99. Memorandum From the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to President Ford1


  • George Kennan Speech on Détente

On December 11, George Kennan, former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, gave a luncheon address at the Smithsonian Institution in which he strongly criticized Congressional and journalistic opponents of the Administration’s policy towards the Soviet Union. The text of Mr. Kennan’s speech is at Tab A.2

Mr. Kennan began his address by reviewing and countering two major criticisms of détente—that the U.S. has gained little and given up much and that the Soviets have failed to liberalize their internal system. With regard to the former, Kennan discusses the de facto recognition of the division of Germany and US-Soviet trade and concludes that in both cases the United States has gained a great deal while conceding very little. On SALT, he underlines the importance of the ceiling established from which the sides can work downwards. Kennan observes, moreover, that the mere maintenance of steady communication in strategic matters has great value because it promotes better understanding of each other’s motives. He regards assertions of Soviet superiority in certain strategic areas with “complete contempt” in view of present levels of over-kill. Kennan contends that anyone who thought détente would lead to liberalization of the Soviet system wholly misunderstood [Page 385] its purpose and possibilities, and adds that the Soviets could not be expected to connive at internal developments aimed at the destruction of their own regime.

Kennan points out that the present Soviet leadership—which offers favorable prospects for improving USUSSR relations and preserving peace—should not be regarded as an unchanging quantity, and warns that although we do not know the cast of mind of its successors, the younger generation does not seem as committed to a policy of rapprochement with us. In brief, he argues that we should make the best use we can of the present favorable disposition of the older people who now run Russia—“take what we can get while we can get it.”

Kennan states that what bothers him most about the rejection of détente is the depressing and dangerous nature of the only visible alternatives. He calls upon opponents of détente to state honestly that their alternative is in fact uncompromising opposition to the Soviet Union at every turn, even if it means heightened danger of nuclear war, antagonizing smaller countries everywhere, alienation of liberal opinion and of our allies throughout Europe and elsewhere, and giving new strength to hardline elements in Russia. He cautions that between the oil crisis and the Middle East, the U.S. may soon find itself in situations of great difficulty and embarrassment and that the Soviets can either refrain from attempts to exploit this situation to our detriment or can revert to earlier behavior and attempt to take maximum advantage of our discomfiture. He warns those impelling the Soviets in the latter direction—which he argues some opponents of détente are now doing—that they take very grave responsibility upon themselves. Mr. Kennan concludes that there would be no greater mistake than to believe that Moscow has no attractive alternatives to its search for accommodation with us or that these alternatives would not be greatly worse for us than what we have today.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Name File, 1974–1977, Box 2, Kennan, George. Administratively Confidential. Sent for information. Although no drafting information appears on the memorandum, Clift forwarded it to Scowcroft on December 13. A note on the memorandum reads: “The President has seen.” According to an attached correspondence profile, Ford saw it on February 4, 1975. In an attached handwritten note to Scowcroft, Ford commented: “Very interesting. Will you send copy of speech to Bob Hartmann & Paul Theis of his staff for their info.” According to marginalia on the note, Scowcroft followed these instructions on February 4.
  2. Attached but not printed.