76. Telegram From the Department of State to the U.S. Mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization1

20409. Exdis—Belgrade for USDel CSCE. Subject: Brezhnev Letter to President on ER. Refs: (A) USNATO 00545 (DTG 181414Z Jan 78); (B) State 011768 (DTG 170019Z Jan 78); (C) USNATO 00626 (DTG 191803Z Jan 78); (D) State 018345 (DTG 240054Z Jan 78).2

1. Following is unofficial translation of Brezhnev letter to President on enhanced radiation weapons. Mission is authorized to provide text to SPC for analysis and comparison with other letters as discussed Ref (C).

2. FYI, Soviets initially gave us only English-language version.3 We now have Russian-language text, and it is evident Soviet English translation was inaccurate in several places, including phrase “respond in kind” quoted Ref (B). This phrase does not repeat not appear in the Russian text.

[Page 266]

Begin text. January 5, 1978

Dear Mr. President,

—This time I am addressing you on only a single question, but one which assumes significant acuteness, both in the relations between our two countries, and from the point of view of the development of the international situation as a whole. What I have in mind are the plans to produce neutron weapons and to deploy them in Western Europe. The seriousness of the subject demands that talk be candid.

—You know our position regarding these plans. It is sharply negative. As for the gist of the matter, a new direction of the arms race is being opened with all the dangerous consequences flowing from it, a severe blow is being dealt to peoples’ hopes to eliminate the threat of nuclear war. This is seen not only by us but by many other states and broad masses of people in different countries of the world as well.

—I will say it frankly. We view attempts to belittle the threat which has arisen as a desire to confuse those in the world who now feel a rising alarm, and who are raising ever louder a voice of protest against the neutron bomb. Can it indeed be possible to believe that neutron weapons, if they are used, will be used on a limited scale, only on the battlefield and only against one or another type of forces? If one thinks in military terms, it is clear that in the case of such a conflict circumstances will dictate their own logic to the actions of one side or the other.

—By their nature and their destructive characteristics neutron weapons can strike not only people wearing military uniforms but also huge masses of the population. These are inhuman weapons of mass destruction; they are directed against people. Their appearance will not diminish the likelihood of nuclear conflict but enhance it. The reality is that if neutron weapons are ever used, a devastating scythe will sweep across the territories of entire countries, probably not leaving a single inch untouched.

—Perhaps the calculation is made that neutron weapons will be used only where they are to be deployed—that is in Europe. Perhaps some entertain the hope to stay on the sidelines if and when the point is reached that neutron weapons are killing Europeans. This calculation is illusory in substance. Today neutron weapons are thought of in connection with one means of delivery, but tomorrow, or the day after they may be attached to other vehicles of a completely different range—not of hundreds but of thousands of kilometers. Today these weapons have one yield, but tomorrow—it could be ten or a hundred times greater. Such is the law of the arms race once one side begins a new spiral.

—Plans connected with neutron weapons, are already having a dangerous effect on the world political atmosphere and their realization would entail even greater costs. In what light would the negotia[Page 267]tions currently underway between the USSR and the US on a series of major issues for arresting the arms race appear if simultaneously the deployment of neutron weapons was forced? Not much would be left of people’s trust in solving the problem of disarmament, in the success of ongoing negotiations. Moreover, the negotiations themselves, at least in some cases, would face the threat of being broken off.

—What mutual trust, what cooperation between the USSR and the US in solving the great task of freeing peoples from nuclear danger can there be if the U.S. side puts its stake on new sophisticated weapons aimed—and this is not being concealed—against the Soviet Union.

—It is no secret that the decision whether to start production and deployment of neutron weapons depends now above all upon the US Government, upon you, personally, Mr. President. But this decision is of the kind that a chain of events is put into motion which in the last analysis is connected with the risk of devastation of whole countries, and the loss of millions of people. The responsibility here is exceptionally great and it is this that prompts me to address you. Since, if the choice of the United States is in favor of the neutron bomb this will put the Soviet Union before the necessity to meet the challenge, that is to act in the same way as we were forced to act when atomic weapons came into being.

We have simply no right to forgo the security of our people and the security of our allies.

—But it is still not too late to stop. There exists an alternative to the dangerous aggravation of the arms race and we propose it. You of course know that in my public address at the end of the last year I proposed that agreement be reached on the mutual repudiation of production of neutron weapons. I now confirm this proposal. We are prepared to conclude an appropriate agreement with the United States and other states. We are prepared to enter into negotiations on this matter at any moment. Such an agreement would respond to the spirit of the times, to the interests of strengthening peace and detente, to peoples’ aspirations.

—I would like to hope, Mr. President, that you will treat the above considerations with full attention, and that the Soviet Union and the US will be able before irreversible steps are taken to reach mutual understanding concerning the repudiation of neutron weapons.

—At the same time I am addressing the leaders of a series of other states—participants of the all-European conference—on this issue.


L. Brezhnev [End text.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780037–1136. Secret; Immediate. Drafted by Lyall Breckon and Donald McConnell (EUR/RPM); cleared by Gregory Treverton (NSC), John Hawes (PM/ISA), James Thyden (S/S–O), Kent Brown (EUR/SOV), Stephen Ledogar (EUR/RPM), and Shinn; approved by James Goodby (EUR). Sent for information to all NATO capitals; Moscow; Belgrade for the U.S. CSCE delegation; USNMR SHAPE; and USLO SACLANT.
  2. All reference telegrams are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780026–1104; D780023–0896; D780029–0168; and D780034–0775.
  3. The original Russian letter and a provisional English translation are in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 69, USSR: BrezhnevCarter Correspondence: 1–12/78. In the upper corner of that English translation Carter wrote, “Zbig—Apparently our Polish interpreter did Brezhnev’s letter also—Let someone redo it other than in Pidgin English—consult with Harold on reply. JC.” Carter was on an official visit to Europe at the time that the letter was sent.