When a 1986 Meeting Between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev Wreaked Havoc on Iceland
With its Blue Lagoon thermal spa and unrivaled views of the Northern Lights, Iceland is one of the world's top tourist destinations, drawing over 2 million visitors last year alone. A few decades ago, however, it was a different story. In 1986, when the island nation—population 240,000—was asked to host an important summit between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, its emergence on the global stage that autumn was swift and chaotic. The planned meeting between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the largest international event that Iceland had ever been asked to host—and the country had been given just 10 days to prepare.
At the time, Iceland was one of the “world’s most isolated nations,” according to The New York Times, and White House officials chose to host the summit in its capital city, Reykjavík, for precisely that reason. Reagan and Gorbachev planned to discuss the reduction of their nuclear arsenals—a continuation of a conversation held the previous year in Geneva, Switzerland—and hoped to reach an arms-control agreement. White House officials said Reykjavík would afford them a greater degree of privacy than London, the other proposed option. It was also a slightly shorter flight from the U.S.
In the '80s, few Americans knew much about Iceland, which was deridingly referred to as "a gallows of slush" and "place of fish." The country’s U.S.-educated prime minister at the time, Steingrimur Hermannsson, told a reporter that Americans had asked him if Icelanders lived in igloos.
A "CRITICAL SHORTAGE" OF BEDS
Still, Icelandic officials were all too happy to host the summit, which coincided with Reykjavík's 200th year as a city. “What a wonderful anniversary gift for Reykjavík,” Hermannsson said after the announcement. His enthusiasm soon turned into doubt when he “began to think of all the problems"—the inevitable traffic jams and security increases, as well as the country's shortage of hotel rooms.
Reykjavík didn’t exactly have the infrastructure to support such a large gathering. About 2000 officials and journalists would fly in to attend the summit, which is roughly the same number of hotel rooms that could be found in the entire metropolis of Reykjavík. As the arrangements were being made, many officials worried they'd have no choice but to shack up together in cramped rooms.
White House staffer William Henkel likely felt something akin to déjà vu. In 1973, when Richard Nixon met French President Georges Pompidou in the Icelandic capital to discuss trade policy, Henkel said there was a similar “critical shortage” of beds. "It's not even room we're worried about, it's beds," Henkel said prior to the 1986 summit. "We're counting every bed we have. That's the engine that's driving this summit."
To make matters worse, there was a small brouhaha when the U.S. learned that Gorbachev would be bringing a plus-one to the summit. The White House’s spokesman learned while watching Icelandic television that Raisa M. Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader, would be tagging along on the trip. Nancy Reagan was reportedly peeved at her Russian counterpart’s last-minute change of plans—the First Lady didn't want to be upstaged—but Mrs. Reagan ultimately decided to stay home. Another White House official dismissed the drama. “We don’t have a bilateral agreement where one First Lady has to show up when the other one does,” he said.
"IT'S GOING TO BE GREAT ... WHEN IT'S OVER"
Iceland did its best to accommodate the leaders, though. "What doesn't anybody do for guys like Gorbachev and Reagan?" Kjartan Larusson, Iceland's Director of Tourism, said before the summit. "If something bad happens this weekend, Iceland may as well pack up and go all the way back to the North Pole."
The chances of that actually happening were alarmingly high. Gentle, law-abiding Iceland was unprepared for the world's sudden attention: Reykjavík had a population of just 85,000, and the city rarely made international news. Unemployment was at 1 percent, and crime was so seldom reported that many citizens left their front doors unlocked. The country didn’t see its first bank robbery (and first armed robbery in general) until 1985. There was only one television station, which shut down on Thursdays, and Hermannsson, the prime minister, got his news the same way a nosy neighbor in a small town would: by walking down to the local public pool and chatting with the swimmers. "We sit around the pool and talk," Hermannsson said. "That's how I find out what's going on."
Before the world leaders arrived, Hermannsson put the logistical plan into play. First, the government “seized” four of the capital’s largest hotels and reserved them for U.S. and Soviet officials. Icelandair cut short the holidays of vacationing pilots and flight attendants and added 15 flights from the U.S. to Iceland. Two separate conventions scheduled for the capital were rerouted to other locations at the government's urging. "Unfortunately, we had to kick them out to make room," Icelandair president Sigurdur Helgason said. Two schools called off classes so that the buildings could serve as a press center for the gaggle of international journalists expected to descend upon the city. "It will be a real problem, since both parents in most families work," one teacher told the Times. "But for me, it's a 10-day holiday."
The government also asked Icelanders to eat at home that weekend, so that the diplomats would be able to reserve restaurant tables. "There will be inconveniences, but I cannot imagine any Icelander will mind," Hermannsson said. He may have slightly overestimated their patience, though. One taxi driver, who had been hired to wait around for CBS executives at the summit, told the Times, "This is ridiculous!" Another driver, Petur Sviensson, said of the whole ordeal, "It's going to be great ... when it's over."
Iceland did manage to survive the summit—and some citizens had commemorative T-shirts to prove it. Shirts bearing "the likeness" of the world leaders and the words "Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavik October '86" had been making the rounds. (No word on whether you can still score one of these tees today, though.)
So was the summit worth all the fuss? That depends on whom you ask. Although no deal was reached, it was later lauded by some historians and politicians as a “turning point” in the Cold War because it started a discussion that later led to nuclear weapons reform. The following year, the two countries signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), in which they agreed to get rid of their medium-range missiles.
For its part, Iceland has since gone on to host other global gatherings over the years, although none have been as large, as historic, or as disruptive as the one in 1986.