167. Memorandum From the Ambassador at Large (Thompson) to President Johnson 1

The Soviet leadership is suffering from a deep sense of frustration faced, as they are, with a number of intractable problems. One of the [Page 404]most serious is their economic situation. Their agricultural problem is particularly difficult and they plan to invest some fifteen billion dollars a year over the next five years in this sector, the greater part of which will be a direct charge on the State budget. Their contract with the Canadians for nine million tons of grain over the next three years shows that they realize that even these enormous investments will not bring about a quick solution of their agricultural problem. At the same time, they have realized that their present system of industrial management is unsatisfactory and they are groping around for solutions and have cautiously embarked on a series of reforms. It is clear that their resources are inadequate to meet the goals they have set for themselves as long as they maintain their present level of military and space expenditures. Yet they do not feel able to cut back on their military expenditures because of their deep suspicion of us and the difficulty of a weak and divided leadership to carry out a cutback even if they should decide that this was advisable. Yet despite their heavy expenditures on arms they have at best a stalemate with us and are still in a position of relative inferiority. Their economic problems are compounded by their insistence upon the primacy of the Communist Party which constantly interferes in production decisions. Their need for decentralization and greater delegation of authority is evident but they have been unable to bring themselves to take serious steps in this direction for fear of undermining their own power base.

The role of the Party also exacerbates other internal problems, particularly the attitude of Soviet youth who no longer accept the outmoded dogma. The people as a whole demand a higher standard of living, and while they have yielded to this pressure by a decision to increase radically their automobile production, they are unable to satisfy the basic needs of the population. This could be accomplished only by a severe cutback in military expenditures.

After all of their sacrifices to establish Communism in their own country and spread it abroad, they find themselves locked in a bitter struggle for leadership of the Communist world with Communist China and engaged in a two-front cold war. They are having difficulty keeping their East European allies in line and their hopes for the growth of the Communist movement in Western Europe and in the third world have largely been thwarted. Since the ideology does not permit them to blame the system, whenever there is a failure heads must roll and it is therefore understandable that the leadership is worried.

Apart from these and other specific problems, there is the role which ideology plays in all Soviet Communist actions. This ideology is outdated almost to the point of absurdity and yet it is the basis on which they hold power. This causes two sets of problems. The first is that it causes them in many cases to make a false analysis of a given situation and the second is that it often bars them from working out a [Page 405]rational solution to a given problem or at least places limits upon their freedom of action.

For example, to them Cuba was a case of American “monopoly capital” keeping in power a corrupt dictator in order that they could exploit the Cuban people. They can always find some facts to support their analysis of such situations. The Dominican affair fitted in with their picture of the powerful United States using force to oppose the aspirations of the masses. It is perhaps easier to understand the distorted picture which the Soviet leaders have of the world when we recognize our own tendency to oversimplify and to gloss over some of the weaknesses of our own case. The attempts on their part to bring some rationality into the ideology has been vigorously challenged by the Chinese Communists.

Against this background, the Viet-Namese affair is particularly galling to the Soviet leadership. They stand to lose by it in almost any outcome and they want neither the United States nor China to come out on top. With their ideological background, their view is the reverse of ours. They are concerned that if we win we will be encouraged to use force to suppress what they consider popular movements wherever they develop. This would undermine their conviction that Communism is an inevitable phase of history. Khrushchev once remarked that if Communism did not demonstrate its superiority and sweep the world, his life would have had no meaning. Although a real believer, Khrushchev was far more pragmatic than the present leaders who are much more orthodox in their outlook. The Viet-Namese affair has also added to the difficulties for the leadership to resolve some of the problems mentioned above. It has made more difficult any cutback in military expenditure or agreement on disarmament, has caused a deterioration in relations with the United States and has affected trade relations and the possibility of obtaining foreign credits. Moreover, with the bitter struggle going on in the Communist world, it is particularly hard for them to be exposed as a paper tiger and unable to do more for a socialist country which they consider to be under attack by an aggressor.

I believe the Soviets recognize that we behaved reasonably well in carrying out the Laos agreement and I do not believe that they are responsible for what happened there, although they could have done more to support the settlement. In Viet-Nam, however, they point to the mere numbers of the Viet Cong and the staunchness of their struggle as evidence that we are, in effect, helping to crush a popular movement. Although this would in any event give them a serious problem they make a great distinction between what we do in North Viet-Nam and what we do in the South. I believe that we can take almost any action in the South without serious risk of Soviet involvement. I doubt that they will take any radical action as a result of our bombing of the [Page 406]POL and interpret their cancellation of the visit of their track team as evidence that their reaction will be limited probably to some increase in the supply of military equipment. I believe, however, that any dramatic step-up in our action against North Viet-Nam could bring us into an area of real danger. This would be particularly true of action to blockade or mine North Viet-Namese harbors because of the parallel with Cuba and the direct confrontation which this would involve. The Soviets have a strong inferiority complex which causes them to overreact whenever they think their prestige is involved.

The foregoing is an attempt to explain Soviet actions but, of course, not to justify or condone them. Whatever the outcome of Viet-Nam, I am afraid it will take considerable time for us to get back on the path we were following in our relations with the Soviet Union when this affair began. In any event, we must always be aware that while an important evolution was taking place in the Soviet Union, which over time might have led to real coexistence, the Soviet leaders, as contrasted with the people, are dedicated to a dogma that is implacably hostile to us.

Llewellyn E. Thompson
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, USSR, Vol. 12. Secret. The memorandum is attached to a July 16 covering memorandum from Rostow to the President stating that Thompson’s memorandum was an “analysis of the Soviet attitude toward Vietnam against the background of the general position of frustration confronting Moscow.” Rostow’s memorandum is marked with an “L,” indicating that the President saw it.