The term statesman, in its positive sense, can be applied to only a few current and former heads of state. One of them is Mikhail Gorbachev.

The former Soviet president spoke out forcefully in London last week at the kickoff of a new campaign called Come Clean. Launched by Greenpeace, Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other non-governmental organizations, the campaign is designed to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. “If they exist, sooner or later there will be disastrous consequences,” he said. “It is not enough to safeguard them. They must be abolished.”

This forthright repudiation of such weapons is not an afterthought for the man who once ruled the world’s largest nation. Quite the contrary. He began speaking out against nuclear dangers even before he assumed the top leadership post in the Soviet Union and initiated the transformation of his country into a relatively peaceful, democratic society. Addressing the British parliament in December 1984, Gorbachev declared that “the nuclear age inevitably dictates new political thinking. Preventing nuclear war is the most burning issue for all people on earth.”

After becoming Soviet party secretary in March 1985, Gorbachev stepped up his attack upon nuclear weapons. Speaking to the French parliament that October, he declared that, as there could be “no victors in a nuclear war,” the time had come “to stop the nuclear arms race.” Faced with the “self-destruction of the human race,” people had to “burn the black book of nuclear alchemy” and make the 21st century a time “of life without fear of universal death.” In January 1986, Gorbachev unveiled a three-stage plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons around the world by the year 2000.

As these elements of such thinking were put into place, Eduard Shevardnadze, the new Soviet foreign minister, exulted. Henceforth, he wrote, Soviet security would be “gained not by the highest possible level of strategic parity, but the lowest possible level,” with “nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction … removed from the equation.” The world was well on its way to the INF treaty, the START I treaty, and the end of the Cold War.

American conservatives, of course, have dished up a very different version of events. In it, Gorbachev and other courageous Soviet reformers are simply airbrushed out of the picture. Instead, the Reagan administration’s military buildup is said to have overawed Soviet bureaucrats and “won” the Cold War.

But this triumphalist interpretation has nothing behind it but the self-interest of U.S. officials. None of the Soviet leaders of the time have given it any credit whatsoever. Gorbachev himself shrugged off the idea of Soviet capitulation to U.S. power as American political campaign rhetoric, but added: “If this idea is serious, then it is a very big delusion.”

What did move Gorbachev to take his antinuclear stand was the critical perspective on nuclear weapons advanced by the mass nuclear disarmament campaign of the era. Meeting frequently with leaders of this campaign, he adopted their ideas, their rhetoric and their proposals.

“The new thinking,” he said, “absorbed the conclusions and demands of … the public and … of the movements of physicians, scientists and ecologists, and of various antiwar organizations.”

Although President Reagan also deserves credit for fostering nuclear disarmament and the end of the Cold War, it is not for his dangerous and expensive weapons systems. As Colin Powell observed, what Reagan contributed was “the vision and flexibility, lacking in many knee-jerk Cold Warriors, to recognize that Gorbachev was a new man in a new age offering new opportunities for peace.”

Gorbachev’s sincerity in seeking nuclear disarmament is further exemplified by his activities since leaving public office in 1991. Time and again, he has spoken out against the dangers of nuclear weapons. In January 1998, he joined an array of other former national leaders who signed an appeal for nuclear abolition.

It is sad to see how far the U.S. government has strayed from that vision. Although the Bush administration talks about the danger of WMDs, they are only the WMDs of other nations. It has no plan for comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, it has withdrawn from the ABM treaty, rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and is currently promoting legislation to build new nuclear weapons.

What this nation badly needs is a farsighted statesman like Mikhail Gorbachev.

Lawrence S. Wittner teaches at the University at Albany. His latest book is “Toward Nuclear Abolition.”