112. Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hyland) to Secretary of State Kissinger1


  • Brezhnev’s Position

The increasingly wild speculation about Brezhnev’s health has apparently prompted Dobrynin and other Soviets in Washington to start countering any impression that the illness is serious or holds political implications. Today, TASS attacked Le Monde for speculating on “changes of leadership.”

We are preparing a longer analysis of the events leading up to the visit cancellation and an evaluation of the situation in Moscow,2 but here are some preliminary musings.

—While it is probably true that Brezhnev’s current illness is not all that serious, a review of his record, as reflected in sensitive intelligence, makes one wonder whether he does not have some chronic or organic malady that at least raises a question about his future; in October, November, December, he has been virtually out of commission, working only a few days at his office, and spending most of his time out of Moscow at his Dacha, before and after travelling. He has been stopping continuously at the clinic.

—It is difficult to see how the Politburo can tolerate a part-time General Secretary.

—They might do so if other factors were unchanged, but in the face of setbacks on personal and policy issues over this past six months—beginning with the Brandt resignation through the trade bill embroglio—some serious questions may be raised about both his policies and his position.

—The fact that Brezhnev is rumored to be thinking about organizing an “orderly” transition or graceful retirement apparently after the 25th Congress (March 1976), may have aggravated the situation, even if he is not seriously ill.

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—Yet, if there is trouble in the leadership, you have to bet on the man in power, and not on some group of unidentified opponents.

—For the last years, it has not seemed that Brezhnev has pursued his policies in the face of consistent or organized opposition.

—Foreign policy disputes, in contrast to domestic ones, are not the likeliest source of a power struggle.

—The growth of Brezhnev’s authority, as expressed in the external trappings (i.e. describing him as head of the Politburo) continues through the present period.

On the other hand, any review of détente or foreign policy cannot be aired in Moscow without implicitly reviewing Brezhnev’s stewardship.

—His letter to the President had a rather plaintive tone, and seemed to be, in fact, two letters: a formal complaint, and a personal appeal.3

—The release of the Gromyko letter4 coincided with a Central Committee meeting, where some behind-the-scenes discussion of emigration, the trade bill, etc., must have occurred.

—If they do turn down MFN/EX-IM, it tilts Soviet policy in a different direction than Brezhnev has been striving for; it has to be something of a setback for him, even if he favors doing it.

Finally, I am struck by the bizarre episode of the death of Brezhnev’s mother:5

Izvestia was held up for four hours in order to publish the message of condolence from the Politburo, all of the candidate members and the secretariat—each member being listed by name as a signatory.

—In the past ten years, two such condolences have been issued on the death of Kosygin’s and Suslov’s wives.

—The message to Brezhnev says “we are with you as always . . .”

—Every Soviet apparatchik must read this episode as a sign that Brezhnev is still in charge of the Politburo, that all members are still in their jobs, and that there is solidarity.

—On this basis Brezhnev would seem to have arranged a demonstration of strength.

—Yet, that he felt compelled to do so is in itself a sign that the situation is fluid.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 91D414, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 10, Nodis Memcons, January 1975. Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. No drafting information appears on the memorandum.
  2. Reference is presumably to the cancellation of Brezhnev’s trip to Egypt. See footnote 3, Document 101. The longer INR analysis has not been found.
  3. Document 104.
  4. Document 75.
  5. TASS announced the death of Natalya Denisovna Brezhneva on January 7, but did not report any details about either her life or death, merely noting that members of the Politburo had sent a condolence letter to Brezhnev. (The Washington Post, January 8, 1975, p. A18)