Reagan Tribute ExclusiveMeese: The Personal Diplomacy of Reagan

From Edwin Meese III:

Ronald Reagan was a strong believer in personal diplomacy–the idea of having a face-to-face discussion with those he was seeking to persuade. That’s why, after becoming President, he often talked privately about the desire to engage the leader of the Soviet Union in a one-on-one conversation, to diminish any fear of the United States’ intentions and to seek common ground for reducing tensions and promoting peace.

This was not a new idea for the President. Years before, when he was governor of California, he spoke frequently of his desire to host Soviet leaders on a trip across America, so that he could explain to them the truth about how workers prospered under a free economy.

He also knew the value of direct and frank discussion and was confident of his own negotiating ability. As president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, he spent countless hours negotiating with the owners of major motion picture studios, hammering out a contract that was fair for both parties. I often heard him say with his typical humor, “After [Warner Bros. Studio head] Jack Warner, the Russians can’t be any tougher.”

I saw Reagan’s negotiating skill firsthand. In 1971, then-Gov. Reagan spent a full week in face-to-face negotiations with the speaker of the California State Assembly, the leader of the political opposition. The sessions went on day after day, sometimes lasting late into the night. But the result was the most successful state welfare-reform program in the nation at that time.

So it was understandable that as a newly elected President, Reagan looked forward to meeting his Soviet counterpart. But that day was a long time coming. First, the president wanted to re-invigorate our national defenses, so that he could negotiate with the Communist Party chief from a position of strength. Then, when Reagan was ready to meet, several leaders of the U.S.S.R. died in succession before a conference could be arranged.

Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party. A younger man than his predecessors, and one who was more familiar with the West, Gorbachev was the ideal counterpart for Reagan’s first summit meeting. The date was set for November 1985 in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the days leading up to that momentous occasion, Reagan told me that he hoped that, in addition to the formal sessions of the summit, he could have a private meeting with Gorbachev. He wanted to establish a personal relationship and to break what he viewed as the “barriers of mistrust that divided our countries.”

That opportunity came about on the first afternoon of the summit. Reagan suggested to Gorbachev that the two of them go for a walk outside. They strode together to a boathouse near the summit building. They talked there for nearly two hours, alone except for their interpreters. The result was the initiation of a rapport between the two most powerful men on the earth, which developed into a respect–even friendship.

In this conversation, they also agreed to two more summit meetings–one in Washington and one in Moscow–a result that none of the diplomats of either nation would have thought possible. Thus began a series of meetings that changed the course of history.

While Ronald Reagan stood firm in his opposition to Communist expansion and imperialism, his personal diplomacy and his relationship with Gorbachev were major factors in shaping the forces that ultimately led to the end of the Cold War, with victory for the cause of freedom.

–Mr. Meese, who was on
Reagan’s staff while governor,
served as counselor to President Reagan
and then as U.S. Attorney General.