This article was originally published on the History News Network

Addressing a U.N. Security Council Summit on September 24, 2009, President Barack Obama observed that the resolution unanimously adopted by the Security Council earlier that day “enshrines our shared commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.”

But the enthusiasm for this measure among the representatives of major nations should not obscure the fact that securing their commitment to a nuclear-free world was for years an uphill struggle—one that began, with some political sleight-of-hand, in a nuclear superpower, the Soviet Union.

Of course, for the first four decades of the Cold War, the Soviet government had spoken glibly about abolishing nuclear weapons. But it was never serious about this enterprise. Such talk was meant for propaganda purposes—to convince people of other nations that the Soviet Union was a peace-loving nation with their best interests at heart. In practical terms, about the most that could be hoped for from the Kremlin was a series of rather modest arms control agreements.

But, then, in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected Soviet party secretary. And Gorbachev was dead serious about nuclear disarmament. Faced with the “self-destruction of the human race,” he declared, it was time to “burn the black book of nuclear alchemy” and make the next century one “of life without fear of universal death.” The “nuclear era requires new thinking from everybody,” he argued and “the backbone of the new way of thinking is . . . humankind’s survival.” Gorbachev’s ideas and rhetoric clearly came from the tumultuous popular campaign against nuclear weapons that swept around the world during the early 1980s. As the Soviet leader put it: “The new thinking took into account and absorbed the conclusions and demands . . . of the public and the scientific community, of the movements of physicians, scientists and ecologists, and of various antiwar organizations.”

Gorbachev not only changed Soviet rhetoric, but Soviet policy. Shortly after taking office, he appointed sharp critics of the nuclear arms race as his key advisors on foreign and military affairs. In April 1985, he announced the cessation of the controversial SS-20 nuclear missile deployments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. That July, he proclaimed a unilateral Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing and implored the U.S. government to join it. And by early 1986, the “new thinking” had produced a Soviet blueprint for a nuclear-free world. Announced by Gorbachev on January 15 of that year, it consisted of a three-stage plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons around the globe by the year 2000. Gorbachev recalled that it was not “another Soviet propaganda trick,” but a sincere effort to prevent nuclear war and create a peaceful world.

But how did Gorbachev manage to secure the acquiescence of Soviet hawks in this official commitment to a nuclear-free world? It’s an intriguing story. In the spring of 1985, Soviet military officials were worried that Gorbachev and his advisors were getting ready to offer serious concessions to the U.S. government in negotiations over the removal of intermediate range nuclear missiles from Europe. To head off such concessions, they suggested what they considered would a good combination of useful propaganda and a non-negotiable proposal: a nuclear-free world! Nikolai Detinov, an official in the Soviet Ministry of Defense who drafted the nuclear abolition proposal, recalled: “They could show, on the one hand, that the Soviet Union and its General Secretary were eager to eliminate nuclear weapons and, on the other . . . that they understood that such a declaration hardly could lead to any practical results . . . or affect . . . the ongoing negotiations.” But Gorbachev outsmarted them, for he used the military’s backing of nuclear abolition to legitimize the proposal and, then, to make it official government policy. Thus, Detinov recalled, “the real authors of this idea became entrapped by their own gambit.”

Things now moved rapidly forward. Sensitive to the strong public demand for nuclear disarmament, President Ronald Reagan responded eagerly to Gorbachev’s nuclear-free world proposal, asking: “Why wait until the end of the century for a world without nuclear weapons?” Although most national security officials in Washington and Moscow were horrified by the unexpected tilt toward nuclear abolition, Gorbachev and Reagan were considerably more enthusiastic. At the Reykjavik summit conference of October 1986, they came tantalizingly near a breakthrough on this score. And in the next two years, they did hammer out the basis for major nuclear disarmament agreements: the INF Treaty (1987); the START I Treaty (1991); and the START II Treaty (1993).

Today, when the call for a nuclear-free world has been revived by the nuclear powers, skeptics might wonder if it is merely another propaganda ploy. Are the warriors and would-be warriors ready to forgo their nuclear toys? Probably not. But clever politicians, particularly when pushed along by popular pressure, can sometimes use public commitments in unexpected ways. And this might be such a time.

Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).