Opinions

How Nancy Reagan helped end the Cold War

The second weekend of February 1983 found much of the Eastern Seaboard trapped under one of the biggest snowfalls of the century. The nation’s capital, notoriously ill-equipped for extreme weather, was paralyzed under a frozen blanket 17 inches deep. In suburban areas, the snow was twice as heavy, hitting new records. All of this meant that President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, had to cancel their plans to go to Camp David for the weekend. But even though they were stuck in the White House for the duration, there were delights to be had in seeing the most self-important city in the world bending to the will of Mother Nature. As the blinding storm yielded to brilliant sunshine, Washington took on the feel of an Alpine village. Beyond the edge of the South Lawn, hundreds of people in parkas and wool caps were getting around on cross-country skis.

George Shultz, only seven months into his tenure as secretary of state, had just returned from a long trip to Asia, which included a stop in China. On Saturday afternoon, as Washington began digging out, Shultz got a call from Nancy. “Why don’t you and your wife come over and have supper with us?” she asked. There would be just the four of them, upstairs in the White House family quarters.

Adapted from “The Triumph of Nancy Reagan” by Karen Tumulty. Copyright © 2021 by Karen Tumulty. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. Tumulty discussed the book during a Washington Post Live event on April 15.

Top photo: President Reagan and Nancy Reagan stop to see St. Basil’s Cathedral during a visit to Moscow in 1988. (White House Photographic Office/National Archives)

“So we go over, and we’re having a nice time, and then all of a sudden, the president and Nancy — both of them — are asking me about the Chinese leaders: What are they like as people? Do they have a sense of humor? Can you find their bottom line? Do they really have a bottom line?” Shultz recalled. From there, the conversation moved on to the Soviet Union, and the president began to talk about his own ideas for engaging America’s main enemy.

Shultz was struck by how much Reagan had thought about this, how self-confident he sounded about his abilities as a negotiator. And then suddenly, the secretary of state realized that the purpose of the evening was not entirely social. Nancy had planned it so that Shultz would begin to understand something important about her husband, something that had the potential to change history.

“I’m sitting there, and it’s dawning on me: This man has never had a real conversation with a big-time communist leader and is dying to have one. Nancy was dying for him to have one,” Shultz told me, still marveling at the moment more than 30 years later.

Until that dinner, Shultz had not really been sure that such a dialogue was possible. This, after all, was a president who had branded the Soviet Union as ruthless and immoral, and who was presiding over the biggest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. The Reagan administration, except for a few figures like Shultz, was populated by hard-liners who believed there could never be any such thing as a working relationship with Moscow. Did Reagan really see himself as the unlikely peacemaker who could lift the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation under which the entire planet had lived for nearly half a century? As Nancy would later put it: “For years it had troubled me that my husband was always being portrayed by his opponents as a warmonger, simply because he believed, quite properly, in strengthening our defenses. … The world had become too small for the two superpowers not to be on speaking terms, and unless that old perception about Ronnie could be revised, nothing positive was likely to happen.”

Shultz began to understand something else that night: He had found a powerful ally in a first lady who understood her husband as no one else did — who was, in fact, the only person in the world to whom the president was truly close. In the years that followed, he would grow to appreciate more the unseen role that she played in protecting and shaping the Reagan presidency. Nancy rarely set foot in the West Wing, but her presence was felt by everyone who worked there. When she was displeased about something, they all knew it, and those who were not in her good graces tended not to last for long. “She watched the people around, both in the White House and around in the Cabinet. She had a pretty good idea who was really serving himself or herself and who was working for the president,” Shultz said. “I always thought anybody with any brains would make a friend of the first lady.”

Ronald Reagan was endowed with enormous gifts: vision, ambition, optimism and an ability to make the country believe in itself. He also enjoyed the benefit of being perpetually underestimated. But it was Nancy, wary by nature, who was the shrewder judge of people.

Their son, Ron, described his mother as the skeptic — and the enforcer — that his ingenuous father needed to succeed in a business as cynical and opportunistic as politics. “My father was as good a man as you’ll find in politics or life, for that matter. Very easygoing, very easy with people, very trusting of people. He was almost entirely guileless. There was no cynicism in him whatsoever. He tended to assume that other people — certainly, people who were working for him and professed similar sensibilities — were like that too,” Ron said. “My mother, on the other hand, understood that people had hidden agendas and that not everybody who talked a good game would back that up. She was unforgiving when she thought somebody had betrayed my father. When somebody needed to go, she was the one to know it first, and often as not, to make that happen.”

The Reagans travel to the 1988 Moscow summit. (White House Photographic Office/National Archives)

The whisperer

Of all the things that Nancy wanted to see her husband achieve as president, ending the Cold War, she believed, could stand as the accomplishment that secured his legacy as a giant among U.S. presidents. She made no secret of her dream that a man once branded as a cowboy and a jingoist might even win the Nobel Peace Prize.

For any first lady to become involved in major questions of foreign policy was unconventional and politically tricky. For Nancy in particular, it ran counter to her well-cultivated image as a traditional, pre-feminist helpmate — one who had vowed that she would never stick her nose in matters of state, as Rosalynn Carter had done by attending Cabinet meetings. Nor were Nancy’s views welcomed by the more hawkish members of her husband’s Cabinet and National Security Council. In a 2002 oral history for the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Caspar W. Weinberger, the implacable Soviet foe who served seven years as Reagan’s defense secretary, described Nancy as “a strong influence” on her husband, persistently pulling him toward “closer relationships with the Soviet Union.” Weinberger noted that Nancy “was more receptive to the idea of forming a working relationship with the then-Soviets than some of the rest of us were, and more willing to trust them. She believed strongly in his negotiating capabilities.”

Hers was a multi-front campaign, and over the years, she did not always get her way. Nancy was not a fan of her husband’s far-fetched scheme to build a space-based missile defense system, which became a major sticking point in U.S.-Soviet relations. Skeptics mocked it as “Star Wars,” but the president pushed it nonetheless. She was also unsettled by the Cold War proxy battles that were being waged around the globe. Chief among them in the 1980s was the drive to realign Central America. Nancy wanted to see a diplomatic solution, not a military one, to the bloody strife between Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government and the rebel forces known as Contras, whom the Reagan administration staunchly backed.

Nor was Nancy enamored with some of her husband's harsh rhetoric.

She became especially disturbed when the president made a speech in March 1983 to an evangelical audience in Florida in which he branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The phrase, crafted by speechwriter Anthony Dolan, set off a firestorm. In Moscow, the Soviet news agency Tass said the “evil empire” label represented “bellicose hysteria” grounded in “pathological hatred.” The Kremlin’s mouthpiece declared that the Reagan administration “can think only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism.”

Reagan was unapologetic, writing later in his memoir: “Frankly, I think it worked, even though some people — including Nancy — tried persuading me to lower the temperature of my rhetoric. I told Nancy I had a reason for saying those things: I wanted the Russians to know I understood their system and what it stood for.”

A few days after the speech, political strategist Stuart Spencer joined the first couple for dinner at the White House. Nancy was still berating her husband for having used such intemperate words. Spencer and Nancy were of like mind on the subject of Reagan’s posture toward the Soviet Union. The two of them were both worried about internal polling showing that even Americans who had a generally favorable view of the president feared that he might move the country closer to war — a concern that could jeopardize his reelection prospects in 1984.

Reagan, having had enough of his wife’s tirade about the “evil empire” speech, turned to Spencer: “What do you think, Stu?”

Spencer tried to be tactful. “You’re right,” he began, “They’re an evil empire — but that was a pretty tough statement to make — ”

“Okay, thanks, Stu,” Reagan replied, cutting him off before he gave Nancy any more fodder. “What’s for dessert?”

Nancy Reagan speaks with Secretary of State George Shultz at the White House in 1986. (White House Photographic Office/National Archives)

When Nancy invited the Shultzes over for that private dinner in early 1983, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had just died, and Washington was still trying to figure out what to make of the latest changes in leadership at the Kremlin, where former KGB chief Yuri Andropov had been put in charge. Shultz, though relatively new in his own job, had already begun a quiet dialogue with Anatoly Dobrynin, the savvy and charming veteran diplomat who had been Moscow’s ambassador to the United States since 1962. Reagan had personally authorized Shultz’s discussions with Dobrynin, over the objections of some in the White House. But the new secretary of state had been reluctant to move toward ironing out the real substantive differences between the two nations, because he felt he did not have a solid sense of where the president stood. This was precisely what Nancy wanted Shultz to begin to understand that evening. Reagan was more willing to press forward in developing relations with the communist world, even travel there, than Shultz had previously believed.

“I will be meeting with Dobrynin again late Tuesday afternoon,” Shultz told Reagan. “What would you think about my bringing Dobrynin over to the White House for a private chat?”

“Great,” the president replied, adding, “We have to keep this secret. I don’t intend to engage in a detailed exchange with Dobrynin, but I do intend to tell him that if Andropov is willing to do business, so am I.“

Early Monday morning, Shultz got a call from national security adviser William P.Clark. He was livid at what he saw as an end run by Shultz and thought that allowing the president to sit down with the Soviet ambassador was a mistake. But Reagan insisted he wanted to do it, and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver made arrangements to send a White House car to the State Department garage to pick up Shultz and Dobrynin. Their meeting in the living room of the family quarters lasted two hours, during which the three men talked about arms control, the potential for a long-term deal on grain that the Soviets wanted, and recent developments in Poland and Afghanistan.

Reagan also pressed Dobrynin on human rights, particularly the plight of two families of Pentecostal Christians who had taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow after being denied the right to leave a country where they faced persecution and arrest. At that point, the “Siberian Seven” had been living in the embassy basement for nearly five years, in one cramped room with only two beds. “If you can do something about the Pentecostals or another human rights issue,” Reagan said, “we will simply be delighted and will not embarrass you by undue publicity, by claims of credit for ourselves or by ‘crowing.’” As the ambassador and secretary of state left the meeting, Dobrynin told Shultz that he would see if anything could be done about this “special subject.” A few months later, the Pentecostal families were granted safe conduct out of the embassy and ultimately allowed to leave the Soviet Union. Reagan made good on his promise not to boast.

“Nancy was very much involved,” Shultz told me. She understood, he added, that this delicate initial trust-building exercise involving the Pentecostal family “sent a message to the Soviets that you can deal with this man because he keeps his word. It made an impression on them that you can work a deal with these people and they'll carry through on it. In an odd way, it was a little something that happened as the result of Nancy's phone call. ‘Come over and have supper with us.’”

On June 5, 1983, Shultz and his wife, Obie, reciprocated Nancy’s invitation and had the Reagans over to their house in Bethesda. Their neighbors lined the street to wave and cheer as the presidential motorcade pulled up. Over dinner, the two couples celebrated a successful Group of Seven summit that the president had recently hosted in Williamsburg, Va. “I learned something else of interest that evening: the president was uneasy with Bill Clark, and Nancy had no time for him at all,” Shultz later wrote. That the national security adviser was on thin ice with the president was an important bit of internal intelligence for Shultz. At the time, the general perception was that Clark’s star was on the rise, much to the dismay of both Shultz and Nancy. In the media, he, not Shultz, was portrayed as the administration’s most important player when it came to international affairs.

National security adviser William P. Clark, Reagan and Shultz have a lunch meeting in the White House in September 1982. (Michael Evans - White House via CNP/Getty Images)

Clark’s bond with Reagan went back to Sacramento, where Clark had been chief of staff in the governor’s office. A rancher who had passed the California bar exam on his second attempt without having graduated from college or law school, Clark had brought order to Reagan’s operation in Sacramento during its most chaotic days. Nancy had also tried to recruit him to help out during the 1980 campaign, when she was engineering the firing of campaign manager John Sears and the shake-up that put Reagan on the path to victory after New Hampshire. But whatever regard Nancy had for his managerial abilities, the first lady did not believe that Clark was the person to be driving foreign policy.

Once installed in the White House as national security adviser, the deeply conservative Clark clashed with the more pragmatic Deaver and White House Chief of Staff James Baker, though he still had an ally in presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, an ideological comrade-in-arms since their Sacramento days. More troubling to Nancy was the fact that Clark, as Deaver once put it, “saw no hope in any policy that relied on trusting the Russians, argued against any attempt to improve that relationship, and did what he could to slow it down.”

Clark’s defenders, who were legion among the other old California hands, say Nancy’s real beef with the national security adviser was that he was too close to Reagan, which made him a rival and a counterweight to her own influence over her husband. He and the president frequently went horseback riding together in Washington’s winding Rock Creek Park. When Clark replaced Richard Allen as the White House’s top foreign policy adviser in early 1982, he leveraged his personal ties into an arrangement under which he reported directly to the president and had coveted “walk-in privileges” to the Oval Office, which meant he did not have to make an appointment to see the president. “I had never really gotten along with him,” Nancy later wrote of Clark. “He struck me as a user — especially when he traveled around the country claiming he represented Ronnie, which usually wasn’t true. I spoke to Ronnie about him, but Ronnie liked him, so he stayed around longer than I would have liked.”

Not that he was all that eager to stay. Clark was restless by nature, and weary of all the internecine battles. When James G. Watt’s resignation in early October 1983 opened a Cabinet-level vacancy at the Interior Department, Clark jumped at the opportunity to escape the White House.

The following year, longtime Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited Washington, and Shultz arranged for him to have a working lunch with the president and the administration’s senior foreign policy team. The meeting on Sept. 28, 1984, marked the first time a Soviet official of such high rank had been publicly received at the Reagan White House. Gromyko, who had dealt with nine presidents and 14 secretaries of state, was known as a tough, unbending negotiator who took exacting measure of his adversaries and always arrived prepared. Shultz decided it would be a good idea for the foreign minister to meet the first lady and orchestrated a way for it to happen, supposedly impromptu, at a pre-lunch reception in the Red Room.

“Nancy, here’s what happens,” Shultz told her. “He comes to the Oval Office. We have a meeting and we all walk down the hallway to the mansion. That’s your home. There’s some stand-around time and then there’s a working lunch. How about being there in the stand-around time? You’re the hostess. It would be a nice thing.”

Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, with the Reagans in 1984. (Eduard Pesov/Tass/Getty)

Her presence at the reception surprised and delighted the foreign minister. “When Gromyko gets there, he’s no fool, he sees Nancy and he goes right over to her, engages her in conversation,” Shultz said. The flirtatious first lady turned on the charm, captivating the dour man known as “Grim Grom” and “Mr. Nyet.” As the reception was winding up, Gromyko casually took a glass of cranberry juice from a waiter’s tray, lifted it in a toast and asked Nancy why it had been so hard to get Reagan to the bargaining table.

“Does your husband believe in peace?” he said.

“Yes, of course,” she replied, bristling slightly.

“Then whisper ‘peace’ in your husband’s ear every night,” Gromyko told her.

“I will, and I’ll also whisper it in your ear,” Nancy said. She put her hands on the foreign minister’s shoulders, pulled him close and said softly: Peace.

Gromyko would tell that story many times over the years. He took it as an assurance, from the most reliable of authorities, that the president was indeed serious about turning a new page in U.S.-Soviet relations. Three decades later, Shultz still chuckled as he recounted that moment to me: “I said, ‘Nancy, you just won the Cold War.’” Not too long after that, the Soviet news agency Tass began covering Nancy’s public appearances.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Reagan at the Geneva summit in 1986. (UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images)

Geneva

On November 22, 1984, Washington and Moscow announced that their chief diplomats would meet in January in Geneva. They were to set the terms upon which they could move forward on negotiations aimed at reaching “mutually acceptable agreements on the whole range of questions concerning nuclear and outer space arms.” A Soviet spokesman cautioned The Post that this agreement to talk should not be seen as the dawn of a new age of detente, but rather, as “a small crack in the East-West ice.”

Once the preliminaries were done, more substantive talks were to get underway on March 12, 1985. At 4 a.m. the day before, Clark’s successor as national security adviser, Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane, awakened the president with a phone call. Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, who had succeeded Andropov in early 1984, had died — the third elderly Soviet leader to do so in less than two years. Chernenko had hoped to make his mark in foreign policy by reversing his predecessors’ confrontational stance toward the United States, but had held power for only 390 days during which he had been seriously ill.

In picking the U.S.S.R.’s next leader, the policymaking Central Committee decided to make a generational U-turn. The new general-secretary of the Communist Party would be 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the Kremlin leadership. Leaders in the West had already identified him as a comer. Nancy encouraged her husband to meet with Gorbachev as soon as possible, though some on his national security team opposed it. “Yes,” she acknowledged in her memoir, “I did push Ronnie a little. But he would never have met Gorbachev if he hadn’t wanted to.”

Though Gorbachev’s ascension offered the tantalizing possibility that a new era might be dawning, there were bumps along the way to scheduling a summit. Reagan’s advisers were divided over how ambitious the agenda should be, and there was wrangling between Moscow and Washington about where it should be held. Nancy was relentless in pushing for it to happen as soon as possible, using every opportunity, including social events, to press the case with her husband’s top advisers. “She felt strongly that it was not only in the interest of world peace but the correct move politically,” Deaver recounted. “She would buttonhole George Shultz, Bud McFarlane, and others, to be sure that they were moving toward that goal.” On July 3, 1985, the two governments announced that Reagan and Gorbachev would meet in Geneva on November 19 and 20.

“Flying over on Air Force One, what I remembered most [were] the high spirits of the first lady,” Reagan’s executive assistant Jim Kuhn later wrote. “Usually tightly wound, Mrs. Reagan was in the best mood I had ever seen her in: She was relaxed, even joyous.” Reagan was well-prepared, having spent the past six months poring over more than two dozen briefing papers, which covered topics from Russian history and culture to Soviet objectives and negotiating tactics. For once, Kuhn noticed, the president didn’t express annoyance that he was being loaded down with paperwork and information.

Nancy was keen for Reagan to get to know Gorbachev personally, without teams of diplomats and arms-control experts choreographing their every interaction. Two days before the summit began, the Reagans went to see Fleur d’Eau, a luxurious 19th-century lakeside chateau five miles outside of Geneva where the first day of meetings was to take place. Reagan tried out the chair in which he would be sitting, and Nancy on a whim sat down in Gorbachev’s. “My, Mr. General Secretary,” the president told her, “you’re much prettier than I expected.”

The Reagans at the Pometta residence in Geneva in November 1985. (White House Photographic Office/National Archives)

The Reagans also took a walk around the grounds. About 100 yards down a hill from the chateau was a charming boathouse that chief presidential advance man William Henkel had spotted earlier. It had a fireplace and a spectacular view of the water. “As soon as we walked into this room we knew it was the perfect spot,” Nancy recalled. “Here, by the warmth of the fire, they could take a few minutes to begin to know each other as human beings. There were people on our side — and presumably on the other side, too — who didn’t think a private meeting was such a great idea, but I strongly encouraged Ronnie to follow his instincts. We both felt that it was important for these two men to begin building a personal relationship, and that this was far more likely to occur if they had a few minutes alone with just their translators.”

Finally, the first day of the summit arrived. As Reagan and Gorbachev shook hands for the first time, the American president took an immediate liking to the Soviet leader. He escorted Gorbachev into a sitting room for what was supposed to be a 15-minute conversation while their teams got settled. After 40 minutes went by, White House Chief of Staff Don Regan told Kuhn to go in and break it up. The plenary session was supposed to start.

“I don’t think it matters,” Kuhn said. “I think we need to leave them alone.”

As the leaders’ tete-a-tete stretched past the one-hour mark, Regan and McFarlane became more insistent. They told Kuhn to talk to Shultz. The secretary of state was meeting with his counterpart, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who had recently replaced the obdurate Gromyko. Kuhn interrupted them and asked for advice on whether to cut in on Reagan and Gorbachev. Shultz, who was often imperious with staff members, became furious and yelled: “If you’re stupid enough to walk into that room and break up the meeting between those two leaders, then you don’t deserve the job you have.”

Kuhn returned to Regan and McFarlane. “Leave the president alone. Nobody goes in,” he said. “The president and the general secretary will end it when they want to end it.”

When Reagan and Gorbachev finally joined the larger session, they followed a disappointingly conventional script, talking past each other and arguing over their countries’ long-standing differences. In the afternoon, the mood got heavy, as the subject turned to arms control. Reagan vigorously argued in defense of his Strategic Defense Initiative. Gorbachev dismissed it as “emotional. It’s a dream. Who can control it? Who can monitor it? It opens up an arms race in space.”

At that point, Reagan suggested they take a walk and breathe some of the crisp outdoor air. Gorbachev was out of his chair before Reagan could finish his sentence. The two men and their translators strolled over to the boat house, where the fireplace was already going. Only later did Reagan discover that his aides, in their eagerness to make the setting cheery and welcoming, had set such a rip-roaring blaze that it had accidentally set the mantelpiece aflame. They had to douse it with pitchers of water and start over. Away from the formal discussion, the president delivered the larger message that he wanted Gorbachev to understand: They were two men who had the power to start World War III, but they were also the only two who could bring about peace. The Cold War had to end, and Reagan was determined to make that happen.

As the two leaders walked back to the chateau, Reagan suggested that Gorbachev visit the United States for a second summit the following year. Gorbachev agreed, but only if Reagan would come to a third one in Moscow. “Our people couldn’t believe it when I told them what had happened,” the president later wrote. “Everything was settled for two more summits. They hadn’t dreamed it was possible.” That first meeting in Geneva became known as “the fireside summit.” Though no real progress had been made toward narrowing their differences, the superpower leaders had agreed to keep talking, which in Reagan’s view was the most important thing of all.

Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev and Nancy Reagan have tea together in Geneva in November 1985. (Diana Walker/Life Collection/Getty Images)

The other cold war

While the men were moving toward peace, their wives were launching what would become a personal Cold War. At the end of that first day of the summit, Nancy returned to Maison de Saussure shortly after her husband did. Reagan kissed her and asked her how things had gone. Nancy gave him a weak smile and said, “That Raisa Gorbachev is one cold cookie.”

It had been arranged in advance that Nancy would host Raisa on the opening day in Geneva and the Soviet first lady would return the invitation on the second. This would be the first such meeting of superpower spouses since glamorous, young Jacqueline Kennedy and grandmotherly Nina Petrovna Khrushchev lunched at a Vienna summit in 1961, drawing a crowd outside of 1,000 people. To prepare for her meeting with Raisa, Nancy read novels and history books about Russia, scoured news reports and watched videotapes of the Gorbachevs’ earlier visits to London and Paris. Meanwhile, diplomats at the Soviet Embassy in Washington assembled reports on Nancy, which they provided to Raisa.

In Moscow, Raisa was seen as a new kind of first lady. Traditionally, Kremlin wives were so invisible that ordinary Soviet citizens had no idea of their occupations, how many children they had or sometimes even what their first names were. Not so with Raisa, a brilliant academic who was fashion-conscious and outspoken with her own views. Before her husband became the leader of the country, she accompanied him on overseas trips; when they visited London in 1984, Raisa had created a sensation by wearing gold lame sandals with chain straps. The month before the Geneva summit, Raisa had appeared in the audience at designer Pierre Cardin’s show in Paris. France’s fashion-conscious press gave Raisa mixed reviews. Her hairdo was deemed too puffy and the heels of her shoes too high, but her bright tweed suit with a long skirt and velvet collar was judged to be right in style. She was deemed elegant, but not chic.

Raisa Gorbachev, outside Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford-on-Avon, during an official visit to Britain in 1984. (Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images)

Raisa, like Nancy, was known to be her husband’s closest adviser, and theirs, too, was a marriage of mutual adoration. And, like Nancy, she was scorned by many in her own country as arrogant and ostentatious. So there might have seemed at least a possibility that they would have enough in common to hit it off.

Instead, the two women felt an instant loathing for each other. Their chilly rivalry became a juicy subplot for the media covering the four meetings that Reagan and Gorbachev held. At that first tea in Geneva, Raisa hadn’t liked the chair in which she was seated, so she snapped her fingers for her KGB bodyguards to find her another. She didn’t like that one either, so she snapped and summoned them once again. “I couldn’t believe it,” Nancy later recalled. “I had met first ladies, princesses and queens, but I had never seen anybody act this way. I’m still not sure whether she wanted to make a point with me or was just trying out her new position. Or perhaps she was nervous or uncomfortable.”

Nancy was not insensitive to the fact that Raisa faced a kind of scrutiny that she could only begin to imagine. She noticed, for instance, that when the Gorbachevs returned to Moscow, he got off the plane by himself from the front, while Raisa exited discreetly through the back. “Still, her conversational style made me bristle,” Nancy wrote in her memoir. “When I came to tea at the Soviet mission, the hall was decorated with children’s paintings, and Raisa insisted that I look at each one while she described the meaning behind it. I felt condescended to, and I wanted to say, ‘Enough. You don’t have to tell me what a missile is. I get the message!’” Nancy also tired of Raisa’s lectures on the glories of Leninism and the failings of the U.S. system. When Nancy tried to bring up her own work against drug abuse, Raisa shut the conversation down by declaring there was no such problem in the Soviet Union. Nor was Nancy fooled when Raisa claimed that the enormous spread that had been laid out — blinis with caviar, cabbage rolls, pie, cookies, chocolates — was just typical Soviet fare. “If that was an ordinary housewife’s tea,” Nancy observed, “then I’m Catherine the Great.”

Nonetheless, Nancy was thrilled at how things went in Geneva. The summit was a turning point. Upon landing back at Andrews Air Force Base, Reagan headed straight to the Capitol, where he delivered a 20-minute address to Congress. It was 3 a.m. on his body clock and he sounded a bit hoarse. Though the talks had not produced a “meeting of the minds,” he triumphantly declared it had opened the way for “a new realism” in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Gorbachev and Reagan toast during dinner at Maison de Saussure in Geneva on Nov. 20, 1985. (White House Photographic Office/National Archives)

Nancy decided she liked Gorbachev as much as her husband did, finding him funny and warm at the dinners they had shared in Geneva. But the frostiness between the two first ladies only deepened. A year later, in October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev met again in Reykjavik, Iceland, roughly halfway between their two capitals. This “working meeting” was not a full-scale summit. Expectations for significant progress were low, and it had been agreed that wives were not to be invited this time. But a few days before the event, Moscow announced that Raisa would, in fact, be going. This was an aggressive act of first lady one-upsmanship. Nancy agonized over whether to cancel everything on her own packed schedule and show up, but felt that Raisa was testing her. She kissed Reagan goodbye on the South Lawn as he boarded the helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base and settled in to monitor what was happening across the Atlantic. As she later recounted in her book, the media coverage of the meeting was filled with images of Raisa: “I followed the Iceland ’summit’ on television and saw more of Raisa than of Ronnie or Gorbachev. I saw her at a swimming pool with children — the first time I had seen her do anything with children. I also saw her at a school, where she handed out pins of Lenin — which I thought was a bit much. Then, when an interviewer asked her why I wasn’t there, she said, ‘Perhaps she has something else to do. Or maybe she is not feeling well.’ Oh, please!”

The summit itself was a spectacular bust. Reagan and Gorbachev had made a lot of progress, had even been on the verge of a historic agreement providing for the elimination of most or all nuclear weapons within a decade. But it fell apart when Gorbachev added one more condition: a 10-year ban on development and testing of Reagan’s cherished concept of a space-based missile defense system. The president felt he had been set up — that Gorbachev had brought him to Iceland for the sole purpose of killing his Strategic Defense Initiative — and refused. “Let’s go, George,” he told Shultz. “We’re leaving.”

The news coverage was scathing, as were the reactions of U.S. allies. Reports had it that the president had arrived unprepared and was too rigid. “NO DEAL,” Times cover proclaimed. “Star Wars Sinks the Summit.” But opinion outside media and diplomatic circles turned in Reagan’s favor. A poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News in mid-October found Americans thought Reagan had been right to hold the line, and were more optimistic than they had been that the two countries were on the path to a major reduction in nuclear weapons. Reagan’s refusal to budge on his Strategic Defense Initiative served another purpose: It made it impossible for Gorbachev to ignore the reality that the Soviet Union, with its ossified economy, would not win an arms race with the United States.

Reagan and Gorbachev met again the following December in Washington, a summit remembered for the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark pact prohibiting land-based cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 311 miles and 3,420 miles. For the first time, the two superpowers had agreed to eliminate an entire category of nuclear weapons. Once again, Nancy and Raisa created a running story line all their own. After the arrival ceremony, when the men went off for meetings in the West Wing, Nancy hosted Raisa and several administration wives, including Barbara Bush, for coffee in the Green Room. Barbara noted in her diary that Raisa did not offer condolences for the recent death of Nancy’s mother or inquire how she was feeling after her mastectomy the month before. Instead, the Soviet first lady began by getting in a dig, saying people were wondering why Nancy hadn’t come to Iceland. Before Nancy could reply that she had been under the impression that the wives weren’t invited, Raisa interrupted: “You would have liked it. People missed you.”

Raisa then proceeded to lecture the other women on Russian history, contrasting the United States’ experience unfavorably with her own country’s and falsely claiming that there were no homeless people in the Soviet Union, thanks to its 25-year housing program.

Obie Shultz leaned over to Barbara Bush and whispered: “Nancy doesn’t like this conversation.”

“Who would?” Barbara answered.

Finally, after about an hour of listening to Raisa, Nancy said, “I’m afraid that I’m keeping you from your schedule.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Raisa replied.

Several of the women there later told Nancy they had been shocked at Raisa’s rudeness; Nancy allowed that she was glad others had seen what she had been dealing with. Nor was overbearing behavior Raisa’s only transgression in Nancy’s eyes. Raisa had taken weeks to respond to Nancy’s offer to provide a tour of the White House later during the summit, though she accepted an invitation to visit Pamela Harriman, a prominent Democratic fundraiser.

When Raisa finally agreed to be shown through the White House, she insisted that the time be moved from midafternoon to late morning, and said that she could spend no more than one hour there. Afterward, a reporter asked Raisa what she thought of the executive mansion that Nancy had poured so much energy into renovating. Her reply: “It’s an official house. I would say that, humanly speaking, a human being would like to live in a regular house. This is like a museum.”

By this point, the relationship between the two women was beyond the point of repair. Raisa had been imperious in Geneva, had outmaneuvered Nancy by going to Reykjavik and now had publicly upstaged her on her own turf. “Nancy Reagan didn’t trust anybody to begin with, but you roll her once, you’re history. And Raisa did it at least three times,” presidential assistant Kuhn said. “But she put up with her. What choice did she have?”

As annoying as Nancy found Raisa, she also appreciated how close the Gorbachev partnership was, and appeared to have recognized in them a parallel of her own marriage. In an interview that Nancy gave journalist James Mann in 2005, the former first lady said of Raisa: “She was a very strong woman. You always had the feeling if he ever faltered, she would be right there to prop him up.”

The public and decidedly undiplomatic test of wills in which the two women were engaged worried some who feared its impact on the summit’s success. Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, who was chief of protocol at the State Department, wrote with exasperation in her memoir: “Certainly Mrs. Gorbachev’s manner could be grating, but I kept wishing Nancy would not let it get to her. I wanted her to rise above the provocation, smile sweetly and look ingenuous with her beautiful brown eyes wide open. I was surprised that a woman as controlled as Nancy Reagan would let herself get rattled, in full color on international TV. I wanted to shout at her, ‘Smile, Nancy! Smile!’

“Part of the problem was that no one dared to tell the first lady such things.”

Barbara Bush, on the other hand, found the rivalry amusing, and allowed herself a bit of glee in the idea that Nancy might have finally met her match. In her diary, Barbara noted that she had been impressed by Raisa’s “marvelous” coloring, and that the Soviet first lady’s hair was a softer shade of red than that constant press references to henna would suggest. “She is a lovely looking creature, smaller than the size twelve we are reading about, more a six or an eight,” Barbara wrote. “She is a prettier package than the pictures show. I don’t know how old, but think the paper said fifty-three or fifty-five. That’s funny, for we really don’t know if Nancy Reagan is sixty-five or sixty-seven and she won’t tell. I guess Raisa won’t tell either.” Barbara also noticed that as Raisa’s visit progressed, her skirts were getting shorter and shorter to match Nancy’s. She wondered whether a seamstress was working overtime at the Soviet Embassy.

There was one event where Nancy would not be outshone: the state dinner. She made sure everything was perfect, though she had to work around the Gorbachevs’ insistence that they be out of there by 10 p.m. There was also a surplus of male guests, because the Soviets had brought along so few women to Washington. For entertainment, Nancy booked the renowned pianist Van Cliburn, a Texan who had not played in public for nine years. He had a big following in the Soviet Union going back to when he won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958 at the age of 23. The achievement, coming at the height of the Cold War, also earned Cliburn the only ticker-tape parade that New York has ever thrown for a classical musician. When the pianist began playing the beloved Russian melody “Moscow Nights” as an encore, the Gorbachevs started singing along, and by the second verse, the entire Soviet delegation had joined in.

The Reagans and the Gorbachevs attend the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow in June 1988. (Diana Walker/Life Collection/Getty Images)

‘First ladies should be kept in attics’

There would be one last official summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in May 1988. Reagan and Nancy traveled to Moscow with a four-day stopover in Helsinki to reset the president’s body clock.

At one point during the trip, reporter Sam Donaldson asked the president whether he still considered the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

“No,” Reagan said. “I was talking about another time and another era.”

But when Raisa took Nancy through the Kremlin, the two adversaries picked up right where they had left off. This time, the flash point was religion. As they walked through the Assumption Cathedral, a 15th-century Russian Orthodox church where the czars were crowned, Nancy noted the religious imagery all around and asked whether services were ever held there.

“Nyet,” Raisa replied. The tour abruptly ended.

Religion was a particularly sensitive subject in Washington-Moscow relations at that moment. Reagan had served notice before the summit that he planned to bring a spotlight to the plight of Soviet Jews, and particularly the “refuseniks” who were not being allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. Nancy proposed they visit the apartment of one of the more well-known of those families, the Ziemans. Plans were well underway — a White House phone had even been installed in their apartment — when the Soviets passed the word to the American delegation that the Ziemans would never be allowed to get out unless the Reagans canceled their visit. The Reagans settled instead for seeing the family at a reception they hosted for hundreds of dissidents at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence.

“Was this a bluff? Nobody could say, but we didn’t want to take any chances. No promises were made, but it was hinted that if we left the Ziemans alone, they would be allowed to leave the country,” Nancy recalled. “Two months later they were given their visas — but only after Ronnie called the Soviet ambassador and reminded him of the implied agreement.”

On the final night of their trip to Moscow, the Reagans sat with the Gorbachevs in the gilded, red-curtained Royal Box at the Bolshoi Theater, and saw its world-famous ballet company perform. Then, they went to dinner at a dacha. Nancy was exhausted by the time they headed in for the night, but they stopped at Red Square. The couple got out of the car and strolled hand in hand, posing and waving for photographers in front of famous St. Basil’s Cathedral. “It would have been a shame to go home without seeing it,” Nancy later wrote.

This supposedly spontaneous photo opportunity capped the summit with an image that would leave more of an impression than the news stories, which lamented the fact that it had not produced any tangible new initiatives. What the summit lacked in substance, it more than made up for with thrilling symbolism. Americans heard the “Star-Spangled Banner” played by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra. There had been the sight of Reagan putting his arm around Gorbachev as the two of them had taken their own walk in Red Square. Blimps over the Kremlin dangled the American and Soviet flags. All of it spoke to the fact that the world had entered a new era. Reagan’s presidency was entering its final months, and his vision was on its way to being achieved. After four decades of Cold War that had carried the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, two leaders had decided to trust each other enough to bring it to an end. The Nobel Peace Prize that Nancy had dreamed of for her husband would go to Gorbachev, alone, in 1990.

There would be other quiet campaigns for Nancy Reagan. The first lady pushed internally to get her husband and his administration to confront the AIDS epidemic, an effort that met with little success. During the Iran-contra scandal, she engineered a White House shake-up that began with the ouster of Regan, the White House chief of staff, and convinced the president to admit to the country — as well as himself — that he had traded U.S. arms with Iran in exchange for the freedom of Americans being held hostage in the Middle East. The public’s image of her as a shallow socialite would be replaced by one in which she was recognized as a powerful force within the Reagan White House.

In May 1987 Nancy had an opportunity to explain her role as first lady, as she had grown to understand it, to a group of newspaper publishers at an Associated Press luncheon in New York City. Never fond of giving speeches, she knew that this one would be listened to closely and could help to shape her own legacy as her husband’s time in office entered its final stretch. Nancy started with a joke: “I’m delighted to be here. I was afraid I might have to cancel. You know how busy I am — between staffing the White House and overseeing the arms talks. In fact, this morning I had planned to clear up U.S.-Soviet differences on intermediate-range nuclear missiles. But I decided to clean out Ronnie’s sock drawer instead.”

Then she grew more serious. Nancy recalled that in her first professional role as a stage actress, she had played a character who was locked in an attic and allowed only a few lines. “There are those who think first ladies should be kept in attics, only to say our lines, pour our tea and then be put away again,” she said. “Although I don’t get involved in policy, it’s silly to suggest my opinion should not carry some weight with a man I’ve been married to for 35 years.”

Silly indeed.

Read more

Lady Bird Johnson’s influence in the LBJ administration was minimized for far too long

Opinion by Katrina vanden Heuvel

The real history of women wouldn’t look quite so nice on a tote bag

Opinion by Laurie Penny

Why this International Women’s Day felt so different

Opinion by Jennifer Rubin

Other nations have been putting women in charge. Where’s the U.S.?

Opinion by Rachel Vogelstein and Alexandra Bro

Women and girls must be at the center of reimagining safety

Opinion by Andrea James

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us