As he had pledged he would, Ronald Reagan made human rights in the Soviet Union a priority item on the agenda for his meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik. At their first session in Hofdi House, the President told the Soviet leader that repressive Soviet practices, including the refusal to allow Jews from the U.S.S.R. to emigrate, had a direct and negative effect on the Soviet-American relationship, fomenting mistrust and tension. Later that day, Mr. Reagan handed Mr. Gorbachev a packet of written materials on human rights; it included graphs and charts on the number of Jews allowed to leave the Soviet Union and the number who would like to leave. And in the experts’ all-night negotiations that followed, the question of Soviet Jews arose again. The message to Moscow, one American official recounted later, was that "if you want a productive relationship, you have to deal with certain inescapable realities." And one of those realities is the American demand to let Soviet Jews go.
But in the end, Reykjavik produced only a few changes in Soviet style. Soviet officials agreed to a continuing dialogue on "humanitarian issues and human rights"; for the most part, they listened politely when their press conferences were interrupted by people pressing for Jewish emigration. In the corridors Soviet journalists and academics passed the word that the Kremlin wanted to limit the public relations damage its human rights policies were causing. But at Reykjavik, as at Helsinki, Madrid, Geneva and other previous forums, there were no Soviet promises, no concessions. American officials afterward described themselves as frustrated by the fact that the key to releasing Soviet Jews remained elusive.
The irony is that since the beginning of the Reagan Administration, a potential lever for winning the release of Soviet Jews has lain useless. That lever is trade. It cannot be used because in 1974 Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik and Stevenson Amendments to two bills, with the avowed goal of pressing the Soviet Union to
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