216. Memorandum From Secretary of State Kissinger to President Ford1


  • National Intelligence Estimate “The Soviet Assessment of the US

The Director of Central Intelligence, with the concurrence of the United States Intelligence Board, has issued a National Intelligence Es[Page 851]timate on the Soviet assessment of the United States (at Tab A).2 The Estimate treats factors affecting the Soviet view of the US, principal Soviet conclusions about the US, and the implications of those conclusions for Soviet policy. (The Estimate does not address the issues of internal USSR developments and the possibility of Soviet leadership changes.) A summary follows.

Soviet leaders are, in fact, preoccupied with developments and problems in the United States. In February of next year, they must present to their Party Congress an assessment of the state of US-Soviet relations and their future policy recommendations based on that assessment. Additionally, the projected US-Soviet summit meeting and SALT agreement will give new momentum to the détente process or, if they do not take place, will add to doubts now surrounding détente. It is also well understood in Moscow that the terms, conditions and future of US-Soviet détente will be under debate in the 1976 US election campaign.

The Soviet leaders’ assessment of the US is shaped by their own strong consensus in favor of détente and by growing Soviet power—especially military—which increases their long-term confidence. It is also influenced by their perception that international relations are undergoing a fundamental restructuring to the disadvantage of non-Communist industrial states and that capitalism as a whole is in crisis, perhaps a crisis deeper and more long-lasting than those it has survived in the past. At the same time, in judging US strengths and weaknesses, the Soviet leaders appear to have a realistic view of US power and of their own shortcomings and long term problems.

Within the context of the above considerations affecting Soviet perceptions of the US, the Estimate states that the Soviets likely have reached the following conclusions about this country:

Overall U.S. Posture: They believe that as a result of international and domestic US developments, the USSR is dealing with a chastened United States, a nation which has been obliged to recognize the limits of its power and one whose confidence in its old international role has been undermined.

U.S. Politics and Society: The social and political unrest which has marked the US scene in recent years is taken seriously as further evidence of the United States’ present weakened condition.

—The Soviets believe that domestic dissent has had a corrosive, though not crippling, effect on US ability to act abroad and has been a [Page 852] factor in turning the US Government toward improving relations with the USSR.

—Surprised and shocked by the outcome of the Watergate episode, the Soviets believe one of its consequences has been to weaken the Presidency vis-à-vis the Congress which has limited the Administration’s ability to carry forward a détente policy.

—With respect to the Congress elected in 1974, the Soviets welcome what they see as its increasing readiness to challenge Administration military spending and deployment proposals, but also believe that its generally more negative attitude toward US-Soviet détente may mean trouble for them in arms control and trade negotiations.

Military Capabilities and Intentions: The Soviets have a high regard for the technical, industrial and economic prowess of the United States and assume that the US will continue to improve its strategic posture.

—With respect to conventional forces, the Soviets have a healthy respect for US capabilities and do not doubt that the United States has the physical and technical means to sustain and develop them further. The key question is whether the United States has the will to do so.

—In their private councils, the Soviets note only that public and Congressional opposition to arms spending has grown, not that it has won the day. The so-called military industrial complex in the United States is said to be still highly influential and it is regularly claimed that US defense spending is moving steadily upward.

Economic Position: The Soviets see themselves currently running ahead in terms of overall rate of growth but by other measures concede the lead to the US. Additionally the Soviets concede a substantial edge to the US in productivity. They also acknowledge that the recovery in US industrial production has already begun.

—In science and technology, Soviet respect for US capabilities is undimmed. The fact that the USSR has a long way to go to close the technology gap appears to be uncontested in Moscow.

—On trade, in the wake of US legislative restrictions, there is more realism in Moscow about the future prospects for these relations. Skepticism about the economic benefits of détente is spreading, particularly among Soviet economists.

U.S. Foreign Policy: The Soviets see US foreign policy as being aimed at preserving a powerful world role for the United States through the orchestration of an effective east-west balance of power. They see a trend toward greater limitations on direct foreign involvement as a result of diminished resources and public support.

—They expect that the United States will not be satisfied to accommodate itself to international changes inimical to its interests but will [Page 853] try to reverse them or find ways to turn them to advantage; not just to maintain its power but to regain clear superiority over the USSR.

US setbacks also worry Soviet leaders; they are fearful that the United States, from an urge to recover its losses and restore its prestige, will take a harder stance in adversary situations; they believe that increased US preoccupation with domestic affairs and with shoring up the Atlantic Alliance has adversely affected the development of US-Soviet détente; and, by and large, they are less confident they can read the intentions of your Administration than they were those of the Nixon Administration.

Implications for Soviet Policy

The above conclusions are predicted to have the following implications for Soviet policy in the near term:

Soviet leaders, comparing their own domestic and international positions with those of the United States, believe that the balance sheet is changing in the USSR’s favor. Nevertheless, they recognize that the United States has great strength in certain areas—economic, technology, military and diplomatic—and thus do not accept as a basis for policy making that the United States is in permanent decline.

The Soviet leaders perceive the present US-Soviet relationship in strategic nuclear weapons to be one of rough balance. Although they may entertain hopes that US resolve as a strategic competitor is weakening, they know realistically that the United States need not concede the USSR a superior position in the next decade.

—There is constant conflict in the minds of the Soviet leaders between the temptation to seize tactical opportunities as they arise, in Europe and elsewhere, and their desire to preserve profitable relations with the United States and the West generally. At present, the Soviets remain concerned to preserve the benefits of the détente relationship, and to avoid arousing negative US reactions. However, should they perceive a decline in US readiness to react against developments such as those in Portugal, if the benefits of détente should appear to be diminishing drastically, or if more militant attitudes should become dominant among the new leaders soon to emerge, the result could be a more assertive policy.

—The Soviet leaders do not welcome American political divisions that threaten the bilateral relationship. They will be hoping for the election in 1976 of the presidential candidate, whatever his party affiliation, who is in their view most committed to US-Soviet détente and best able to secure a firm consensus behind this policy. They will probably weigh the possible impact of their own policy actions on the election’s outcome.

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—The US intelligence community judges that Brezhnev approaches important decisions on SALT and thus the Summit with his political freedom more circumscribed than before. All intelligence agencies except CIA believe that, while desiring a SALT agreement, the Soviets will offer only minor concessions, will refuse to accept any inhibitions on the improvement or modernization of their own strategic forces, and will continue to press for limitations on US cruise missile development. CIA believes that, in the end, the Soviets are likely to prove willing to make more than minor concessions on the key issues of cruise missiles and Backfire.

—Should a SALT agreement prove unattainable and the Summit not occur this winter, the Estimate states that the Soviets would face serious problems. While it is possible that this could spark a challenge to Brezhnev’s leadership and policies, all agencies think it more likely the Politburo would prefer to minimize the internal political repercussions in order to keep détente intact as the USSR’s general line and to preserve as much of its content as possible in the short run.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for Europe and Canada, 1974–1977, Box 18, USSR (25). Secret. Sent for information. In a memorandum forwarding a draft and the attached NIE to Kissinger on October 31, Clift explained: “This Estimate is the Intelligence Community’s first attempt in recent years to deal comprehensively with this topic. It was initiated in response to your request at the August 1974 NSCIC meeting.” A note on the memorandum reads: “The President has seen.” Ford also initialed the memorandum. According to an attached correspondence profile, the President noted it on November 11.
  2. NIE 11–5–75, October 9; attached but not printed. A copy is in the Central Intelligence Agency, Electronic Reading Room.