218. Memorandum From Thomas P. Thornton of the Policy Planning Staff to the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Lord)1


  • Staff Views on Détente

You asked me to pull together the views of Staff members on the issue of détente. The response was not exactly overwhelming and I am not sure how much can be made out of the responses that we got. I am still mulling this over, but thought you might want to have an interim [Page 856] reading prior to the staff meeting with Ambassador Stoessel.2 I am sending copies of this to all S/P members for their background for the meeting; also in the hope that it will stimulate further responses or reassessments (Delphic or otherwise) of previous responses.

I expected that the responses might run along one or more of three lines:

—That the US was taking too hard a line in dealing with the Soviets;

—That the policy of détente was doing pretty much what it is supposed to and hence is in our interest;

—That the Soviets are getting the better end of the deal.

The results tended to cluster towards the third of these, suggesting that the line of most détente critics in the public and Congress is not far off target. Nobody on the staff was condemning the policy outright or even complaining that we were being grossly outdone. Nonetheless, I think that this general direction is noteworthy coming from this staff.

In general terms, I guess almost all of the responses could best be characterized as uneasy and/or unenthusiastic, but showing no deep concern. Indeed, the clearest message that comes through is that for most of the areas considered, détente has been pretty much irrelevant. The costs are seen as small but the payoffs as even smaller.

However, it must be remembered that the question, as phrased, was directed at specifics, rather than the overall context of US relations. (Nobody much felt impelled to gratuitously note the fact that we have, after all, moved away from war.) Had we asked directly for an overall assessment, the tone would have no doubt been more favorable.

But this is an important point to note. When people (including people with the breadth of view of this staff) look at détente, they tend to talk about the part of the elephant that they see; with at least part of their mind they judge détente in these terms, and often unfavorably. Another part of their mind no doubt appreciates the benefits of the larger picture but does not necessarily get articulated.

And, of course, if the component parts of the elephant are for the most part unattractive, then there are legitimate questions to be raised about the attractiveness of the beast in toto.

[Page 857]

Looking at specifics, détente benefits were seen in such things as: weakening the Soviet position somewhat in Eastern Europe and among the world Communist parties; potential Soviet involvement in the international economy; taking some elements of stress out of US-West European relations; slightly improved Soviet behavior in the Middle East and the UN; some commercial advantages; and payoffs in Sino-US relations.

The disadvantages are often mirror images of the advantages; weakening the rationale of NATO; reducing general US-European cohesion; making European Communists respectable; making the Congress less cooperative; not restraining the Soviets effectively in Africa (Somalia, Guinea, Angola) or in South Asia (anti-US propaganda); not moving the Soviets far enough in the Middle East peace process; raising doubts about the US among friends and allies (e.g., fear of condominium; complaints that we treat the Soviets better than our friends; concern that the US is too complacent; we are no longer reliable in a crisis); and leaving the Third World with the feeling that we and the Soviets may well be improving our relations but that is of no benefit to anybody else.

I had hoped we would come up with something more exciting and new. Perhaps the Stoessel meeting will turn up something we can all get our teeth into.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 77D112, Policy Planning Staff (S/P), Box 359, Director’s Files (Winston Lord), 1969–77, Nov. 16–30, 1975. Confidential; Exdis; No Distribution Outside S/P. The memorandum is stamped: “Urgent.” Drafted by Thornton on November 10.
  2. In a note to members of the S/P staff on November 20, Peter B. Swiers, Lord’s special assistant, reported that the meeting was scheduled for 4:15 p.m. on November 21. Swiers added in a marginal note to Lord: “Substantive material attached: 1. Thornton memo on S/P views of détente; 2. Kennan [October 23] speech [on the Enduring Anatomy of Russian/American Relations]; 3. Moscow 16100 [November 8] on Soviet views of US-Soviet Relations; 4. Moscow 16313 [November 12] on Soviet Leadership succession. All S/P members received individual copies.” Copies of all the attachments are ibid. No substantive record of the meeting between Stoessel and the S/P staff on November 21 has been found.