On my recent trip to Russia, I spent an hour with Mikhail Gorbachev. I told him that in the West we are grateful that he and President Ronald Reagan defied Cold War orthodoxy to significantly reduce our countries’ nuclear arms. And I asked him whether there was a moment in his life when he’d realized that he might shape history.
He paused a moment and then recounted how as a young man, he had watched a film on the devastation that would occur with nuclear war. He and the other young officials in the room looked at each other in shock as the film concluded.
Gorbachev recalled the scene: “Even though I am not a believer, I responded, ‘Oh my God!’” From that moment, Gorbachev said, he decided to use every opportunity that came his way to prevent a nuclear holocaust.
Gorbachev’s youthful concern about nuclear disaster became apparent when he assumed leadership of the Soviet Union. In a speech he gave to senior personnel of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May 1986, Gorbachev said, “Peace is the value above anything. In the nuclear-cum-space era, a world war is the absolute evil. It cannot be won.”
I asked Gorbachev about meeting Reagan for the first time. He said that their first meeting was affable but inconclusive. Press reports from the Reagan camp revealed that Reagan thought Gorbachev was just an old-school Bolshevik. Gorbachev remembered his response when his aides asked whether Reagan was just a hard-line anti-communist. Gorbachev chuckled and said, “No, he is a dinosaur!”