation from notes, Gorbachev remarks almost bemusedly that now he sees the American administration has made up its mind (finally) what to do, and that includes “specific steps” or at least “plans for such steps” to support perestroika, not to doubt it. Gorbachev compliments Bush for not sharing the old Cold War thinking that “The only thing the U.S. needs to do is to keep its baskets ready to gather the fruit” from the changes in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Bush responds, “I have been called cautious or timid. I am cautious, but not timid. But I have conducted myself in ways not to complicate your life. That’s why I have not jumped up and down on the Berlin Wall.” Gorbachev says, “Yes, we have seen that, and appreciate that.” The Soviet leader goes on to welcome Bush’s economic and trade points as a “signal of a new U.S. policy” that U.S. business was waiting for. Gorbachev responds positively to each of Bush’s overtures on arms control, chemical weapons, conventional forces, next summits and so forth, but pushes back on Bush’s Cuba and Central America obsessions.
First Main Plenary of the G-7 Summit in Houston. July 10, 1990.
The bulk of discussion at this first session of the summit of the industrialized nations is devoted to the issue of how the club of the rich countries should react to the events unfolding in the Soviet Union and how much aid and investment could be directed to the support of perestroika. The summit is taking place at the time when Gorbachev is engaged in an increasingly desperate search for scenarios for radical economic reform, and fast political democratization, but he needs external financial support and integration into global financial institutions in order to succeed – or even to survive, as the events of August 1991 would show. Just before this 1990 G-7, Gorbachev wrote in a letter to George Bush that he needs “long-term credit assistance, attraction of foreign capital, transfer of managerial experience and personnel training” to create a competitive economy. Yet, the U.S. president throws only a bone or two, like “step up the pace of our negotiations with the Soviets on the Tsarist and Kerensky debts [!] to the U.S. government” (instead of forgiving or at least restructuring the debt), and “expand our existing technical cooperation.” Bush concludes his speech by stating flatly “It is impossible for the U.S. to loan money to the USSR at this time. I know, however, that others won’t agree.” The leaders who do not agree are Helmut Kohl (in the middle of providing billions of deutschmarks to the USSR to lubricate German unification) and Francois Mitterrand. The latter decries the double standards being applied to the Soviet Union and China, even after the Tiananmen massacre. Mitterrand criticizes the proposed political declaration of the G-7 as “timid” and “hesitant,” imposing “harsh political conditions as a preliminary to extending aid.” He believes the EC countries are in favor of contributing aid to the USSR but that other members, like the U.S. and Japan, have effectively vetoed such assistance.
CIA Memorandum, The Gorbachev Succession. April 1991.
On April 10, 1991, the National Security Council staff asked the CIA for an analysis of the Gorbachev succession, who the main actors would be, and the likely scenarios. The assessment opens quite drastically: “The Gorbachev era is effectively over.” The scenarios offered have an eerie resemblance to the actual coup that would come in August 1991. This might be the most prescient of all the CIA analyses of the perestroika years. The report finds that Gorbachev is likely to be replaced either by the reformers or the hard-liners, with the latter being more likely. The authors point out that “there is no love between Gorbachev and his current allies and they could well move to try to dump him.” They then list possible conspirators for such a move– Vice President Yanaev, KGB Chief Kryuchkov, and Defense Minister Yazov, among others, all of whom whom participate in the August coup. The report predicts that the “traditionalists” are likely to find a “legal veneer” for removing Gorbachev: “most likely they would present Gorbachev with an ultimatum to comply or face arrest or death.” If he agreed, Yanaev would step in as president, the conspirators would declare a state of emergency and install “some kind of a National Salvation Committee.” However, the memo concludes that “time is working against the traditionalists.” This turned out to be both prescient and correct – the August coup followed the process outlined in this document and the plot foundered because the security forces themselves were fractured and the democratic movements were gaining strength. But indeed, the coup, the resurgence of Boris Yeltsin as leader of the Russian republic, and the secession of Russia from the Soviet Union during the fall of 1991 did mark the end of the Gorbachev era.