162. Memorandum From William E. Odom of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Thoughts on Soviet Approaches to SALT

The American approach to SALT has always had a “scholastic” quality in its emphasis on technical calculations. The Soviet approach has emphasized “principles” with strong political overtones, not data.

Although there may be many reasons for Soviet reluctance to indulgence in the U.S. approach, a major one must be China. The Chinese watch “principles” in U.S.-Soviet dealings, and the Soviets know that. The Soviet “nuclear war fighting” approach to a deterrent posture is imperative for Soviet relations with China; Soviet acceptance of American “mutual assured destruction” assumptions would be a Chinese victory in “principle,” that is, a Soviet admission that China, as it develops a retaliatory force, cannot be defeated in nuclear war while the USSR survives.

Seen in this light, Soviet behavior in SALT looks impressively shrewd for handling American “idealism” on the one hand and Chinese “dogmatism” on the other.

Another major reason for Soviet reluctance lies in the rate of technological change. George Kennan said recently:

“As these words are being written, the SALT talks are about to reopen. This is good, so far as it goes. There cannot be too much in the way of communication between the two governments about the problems involved.

“But even the best results that could be expected from these talks are unlikely to be enough. The main reason for this is that the pace of advancement in military technology is faster than the predictable pace of any negotiations of this nature. The technological background against which the instructions to the two delegations would be drawn up would be one that no longer entirely prevailed at any time they were concluded, so that any agreements reached would be bound to be partially overtaken by events.”

The Soviets keenly share this understanding with Kennan, and so do I, if the object of SALT is to stabilize and control certain aspects of our strategic relationship with Moscow.

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What are the implications of all this for our own SALT tactics?

—Reaching signed agreements is not as important as the negotiating process itself.

—Detailed data must take a supplementary role to principles and precedents.

—Discovering strategic intentions and inferring motivations are extremely important negotiating objectives in their own right.

SALT must be seen as merely part of the broader strategic relationship, important but not always key.

—We must never lose sight of the invisible Chinese presence at SALT.

Finally, I want to call into question something you have said publicly about our technique of making proposals directly to the top Soviet leadership in order to bypass the Soviet military bureaucracy. If your assertion is serious, not for public purposes only, then I take issue with it.

First, do you believe Brezhnev or Gromyko sit down after they have received our SALT packages untouched by Soviet military hands, and carefully review the data? Of course not! He turns it over to Marshal Ogarkov and the General Staff, the only organization competent to review our proposals. Probably no institution in the USSR has the record of candid debate with the top leadership enjoyed by the General Staff. Stalin himself cultivated this climate, and there is evidence that it survives. The General Staff is not beholden to any particular military weapons system or branch of service. It is responsible for combining all systems. It has traditionally resisted Service parochialism. Our JCS is in no sense analogous to it because each Service Chief remains a prisoner of his Service. The United States has no authoritative military center equivalent to the Soviet General Staff.

There is a strong inclination in CIA analysis to blame the Soviet military and the mechanism of the State Defense Council for bamboozling the majority of the Politburo on military policy issues, SALT in particular. This technique is as old as the Soviet system. Yet we have been slow to recognize it. And then the wrong inferences are drawn: if only the “good guys” in the Politburo had an informed view of Soviet SALT policy, the Soviet position would be more moderate, congenial to our own. In fact, those other Politburo members would hardly modify the position if they controlled the Defense Council. The SALT position is not an issue. Who controls the Defense Council is. Whoever controls it will rely on the General Staff. Not even Gromyko would turn over SALT staffing to the Foreign Ministry! At the same time, the Defense Council ensures that “policy,” not “technical” considerations prevail in decisions.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 52, SALT: 3–4/77. Secret. Sent for information. Brzezinski wrote at the top of the first page of the memorandum: “good, ZB.”