135. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Strategic Reaction to the Afghanistan Problem

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is the first time since 1945 that the Soviet Union used its military forces directly to expand its power. This took place even though we warned the Soviet Union of adverse consequences. Moreover, Afghanistan is the seventh2 state since 1975 in which communist parties have come to power with Soviet guns and tanks, with Soviet military power and assistance (Vietnam, Angola, Laos, South Yemen, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and now probably Afghanistan). Four of these takeovers occurred since January 1977.

I think it is clear that the Soviets have discounted our likely reaction and that they have concluded that our previous expressions of concern need not be heeded. In effect, because we did not overreact to their previous acts of assertiveness, they have discounted the likelihood of a genuinely punitive reaction on our part to this extraordinary application of Soviet military power.

In the light of the foregoing, I would like to urge you to consider altering our formula on arms for China from “we will not sell arms to [Page 683] China” to “we will not sell offensive arms to China.”3 This shift in formulation would enable you to provide the Chinese with the over-the-horizon radar and perhaps later with anti-tank weaponry. Given the scale and the boldness of the Soviet move, these reactions are both needed and hardly excessive. Moreover, they would communicate tangibly our willingness to support those who are prepared to stand up to the Soviets, and the Chinese are certainly in that category.

More broadly, we have to move deliberately to fashion a wider security arrangement for the region, lest Soviet influence spread rapidly from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Iran.4 I cannot emphasize strongly enough the strategic consequences of such a development. It would place in direct jeopardy our most vital interests in the Middle East.

The recommended subtle change in terminology, initiating a limited defense arrangement with China, could be the point of departure for a wider security effort in the region. You are already moving firmly on Pakistan, and I believe the Congress will support you. We should implement rapidly your decisions on new bases in the Indian Ocean/Gulf of Oman area, and survey teams will now be going out.5

Beyond the above, we will need an aid package for Pakistan, and that could be expensive, though it might be shared with Saudi Arabia. Also, if we can stiffen Pakistan’s back, we should be in a position to extend some aid to the Afghani rebels, in order to keep the Soviets bogged down.

Finally, we need to do something to reassure the Egyptians, the Saudis, and others on the Arabian peninsula that the U.S. is prepared to assert its power, and that requires a visible military presence in the area now. You might consider consulting with Sadat about military deployment to an Egyptian base of a U.S. brigade for joint maneuvers.6 This would be an impressive demonstration of U.S. determination to contest, if necessary, Soviet military preeminence in the region.

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The above recommendations require major decisions by you, but I believe that a major historical turning point has been reached. You have the opportunity to do what President Truman did on Greece and Turkey, and I believe that this is desirable both for domestic and international reasons. The country will respond to a firm call for measured but also sustained action, and I am sure the Congressional leadership will support you.

I would recommend that you raise the above issues at the breakfast,7 and provide Harold with whatever guidance you think is appropriate for his trip.8

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Historical Material, Geographic File, Box 17, Southwest Asia/Persian Gulf Afghanistan: (12/26/79–1/4/80). Secret. The President initialed the top right-hand corner of the memorandum. To the right of the subject line, Brzezinski added the following: “(This was drafted before your very eloquent statement this afternoon. But the recommends. still stand).” Regarding the White House statement of January 3, see footnote 4, Document 136.
  2. Brzezinski underlined this word.
  3. Brzezinski placed an arrow and a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this sentence. In his memoirs, he indicates that Brown and Donovan supported this proposal, while Vance, Christopher, and Cutler opposed it. According to Brzezinski: “The President concluded that under the present circumstances it would suffice for Brown to indicate to the Chinese that the United States would be willing to provide China with over-the-horizon radar and would give China more favored treatment in trade than the Soviet Union, but that ‘it would be a quantum leap to go to arms sales’ at this time. It was better, he concluded, to leave that option open.” (Power and Principle, p. 431)
  4. Brzezinski placed an arrow and a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this sentence.
  5. Documentation is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XVIII, Middle East Regional; Arabian Peninsula.
  6. Brzezinski placed an arrow and a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to this sentence.
  7. Presumable reference to the January 4 foreign policy breakfast attended by Vance, Brown, Brzezinski, Donovan, Jordan, and Cutler. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  8. Reference is to Brown’s departure for China on January 4. For documentation on Brown’s visit, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XIII, China, Documents 290295.