154. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Ford1


  • A Perspective on Brezhnev’s Health and Observations on the Political Struggle for the Succession

[less than 1 line not declassified] a report on Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev’s health,2 the extent to which his continuing dental troubles appear to be disturbing him, and an inside view in this situation of the struggle for the succession—a struggle in which the recent downfall of Aleksandr Shelepin3 is described as being significant. The information, while in some respects at odds with other information we have received on the possible succession, warrants particular interest [1½ lines not declassified].

Brezhnev’s Health

[less than 1 line not declassified], Brezhnev’s deteriorating health recently has become more obvious and more a cause of concern to his associates in the Party leadership. Several weeks ago, for example, Brezhnev was walking along a corridor in the Kremlin with several associates, who noticed he was uneasy, nervous and in great pain. Brezhnev suddenly grasped and removed his dentures, flinging them to the floor and shattering them.

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Brezhnev frequently massages his jaw and chin, sometimes with both hands. During a gathering of top Soviet officials at the Kremlin on May 8 for the V–E Day ceremonies, Brezhnev’s behavior was odd and irrational. At one point he was observed with tears in his eyes; he removed his glasses, rubbed his face and jaw with both hands, and then began to laugh in a strange and apparently forced manner. At one point during the past several weeks, Brezhnev’s physicians became disturbed about the results of a blood test which showed some kind of abnormality.

When Brezhnev is with close friends and associates, he acts very depressed and does not try to conceal worry about his health. He effectively can maintain a pretense of good health when he is in public, but can hide his pain and emotional distress on such occasions for only limited periods of time.

The Succession

As the signs of Brezhnev’s deteriorating health become more apparent, the behind-the-scenes fight for a commanding position as the leading contender for the leadership of the Party has been intensifying—at a time when the Soviets are preparing for their Party Congress early next year. As of several months ago, the two leading contenders were Trade Union Chief Shelepin and KGB Chief Yuriy Andropov. Andropov, who is loyal to Brezhnev, has been trying to strengthen his own position but without any attempt to undermine Brezhnev. To counter Shelepin, Andropov either had to remove a number of senior KGB officials loyal to Shelepin or remove Shelepin himself. He chose to attempt the latter. Initially in this struggle, Politburo members Suslov and Arvid Pelshe and Party Secretary Kapitonov leaned toward Shelepin, but then wavered and finally supported Andropov. The result was Shelepin’s removal from the Politburo and the complete stripping of his power.4

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for Europe and Canada, 1974–1977, Box 17, USSR (13). Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 142.
  4. According to an attached correspondence file, the memorandum was “OBE,” i.e. overtaken by events. Ford and Kissinger, however, discussed the report during their meeting at 9:37 a.m. on June 10: “President: I got that memo on Brezhnev’s health. It is disturbing. Do we know about his possible replacements? Kissinger: The paper mentioned Shelepin and Andropov. Shelepin is gone and it would be a first if Andropov, head of the KGB, were to make it.” After an exchange on the “Malenkov–Beria days,” which was not transcribed, Kissinger commented: “They obviously count on having a CSCE summit in July. Dobrynin says that Brezhnev wants to meet with you there. That would be a good time to make progress on SALT. I can do a little beforehand, but not much.” (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, 1973–1977, Box 12)