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.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

Newly Uncovered Galileo Letter Details How He Tried to Avoid the Inquisition

Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Galileo Before The Papal Tribunal by Robert Henry. Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Galileo Galilei was one of the Roman Catholic Inquisition’s most famous targets. As a result of his outspoken support for the theory that all the planets, Earth included, revolve around the Sun, the Catholic Church charged him with heresy and he spent the last years of his life under house arrest. Galileo was well aware that he was on the Church’s hit list, and a newly discovered letter shows that at one point, he tried to tone down his ideas to avoid persecution, according to Nature and Ars Technica.

The letter in question, written in 1613, solves a long-held mystery for Galileo scholars. It was found in the library of the Royal Society, where it has been for at least 250 years.

Galileo’s beef with the Catholic Church came about because of his support for heliocentrism—the idea that the solar system centers around the Sun—as advocated in Nicolaus Copernicus’s book De Revolutionibus. Galileo’s scientific writings clearly endorsed Copernicus’s theory of the world, including in personal correspondence that was widely disseminated, and in some cases, he directly questioned the scientific merit of Biblical passages.

In 1613, Galileo wrote to a friend and former student named Benedetto Castelli who was then teaching mathematics at the University of Pisa. The letter was a long treatise on Galileo’s thoughts on Copernicus’s ideas and religion, arguing that science and astronomy should not be overpowered by religious doctrin . (He would later expand this into his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) As with many of Galileo’s writings at the time, the letter was copied and disseminated widely, and eventually, a friar named Niccolò Lorini forwarded it to the Inquisition in Rome in 1615.

This is where things get tricky. Galileo claimed that the version of the letter Lorini sent was doctored to be more inflammatory. He sent a less controversial version of the letter to a friend, saying that it was the original document and should be forwarded to the Vatican, essentially to clear his name. But scholars have never been able to be totally sure if he was telling the truth about the letter being doctored.

This newly discovered letter suggests that he was lying, and that he himself was looking to tone down his rhetoric to appease the Catholic Church and keep authorities from quashing the spread of heliocentric ideas. The original copy found in the Royal Society archives shows changes to the wording in what appears to be Galileo’s handwriting. The seven-page letter, signed “G.G.,” includes changes like swapping the word “false” for the more slippery “look different from the truth,” changing “concealing” to “veiling,” and other edits that seek to tone down the rhetoric that inflamed Church leaders. The wording and handwriting corresponds to similar writing by Galileo at the time. Based on this finding, it seems that Galileo did seek to make his ideas more palatable to the Catholic Church in the hopes of escaping persecution by the Inquisition.

Discovered on a research trip by science historian Salvatore Ricciardo of Italy's University of Bergamo, the letter may have been overlooked in the Royal Society archives because it was cataloged as being dated October 21, 1613 rather than the date it actually bears, December 21, 1613. However, it’s unclear how it came to the Royal Society in the first place. The document is the subject of a forthcoming article by Ricciardo and his colleagues in the Royal Society journal Notes and Records, according to Nature.

The minor changes Galileo made did not successfully hold off the Church’s crackdown on heliocentrism. In 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo to stop teaching or defending the theory, and several of his books were subsequently banned. He would stand trial again almost two decades later, in 1633, on suspicion of holding heretical thoughts. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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