97. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The Secretary
  • Chatham House Group
  • Under Secretary Rashish
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Niles
  • M.S. Pendleton, Acting Director, EUR/NE, notetaker

The Secretary met with a group of British businessmen visiting the United States under the auspices of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) to review US foreign policy.

The Secretary opened by saying he had spent the day on AWACS, an issue about which he remained fundamentally optimistic. He suggested that with the Chatham House Group he might usefully consider issues such as US nuclear policy, East-West relations, Africa and the Middle East. The Secretary observed that the US does have a foreign policy, one that is clear to all in the Administration. This policy is built on four pillars, the first of which is to establish better relations with the Soviet Union based on reciprocity and restraint on Moscow’s part.

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US-Soviet Relations:

The Secretary said he had come away from more than nine and a half hours of meetings with Gromyko2 with the broad impression that the Soviets know what we want and do not like it. They are concerned by the historically unique new attitude in America with regard to security issues, the consensus that the United States has to improve the military balance with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is dedicated to shattering the agreement between the American people, Congress and the Executive Branch. However, Moscow is not certain how to achieve this aim. Given its own economic situation, the Soviet Union fears further expenditures on armaments. Moreover, the Soviet policy is dedicated to the proposition that there are fissures between the US and Europe. Moscow is preoccupied with the nuclear genie and anxious to widen those fissures that have developed in the Atlantic Alliance. Its aim is to neutralize the Atlantic community at large.

However, the Soviet Union faces historic problems. These include a faltering economy, as well as the over-extension of its international activity in Africa and Afghanistan. The Soviets never anticipated the political and psychological reaction of the world to their invasion of Afghanistan. The evolution of events in Poland also must be seen as of fundamental significance, along with problems of succession. Brezhnev’s health is very much in decline.

The Secretary said that the above considerations must lead to a reassessment on our part. Above all we must avoid a fragmenting dialogue between the United States and Europe. He said that he was not concerned about US vigor. Yet the US must not sound like an empty barrel. While it is important that we speak with resolve, it is more important that we act with resolve. The Soviets are never impressed by words. They judge by our allocation of resources, and we have to be careful to assure that our rhetoric is not meaningless.

In response to the Secretary’s suggestion that the Group pose questions, Lord Harlech thanked the Secretary for seeing the Group and suggested that his colleagues’ questions concentrate on European-US relations and the Atlantic Alliance, as well as the Middle East, Africa and China if time permitted. With regard to US-European relations, Lord Harlech noted the degree to which Europeans like to be reassured by arms reductions. They prefer to feel that the United States is aiming at overall reductions in nuclear weapons. Harlech asked if there had been any hint from Gromyko that the Soviet Union was anxious to indulge in serious negotiations in this regard.

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Arms Control: TNF and SALT:

In response, the Secretary said the Soviet Union is very concerned about our build-up and wants to avoid the burden of a further build-up. However, as we look ahead, we see no indication of a letup by the Soviets. They are making a fundamental reassessment as to whether they will have to build up their nuclear capabilities even further. We have to get on with arms control talks, the Secretary observed. These will be difficult talks within the framework of SALT. Ceausescu of Romania had just jumped in with a suggestion that the Soviets move their SS–20s in response to Alliance concessions. Ceausescu’s proposal is a perversion of the “Zero-Option”. Other nations would feel threatened by any Soviet move. The Zero-Option is not something we are opposed to, the Secretary added, providing that it reflects ideal conditions. The Soviets must dismantle all their SS–20s. The benchmark for the present nuclear debate ought to be the deployment by the Soviet Union of the SS–20s in Europe. We had been thinning out our nuclear warheads and have withdrawn about 1,000 such warheads in recent years.

With regard to SALT, the Secretary said the Soviets are extremely anxious to proceed. They wish to be relieved of the armaments burden and desire to crack the US consensus on a military buildup. The Secretary said that having lived through SALT–I himself, he was a little skeptical about the process. However, we cannot afford not to proceed. We must go into the SALT talks very carefully. Failure does not serve Western interest, and at present the US is studying all possibilities. SALT II did not break up on the rocks of Afghanistan, as some would have us believe. It was killed by its own substantive inadequacies and the skepticism about it that developed as a result of these inadequacies. SALT II was a flawed treaty. It permitted an increase in heavy missiles and inordinantly burdened our European partners. Our intensive review is designed to preclude the possibility of a shock once negotiations begin.

Anti-Nuclear Sentiment: “Peace” Movements:

In response to a question about the demonstrations in Europe against nuclear weapons, the Secretary said these are not pacifist/neutralist movements. The underpinnings are more subtle. Frequently, the sentiments we see expressed are based on religious and environmental considerations, as well as concern for the peaceful use of the atom. One also notes the deep concern for their own safety of people who would be directly affected. This concern is deep and genuine. The old argument between Europe and the US is whether the President of the US would sacrifice Washington for Hamburg. Now the argument is that the US is not willing to sacrifice anything at all and, indeed, is [Page 339] setting Hamburg up for a nuclear attack. This is a serious perversion of the truth, though an understandable one. It provides ammunition for the East. We will find this concern growing in the United States in the months ahead and there will be increasing division here if it is not handled well. Thus, it is a common problem that is shared on both sides of the Atlantic. Young people have to know that their leaders are sensitive to their concerns, since no one can expect a high level of sacrifice if we are not prepared to take their concerns fully into account.

When asked about Soviet orchestration of so-called peace movements, the Secretary noted that there is no question about Soviet involvement. He recalled that the Soviet Ambassador in the Netherlands received the Kremlin’s highest award for his role in the campaign against the ERW. However, we do ourselves a disservice if we think that is all there is to it.

A member of the Chatham House Group observed that if there were less ignorance about the imbalance between Soviet and NATO forces, there would be more understanding for an allied build-up in Europe. The Secretary agreed. We have come a long way since he had first gone to Europe as SACEUR. At that time he had found that Europeans would not normally accept the idea of an imbalance or a threat. However, he added that he is more concerned that if the issue is mishandled and overdramatized, we will move the young from both sides of the Atlantic to decide that it is better to be red than to be burned. This approach could be a reality by 1985.

The Secretary was asked if he had heard from Gromyko about the possibility of the Soviet’s scaling down their own military production and the problems that would be attendant to such a move. The Secretary said that he was not very optimistic about Moscow’s ability to scale down in the near term.

The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe:

With regard to a question on how events might unfold in Eastern Europe and how the Soviet Union’s empire might evolve over the next decade, the Secretary observed that the Soviets have profound problems in agriculture, in education and with minorities. They are facing increasing centrifugal pressures. Poland is not a Czechoslovakia or an East Germany. It is a profound political event. The mother church itself is being challenged. We see the independence of the labor movement, the collapse of internal law and order, and a challenge to the political leadership in Poland. Some claim the costs of a Soviet invasion now outweigh the benefits to the Soviets. Others disagree. The truth is somewhere in between. It is clear that the challenge to the Soviets is unacceptable to them, and what we are seeing today is shaped by these challenges. The Secretary added that we have not seen the end [Page 340] of the Polish situation. However, the contagion has not spread. Most other Eastern Europeans are angry with the Poles. However, the situation in Poland ultimately will affect Eastern Europe across the board. The Secretary said he would have to give the Soviets fairly high marks for their handling of Poland. In their terms they had been moderate and restrained, as has the West. They had had several opportunities to invade in the past year and had prudently chosen to miss all of them. An invasion would have led to a united West that would have sent chills down the back of the Soviet Union. It appears that Brezhnev himself restrained the Soviet Union and nipped pressures for invasion in the bud.

The Succession Issue in the USSR:

Responding to a question about Brezhnev’s health and the succession issue, the Secretary said that Brezhnev appears to be in gradually declining health and that history shows us the Soviet system is ill-prepared to handle succession problems. He would expect that a collective leadership would govern initially, following the passing of Brezhnev from the scene, with the toughest and meanest member eventually assuming the reins in the Soviet Union.


Turning to Afghanistan, the Secretary noted the interesting relationship between the Soviet decision to intervene and the demographic changes in the USSR. The Soviet Union’s Muslim population is exploding. The Secretary judged that related economic and demographic problems were among the principal motivations for the invasion of Afghanistan.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Soviet Union.]

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S-I Records: Haig and Shultz Memcons, Lot 87D327, SEC/Memcons, October 1981. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Pendleton on October 28; cleared by Niles, Goldberg, and McManaway. The meeting took place in the Secretary’s Conference Room at the Department of State.
  2. See Documents 8891.