247. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark) to President Reagan 1


  • Engaging the Soviets In a Serious Effort to Make Progress—Is Now the Time?

A number of factors justify our asking ourselves whether or not the time has come to try to engage the Soviet leadership in a serious effort to put our relationship on a more stable footing, moving—if you will—from confrontation to serious negotiations toward reaching solutions to the major areas of disagreement between us. After two years, you have established clearly that the United States has reversed course from being a nation in decline to one which has both the will and capability to defend its interests and once more, play a leading role in international affairs. Your defense modernization program has provided the solid foundation for this broader commitment. In regional issues—from Latin America to the Middle East—you have engendered the respect among the local leaders essential to checking the Soviet advance. In Europe the forthcoming multilateral effort to chart a new course in East-West economic relations promises for the first time in a decade to turn the tide of detente toward a more sober basis for limiting Soviet expansion at Allied expense.

Furthermore, problems within the Soviet Union have worsened. If our economic problems are bad, their’s are worse. As tenuous as our relations are with some allies, their problems are even more severe as Poland makes clear. Added to these are their looming problems with their ethnically diverse nationalities. To relieve their domestic economic problems it would be attractive to them to find a way to limit their expenditures on the military and although history gives us little basis for confidence or optimism in this area, it is not out of the question.

From another point of view, whether or not it makes sense for us to take an initiative, it is extremely likely that the Soviets will try some kind of initiative—probably in arms control—to put us off guard, appeal to our allies’ peace movements and further drive a wedge between us. Thus, at a minimum we must be ready to counter an anticipated propaganda ploy in the days or weeks ahead.

For my own part, I believe an initiative, conveyed through an extremely private channel, would be worthwhile. The risk is, of course, [Page 818] that they might perceive it as a sign of weakness engendered with the increasing trouble we may have in carrying your programs with the Congress and broader national uncertainty over the continued military buildup. All things considered however, they have very strong incentives for trying to reach agreement with us in some area—enough to make a try worthwhile in my judgment.

If this is true, the next question is, in what area—regional issues, arms control or human rights—should we focus our attention? The attached staff paper done for me goes into that question and concludes that the best opportunity is in arms control and specifically the INF talks in Geneva.2

If you were to conclude that an initiative of some kind is worth trying, an important question will be whether it is feasible in terms of avoiding subversion from within. This is perhaps too strong, however, it is very clear that some of your appointees—well meaning and well-grounded in history—have a very deep conviction that because past dialogues have been flawed and have damaged US interests, that we ought not try and cannot do better. I disagree. The flaws of detente in the early 70’s centered in part on the weakened ability of the US (deriving from Vietnam and Watergate) to wield the sticks as well as the carrots and in part from less than realistic understanding of Soviet/Marxist doctrine—a tendency to impute good will and western values where they don’t exist. We don’t suffer those liabilities.

But the question remains—if an initiative is worthwhile, can we put it together. It seems to me that that question, along with the possible agenda ought to be aired by your principal advisors (The Vice President, the Secretary of State, Defense, Bill Casey and perhaps others) and a recommendation given to you. If they believe that a serious effort is worth a try then we can go on to think of how to put it together. If you agree, I recommend that I convene a meeting in the Situation Room tomorrow to discuss the matter with the principals.3

Go ahead ______ Other ______
  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC: Country File, USSR (12/4/82–12/7/82). Secret. Printed from an uninitialed copy.
  2. Not attached.
  3. An unknown hand checked the “Go ahead” line and wrote beneath it: “Mtg held 12–5–82.” According to the President’s Daily Diary, Reagan, who had been on a 5-day trip to Latin America, returned to the White House at 11:19 p.m. on December 4.