82. Letter From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter1

Dear Mr. President:

I would like to put before you some reflections on the current and future state of our relations with the Soviet Union, and some suggestions on how these relations might best be managed in the coming months. The matter is urgent, because I believe we face the prospect of a serious deterioration of these relations in coming months.

It is extremely important, I believe, that we work through a clear set of guidelines on this issue that can be used to instruct all levels of the government and to provide a basis for explaining our policies to the American people. For our public, our allies, and the Third World, it is important to dispel any impression of uncertainty or unresolved conceptual differences.

My thoughts on the subject follow:


US Opinion

An intense mood of exasperation and hostility toward the Soviet Union is rapidly building up in this country. In part, the mood draws its intensity from a reaction to the complexity and difficulty of many problems in international affairs and from the aftermath of Vietnam. But there are also elements more directly related to the Soviet situation:

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—Frustration over recent developments in Africa and Afghanistan, made more difficult by a high level of Soviet and Cuban involvement, and compounded by what is seen as our inability to respond effectively to these developments in the short run.

—Concern over the widespread impression that the United States appears to have become militarily weaker and less resolute, and that the Soviet Union is or may become stronger than the United States.

—Understandable anger at Soviet actions in the human rights area, including the harsh treatment of Orlov and others.2

Soviet Views

On the Soviet side, there also appears to be building up a mood of greater harshness and frustration. We must contend with a Soviet perspective, which, however much we would challenge its validity, contains the following elements:

—The Soviets regard their moves in Africa as falling within the bounds of acceptable competition for influence;

—They regard our interest in the dissidents as a sign of our desire to overthrow their system;

—They feel frustrated and upset that they have been excluded from effective action in the Middle East;

—They react sharply to disparagements from our side;

—Overall, they see our actions as unpredictable, and they have become uncertain whether we now want a SALT treaty.

If this Soviet mood, which feeds upon as well as feeds the American mood, is translated into new Soviet hard-line actions, it could mean still greater military expenditures (which we should and will match); concerns among our allies upon which the Soviets will play; greater mischief-making in Africa; an active rejectionist strategy in the Middle East; and new Soviet pressures on Eastern Europe. The prospect of a summit this fall could obviously be clouded.

The US-Soviet relationship has special importance now because there will probably be leadership changes in the Soviet Union in the near future, and the cast of our relationship at that time may set the tone and direction of our relationship for a long time to come.

In addition to the foreign policy developments that could be anticipated from a severe deterioration in US-Soviet relations, I am concerned about the effect on our domestic political situation. While there may well be short-term favorable response, at least from some quarters, I believe the dominant response, especially over a longer period, would [Page 395] be strongly negative. The applause would come from sectors of American political life who are not likely to be numbered among your supporters, whereas the prevailing sentiment among your natural constituency would surely be a negative reaction to the intensified arms race, the renewal of Cold War tensions, and the consequent weakening of domestic programs. The heightening of militancy, the polarization of political positions, and the destructive emotional tensions that would be generated would make it more difficult to realize the objectives to which you have dedicated your Administration.


To put our relations on a more stable footing, while advancing our interests and clarifying our public stance, we need to take steps to insure that we have a coherent approach in three general areas: our direct relations with the Soviets; our competition (as well as cooperation) in third areas; and our public position.

A. Direct Relations

The essential issue here is the military balance. The fact is that the Soviet Union has greatly increased its defense expenditures in the past fifteen years while ours have declined in real terms since the Vietnam War years. It is also true that the Soviets have now reached a state of broad equivalence with us, certainly in terms of military strength and, to a lesser extent, in terms of military reach. The question is whether they will seek to go beyond parity to dominance in some areas.

Our response, as put in Harold Brown’s excellent posture statement, is the right one: a prudent increase in our defense spending, keyed to NATO and mobile forces while maintaining our strength in the Pacific.3 Continued efforts to strengthen NATO and other alliance relationships are also crucial.

Stabilizing the arms competition between ourselves and the Soviets is the other essential element of maintaining the military balance. A major priority in the Soviet-American relationship is therefore the negotiation of a SALT treaty. Despite all that is said about the difficulty of getting the treaty ratified, I believe that when it is signed and presented to the Congress, major sources of support will emerge as you and the entire Administration make a major effort to carry the case to the American people. Ultimately, with proper preparation, I believe this issue can be made a political advantage instead of the liability it is now wrongly thought to be.

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Furthermore, the timely conclusion of a SALT treaty will have a useful effect on our management of the relationship with the Soviet Union. The ratification process in the United States will provide an incentive for responsible Soviet behavior that does not now exist.

Another aspect of our direct relations—human rights—deserves review.

The Soviets seem to be engaged in a draconian effort to reduce the dissident movement by trials, harsh sentences, additional arrests and detentions, and a severance of contacts between dissidents and Western newsmen. It seems probable that the Orlov trial will be followed in June by the trials of Ginsburg and Shcharanskiy.4 It now appears that after some indecision the Soviet authorities concluded, mid-point in the Belgrade Conference, that they would no longer seek to conciliate Western pressures on the human rights issue, and would try to reduce their vulnerability on these issues by rigorous police measures.5

The one favorable development in this area is that the level of Jewish emigration has continued to increase in recent months.

I believe it would be useful for us now to study the experience of the past 16 months in order to refine the forms and intensity of pressure that seem to be most productive, as well as the most effective combination of governmental and private forms of pressure. We need to form a judgment on how best to use our influence to give some measure of protection to prominent dissidents, and to encourage longer-term movement toward greater constraints on the Soviet political police. From our experience thus far, it seems clear that public attention can afford only a measure of protection to prominent dissidents. There is a critical point beyond which the effect of public pressure has been to stiffen Soviet determination not to capitulate, and to encourage harsher measures.

Our ability to influence Soviet behavior on this and other issues would be stronger if there were the prospect of improved trade relations, which now appear remote.

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An additional issue that deserves further study is the US-Soviet-Chinese triangle. I believe that this is a factor of which we must be continually aware as we shape our relations with each. Clearly Chinese attitudes toward us are heavily influenced by our policies towards the Soviets. Zbig’s trip was useful in indicating to the Chinese our firmness.6 It is less clear to me that “playing the China card” has much effect on Moscow’s actions.

B. Competition and Cooperation in Third Areas

Increasingly, we are faced with two differing views of the US-Soviet relationship; although so far we have managed to combine the two in our public statements, it is becoming more difficult to do. We have always recognized that the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union has been a combination of cooperation and competition, with the competition not preventing either side from seeking agreements in our mutual benefit in such areas as SALT. Now, however, we are coming to the point where there is growing pressure on the part of some people to have us portray the competitive aspects of the relationship as taking clear precedence over the search for areas for cooperation. This fundamental issue has begun to spill out into the public domain through recent statements and press interviews. It should be resolved within the government in order to avoid presenting a picture of division which will weaken us.

We have an interest in expanding areas of cooperation with the Soviets, not only through direct exchanges but in diplomatic or programmatic cooperation in their areas of the world.

But the harsh reality is that a growing Soviet military reach is being translated into an increasingly assertive Soviet competitive drive in the Third World, with a focus on Africa.

We cannot object to competition. It is inherent in our relationship. To insist that detente be made perfect is to ensure that competition in any area will prejudice the possibility of progress in other areas.

As you stated in your Chicago press conference7 and elsewhere, we do not and should not link Soviet behavior in the Third World to progress on issues in which we have so fundamental a security interest as SALT. Yet Soviet behavior will of course affect the willingness of the American people and the Congress to give approval to formal agreements with the Soviets.

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While we cannot put an end to competition or to Soviet efforts to help insure territorial integrity at the request of African governments, we can and should make clear our opposition to military adventures which exacerbate conflicts, inhibit peacemaking, and go beyond reasonable defensive efforts. In particular, we should expose attempts to gain political advantage through encouraging bloodshed.

It is evident that we cannot force a change in Soviet and Cuban policies in Africa. But there are many things we can do to influence their decisions. If we are to preserve our interest in SALT and other central aspects of the US-Soviet relationship, it is crucial that we do all we sensibly can to deter and prevent further Soviet/Cuban adventures in Africa and encourage their gradually scaling down their activities.

Such a strategy includes efforts designed to strengthen our friends, limit the areas in which the Soviets and Cubans can find easy entree, build longer-term relationships with the countries of the region. The execution of this strategy is underway:

—We have steadily increased our public and private diplomatic pressures directed against the Soviets and Cubans themselves, emphasizing our concern and interest in stability and peace in Africa.

—We have intensified our consultations with non-aligned states. A number of these states share our views about Cuban and Soviet actions, and have urged restraint on Moscow and Havana. Our European allies and some African and Arab moderates have made parallel diplomatic approaches; and Iraqi, Syrian, and Algerian pressures against the Soviets and Cubans in Eritrea may in part have flowed from this effort.

—We have strengthened our ties with African countries over the last year, particularly through our commitment to help resolve the southern African disputes. This has fundamentally contributed to our credibility throughout the continent and to limiting opportunities for Soviets and Cubans.

—Our substantially increased economic assistance, and the military assistance we have offered some of the more vulnerable countries in east Africa, have provided us with strong cards in many countries.

—Our long-term plans for further increases in economic aid to the area, greater effort to help Africans increase their trade with us, and offers of appropriate technology in assisting African economic development are tools we can exploit and which the Soviets cannot match.

—Above all, African nationalism itself—while not a tool we can use directly—is the most powerful force available against extended Soviet and Cuban influence. The inevitable role this force will play offers us considerable grounds for optimism over the next few years, assuming southern Africa does not explode into a major racial war.

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An interagency study (PRM–36)8 is currently reviewing other measures we might take to limit or constrain the Soviets and Cubans, ranging from improvement of diplomatic relations with countries currently under Soviet/Cuban influence to strengthening of the military capability of key African states.

C. Public Statements

It is essential that we project publicly a sense of confidence and consistency as we pursue a coherent and long-term strategy towards the Soviets.

It is damaging when our policies are characterized as either “hard” or “soft,” or as swinging between those poles. In either case, such characterizations irritate one group or another in the United States; send the wrong signals to the Soviets and our allies; give disproportionate emphasis to one aspect or another of our policies, which properly contain both “hard” and “soft” elements; and tend to encourage the damaging and unrealistic swings of public mood from gloom to euphoria and back again.

We should give more attention than we have to the psychological side of our relations with the Soviet Union. We are less likely to get the Soviets to move in directions we want by demanding that they capitulate to public pressure, than by leaving the way open for them to move with pride intact, having made our wishes known in private. While we should continue to criticize the Soviet Union in appropriate ways when it is called for, public expressions of indignation by themselves tend to emphasize our apparent impotence, and to inflame public and Congressional sentiment in ways that are unproductive. (Witness the declaration of nine Senators last week9 that they will oppose the ratification of a SALT treaty because of Soviet actions in Africa and the Orlov trial.)

In a more positive sense, we can help encourage a more cooperative attitude on the part of the Soviet leaders by conspicuous attention to the sense of equality to which they attach so much importance. And if they respond positively, we should refrain from crowing about any gestures they may make.

In protesting Soviet lack of restraint, it is important for us to be precise in our complaints rather than general, tailoring our demands for Soviet action to the seriousness of the situations and the real degree [Page 400] of control and initiative exercised by Moscow. We should pick our targets for a sharpshooter’s rifle, not a shotgun.

An improvement—both in substance and in public perceptions—may lie in making two important distinctions. We must distinguish between what it is possible to gain in the way of altered Soviet behavior, and what is not. And, in our public stance, we should concentrate as much on what we are doing to compete as on Soviet behavior to which we object.

Whenever we make public demands for actions the Soviets do not then take, or build up their power or activities, we make ourselves look weak.

It would be better, in international and domestic political terms, to exhibit a great firmness, giving stronger emphasis than we are now doing to our strength, our confidence, our actions—in the defense budget, in Africa, in our economy, and in the reassertion of our ideals. For in the long run, we hold most of the cards in the East-West competition.

After there is agreement on the various elements of that strategy towards the Soviets, I recommend that:

—I find the occasion privately to discuss with Gromyko, for an extended period of time, where we stand in our relations and what both sides can do to prevent a serious deterioration.

—You or I give a major speech on US-Soviet relations in which you would express the combination of the firmness, confidence, and tact with which you seek realistically to regulate a basically competitive relationship in ways that will be less dangerous for the world.10 It would counteract public anxiety about a perceived decline in American power. And it would present the case for both a strong defense establishment and our security interest in arms control. Such a speech would provide an authoritative framework for all statements by our spokesmen in the following months.

The thoughts that I have shared with you in this letter are the result of my belief that we have reached a critical point in our relations with the Soviet Union and perhaps with China as well, and that it is therefore essential to do a careful and searching analysis of our options for dealing with these central questions of American foreign policy over the next few years.

For that reason, I believe we should undertake a special review of US-Soviet relations. I would personally lead the drafting and preparation of options for your ultimate decision, incorporating the views of [Page 401] Harold, Zbig, Stan,11 and other key officials. The importance and the need for a systematic review of this vital issue is clear.

Once the NATO meetings12 are out of the way, I feel it would be most helpful to have a small meeting to discuss these matters before beginning a review.


  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office File, Outside the System File, Box 50, Chron: 5/78. Secret; Nodis. There is no indication that the President saw the version of the letter printed here. Vance sent the letter to the President under a May 29 memorandum indicating that he had prepared it prior to “the events and public statements of this weekend.” Presumably Vance is referring to both the talks he and the President had with Gromyko concerning strategic arms in Washington May 27–28 and Brzezinski’s denunciation on “Meet the Press” of Soviet behavior (see Document 81). Brzezinski later commented that Vance was “deeply upset” by the “Meet the Press” appearance and had called Brzezinski to insist that the administration had to “speak with one voice,” noting that Brzezinski’s remarks “were making it less clear who was articulating the position of the Administration.” Brzezinski continued: “I pointed out to Cy that I felt that I had spoken in keeping with the President’s position, but I knew that he was not mollified. I subsequently learned that he had written to the President and complained to him.” (Power and Principle, p. 221) In his memoirs, Vance characterized Brzezinski’s remarks as “provocative,” commenting: “Along with my most senior and experienced advisers, I was convinced that loose talk about ‘playing the China card,’ always a dangerous ploy, was a particularly risky move at a time when we were at a sensitive point in the SALT negotiations.” (Hard Choices, p. 116) The President noted that Vance had met with him on June 1 to “express his deep concern, in a very friendly way, about the relationship between him and Zbig and the fact that we had too many voices speaking on foreign policy—myself, Jody, Zbig, Andy, and him—and it was creating confusion.” (White House Diary, p. 198)
  2. Reference is to Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov.
  3. Documentation on the Department of Defense posture statement is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IV, National Security Policy.
  4. The trials were scheduled to begin on July 10.
  5. On July 8, Goldberg released a statement through the Department of State: “I sought for 6 months, as head of the U.S. delegation at the recently concluded Belgrade conference, to work for better understanding on the part of the Soviet Union of Western concern for the fulfillment of the human rights pledges of the Helsinki Final Act. The announcement that Anatoli Shcharanskiy and Aleksandr Ginzburg are to be brought to trial July 10, therefore, causes me great personal distress. I hope that the Soviet authorities, as they conduct these trials, will be aware that Western public opinion will be drawing its own conclusions about Soviet respect for the Helsinki agreement and about the nature of future U.S.-Soviet relations. All of us, in the East and West, will be the losers if the Soviet authorities ignore their Helsinki commitments.” (Department of State Bulletin, August 1978, p. 28)
  6. See footnote 21, Document 62 and Document 81.
  7. For the transcript of the President’s news conference in Chicago on May 25, see Public Papers: Carter, 1978, Book I, pp. 972–979.
  8. PRM/NSC–36, issued on May 23, directed the Policy Review Committee to undertake a review of U.S. policy concerning objectives in limiting Soviet and Cuban influence in Africa.
  9. May 18. The Senators included Baker, Bellmon, Curtis, Danforth, Domenici, Garn, Lugar, Morgan, and Zorinsky. (“Senators Link SALT Doubts To ‘Disturbing’ Soviet Deeds,” The Washington Post, May 20, 1978, p. A–10)
  10. The President delivered a speech on U.S.-Soviet relations on June 7; see Document 87.
  11. Stansfield Turner.
  12. See Document 83.