In 1982 I was serving in the Reagan administration as chairman of the U.S. delegation to a meeting in Madrid of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Although I was a Democrat who had originally taken the post at the request of President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan had asked me to stay on. Reagan and I had been on good terms since our first meeting some years before, when he learned I had first come to Washington in 1949 to work with Hubert Humphrey, whom Reagan described to me as a good friend and someone who would have been a good president.

In a meeting with the new secretary of state, George Shultz, to discuss the negotiations in Madrid, I noted that the Soviets were losing the battle for public opinion in Europe and understood that they were incapable of stopping NATO from deploying Pershing and cruise missiles to match Soviet weapons. They were showing signs of a willingness to accept our proposed final agreement at the meeting.

I told Shultz, however, that I was no longer satisfied with the U.S. demands, which were words and promises we had no way of enforcing. I raised the possibility of requiring, as a prerequisite for concluding the negotiations with an agreement, that the Soviets release a number of Jews and human rights activists from the jails and mental institutions where they were incarcerated, and permit them to leave Russia if they wished.

Shultz acknowledged that this was changing the rules in the middle of the game and would not be well received by our NATO allies, let alone the Soviets. If I was serious, he said, it was a decision for the president to make. The suggestion clearly appealed to him, but he was also aware of the potential ramifications.

Within an hour, we were at the White House to discuss it with the president. The secretary and I did not gloss over the risk of angering our friends. Finally, I recall the president saying, "George, if [West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich] Genscher calls, you talk to him. If the chancellor calls, I'll deal with it."

In our discussion, I frankly admitted that I was uncertain how to proceed, since I had not anticipated that my random thoughts would progress so rapidly, or at all, to the president. The president said that he would like me to emphasize the release of seven Siberian Pentecostals who had escaped the Moscow police by taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy. Our efforts over many months to arrange for their release had failed. The president told me that one of his first steps as president had been to inform Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that if Moscow wanted to have good relations with him, safety for the Pentecostals would be the appropriate signal. He had heard nothing.

As we left his office, the president opened a drawer in his desk, took out a sheet of paper and said: "Max, see what you can do to help these people." It was a list of Jewish "refuseniks."

I returned to Madrid with authority to proceed. My decision to move quietly with the KGB general who was the designated deputy in the Soviet delegation proved to be correct. After he had expressed his consternation and anger at what was being proposed, I said it was his duty to deliver my president's message to his superiors in Moscow. He did so. A few days later, he informed me that Soviet leader Yuri Andropov had authorized him to negotiate with me on the condition that nobody other than Secretary Shultz, the president and I be informed. No other Soviet officials, including Dobrynin, were to be told.

Our negotiation proceeded successfully. The Pentecostals in the embassy, together with their families in Siberia (a total, as I recall, of more than 80 people), were permitted to leave the country and, via Israel, to reach Germany. A large number of Soviet human rights activists were released from jails, with many thousands permitted to leave the country.

President Reagan never publicly released the information on his role in these events. This is the Reagan I knew.

The writer was U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and U.S. negotiator with the Soviet Union on nuclear and space arms. He is chairman emeritus of Freedom House and the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.