How Reagan Prepped for Gorbachev Summit With Tom Clancy Thriller

  • President told Thatcher to read `Red Storm Rising,' files show
  • Newly opened U.K. archives also reveal squeamishness over AIDS

President Ronald Reagan talk sto Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.

Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

Ronald Reagan could call on all the spies in the CIA and all the Kremlinologists in the State Department, but when he sought to understand the Russian mind ahead of nuclear-disarmament talks in Iceland, he turned to a Tom Clancy thriller, previously secret British files show.

It was “Red Storm Rising,” a novel in which the Warsaw Pact invaded Germany, that the U.S. president felt best explained the Soviet Union. He told U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher about it in a phone call, the day after the 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev broke up without a deal. Thatcher’s private secretary, Charles Powell, regarded the statement as so sensational -- “particularly sensitive” -- that he kept it out of the main record of the conversation, and included it instead in a note of which just three copies were made for restricted circulation.

The file containing the note was published Wednesday by the U.K. National Archives in London along with other cabinet documents from the mid-1980s. After Thatcher consoled her ally on his “disappointment,” Reagan replied by expressing “deep distrust of Soviet motives,” Powell recorded. “The Russians don’t want war, they want victory by using the threat of nuclear war,” he quoted the president as saying. Then he offered a surprising insight into Reagan’s thinking.

“The president strongly commended to the prime minister a new book by the author of ‘Red October’ called (I think) ‘Red Storm Rising,”’ Powell wrote. “It gave an excellent picture of the Soviet Union’s intentions and strategy. He had clearly been much impressed by the book.”

World War III

In Clancy’s bestseller, published two months earlier, the Soviet Union is faced with an oil crisis and decides to seize fields in the Persian Gulf, triggering World War III. The battle is fought by conventional means, with the Soviets eventually defeated.

Reagan had given Clancy’s career an early boost when he told a press conference that his first book, “The Hunt for Red October,” published in 1984, was a “perfect yarn” and joked he was losing sleep because he couldn’t put it down. An informal White House fan club even invited the author to a lunch in the building and his expertise on naval warfare was taken seriously by officials.

Reagan and Thatcher liaised closely in advance of the Reykjavik summit, and the files show a concern in London that the president wasn’t a man with a keen interest in fine detail. When the Foreign Office drafted a note for the prime minister to send him setting out the British position, Powell was concerned.

“I think the president’s eyes may glaze a bit,” he observed. “I have therefore done an alternative draft in a rather more relaxed style.” Thatcher felt that even the revised version was too much. “It is still very long,” she wrote in the margin, before setting out a series of cuts. The document, which started at three full pages, finished up at just over two.

‘Distasteful Advertisements’

The files also reveal Thatcher’s squeamishness about a public information campaign to stop the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Noting at the start of 1986 that the number of people with the virus was doubling every year, Thatcher’s adviser, David Willetts, told her that Norman Fowler, the minister responsible, “is proposing to place explicit and distasteful advertisements about AIDS in all the Sunday papers. The AIDS problem is now so serious that we must do as he proposes.”

The prime minister wasn’t sure. “Do we have to do the section on risky sex?” she scrawled at the top of the note. “I should have thought it could do immense harm if young teenagers were to read it.”

Willie Whitelaw, Thatcher’s deputy, replied that he too viewed that section of the publicity “with very considerable distaste,” but that health officials were adamant it must go in. The prime minister was still concerned and asked whether the advertisement might not break the Obscene Publications Act.

Officials replied that they were sure that it wouldn’t, but still Thatcher objected. “I think the anxiety on the part of parents and many teenagers who would never be in danger from AIDS exceeds the good it may do,” she wrote. “Adverts where every young person will read and learn of practices they never knew about will do harm.”

The prime minister never set out exactly which practices she wanted removed, but a reply from Fowler offers a clue. “Unless there is a reference to anal intercourse, which has been linked with 85 percent of AIDS cases so far, the advertisement would lose all its medical authority and credibility,” he wrote. “No one is condoning these practices -- quite the contrary. But they exist.” The ads went ahead.