When a 1986 Meeting Between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev Wreaked Havoc on Iceland

World History Archive, Alamy
World History Archive, Alamy

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"

A press pass for the Reykjavík Summit in Iceland, is seen in this photograph taken in London, January 22, 2017
John Voos, Alamy

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.

The Other Gettysburg Address You Probably Haven't Heard Of

Image Composite: Edward Everett (Wikimedia Commons), Background (Wikimedia Commons)
Image Composite: Edward Everett (Wikimedia Commons), Background (Wikimedia Commons)

The greatest speech in American history had a tough act to follow.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at the dedication of a new National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the president offered some brief remarks before a war-weary crowd of around 15,000 people, he modestly said, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Lincoln was only half right about that. Despite his humble prediction, the president's Gettysburg Address has shown remarkable staying power over the past 155 years. The unifying oration has been engraved onto monuments, memorized by countless schoolchildren, and painstakingly dissected by every Civil War historian under the sun. It has even achieved international fame: Across the Atlantic, language from the speech was woven into the current constitution of France.

But at that gathering in Gettysburg, President Lincoln wasn’t the primary speaker. His immortal words were merely the follow-up to another speech—one that was meticulously researched and, at least by some accounts, brilliantly delivered. It was a professional triumph for a scholar and statesman named Edward Everett who had been hailed as the finest orator in America. Yet history has all but forgotten it.

DISTINGUISHED IN ACADEMIA—AND POLITICS

Everett was born in Massachusetts on April 11, 1794, and he was exceptional even as a young man. The son of a minister, Everett was admitted to Harvard University at 13 and graduated at 17. After studying to be a minister himself, and briefly serving as one, Everett's alma mater offered him a spot on its faculty. The position allowed time abroad in Europe, and Everett spent some of those years studying at the University of Göttingen in modern Germany, where he became the first American to earn a Ph.D. (U.S. schools didn’t offer that type of degree at the time). When he returned from Europe, Everett took up his post at Harvard.

For many people, landing a spot on Harvard’s payroll would be the achievement of a lifetime. But after Everett started teaching in 1819, he quickly found himself longing for a career change. In 1825, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected as a conservative Whig, he served for a full decade before setting his sights on state politics. In 1835, Everett won the first of four one-year terms as the governor of Massachusetts. As governor, he revolutionized New England schools by spearheading the establishment of his state’s first board of education.

Like most politicians, Everett suffered his fair share of defeats. Due largely to his support of a controversial measure that limited alcohol sales, he was voted out of the governor’s mansion in 1839 (he lost by just one vote). But he soon got another shot at public service: In 1841, the John Tyler administration appointed Everett as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, a job that enabled him to play a major role in settling a Maine-New Brunswick border dispute that had created a great deal of tension between the two countries.

Academia beckoned once again in 1846, when Everett—after some coaxing—agreed to become the president of Harvard. Following his resignation in 1849, President Millard Fillmore appointed him Secretary of State. Everett subsequently bolstered his political resume with a one-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, resigning in 1854 after failing health caused him to miss a vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In the election of 1860, Everett found himself pitted against future president Abraham Lincoln. Without Everett's consent, the Constitutional Union Party—which favored ignoring the slavery issue to prevent a civil war—nominated him as its vice presidential candidate. The ex-Governor reluctantly accepted the nomination, believing that doing otherwise would cause too much damage to the ticket—but he flatly refused to campaign. Privately, he believed that the party had no chance, writing to a friend that June that his nomination was “of no great consequence; a mere ripple on the great wave of affairs.”

“A VOICE OF SUCH RICH TONES, SUCH PRECISE AND PERFECT UTTERANCE”

Something that was of great consequence, however, was Everett’s growing reputation as a first-rate public speaker. He'd taught Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard; in the budding philosopher’s words, Everett had “a voice of such rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance, that, although slightly nasal, it was the most mellow and beautiful, and correct of all the instruments of the time.” Everett's other celebrity fans included Thomas Jefferson, who praised a speech that Everett gave at Harvard on behalf of the visiting Marquis de Lafayette.

The American people grew well-acquainted with Everett’s oratory skills after he left the Senate. Once the war broke out, he started touring the northern states, making pro-Union speeches wherever he went. So when a Pennsylvania-led commission finished assembling a burial ground for the soldiers who’d fallen at Gettysburg, they naturally asked Edward Everett if he’d speak at the cemetery’s formal dedication in October 1863.

Everett received their official invite on September 23. His response was an enthusiastic yes, although he did request that the consecration date be pushed back to November 19 so he’d have time to research and gather his thoughts. The request was granted, and Everett got to work.

He began by going over every available account of the battle. From Union general George G. Meade’s staff, Everett received an official report on what had transpired. And when Robert E. Lee submitted his own account to the Richmond Inquirer, Everett went through it with a fine-toothed comb.

By November 11, Everett’s speech had begun to take shape. As a courtesy, he submitted an advance copy to another man who’d been asked to say a few words at Gettysburg: President Lincoln. The plan all along was for Everett to deliver a lengthy oration which would be followed by what one pamphlet described as “a few dedicatory remarks by the President of the United States.” Nobody expected the Commander-in-Chief to turn many heads with his brief comments. It was to be Everett’s show; Lincoln was an afterthought.

Everett traveled to Gettysburg on November 16, still constantly revising his notes. Since a large chunk of his speech would be dedicated to recounting the historic battle, he decided to familiarize himself with the terrain on which it was fought. Professor Michael Jacobs of Gettysburg College, an eyewitness to the battle, guided Everett through the hills and fields that surround the Pennsylvania town. Dead horses and soldiers still lay rotting where they’d fallen that summer. The whole town was polluted with their stench.

Lincoln arrived one night before he was to deliver his speech; both the president and Mr. Everett were given lodging at the home of event organizer David Wills. The next morning, the honored guests made their way towards the cemetery.

THE OTHER GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

The dedication began with some music, followed by a prayer that Reverend Thomas H. Stockton, a prominent anti-slavery cleric, delivered with trademark zeal. And then, Everett—his speech memorized in full—took the stage. Because the New Englander had weak kidneys, a tent had been placed behind the podium so that he might take a break and relieve himself during the speech if necessary.

“Standing beneath this serene sky,” he began, “overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and nature.”

From there, Everett drew parallels between the cemetery’s consecration at Gettysburg and the reverence with which the ancient Athenians buried their fallen soldiers. His speech was loaded with historical references: As the address unfolded, Everett mentioned everything from the War of Roses to the fall of ancient Rome. He also quoted such great thinkers as Pericles and David Hume. He provided a detailed, point-by-point retelling of the battle at Gettysburg, denouncing the Confederacy, condemning the continued practice of slavery, and urging the north to strengthen its resolve. Still, Everett held firm to the belief that reconciliation between the two sides might still be possible. “There is no bitterness on the part of the masses,” he proclaimed. “The bonds that unite us as one people … are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient. The heart of the people, north and south, is for the Union.”

When Everett’s address came to a close, he had spoken more than 13,000 words over the course of two hours. B.B. French, a musician who’d penned a hymn for the occasion, later wrote, “Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort.” The Philadelphia Age offered a more lukewarm review, stating “He gave us plenty of words, but no heart.” President Lincoln, however, loved the speech. In Everett’s diary, the orator remarks that when he stepped down, the president shook his hand “with great fervor and said, ‘I am more than gratified, I am grateful to you.’”

Those who remained in the audience were then treated to French’s hymn, as performed by the Baltimore Glee Club. And then, the president rose. Within three minutes, his speech of around 270 words (there’s some debate over its exact phrasing) was over and done with. According to one witness, “The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed. Had not Lincoln turned and moved towards his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally, there came applause.”

Everett knew a good speech when he heard one. One day after the consecration, he wrote to the president and asked for a copy of the little address. “I should be glad,” Everett wrote, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” James Speed, Attorney General from 1864 to 1866, would later recall that Lincoln treasured Everett’s kind words and said “he had never received a compliment he prized more highly.”

Lincoln was more than happy to offer up a copy of the speech—and to return the kind sentiments. “In our respective parts … you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one,” Lincoln told Everett. “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.

“Of course,” he added, “I knew Mr. Everett would not fail.”

Guess the Famous Person Who Was Afraid of Being Buried Alive

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