Updated: Nov 12
In this H2 History guide, we embark on an exploration of a case study that delves into the intricacies of cold war summits and their role in shaping the end of bipolarity. Notably, this study also offers a modified hypothesis. You will encounter a model answer that exemplifies the essence of a top-quality response.
Before immersing yourself in the model answer, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the case study at hand. This crucial initial step will empower you to develop your own comprehension of the topic, encouraging critical engagement with the subsequent model answer. Take the time to meticulously analyse the key events and factors entwined within and construct your unique perspectives and arguments. By doing so, you will be better equipped to appreciate the subtleties and revelations offered in the forthcoming model answer.
Case Study: Summit Diplomacy and the End of the Bipolarity
Gorbachev said that, as the Geneva Summit was coming to an end, he felt that he and President Reagan had truly made a start. It would have been unrealistic to expect great progress right away. But the whole world was very concerned, and it was a good thing that they had made this start.
‘We have started something,’ President Reagan said, and he felt that these meetings expressed the will and desire of both sides to find an answer that would benefit not only all the people of the world living, but also the yet unborn. ‘We will continue meeting,’ Reagan said, ‘and continue to work for those causes which had brought the sides together here in Geneva.’
Gorbachev answered, saying that he was confident that the two of them had started something. After a very long interval between summit meetings, he shared Reagan’s view that it would be wrong to give a false signal from Geneva. ‘If now we have laid the first few bricks,’ Gorbachev said, ‘we have made a new start, a new phase has begun. This is very important.’ ‘The major differences are ahead,’ he said, but he wanted to invite the U.S. side to move ahead on the appointed road together with the Soviet side, with mutual understanding and a sense of responsibility.’
From a memorandum of a conversation between Gorbachev and Reagan during the Geneva Summit, November 1985. *A memorandum refers to an official record of a diplomatic meeting.
Reagan and Gorbachev’s shared concern over the danger of nuclear weapons did produce some breakthrough proposals at Geneva, especially Gorbachev’s embrace of 50 percent cuts in ballistic missiles where the USSR had a large numerical advantage. The CIA’s Deputy Director of Intelligence remarked years later, ‘Somebody asked me when I thought the Cold War was over. Intellectually, for me, it was November of 1985 in Geneva, when Gorbachev made his first 50 percent proposal. That was serious stuff.’
According to Secretary of State George Shultz, ‘Reagan had previously viewed all Soviet statements as blatant propaganda designed simply to mislead the West... but Reagan had changed his mind following his personal talks with Gorbachev, admitting that the Soviet leader had deep convictions of his own.
From an academic book, 2016.
The Soviets felt the proposals they had brought to Reykjavik had been highly constructive in spirit. They had made real concessions to the US in a number of negotiations and sought to establish conditions for reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons. But they found that the US was trying to drag things backwards.
Gorbachev stated that the Geneva negotiations prior to the Reykjavik meeting had reached a dead end. New approaches were needed, as were political will and an ability to think in broad terms, to escape this dead end. The Soviets had crafted their proposals with this in mind. They had expected the same from the Americans.
From Gorbachev’s perspective, the Reagan administration’s approach to arms control proceeded from the false impression that the Soviet Union was more interested in nuclear disarmament than the US. Perhaps the US felt it could use such leverage to force the Soviet Union to make concessions in certain areas. This was a dangerous illusion. Such a scenario could never occur.
Reagan said that he had promised the American people he would not give up SDI. He would not destroy the possibility of proceeding with SDI and could not confine its work to the laboratory. Gorbachev maintained that he had to take a principled position that SDI-related work could only be in laboratories. This would mean that it could not be transferred outside, to create weapons and put them in space.
From a memorandum of a conversation between Gorbachev and Reagan during the Reykjavik Summit, October 1986.
During the first six months of 1986, negotiations for the next summit failed to prosper. Not until June did Reagan respond favourably to Gorbachev’s arms control initiatives, though even then Reagan showed no inclination to abandon his dream of strategic defence. At the Reykjavik Summit, the sticking point was SDI, Gorbachev insisting that it be confined to the laboratory and Reagan refusing to give up testing. Thus, the meeting broke up with both sides registering considerable disappointment; many, including most of the participants, considered Reykjavik a failure.
Given the negative sentiments, it is somewhat surprising that almost all the participants
assessed Reykjavik retrospectively as, in Reagan’s words, ‘a major turning point in the quest for a safe and secure world.’ George Shultz, the US Secretary of State, was even more enthusiastic, calling its results ‘sensational,’ because it introduced the Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty and created, ‘in an immense amount of detail, the basic structure of the START I agreement.’
From an academic article, 2001.
An American cartoonist’s impression of the Summit meetings, 1986.
The rapid-fire series of events that transpired between 1985 and 1990 stunned governmental decision-makers, foreign policy experts, and ordinary citizens alike across the world. Ronald Reagan, the most unequivocally anti-communist American leader of the entire Cold War era, suddenly found a Soviet leader saying yes to arms control faster than he could say no, moving to ‘de-ideologise’ Moscow’s foreign policy, offering unilateral concessions on conventional armed forces, and vowing to remove Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
After a “get acquainted” summit at Geneva in 1985 that produced little of substance but markedly improved the atmospherics of the Soviet–American relationship, Gorbachev convinced Reagan to attend a hastily arranged meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. There, the two leaders came remarkably close to a decision to eliminate all ballistic missiles. In the end, though, Reagan’s insistence on continuing with his SDI initiative led the Soviet leader to withdraw the breath-taking proposals he had placed on the table. Yet the setback at Reykjavik proved but temporary. Shortly thereafter, Gorbachev dropped his insistence that America’s abandonment of SDI must be a prerequisite for progress on all arms control matters, and moved to accept the ‘zero option’ first put forward by US negotiators back in 1981.
From a book by an American academic, 2003.
(a) Compare and contrast the evidence provided in Source C and D on the impact of the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI) on the superpowers’ negotiations. 
(b) How far do Source A-F support the view that the end of the Cold War seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards? 
1 (a) Compare and contrast the evidence provided in Source C and D on the impact of the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI) on the superpowers’ negotiations. 
Similar View #1
Expected valid responses:
• [Success Criterion #4] Both Sources C and D agree that the SDI stalled the negotiations between the two superpowers and had a negative impact.
o C: Gorbachev highlighted how the USSR ‘had made real concessions to the US in a number of negotiations and sought to establish conditions for reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons’ but ‘the US was trying to drag things backwards’ due to the apparent US intention of using Soviet amenability to arms reduction as ‘leverage to force the Soviet Union to make concessions in certain areas. This suggests that the issue of arms control, of which SDI was a major feature, had stalled negotiations to the point that they ‘had reached a dead end’.
o D: ‘At the Reykjavik Summit, the sticking point was SDI, Gorbachev insisting that it be confined to the laboratory and Reagan refusing to give up testing.’ This implies that SDI was an impediment to the two superpowers’ making progress in their negotiations with each other due to their divergent views on the issue.
• Both Source C and D share this similar view because:
o Evidence corroborates how SDI had indeed been a key impediment to the US and the USSR’s efforts towards arms reductions up to 1986.
o During the summit at Reykjavik in October 1986, Gorbachev offered comprehensive concessions to set nuclear disarmament into motion. He was prepared to remove all SS-20s from Europe and cut Soviet strategic weapons by 50%. Arms reduction talks, however, ended acrimoniously and little progress was made. (#3)
o Although Reagan was interested in what Gorbachev had to offer, he was unwilling to compromise on SDI. Gorbachev, on the other hand, insisted that America’s abandonment of SDI was a necessary condition for any arms reduction negotiations to be meaningful. (#3)
Expected valid responses:
• [Success Criterion #4] While Source C presents primarily the view that SDI was an impediment to negotiations, Source D highlights how negotiations were ultimately not compromised by SDI.
o C: Source C highlights the irreconcilable positions of the superpowers regarding SDI, suggesting it remained a major impediment to negotiations where Reagan ‘had promised the American people he would not give up SDI’ and ‘could not confine its work to the laboratory’ but Gorbachev insisted that ‘he had to take a principled position that SDI-related work could only be in laboratories.’
o D: The source observes that ‘almost all the participants assessed Reykjavik retrospectively as, in Reagan’s words, ‘a major turning point in the quest for a safe and secure world’ with George Shultz even describing the Summit as ‘sensational’ for establishing frameworks for disarmament. This implies that despite the initial barriers presented by SDI, negotiations ultimately bore fruit and the superpowers made significant progress towards de-escalating the arms race.
• Both sources offer differing views because:
o Source C is a memorandum from 1986 and its primary goal is to offer an accurate recording of events where Gorbachev and Reagan indeed had divergent views on the issue of SDI (#1), and only in February 1987, after Reykjavik, Gorbachev discarded mutual agreement on SDI as a prerequisite for disarmament talks (#3 - CK).
o Source D, being an academic article written in 2001, is well placed to access available evidence on how participants in the 1986 Reykjavik Summit ascertained that it was a resounding success and SDI was not a major impediment to negotiations. Significantly, in Source D, the academic is highlighting how the participants themselves assessed that the Reykjavik Summit was a stellar success despite disagreements over SDI and this is understandable given how individuals such as Reagan and George Shultz would have considerable incentive to highlight that the US played a key role in securing peace for the world through Summit diplomacy that paved the way for disarmament (#1).
1 (b) How far do Source A-F support the view that the end of the Cold War seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards?
Sources A and B support the view while Sources C, D, E and F – with Source F containing elements of “support” – challenge the view.
Sources A and B support the view as they highlight the 1985 Geneva Summit seemed to have broken new ground in superpower relations and set the US and the USSR on an upward trajectory towards cooperation. Source A highlights how both Reagan and Gorbachev concurred that the 1985 Geneva Summit marked something akin to an unprecedented beginning of improved relations between the US and the USSR. This is seen where in Source A, Reagan ‘felt that these [Geneva] meetings expressed the will and desire of both sides to find answers that would benefit not only all the people of the world living, but also the yet unborn’ and Gorbachev agreed that they had ‘laid the first few bricks’ and ‘a new start, a new phase [had] begun.’ Source B reinforces Sources A’s optimistic assessment of the Geneva Summit’s positive impact on superpower relations when it notes how the Deputy Director of the CIA stated his belief that in intellectual terms, the Cold War ended for him in November of 1985 ‘when Gorbachev made his first 50 percent proposal’ as that was ‘serious stuff’. Thus, Source B suggests that the 1985 Geneva Summit meetings was perhaps momentous enough such that the end of the Cold War seemed inevitable from that juncture onwards, due in large part to the radical concessions that Gorbachev was willing to undertake.
Overall, Sources A and B are more limited in their credibility and utility as sources that support the view that the end of the Cold War seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards.
Source A is a memorandum of a conversation between Gorbachev and Reagan and notes the overwhelmingly positive tone between the two leaders. While this is likely an accurate reflection of the conversations that took place between Gorbachev and Reagan, it is primarily an official record of the two leaders overtly stating that it is imperative that the US and the USSR work towards cooperation, but it is unclear if these intentions manifested in concrete outcomes that would make the end of the Cold War seem inevitable by 1985. While Source B may appear credible as it was from an academic book in 2016 that presumably would have more time and resources to offer a holistic assessment of whether the Cold War’s end seemed inevitable by 1985, the main “support” for the view stems from the opinion of the CIA’s Deputy Director who was offering his personal view on when the Cold War ended in his individual capacity as opposed to it being a factual observation that rested upon sturdy research.
Critically, contextual knowledge reveals how this cordiality between them manifested in no concrete outcomes in 1985 due to Reagan’s insistence on SDI. Furthermore, even in January 1986, Gorbachev proposed a 3-stage plan for complete nuclear disarmament by the year 2000, where Stage 1 involved the reduction of both sides’ INF in Europe to zero, without similar reductions in British or French nuclear forces but the US was unprepared and could not respond to this radical proposal. Thus, despite the overwhelming cordiality between Reagan and Gorbachev recorded in Source A and the CIA’s Deputy Director personal opinion that the Cold War ended for him “intellectually” in 1985, existing evidence undermines Source A and B’s claim that the Cold War’s end seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards.
Source F appears to lend weight to Source B’s view that the Cold War seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards as it notes how the ‘rapid-fire series of events that transpired between 1985 and 1990 stunned governmental foreign policy experts’ , where ‘Ronald Reagan, the most unequivocally anti-communist American leader of the entire Cold War era, suddenly found a Soviet leader saying yes to arms control faster than he could say no’, thus reinforcing Source B’s view that the 1985 Summit had been pivotal in significantly altering US perceptions of the Soviets for the better where George Shultz observed how Reagan ‘changed his mind following personal talks with Gorbachev’ and no longer saw the USSR’s statements as ‘blatant propaganda designed simply to mislead the West’. Thus, Sources F appears to agree with Source B that 1985 was a landmark year for superpower negotiations, seemingly setting the US and the USSR on an inevitable path towards reconciliation and the end of the Cold War.
However, Source F ultimately leans towards the “challenge” Sources C, D, and E as they all agree that there were still significantly divergent view and agendas between the two superpowers and the Cold War did not seem inevitable from 1985 onwards. Source C highlights how the “Geneva negotiations prior to the Reykjavik meeting had reached a dead end’, clearly suggesting that there was a distinct lack of progress made in negotiations between the two superpowers since their meeting in 1985. Source D corroborates Source C’s view that the momentum of improved relations had reached a point of inertia by 1986 where ‘[d]uring the first six months of 1986, negotiations for the next summit failed to prosper’ and after Reagan responded favourably to Gorbachev’s arms control initiatives in June 1986, ‘Reagan showed no indication to abandon his dream of strategic defence.’ This highlights how SDI was a stumbling block to negotiations between the two superpowers. Source E agrees with Sources C and D that underlying competition and tensions persisted between the two superpowers, and this was despite the outward projection of cooperation between the US and the USSR. In Source E, an American cartoonist depicts Reagan and Gorbachev as cordially conversing as they are broadcast on television to a wider audience but underlying the superficial pleasantries, the two superpowers are locked in an arm-wrestling match, and this suggests that they remained very much in competition with each other in 1986. Source F ultimately agrees with the “challenge sources” as it posits that the 1985 Geneva Summit had 'produced little of substance but marked improved the atmospherics of the Soviet-American relationship’, thus echoing Source D’s assessment of the situation in 1986 where the two superpowers appeared to be friendlier but there remained significant undercurrents of tensions that prevented them from achieving concrete outcomes in their negotiations in 1986.
Although Source F concedes that ‘the setback at Reykjavik’ proved but temporary, this nonetheless challenges the view that the Cold War seemed inevitable by 1985 onwards as it suggests that only after 1986 did the two superpowers make significant headway in negotiations and cooperation.’
Overall, Sources C, D, E and F are more credible as sources that challenge the view that the end of the Cold War seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards. Source C is a memorandum like Source A and it being an official record lends weight to its credibility as it offers an accurate depiction of the talks that took place between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986. However, Source C is better placed than Source A to ascertain whether the Cold War seemed inevitable by 1985 as by virtue of recording post-1985 discussions, it accurately captured how the progress made at the 1985 Geneva Summit yielded little concrete progress due in large part to the two leaders disagreeing on SDI. Source C’s credibility is further enhanced when an academic in Source D, writing in the post-Cold War era in 2001, similarly notes that SDI was a major impediment to negotiations. Also, while Source D notes that some participants retrospectively provided glowing appraisals of Reykjavik as a turning point, Source D highlights it is ‘somewhat surprising’ they did so – suggesting that evidence ran contrary to their effusive praise of the Reykjavik Summit and furthermore, this underscores how even by 1986, it remained debatable as to whether the end of the Cold War was imminent let alone inevitable. Source E may appear less credible at first glance due its exaggerated depiction of Gorbachev and Reagan being locked in an arm-wrestling match – however, the American cartoonist’s impression of the two superpowers being locked in battle despite Reagan and Gorbachev’s overt appearance to the media of cordial relations is backed up by the American academic in Source F who highlights that the 1985 Geneva summit ‘produced little of substance’ and in 1986, ‘Reagan’s insistence on continuing with the SDI initiative’ led Gorbachev to back down on his offers for arms reduction. Like Source D, Source F is from an academic who would presumably be afforded more time and resources than for example, Source A – memorandum from 1985, to assess whether the end of the Cold War seemed inevitable by 1985. Crucially, contextual knowledge corroborates the views of the “challenge” sources that by 1986, the two superpowers were hardly down a path towards inevitable reconciliation and SDI was a major impediment to progress in arms reduction talks. Available evidence tells us that at Reykjavik in October 1986, Gorbachev once more offered comprehensive concessions to set nuclear disarmament into motion, where he was prepared to remove all SS-20s from Europe and cut Soviet strategic weapons by 50%. Arms reduction talks, however, ended acrimoniously and little progress was made. This was because, although Reagan was interested in what Gorbachev had to offer, he was unwilling to compromise on SDI. Gorbachev, on the other hand, insisted that America’s abandonment of SDI was a necessary condition for any arms reduction negotiations to be meaningful. In addition, it would not be until December 1987 that both superpowers would sign the landmark INF Treaty at the Washington Summit, where they agreed on Gorbachev’s ‘double zero option’ proposal that apart from Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMS), the superpowers would also work towards eliminating shorter range missiles.
Overall, the challenge sources are preferred as they provide a more accurate assessment – that is, the Cold War did not seem inevitable from 1985 onwards. Source C, as a memorandum like Source A, is better placed to observe the genuine obstacles that SDI continued to present to progress in negotiations in 1986. Furthermore, in the “support” set, Source B’s main basis for the view that the Cold War’s end seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards stems from the opinion of an individual – the CIA Deputy Director – rather than a carefully researched and holistic assessment of the view. In contrast, there are academic sources in the “challenge” set that would presumably have sufficient time and resources to accurately point out that issues such as SDI remained a stumbling block for negotiations even up to 1986 and furthermore, contextual knowledge strongly corroborates how Reagan’s refusal to confine SDI to the laboratory indeed stalled progress towards arms reduction between the two superpowers.
Thus, the hypothesis should be modified to read, ‘While the Cold War’s end may have
seemed inevitable from 1985 onwards due to Reagan and Gorbachev’s displaying an
apparent cordiality that was unprecedented between Soviet and American leaders,
disagreement over key issues such as SDI meant that it was only after 1986 that the
two superpowers moved closer towards ending the Cold War.’