Der Spiegel: Mikhail Sergeyevich, during your inaugural speech as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, you warned of nuclear war and called for the “complete destruction of nuclear weapons and a permanent ban on them.” Did you mean that seriously?
Gorbachev: The discussion about disarmament had already been going on for too long — far too long. I wanted to finally see words followed by action because the arms race was not only continuing, it was growing ever more dangerous in terms of the number of weapons and their destructive capacity. There were tens of thousands of nuclear warheads on different delivery systems like aircraft, missiles and submarines.
SPIEGEL: Did you feel the Soviet Union was under threat during the 1980s by the nuclear weapons of NATO member states?
Gorbachev: The situation was that nuclear missiles were being stationed closer and closer to our adversary’s borders. They were getting increasingly precise and they were also being aimed at decision-making centers. There were very concrete plans for the use of these weapons. Nuclear war had become conceivable. And even a technical error could have caused it to happen. At the same time, disarmament talks were not getting anywhere. In Geneva, diplomats pored over mountains of paper, drank wine, and even harder stuff, by the liter. And it was all for nothing.
SPIEGEL: At a meeting of the Warsaw Pact nations in 1986, you declared that the military doctrine of the Soviet Union was no longer to plan for the coming war, but rather to seek to prevent military confrontation with the West. What was the reason behind the shift in strategy?
Gorbachev: It was clear to me that relations with America and the West would be a lasting dead end without atomic disarmament, with mutual distrust and growing hostility. That is why nuclear disarmament was the highest priority for Soviet foreign policy.
SPIEGEL: Did you not also push disarmament forward because of the financial and economic troubles facing the Soviet Union in the 1980s?
Gorbachev: Of course we perceived just how great a burden the arms race was on our economy. That did indeed play a role. It was clear to us that atomic confrontation threatened not only our people but also all of humanity. We knew only too well the weapons being discussed, their destructive force and the consequences. The nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl provided us with a rather precise idea of what the consequences of a nuclear war would be. Decisive for us were thus political and ethical considerations, not economic ones.
SPIEGEL: What was your experience with US President Ronald Reagan, who many saw as a driving force in the Cold War?
Gorbachev: Reagan acted out of honest conviction and genuinely rejected nuclear weapons. Already during my first meeting with him in November of 1985, we were able to make the most important determination: “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This sentence combined morals and politics — two things many consider to be irreconcilable. Unfortunately, the US has since forgotten the second important point in our joint statement — according to which neither America nor we will seek to achieve military superiority. [Continue reading…]