by Nick OttensOctober 29, 1983 saw the largest demonstrations the Netherlands had ever seen. More than half a million people took to the streets of The Hague to protest against the conservative government’s decision to place American cruise missiles on Dutch soil in response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in Eastern Europe. The protests divided Dutch society and culminated two years later in a petition that was signed by 3.7 million people. Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers accepted the signatures on October 26 that year in the Houtrusthallen in The Hague.
There, Lubbers defended his government’s decision in front of thousands of opponents of his policy, some of whom literally turned their backs on the prime minister. He did so knowing the missiles would most likely never be placed. India’s prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, would confirm that to him.
The Gandhi Connection
Lubbers spoke about the episode in an interview I conducted with him for Elsevier magazine, the Netherlands’ leading conservative weekly, many years later. Asked if it wasn’t upsetting to confront such strong public opposition to his policy when he already knew it probably wouldn’t have to be carried out, the later United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shrugged and said, “That’s all right. It didn’t really bother me because I had faith it would end well.”
The christian democrat leader had met Rajiv Gandhi a day earlier when he made a brief stopover in The Hague on a trip back home from Washington DC. Lubbers had been close with Rajiv’s mother, Indira, who was assassinated in 1984. Indira had told her son he should meet Lubbers if he ever had the chance. Rajiv took the advice to heart. Lubbers welcomed him in the Dutch prime minister’s residence just outside The Hague that evening.
During their conversations, Gandhi was interrupted by a phone call. When he returned, he apologized to Lubbers. It seemed the Russians had found out he was in The Hague and asked him, if he could make a stopover in The Hague, surely he could drop by in Moscow the next day as well? Gandhi, already jet-lagged, wasn’t looking forward to the Moscow trip. But Lubbers spotted an opportunity.
The cruise-missile debate had polarized Dutch society. The right-wing Telegraaf newspaper accused the peace movement of playing right into the Soviets’ hands by dividing NATO. Left-wingers, including the opposition Labor Party, feared an escalation of the Cold War as a result of American president Ronald Reagan’s tough anticommunist rhetoric. Lubbers’ own christian democrats were split down the middle: the nuclear demonstrations were led by the Church.
Lubbers felt strengthened in his delaying tactics by Reagan himself who had assured him during a meeting in early 1983 that he was far from eager to escalate the arms race. But as long as the Soviets wouldn’t withdraw the SS-20s, the West couldn’t signal surrender. “Let them sweat first,” Reagan told Lubbers.
So Lubbers did. The missiles wouldn’t be placed in the Netherlands until late 1985. The prime minister was hopeful that the new spirit of détente in American-Soviet relations, brought about by the appointment of a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that spring, would make the whole thing go away.
On October 26, 1985, time was running out. Lubbers was heaving breakfast with Gandhi in The Hague, hours before he was due to address the angry crowd in the Houtrusthallen and days before the Netherlands were supposed to start stationing the cruise missiles. He wondered if the Indian leader couldn’t gauge Gorbachev’s intentions. “India always had good relations with Russia,” Lubbers recalled. Gandhi agreed. He would phone Lubbers once he was back in India and report back. “And that’s how it happened.”
In the end, it took a little more than a year before Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in Washington DC. But Lubbers knew that day he confronted opponents of his policy in the Houtrusthallen that the superpowers were making progress. He also knew, thanks to Gandhi’s impromptu shuttle diplomacy, that there probably would never be a need for the Netherlands to host the nuclear-armed missiles that millions of its citizens didn’t want.
By the time the INF Treaty was signed, Lubbers had already won reelection and visited Gandhi in India. What he remembered most was a kitchen-table talk he had with Rajiv, his Italian-born wife, Sonia, and their two children, Rahul and Priyanka. It was a “difficult conversation,” Lubbers said, because Gandhi openly talked about the fears he had for the safety of his family. He told Lubbers: “You must realize that I, like my mother, will be killed.” Two years later, he was — by a Sri Lankan terrorist.
Sonia took over the leadership of the Congress Party. Lubbers won his last election that year and formed a government with his old Labor Party rivals. He stood down in 1994 after twelve years in office, having served longer than any previous Dutch prime minister. Before retiring from public life, he served as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for four years. It was in Geneva that the phone rang and another Gandhi was on the line: Rahul, asking for a meeting. His mother had told him he should see Lubbers again if he ever had the chance.